Islamic State (IS) militants are trying to foment a war between Afghanistan’s majority Sunnis and minority Shi’ite Muslims, who have largely avoided a sectarian conflict.
The group, facing relentless attacks against its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, appears to be targeting Afghanistan’s Shi’ite community, whose lot has substantially improved since the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001.
IS claimed responsibility for the November 21 attack by a suicide bomber inside a Shi’ite mosque in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Afghan officials say at least 30 people were killed and scores more were injured in the attack.
“A martyrdom attack by an Islamic State fighter targets a Shi’ite [shrine] in the city of Kabul," the group's Aamaq Agency said in a newsflash.
This is the third major IS attack against Shi’a in the capital this year. Nearly 100 people were killed in attacks on Shi’ite protesters and worshipers in Kabul in July and October.
Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict & Peace Studies, says the Kabul attacks are in line with IS’s grand strategy.
“They want to foment a larger [global] struggle between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims,” he said. “Their focus on targeting the Shi’a in Kabul showcases this approach.”
Azamy noted that while the main IS presence in Afghanistan is limited to remote mountainous regions in eastern Nangarhar Province, the group is focused on attacking Shi’ite communities in Kabul some 200 kilometers away.
“Daesh seems to be the future of militancy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the broader region,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
A local chapter of IS, which branded itself Wilayat Khorasan, first emerged in Nangarhar in late 2014. By summer 2015, it controlled large swathes of the province, particularly six districts along its eastern border with Pakistan.
Its reliance on extreme violence against civilians, government forces, and even the Taliban has provoked a tribal uprising, ground operations by the Afghan Army, and NATO air strikes. In some cases, however, the Taliban have ousted IS fighters from Nangarhar pockets.
Afghan lawmakers still see the group as resilient and recently urged Kabul to rid Nangarhar of its presence.
“People need to pay close attention to this group because, unlike other militant groups in this region, it is not influenced by any state here,” Azamy said. “IS has now positioned itself as the second-most influential group in Afghanistan following the Taliban.”
Lawmaker Ramzan Bashardost, a member of the Shi’ite Hazara minority community, remains skeptical of IS’s ability to succeed in Afghanistan.
“This is pure barbarity. As long as there are B-52 bombers here, it is impossible to foment a sectarian war,” he said, referring to the long-range U.S. bombers that many Afghans credited as playing a vital role in ousting the hard-line Taliban regime 15 years ago.
“So long as the Hazara leaders enjoy a major share in power, they will be reluctant to join any sectarian strife despite such attacks,” Bashardost said.
Sectarian violence between the majority Sunni, who make up nearly 85 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million population, and the minority Shi’a has never featured as a key driver of the country’s various cycles of war since the late 1970s.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the once-marginalized Hazaras, who constitute a bulk of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite community, have enjoyed senior leadership positions in both the civilian and military parts of the Afghan government. Meanwhile, the lot of impoverished Hazara communities has also improved.
Afghan government leaders are also adamant that IS’s sectarian bid must fail.
President Ashraf Ghani characterized the November 21 attack as “an attempt to sow seeds of discord” but warned that "terrorists cannot achieve their masters' goals by spreading fear," he said in a statement.
Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah called the bombing an act against Islam and humanity.
“While we mourn the loss of our loved ones, we must make sure to work for unity and avoid the enemy plots that divide us by titles,” he wrote on Twitter.
Norias Nori contributed reporting from Prague.