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Senior Clerics Caught In The Crossfire Of The Taliban's Intensifying War With IS-K

Mourners carry the body of a victim of a mosque bombing in Kabul that killed Hanafi cleric Amir Mohammad Kabuli and 20 more worshippers on August 17.

As the Taliban intensifies its war against Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), religious clerics associated with the rival militant groups are being caught in the crossfire.

IS-K militants have been blamed for the assassination of several pro-Taliban clerics in Afghanistan in recent weeks. The Taliban has also been accused of killing religious figures with alleged links to IS-K.

Many IS-K fighters are members of Afghanistan’s small Salafist community, an ultraradical sect under Sunni Islam. Most Taliban fighters are followers of the Hanafi school of Islam, a rival Sunni denomination. The Salafists, also known as Wahhabis, see other branches of the faith as heretical.

Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban has waged a brutal crackdown on Salafists, who are believed to number several hundred thousand and are mainly concentrated in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, and Nuristan.

Salafists accuse the Taliban of detaining and killing members of the community, and raiding and closing their mosques and religious seminaries. The Taliban’s clampdown has coincided with its intensifying war with IS-K militants.

Observers say the rising number of killings of rival Hanafi and Salafist clerics has recently become the main feature of the Taliban’s escalating war with IS-K militants.

"In the coming months, we might see more assassinations of religious figures, claimed by IS-K or unclaimed," said Riccardo Valle, the co-founder of The Khorasan Diary, an online platform that tracks militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "The group wants to terrorize its enemies and fuel sectarian clashes."

Spate Of Killings

On August 17, an explosion ripped through a mosque in Kabul that killed prominent Hanafi cleric Mullah Amir Mohammad Kabuli. At least 20 worshippers were also killed and dozens more wounded in the attack. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, although observers say it bore the hallmarks of similar attacks carried out in the past by IS-K.

The attack followed the August 11 killing of Rahimullah Haqqani, a prominent Hanafi cleric and Taliban ideologue. IS-K claimed responsibility for the bomb attack on Haqqani’s religious seminary in Kabul that also killed the cleric’s brother, son, and several close associates. Haqqani was known for having heated religious discussions with Salafi religious scholars.

Taliban ideologue Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani was killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul on August 11.
Taliban ideologue Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani was killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul on August 11.

In an August 21 statement, IS-K threatened to carry out more attacks on clerics who “slander” the militant group.

Last month, a top Salafist cleric who had pledged allegiance to the Taliban was mysteriously killed in his home in Kabul. Sardar Wali Saqib was stabbed to death just days after attending a gathering of pro-Taliban clerics. The Taliban blamed IS-K for the killing, although others blamed anti-Salafist figures within the Taliban’s ranks.

In November, a little-known IS-K ideologue Abu Mustafa Darveshzadeh was killed. He had written a highly critical book about the Taliban’s approach to implementing Islamic Shari’a law.

In September, one of Afghanistan’s most prominent Salafist clerics, Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, was kidnapped in Kabul. His mutilated and burned corpse was found days later. He had been previously jailed for alleged links to IS-K. But his supporters deny that he had any affiliation with the group. The Taliban denied it had killed Mutawakil and pledged to investigate his death.

'Resistance To The Taliban'

Clerics have not been the only members of the Salafist community to be targeted. Rights groups have said that civilians with no links to IS-K have been allegedly arrested, tortured, or killed by the Taliban.

In a July report, Human Rights Watch said that residents of Kunar and Nangarhar had discovered some 100 corpses in rivers and canals. Many of them were Salafists and alleged IS-K members who had been arrested by the Taliban.

Qari Eisa Mohammadi, an exiled Afghan cleric, says the Taliban’s alleged killing of Salafist clerics and other members of the community are pushing many into the hands of IS-K.

“The Salafists are thinking that if they fail to unite to put up resistance against the Taliban, the group will keep on killing its religious scholars one after another,” he said.

Taliban fighters stand guard outside a mosque during Eid al-Fitr prayers in Kabul. (file photo)
Taliban fighters stand guard outside a mosque during Eid al-Fitr prayers in Kabul. (file photo)

Andrew Mines, a research fellow at George Washington University, says the Taliban's violence makes it “much easier for IS-K to mobilize fence-sitters and potential supporters to action.”

Observers say the Taliban sees IS-K as a direct threat to its rule and legitimacy, leading it to deal ruthlessly with IS-K and Salafists more generally.

“The Taliban [wants] to silence any opposing voices and discourage others from following in the same footsteps," said Mines.

Since it first emerged in neighboring Pakistan in the early 1990s, the Taliban has allied itself with Al-Qaeda, a Salafist terrorist network, and absorbed smaller Salafist groups.

But the Taliban has opposed IS-K since its emergence in 2015, when turf wars erupted between the two groups. U.S. drone strikes and Afghan special forces also targeted IS-K strongholds in eastern Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, there has been a surge in IS-K attacks against the Taliban.

Experts say the extremist Islamic State-Khorasan has been bolstered by the diminished U.S. counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan and the Taliban's inadvertent release of hundreds of IS-K inmates from prisons during its sweep of the country last summer.

Observers predict a bloody and protracted war between the Taliban and IS-K.

"This war is not easy to contain," says Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s. “Both sides have their sectarian vision, which they want to impose on the other."