ISIS launches a bloody new chapter in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan – The first explosion ripped through a school in Kabul, the Afghan capital, killing high school students. Days later, explosions destroyed two mosques and a minibus in the north of the country. The following week, three more explosions were aimed at Shiite and Sufi Muslims.

The past two weeks of attacks have left at least 100 people dead, hospital figures suggest, raising fears that Afghanistan is heading into a violent spring as Islamic State affiliates in the country try to undermine the Taliban government and claim its newcomers. reach.

The sudden wave of attacks across the country has increased the relative calm that followed the Taliban’s takeover in August last year, which ended 20 years of war. And by attacking civilians – the Hazara Shia Muslim, an ethnic minority, and Sufis who practice a mysterious form of Islam, in recent weeks – they have raised fears that the country may not be able to escape a long cycle. of violence.

Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan – known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K – have claimed responsibility for four of the seven most recent major attacks, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist organizations. Those who remain unarmed fit the profile of past attacks from the group, which regard Shiites and Sufis as heretics.

With the attacks, ISIS-K has undermined the Taliban’s claim that they had extinguished any Islamic State threat in the country. It has also heightened concerns about a potential resurgence of extremist groups in Afghanistan, which could ultimately pose an international threat.

Last month, Islamic State claimed it had fired rockets into Uzbekistan from northern Afghanistan – the first such alleged attack by the group on a Central Asian nation.

“ISIS-K is resilient, it survived years of airstrikes by NATO forces and Taliban ground operations during its uprising,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington. “Now, after the Taliban took power and the departure of the United States, ISIS-K has emerged even stronger.”

ISIS-K was established in 2015 by disgruntled Pakistani Taliban fighters. The group’s ideology took hold, partly because many villages that are home to Salafi Muslims have the same branch of Sunni Islam as Islamic State. Salafists are a small minority among the Taliban, who mostly follow the Hanafi school.

Since its inception, ISIS-K has been antagonistic towards the Taliban: at times, the two groups have fought for turf, and last year Islamic State leaders condemned the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, saying the group’s version of Islamic rule was insufficiently harsh.

Yet for most of the past six years, Islamic State has been trapped in eastern Afghanistan amid U.S. airstrikes and Afghan commando attacks that killed many of its leaders. But since the Taliban seized power, Islamic State has grown in reach and expanded to almost all 34 provinces, according to the UN mission in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban broke open prisons across the country during their military advance last summer, the number of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan doubled to nearly 4,000, the UN found.

The group also increased its activity across the country, said Abdul Sayed, a security specialist and researcher tracking ISIS-K and other jihadist groups. In the last four months of 2021, Islamic State carried out 119 attacks in Afghanistan against 39 in the same period the year before. They included suicide bombings, assassinations and ambushes at the security checkpoint.

Of these, 96 targeted Taliban officials or security forces, compared to only two in the same period in 2020 – a marked shift from earlier last year, when the group was primarily aimed at civilians, including activists and journalists.

In response, the Taliban last year carried out a brutal campaign against suspected Islamic State fighters in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Their approach was heavily dependent on out-of-court detentions and killings of those suspected of belonging to Islamic State, according to local residents, analysts and human rights monitors.

For months last winter, the attacks from Islamic State slowed – giving some hope that the Taliban’s campaign proved effective. But the latest wave of high-profile attacks that have claimed many civilian lives suggests that Islamic State used the winter to regroup into a spring offensive – a pattern perfected by the Taliban when it was a rebellion.

Although ISIS-K does not appear to be trying to conquer territory, as Islamic State did in Iraq and Syria, the attacks have demonstrated the group’s ability to sow violent chaos despite the Taliban’s harsh tactics, analysts say.

They have also raised concerns that other extremist groups in the region, who already have reason to resent the Taliban, may move alliances to Islamic State once they feel the perceived weakness of the Taliban government.

“ISIS-K wants to show its breadth and reach beyond Afghanistan that its jihad is more violent than the Taliban’s and that it is a cleaner organization that does not compromise on who is just and who is not. “said Asfandyar Mir, senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.

The blasts have particularly rattled the country’s Hazara Shiites, who have long feared that the Taliban – which persecuted Afghan Shiites for decades – would allow violence against them to remain unchecked. The conflict has also caused concern in neighboring Iran, a Shiite theocracy.

Many Afghan Shiites have been on edge since Islamic State suicide bombers at Shiite mosques in a northern and a southern city combined killed more than 90 people in October last year. The recent explosions, which were mainly aimed at areas dominated by Hazara communities, reinforced this fear.

Late last month, Saeed Mohammad Agha Husseini, 21, was standing outside his home in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of ​​Kabul, a Hazara-dominated area, when he felt a bang of an explosion. He and his father ran to the school down the street, where crowds of terrified students streamed out of its gate, the bloody bodies of some of their classmates scattered across the sidewalk.

His father hurried to help the victims, but a few minutes later Mr Husseini heard another deafening bang. Another explosion hit the school gate, injuring his father fatally.

A week later, Mr Husseini sat in the shadow of a small awning with his relatives to mourn. Outside, their once-busy street was quiet, the fear of yet another explosion still ripe. At the school, community leaders had discussed hiring guards to take security into their own hands.

“The government can not protect us, we are not safe,” Mr Husseini said. “We need to think about ourselves and take care of our safety.”

Yaqoob Akbary contributed reporting from Kabul, and Sharif Hassan from Toronto.

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