By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On October 5, 2022, a suicide bomber detonated his device inside a mosque in the Ministry of Interior (MoI) in Kabul city, killing at least four worshippers and injuring 25. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the incident. Interestingly, this incident coincides with the reported deterioration of relations between Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani Network led by Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, which is mediating talks between TTP and the Pakistani government.
A day earlier, On October 4, 2022, Canada based freelance Afghan Journalist Bilal Sarwary tweeted a voice recording of a senior TTP commander mufti Noor Sayed Mehsud, “the TTP Emir, Mufti Noor Wali [Mehsud] has instructed him for a full-fledged war against Taliban if it does not refrain from transgressions”. The incidents of ‘transgressions’ include the house search of Commander Maulvi Abdullah Bajauri and ‘expulsion’ of 25 TTP families from Nangarhar to a desert in Helmand. Pro-TTP social media accounts, however, maintain that it was a small dispute sorted out through negotiations.
The extent of the rift between a section of TTP and the Islamic Emirate of Taliban’s Haqqani network, for now, remains a matter of speculation. However, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry issued a ‘nationwide alert’ in September 2022, in the midst of stalled talks and factionalism within TTP, warning of the risk of sub-groups affiliated with TTP defecting to the militant Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP), and such dissatisfied groups carrying out violent attacks in Kabul to undermine Sirajuddin Haqqani’s writ cannot be ruled out.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan recorded several prominent suicide attacks:
On September 30, 53 persons were killed in a suicide attack at the Kaj Education Institute located in the Hazara dominated Dasht-e-Brachi area under PD-13 in Kabul. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
On September 5, 26 persons, including two Russians and four civilians, were killed in a suicide bombing attack in front of the Russian embassy in Kabul. The attack was claimed by IS-KP.
On August 17, 2022, a suicide attack killed at least 21 civilians, including a prominent Sufi cleric Mullah Amir Mohammad Kabuli, and injured at least 27, in the Siddiquiya Mosque located in the Kher Khanna neighborhood in Police District (PD) 17 of Kabul city. No group has claimed responsibility, but the role of IS-KP is strongly suspected.
On August 11, 2022, a prominent pro-Taliban cleric, Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani, was killed, along with two civilians, in a suicide attack inside a madrassa in Kabul. The IS-KP claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 641 people (571 civilians, 13 Security Forces, 15 terrorists and 38 NS) have died in 15 suicide attacks across Afghanistan since August 15, 2021 (data till October 9, 2022). There were 244 (85 civilians, 43 Security Forces, 36 terrorists and 80 NS) fatalities in 26 such attacks during the corresponding period of preceding (July 23, 2020-August 15, 2021).
IS-KP is singularly and overwhelmingly responsible for most of the suicide attacks since August 15, 2021. According to SATP data, eight incidents orchestrated by IS-KP led to 478 fatalities (including 415 civilians,13 Security Force personnel,12 terrorists, and 38 not specified. Among the civilian victims, Shias account for a large number of fatalities. During the corresponding period preceding, most of the attacks were unclaimed. However, 51 percent (43 out of total 85) of civilian fatalities were linked to IS-KP claims.
For the unclaimed attacks, noted scholar on the Af-Pak region Abdul Sayed, wrote on his Twitter account on October 7, 2022, that ISKP might be deliberately not claiming several attacks perpetuated by the group, as ISKP’s official media group Al-Azaim recently published a book on jihad, which mentions certain exceptions amongst infidels who cannot be executed. Thus, “Islam forbids the killing of eight infidels; children, women, older people, disabled, insane, monks, and laborers.” Many suicide attacks end up killing significant numbers of women and children, especially in incidents targeting educational institutions.
