The Islamic State In Afghanistan: ISIS Claims Yet Another Attack
NEW DELHI: The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that on Monday killed at least 30 people and left more than 70 injured at a mosque in Kabul. The attack targeted a Shia mosque in the capital city, with the Islamic State claiming responsibility via a statement published by its media wing, Amaq news agency.
The attack took place at 12:10 p.m. as a suicide attacker entered Shia mosque Baqir ul-Uloom as religious worshipers gathered to mark the Shia ceremony of Arbaeen, which comes 40 days after the major festival of Ashura.
On Ashura itself earlier, a series of bomb blasts targeted Shias across Afghanistan. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for those attacks, as 14 people were killed when a bomb went off outside a Shia mosque in Afghanistan's northern Balkh province and at least 18 people were killed and another 50 wounded in an attack targeting Shias in Kabul on the same day.
Attacks targeting Shias in Afghanistan, however, are becoming increasingly commonplace, with the most brutal attack on the community in recent years taking place in July this year, as 80 people were killed when a bomber targeted a protest march by members of the Hazara minority - a Shia minority group. The so-called Islamic State claimed the attack, marking a decisive shift in the nature of attacks in Afghanistan, as before the July attack, Afghanistan had not seen the same level of violence against Shia Muslims as neighbouring Pakistan.
The attacks represent a worsening security situation in Afghanistan, and even though claimed by the Islamic State, comes as the Taliban makes massive gains throughout the country -- especially in the provinces of Helmand and Kunduz. Reports from the ground state that Lashkar Gah is in lockdown with only a few shops open and many families trying to flee the fighting. Schools and universities across the province have been closed indefinitely. Reports from Kunduz tell the same story, with news routinely breaking that the Taliban have pushed into Kunduz city before being repelled by Afghan forces.
The presence of the Islamic State (also known as Daesh) in Afghanistan has been the subject of a lot of international attention ever since last year, when reports emerged that the group was gaining a foothold but recruiting disenchanted Taliban fighters.
In reality, however, it is unclear what the exact relationship is between fighters swearing allegiance to the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the parent group in Syria and Iraq. The question remains whether the Daesh parent group is actively involved in recruiting or training or is the Islamic State in Afghanistan an independent initiative that bears the name for the sake of bearing the name?
Nonetheless, the attacks claimed by Daesh in Afghanistan saw a steady increase. In May last year, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest outside a bank in Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern province of Nangahar, killing at least 34 people and injuring 125 others.
The attack was claimed by a group called ISIS Wilayat Khorasan, with a statement issued naming the suicide bomber as Abu Mohammad Khorasani. A photograph purportedly of Khorasani was included, showing the attacker seated on a prayer mat, a scarf covering his face and a Kalashnikov rifle by his side. A black Daesh flag was visible in the background.
Referring to this claim, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said: “Who claimed responsibility for the horrific attack in Nangahar today? The Taliban did not claim responsibility for the attack, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack.”
At the time unconfirmed reports indicate that the Taliban and Islamic State have declared “jihad” against each other. Helmand province police chief Nabi Jan Mullahkhil was quoted by Afghanistan's Mashaal Radio saying that authorities had obtained “documents” that suggest that the two militant groups had turned on each other, according to independent news outlet Khaama. Khaama reported, “Reports of minor clashes between the fighters of Taliban group and the newly emerged Daesh have published in the past.”
Whilst the above portrays a frightening scenario, with disgruntled Taliban fighters providing a suitable recruiting ground for the Islamic State’s aspirations in the region, the presence of the Syria and Iraq-based militant group in the South Asian country is still fairly limited.
In fact, despite Ghani’s announcement, Afghan officials and Nato forces in Afghanistan have gone on the record to say they doubt the claims of the Islamic State’s influence in the country. Daesh’s claim on the attack in Jalalabad has also been questioned. "We have not yet seen evidence of ISIS direction or support of the attacks," Lt. Col. Christopher Belcher, spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan, said in a statement reproduced by Reuters.
"Jalalabad continues to be an area with significant Taliban influence, and this attack fits the pattern of past Taliban attacks in the region, underscoring that this attack does not represent a fundamental change in the security environment."
A similar position was put forth by a spokesperson for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense. "I do not believe that it was carried out by Daesh," Brigadier General Dawlat Waziri said, as quoted by Reuters.
Daesh itself seems to be unclear on whether it carried out the attack or not. “ISIS was not behind the deadly blast in Jalalabad, and we condemn such an attack,” Sheikh Muslim Dost, a spokesperson for the group in Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast. “This is an act of the Pakistani agencies to damage reputation of the ISIS.”
These may seem like two contrary positions. Does the Jalalabad bombing suggest that Daesh is a contender in Afghanistan or does it not?
Reports of Daesh in Afghanistan began to emerge in 2014, when in September insurgents reported to be associated with the group battled Afghan security forces in the Arjistan district of Ghazni province. At the time, officials reported that the insurgents had raised the black flag of the Islamic State. However, the incident is now mired in controversy as the officials recanted their statements and said they had embellished the story so as to receive more resources.
In February 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s Chief of Police denied that Daesh was present in the area, insisting that the insurgents were local Taliban fighters.
Nevertheless, Daesh announced its expansion into “Khorassan Province” and officially appointed Hafiz Saeed Khan as the Wali (Governor) of Khorassan. The group also appointed former Guantanamo Bay detainee and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as Khan’s deputy. The appointments and announcements followed a video released in January 2015 -- by disgruntled Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants and a handful of little-known Afghan Taliban fighters -- that pledged allegiance to Daesh.
Since then, there have been isolated reports of Daesh’s black flag being raised in parts of Afghanistan. In Farah province for instance, a group of militants who pledged allegiance to Daesh set up a training camp; in Sar-i-Pul province, local officials reported that insurgents had raised the black flag of Daesh in Kohistanat district; in nearby Darzab district of Jawzjan province, 600 insurgents reportedly raised the black flag and began fighting on behalf of Daesh.
Earlier last year, in Nangarhar province, Taliban factions and Daesh-affiliated insurgents clashed in what was widely perceived to be a turf war. In March, Afghan National Army (ANA) officials reported that a clash between rival Taliban and Daesh factions in the Arghandab district of Zabul had killed seven Daesh fighters. Also earlier in March, Hafiz Waheed, a Daesh-linked militant was killed in an airstrike in Afghanistan.
However, it is important to note that these are isolated incidents, which have been difficult to verify a the Taliban continues to remain the main extremist group opposed to the government in Afghanistan. The Taliban on its part has denied any role in the bombings targeting Shias, that the Islamic State has been quick to claim. This, however, represents the dual conflict in Afghanistan -- where in addition to battling the Taliban, security forces have to contend with attacks of a sectarian nature -- something that was very rare in Afghanistan till a few years ago. The cost of this is of course borne by the people of Afghanistan, as civilian casualties reach yet another record high.