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What’s Behind ISIS Khorasan’s Relentless Attacks on Mosques in Afghanistan?

ISIS-K wants the world to know that it is serious about achieving its goals and that the organization will persist and not be ignored.

Deadly attacks on Sunni and predominantly Shia mosques in Afghanistan have occurred with increasing frequency since the Taliban took over the country in August 2021. In the most recent attack, on September 23, 2022, a car bomb explosion in Kabul killed seven and wounded 41 others praying at the nearby Wazir Akbar Khan mosque. The perpetrators involved in this attack and a small percentage of others like it in Afghanistan have yet to be identified, though the most likely suspect is ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K). Car bombing is the group’s signature method of attack, and the group has openly claimed responsibility for targeting innocent victims in mosques throughout the country. Why the relentless attack on mosques?

The chances that the recurring attacks are merely random acts of terrorism are slim. Terrorist groups tend to eschew random attacks because doing so could cause them to lose popular support for the organization. Salafi-jihadist groups strategically target religious sites and figures to send a message to their followers that the group is at war against the Western world or that it aims to punish Muslims who criticize the salafi-jihadist interpretation of the Qur’an. For example, Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in Africa have applied hearts-and-minds policies to discriminately target Christians. Such was the case for the past three years in Somalia, where Al Shabaab killed more than 200 Muslim clerics who did not support Al Shabaab’s interpretations of Islam. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has frequently targeted religious sites and religious figures. In 2017 and 2018, for example, the Taliban killed more than 120 Sufi clerics who did not support the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. ISIS-K has acted similarly with attacks that predominantly target religious minorities and Shias, both of which the terrorist organization considers to be apostates.

Once known as the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan now is the graveyard of thousands of individuals who openly opposed or fought against the Taliban. In the period between NATO forces’ invasion of the country in 2002 and the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, the Taliban’s attacks killed more than 66,000 Afghan military and police, around 2,500 members of the U.S. military, and more than 47,000 civilians.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan initially brought to mind many questions about how the Taliban would counter the terrorist groups Al Qaeda and ISIS-K, both of which were active in the country at the time. With Al Qaeda, the Taliban turned a blind eye and harbored the organization’s militants. The response is not surprising, given that the leader of the Haqqani Network, an Al Qaeda affiliate, holds the position of Minister of Interior in the Afghan government. The killing of Ayman al Zawahiri, the successor to Usama Bin Laden and the leader of Al Qaeda, on July 31, 2022, was seen as one indicator of the Taliban’s tolerance of Al Qaeda.

With ISIS-K, it is important to remember how the organization was formed and has evolved. Taliban defectors formed ISIS-K in 2015 at the height of power for the core ISIS group. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan also pledged allegiance to ISIS-K that also recruited members of Tehreek-e-Taliban to join the new ISIS group. The terrorist group’s ultimate strategic goal continues to be the establishment of a pure Islamic system of government in Afghanistan

ISIS-K primarily targeted Afghan politicians and ministries, U.S. and NATO forces, Afghan security forces, Sufi Muslims, and religious minorities (including Shia Muslims and Sikhs). The group’s main rival was the Taliban, which ISIS-K accused of abandoning Jihad and the battlefield in favor of a negotiated peace settlement with the western world and being an apostate group. Under ISIS-K’s twisted interpretation of Islamic law, apostates can and should be killed.

Determined to rid Afghanistan of “apostates,” ISIS-K began targeting mosques in 2016. One of these early attacks occurred in November and involved a suicide bombing. By 2018, the number of attacks on mosques increased. In March, for example, ISIS-K conducted two attacks on targeted mosques and claimed responsibility. In the first attack, in Kabul, ISIS-K deployed a suicide bomber to target a group of Shias inside a mosque, killing more than 30 civilians and wounding more than 80 others. The second attack, in Herat province, also involved two suicide bombers and targeted Shia worshippers, killing one and injuring nine others. One month later, in Nangahar, ISIS-K used improvised explosives devices (IEDs) to target voter-registration efforts inside a mosque, resulting in seven civilians being wounded. In November, in Khost province, ISIS-K targeted a mosque on a military base, killing 28 people praying at the mosque and injuring 79 others.

By 2019, ISIS-K’s attacks on mosques had become extremely aggressive and often resulted in multiple casualties. The U.S. Department of State’s Annex of Statistical Information report for 2019, for example, shows that ISIS-K was responsible for more casualties than any other terrorist organization with a combined total of 2,973 killed or wounded in a year’s time. The first mosque attack ISIS-K carried out in 2019 occurred in Kabul, where the terrorist group targeted the anniversary memorial service of a Hazara leader. The ceremony was hosted by high-level Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai. The deadly attack killed 11 civilians and wounded 95 others. ISIS-K claimed responsibility. In another attack, in Ghazni in July, ISIS-K planted an IED inside a mosque, exploded the device, and killed two attendees and wounded 20 others. The group claimed responsibility for this attack as well.

ISIS-K targeted only one mosque – Wazir Akbar Khan mosque in Kabul – in 2020. The attack in June killed two people praying in the mosque and wounded two others. The large drop in the number of attacks could be the result of mosques being closed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Taliban’s takeover of the government in August 2021 changed the scenario significantly in favor of ISIS-K, which was able to increase its membership of terrorist fighters and expand its presence into nearly all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The number of fighters doubled to 4,000 individuals after the Taliban broke open prisons across the country and turned the inmates loose.

