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, there were three more explosions targeting Shia and Sufi Muslims.
The attacks over the past two weeks have killed at least 100 people, hospital figures suggest, and have fueled fears that Afghanistan is headed for a violent spring as the country’s affiliated Islamic State company has launched the Taliban. government is trying to undermine and achieve its newfound.
The sudden wave of attacks across the country has disrupted the relative calm that followed the Taliban takeover last August, ending 20 years of war. And by targeting civilians in recent weeks – the Hazara Shiites, an ethnic minority, and Sufis, who practice a mystical form of Islam – they have sparked fears that the country may not be able to escape a long cycle of violence. .
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist organizations, the Islamic State in Afghanistan — known as Islamic State of Khorasan or ISIS-K — has claimed responsibility for four of the seven recent major attacks. Those unclaimed fit the profile of previous attacks by the group, which considers Shias and Sufis heretical.
With the attacks, ISIS-K has undermined the Taliban’s claim that they had extinguished any threat from the Islamic State in the country. It has also heightened concerns about a possible resurgence of extremist groups in Afghanistan, which could ultimately pose an international threat.
Last month, the Islamic State claimed it had fired missiles at Uzbekistan from northern Afghanistan — the group’s first such alleged attack on a Central Asian nation.
Reporting from Afghanistan
“ISIS-K is resilient, surviving years of airstrikes by NATO troops and ground operations by the Taliban during its insurgency,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. “Now, after the Taliban takeover and the departure of the US, ISIS-K has emerged even more strongly.”
ISIS-K was founded in 2015 by disaffected Pakistani Taliban fighters. The group’s ideology took root, in part because many villages are home to Salafist Muslims, the same branch of Sunni Islam as the Islamic State. Salafists are a smaller minority among the Taliban, who mainly follow the Hanafi school.
Since its inception, ISIS-K has been hostile to the Taliban: at times the two groups have fought for territory, and last year Islamic State leaders denounced the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, saying the Islamist group’s version rule was not a hard line.
Yet the Islamic State has been locked in eastern Afghanistan for most of the past six years amid US airstrikes and Afghan commando attacks that killed many of its leaders. But since the Taliban took power, Islamic State has grown in reach and expanded to nearly all 34 provinces, according to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan.
After the Taliban broke open prisons across the country last summer during their military advance, the number of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan doubled to nearly 4,000, the UN found.
The group also stepped up its activities across the country, said Abdul Sayed, a security specialist and researcher who tracks ISIS-K and other jihadist groups. In the last four months of 2021, the Islamic State carried out 119 attacks in Afghanistan, compared to 39 in the same period a year earlier. They include suicide bombings, assassinations and ambushes at security checkpoints.
Of those, 96 targeted Taliban officials or security forces, compared to just two during the same period in 2020 — a marked shift from earlier last year when the group primarily targeted civilians, including activists and journalists.
In response, the Taliban waged a brutal campaign against suspected IS fighters in eastern Nangarhar province last year. According to local residents, analysts and human rights monitors, their approach relied heavily on extrajudicial arrests and murders of people suspected of belonging to the Islamic State.
Last winter, Islamic State attacks subsided for months, raising some hopes that the Taliban’s campaign was proving effective. But the recent spate of high-profile attacks that have claimed many civilian lives suggests the Islamic State used the winter to regroup for a spring offensive — a pattern perfected by the Taliban when it was an insurgency.
While ISIS-K does not appear to be trying to take territory as the Islamic State did in Iraq and Syria, the attacks have shown the group’s ability to sow violent chaos despite the Taliban’s heavy-handed tactics, analysts say.
They have also raised concerns that other extremist groups in the region that already have reason to blame the Taliban may shift alliances to Islamic State as they feel the perceived weakness in the Taliban government.
“ISIS-K wants to show how big and far-reaching it is beyond Afghanistan, that its jihad is more violent than the Taliban’s, and that it is a purer organization that doesn’t compromise on who is just and who isn’t,” ISIS-K said. . Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.
The explosions have particularly shocked the country’s Hazara Shias, who have long feared that the Taliban — who have persecuted Afghan Shias for decades — would let the violence against them go unchecked. The battle has also raised concerns in neighboring Iran, a Shia theocracy.
Many Afghan Shias have been on high alert since suicide bombings by the Islamic State on Shia mosques in a northern and a southern city combined killed more than 90 people last October. The recent explosions, which have mainly targeted areas dominated by Hazara communities, have heightened that fear.
At the end of 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 the thud of an explosion. He and his father ran to the school down the street, where throngs of terrified students poured out the gate and the bloodied bodies of some of their classmates lay on the sidewalk.
His father rushed to help the victims, but minutes later Mr. Husseini heard another deafening bang. A second explosion hit the gate of the school, fatally wounding his father.
A week later, Mr. Husseini sat in the shade of a small canopy with his relatives in mourning. Outside, their once-busy street was quiet, the fear of another explosion still lingering. At the school, community leaders had discussed hiring security guards to take security into their own hands.
“The government cannot protect us, we are not safe,” Husseini said. “We have to think about ourselves and take care of our safety.”
Yaqoob Akbary contributed from Kabul and Sharif Hassan from Toronto.