The first suicide bombing in Afghanistan was recorded on September 9, 2001, under the first Taliban regime (1996-2001), when the principle armed opponent of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance Commander Ahmad Shah Masood was assassinated in the Khwaja Bahauddin District of Takhar Province by two Arab (from Tunisia) al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists from Belgium. This was a prequel to the 9/11 attacks in the United States
Thereafter, the US led operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ launched in October 2001 dislodged the Taliban from power, with top Taliban leaders fleeing to Pakistan’s tribal areas, from where they launched a sustained insurgency. Two instances of suicide attacks targeting International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan forces were recorded in 2003, after which the suicide bombing became a regular pattern of attack. Some of the prominent early attacks included the June 9, 2003, incident, when suspected operative of Al-Qaeda drove a taxi filled with explosives into a bus carrying German ISAF troops, killing four soldiers and one Afghan national. On December 28, 2003, five Afghan Security Force personnel were killed in a suicide bombing near Kabul International Airport.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Afghanistan recorded at least 421 incidents of suicide attack between September 9, 2001, and December 31, 2008, resulting in 1,231 fatalities. Thereafter, between January 1, 2009, and June 30, 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission’s (UNAMA) recorded more than 654* suicide attacks, resulting in 19,973 casualties (4,697 deaths and 15,267 injured).
Clearly, a comparison of the data before and after August 15, 2021, indicates a deterioration in terms of the frequency and impact of suicide attacks after the departure of US forces on August 31, 2021, the result of the rising mayhem inflicted by IS-KP.
The principal actor responsible for the rising trend in suicide attacks is the IS-KP, which wants to replace the Taliban as the main ‘Islamic’ power center in Afghanistan, and to delegitimize the Taliban ideologically and militarily by showcasing the latter’s weakness to the Islamic world, including both its supporters and its detractors. Targeted attacks on pro-Taliban scholars such as Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani could also send a chilling message to religious clerics not to openly take pro-Taliban and anti-IS-KP positions.
IS-KP is also targeting Russians as well as the Hazara Shia, Sikh and Hindu minorities, possibly to deter regional powerhouses-Russia, Iran and India from collaborating with the Taliban. These elements are borne out by IS-KP propaganda material:
In the 15th volume of its English mouthpiece, Voice of Khorasan, IS-KP the article ‘Hindutva, RSS and an Islamophobic State’, identifies India as an ‘Islamophobic’ and not a ‘secular’ state. Further, it criticizes the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), arguing that its ‘sole aim is to target and denigrate Muslims and ultimately wipe out Islam’.
In a column titled ‘American Project’ in the 13th volume of Voice of Khorasan, IS-KP declares, ‘After a year, US is still licking its wounds’, and argues that the Taliban is a ‘nationalist’ entity and a mercenary of the US:
The Taliban did not fall into the state of humiliation at once rather it took years of slavery, humiliation education and training for transforming their leaders subordinates and pure murtaddin [apostates] with nationalistic mentality
The same volume of Voice of Khorasan observesThe Taliban movement possesses many corrupt and dirty beliefs but one of the beliefs that it agreed with all the infidels of the world is nationalism. On the basis of this belief, it spread its hand of brotherhood to every Afghan apostate and infidel, such as Afghan Rawafidh [‘rejectionists’, a reference to Shias], Afghan Sikhs, Hindus, Afghan seculars, to the extent that they have assured security to all based on same belief [nationalism]…
Earlier, in a column titled ‘American Project’ in the 8th volume of Voice of Khorasan, IS-KP asserted that the Taliban was an ISI-CIA project,
Apostate Taliban were humiliated from the beginning when its foundations were laid by ISI [Inter-Service Intelligence] and CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] as a result, the nullifiers of Islam were applicable on that organisation from the beginning (sic)…
Also, after the September 5,2022, bombing outside Russian embassy, while claiming responsibility, IS-KP mocked the Taliban’s repeated reassurances to the international community, including Russia, “not to worry about IS-KP threat”.
Given IS-KP’s orientation and ambition to use the Taliban’s earlier and very successful methods against the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan is expected to deteriorate further, as the Taliban and IS-KP slug it out in a contest for supremacy. Civilians, already suffering from economic shock, poverty and hunger, will clearly bear the brunt of this violent confrontation, as IS-KP employs suicide bombings to get worldwide attention to its cause.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management