KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – An Islamic State suicide bomber struck a mosque filled with Shiite Muslim worshipers in northern Afghanistan on Friday, killing at least 46 people and wounding dozens in the latest security challenge to the Taliban as they went from rebellion to government.
In its claim of responsibility, the region’s IS-affiliated bomber identified as an Uigher Muslim and said the attack was aimed at both Shiites and the Taliban for their alleged willingness to expel Uighurs to meet demands from China. The statement was made by IS-affiliated news agency Aamaq.
The blast tore through a crowded mosque in the city of Kunduz during Friday noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week. It was the latest in a series of IS bombings and shootings that have targeted Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, as well as religious institutions and minority Shiites, since US and NATO troops left in August.
The blast blew out windows, charred the ceiling and scattered dirt and twisted metal across the floor. Rescuers carried one body out on a stretcher and another in a blanket. Bloodstains covered the advantage.
A resident of the area, Hussaindad Rezayee, said he hurried to the mosque when he heard the explosion just as prayers started. “I came to look for my relatives, the mosque was full,” he said.
The worshipers targeted on Friday were Hazaras, who have long suffered from double discrimination as an ethnic minority and as adherents of Shiite Islam in a Sunni country with a majority.
The Islamic State and Taliban group, which seized control of the country with the exit of foreign troops, are strategic rivals. IS militants have targeted Taliban positions and tried to recruit members from their ranks.
In the past, the Taliban have managed to curb the IS threat in line with US and Afghan airstrikes. Without these, it is still unclear whether the Taliban can suppress what appears to be a growing IS footprint. The militants, once confined to the east, have infiltrated Kabul’s capital and other provinces with new attacks.
This comes at a critical time when the Taliban are trying to consolidate power and turn their guerrilla fighters into a structured police and security force. But while the group is trying to disperse an authority through reports of raids and arrests of IS members, it remains unclear whether it has the ability to protect soft targets, including religious institutions.
The Biden administration condemned Friday’s attack. “The Afghan people deserve a future free of terror,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
In Kunduz, police officials were still picking up the pieces on Friday at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad mosque. Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told the Associated Press that 46 worshipers were killed and 143 injured in the blast. He said an investigation was underway.
The death toll of 46 is the highest in an attack since foreign troops left Afghanistan.
The UN mission in Afghanistan condemned the attack as “part of a disturbing pattern of violence” directed at religious institutions.
A prominent Shiite cleric, Sayed Hussain Alimi Balkhi, called on the Taliban to provide security for the Shiites in Afghanistan. “We expect government security forces to provide security for the mosques as they collected the weapons that were made available for the security of the places of worship,” he said.
Dost Mohammad Obaida, the deputy police chief of Kunduz, promised to protect minorities in the province. “I assure our Shiite brothers that the Taliban are ready to ensure their safety,” he said.
The new tone that the Taliban struck, at least in Kunduz, stands in stark contrast to the well-documented story of Taliban fighters committing a litany of atrocities against minorities, including Hazaras. The Taliban, now feeling the weight of control, used tactics similar to IS during their 20-year insurgency, including suicide bombings and ambush shootings.
And they have not stopped attacks on Hazaras.
Earlier this week, a report by Amnesty International found that the Taliban had illegally killed 13 Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, in Daykundi province after members of the security forces of the former government surrendered.
In Kunduz province, Hazaras make up about 6% of the province’s population of almost 1 million people. The province also has a large ethnic Uzbek population, which has been the target of IS recruitment, which is closely aligned with the militant Islamic movement in Uzbekistan.
Friday’s attack was the third to target a place of worship or religious studies in a week.
IS has also claimed 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 last days of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
IS also claimed a bomb attack on Sunday outside Kabul’s Eid Gah mosque, killing at least five civilians. Another attack on a madrassa, a religious school, in Khost province on Wednesday was not claimed.
If Friday’s attack is claimed by IS, it will also be worrying for Afghanistan’s northern Central Asian neighbors and Russia, which has been courting the Taliban for years as an ally against the insidious IS in the region.
Akhgar reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.