In 2021, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for 13 attacks against the Hazaras (an ethnic Shia group native to and primarily residing in the Hazaristan region in central Afghanistan), in addition to three more attacks, that killed and wounded at least 700 people. In October 2021, ISIS-K expanded its attacks through the country’s northern states. In the state of Kunduz, an ISIS-K suicide bomber targeted a mosque during Friday prayers, killing 100 people and wounding 150 others. In October 2021, ISIS-K deployed another suicide bomber, this time to attack a mosque in a Taliban-dominated area of Kandahar. A total of 62 people in the mosque were killed, and 68 others were wounded. In another October 2021 attack, ISIS-K targeted a funeral ceremony in a mosque with an IED, killing 12 people and injuring 32 others in attendance.

The attacks on mosques continued into 2022 with targets not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. For example, ISIS-K deployed a suicide bomber in March 2022 to carry out an attack on a Shia mosque in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province of Pakistan that lies along the border with Afghanistan. This attack, however, is not the first time that ISIS-K has carried out an attack of this type in the country. ISIS-K has a history of targeting religious sites in Pakistan that dates to 2016. In November of that year, for example, ISIS-K targeted the Shah Noorani Shrine in Baluchistan, a province in southwestern Pakistan. More than 50 people were killed. It should not be surprising, therefore, that ISIS-K continued to target Shia mosques in Afghanistan for attack. In April 2022, for example, ISIS-K targeted the biggest Shia mosque in Kabul, leaving 31 people dead and 87 others wounded. One week later, five Hazara men were targeted in Samangan, a province in the central part of Afghanistan, while a bomb explosion in a minibus carrying Hazara passengers in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, killed nine people and wounded 13 others. A month later, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for an attack on a Shia mosque in Kabul. The explosives used for the attack killed 12 civilians praying inside the mosque and wounded 15 others. In June, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for one Inghimasi-style suicide attack designed to cause mass casualties, six assassinations, eight explosions, one Katyusha rocket attack, and six armed clashes that killed 59 Taliban members. In the most recent attacks in 2022, a car bombing near Wazir Akbar Khan mosque on September 23 in Kabul, seven people were killed and 41 others were wounded. On September 30, the Hazara Shias were targeted again in a tuition center in Kabul in an attack that killed 35 people and wounded 80 others.

Similar attacks are likely to continue, but the question remains: Why is ISIS-K predominantly targeting Shia mosques in Afghanistan? The answer is complex and multifaceted. First, the ISIS-K ideology is based on a strict interpretation of Islam that considers Shias to be apostates who deserve to be punished for their wrongheaded beliefs. Second, Shias are easy targets in Afghanistan because the Taliban government lacks the resources to provide adequate security for this and other minority groups in the country, which leaves these groups vulnerable to enemy attacks. The Taliban’s history of targeting Hazara Shias in Afghanistan also makes government officials reluctant to use limited resources to protect minority Shias. Third, ISIS-K aims to send a message to the Iranian regime, which has supported the Taliban in its fight against U.S. forces. Fourth, ISIS-K wants to draw attention to itself with ongoing bloody attacks against Shias and, by doing so, send a message to the world that the group can conduct successful attacks not only in Afghanistan but also in neighboring countries. Fifth, ISIS-K wants the world to know that it is serious about achieving its goals and that the organization will persist and not be ignored or dismissed outright as inconsequential.

The perhaps less obvious motivations for ISIS-K to wage attacks on mosques in Afghanistan help to paint a broader and more dangerous picture of what lies ahead, not only for Afghanistan but also for Iran, the Taliban government, the United States, and the rest of the world. Some outside observers have speculated that Iran will continue to exploit its intimate relations with Shia communities wherever they exist in an effort to wield greater regional and global influence on world affairs. On the other hand, Iran has been a longtime supporter of the Taliban because of their mutual dislike for the United States and hosted for long years the replacement of Al Qaeda’s leadership in its country. Iran has taken this position even though it knows that the ideologies of ISIS and Al Qaeda view Shias as apostates and target them in conflict zones. Iran has already established links with Hazaras, and IRGC has trained and transferred some of them to Syria to maintain Bashar Al Assad’s regime under the flag of the Liwa Fatimuyyun group. What remains to be seen is whether Iran will tolerate the Taliban’s weakness, if doing so means that the Taliban will protect the Hazaras in Afghanistan and whether Iran will continue to support the Taliban and sponsor Salafi-jihadist groups that have targeted the United States.

The targeting of Shias in Afghanistan would not be a direct threat to the United States, but it could send a clear message to U.S. officials that ISIS-K (1) has the capacity to deploy suicide bombers to carry out notable attacks at Taliban-protected sites in Kabul; (2) intends to exert its influence in almost all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces; (3) will continue to carry out attacks in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan; (4) will maintain an organizational structure that includes global jihadists; and (5) may, at some point, replace ISIS-Core, which is based in Syria and Iraq, and threaten global security.

How the Taliban government would be affected by an increasing threat of ISIS-K in the region is unclear. On one hand, an increased threat from the terrorist organization could push Western countries to collaborate with the Taliban against ISIS-K and create legitimacy and more international recognition for the Taliban. On the other hand, leaders of the Taliban government could be viewed as having failed to unify Afghanistan and solve dire economic and political issues. Opponents of the Taliban have outnumbered Taliban forces in some regions of the country, and the Taliban’s failure to protect the Hazaras has tarnished the Taliban’s self-proclaimed image of itself as a government capable of providing security for the entire country. The Taliban’s poor governance in Afghanistan, where 97 percent of the nation lives in poverty and suffers from persistent famine, could engender public sympathy for ISIS-K and in turn enable ISIS-K to recruit more members.

It is difficult to predict how an ongoing threat from ISIS-K will affect Afghanistan, though one can say with certainty that ISIS-K will continue to target Shia mosques and the death toll will continue to climb.

Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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