Written by Samia Kalab and Tamim Akhjar | News agency
KABUL, Afghanistan – An explosion Friday at a mosque packed with Shiite worshipers in northern Afghanistan killed at least 25 and wounded dozens in the Taliban’s latest security challenge as they transition from insurgency to rule.
The explosion destroyed a mosque in the city of Kunduz during the noon prayer, the most prominent event in the Islamic week. Windows blew out, roof charred, debris scattered and metal twisted on the floor. Rescuers carried one body on a stretcher and another in a blanket. Blood stains covered the front steps.
Hossein Dad Rezaei, a resident of the area, said he rushed to the mosque when he heard the explosion, as prayers began. He said, “I came to look for my relatives, the mosque was full.”
No group has claimed responsibility for what Kunduz police said may have been a suicide attack. But militants from a local branch of the Islamic State group have a long history of attacking Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious minorities.
Friday’s target worshipers were Hazaras, who have long suffered double discrimination as an ethnic minority and as followers of Shiite Islam in a Sunni-majority country.
The Islamic State has been behind a surge in attacks, including against the Taliban, since the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan at the end of August. ISIS and the Taliban, who have taken control of the country with the exit of foreign forces, are strategic opponents. ISIS fighters targeted Taliban positions and attempted to recruit members for their ranks.
In the past, the Taliban managed to contain the ISIS threat in conjunction with US and Afghan airstrikes. Without it, it remains unclear whether the Taliban can suppress what appears to be a growing footprint of ISIS. The militants, who were once confined to the east, have pushed into the capital, Kabul and other provinces with new attacks.
This comes at a critical moment, as the Taliban attempts to consolidate its power and transform its fighters into an organized police and security force. But while the group attempts to project an air of authority through reports of raids and arrests of ISIS members, it remains unclear whether it has the ability to protect soft targets, including religious institutions.
In Kunduz, police officers were still picking up pieces on Friday at the Jozar Sayedabad mosque.
Citing initial reports, the deputy commander of Taliban police in Kunduz province, Dost Muhammad Ubaidah, said that more than 100 people were killed or injured, and he believed that the death toll was outnumbered by the wounded. Hours after his initial statement, the police did not provide any update.
An official at Kunduz Regional Hospital said at least 25 people were killed and 51 wounded in the attack. He said that the numbers are preliminary because the injured were transferred to private hospitals as well. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
Even the initial death toll of 25 is already the highest in an attack since foreign forces left Afghanistan.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan condemned the attack, describing it as “part of a worrying pattern of violence” targeting religious institutions.
Obeida, the deputy police chief, pledged to protect minorities in the province. “I assure our Shiite brothers that the Taliban is ready to guarantee their safety,” he said.
A prominent Shiite cleric, Syed Hossein Alimi Balkhi, condemned the attack and called on the Taliban to provide security for Shiites in Afghanistan. “We expect the government security forces to provide security for mosques since they collected the weapons that were provided to secure places of worship,” he said.
The new tone of the Taliban, at least in Kunduz, contrasts sharply with the well-documented history of Taliban fighters who have committed a series of atrocities against minorities, including Hazaras. The Taliban, now feeling the weight of governance, have used tactics similar to those used by the Islamic State during their 20-year insurgency, including suicide bombings and ambushes.
They did not stop the attacks on the Hazaras.
Earlier this week, an Amnesty International report found that the Taliban unlawfully killed 13 Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, in Daikundi province, after members of the former government’s security forces surrendered.
In Kunduz province, Hazaras make up about 6% of the province’s population of about one million people. The province also has a large ethnic Uzbek population who has been targeted for recruitment by the Islamic State, which is closely allied with the Armed Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan.
Friday’s attack was the third targeting a place of worship or religious study in a week.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for two deadly bombings in Kabul, including the horrific August 26 bombing that killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel outside Kabul airport in the final days of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing outside the Eid Gah mosque in Kabul that killed at least five civilians. No further attack on a religious school in Khost province was announced on Wednesday.
If the Islamic State claims responsibility for Friday’s attack, it will also be alarming to Afghanistan’s neighbors in northern Central Asia and Russia, which has for years courted the Taliban as an ally against the advancing Islamic State in the region.
Akjar reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.