Written by Samia Kullab and Tamim Akhgar
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – An Islamic State suicide bomber struck a mosque with Shia Muslim worshipers in Afghanistan on Friday, killing at least people and turning the regime from insurgency to regime because of recent security challenges to the Taliban.
Demanding its responsibility, the region’s IS affiliate identified the bomber as Uighur Muslim, saying the attack targeted both Shiites and the Taliban for their premeditated intention to expel Uighurs from China to meet their demands. The statement was carried by the IS-affiliated Amak news agency.
The bomber struck shortly after noon in front of a crowded mosque in the northern city of Kunduz during noon prayers. This is the latest in a series of IS bombings and shootings targeting Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers as well as religious institutions and the Shiite minority since the withdrawal of US and NATO troops in August.
The blast blew out the windows, set the roof on fire and scattered debris and metal scattered across the floor. Rescuers carried one body on a stretcher and another on a blanket. Blood stains cover the front steps.
Husseinad Rezai, a resident of the area, said he rushed to the mosque as soon as the prayers began. “I came looking for my relatives, the mosque was full,” he said.
The worshipers targeted on Friday were Hazaras, who have long been victims of dual discrimination as an ethnic minority and as followers of Shia Islam in the majority Sunni country.
The Islamic State group and the Taliban, who have seized control of the country since the withdrawal of foreign troops, are strategic rivals. IS militants have targeted Taliban positions and tried to recruit members from their positions.
In the past, the Taliban have been able to control the IS threat with US and Afghan airstrikes. Apart from these, it is not clear whether the Taliban can suppress the growing footprint of IS. The militants were once confined to the past, launching new attacks into the capital Kabul and other provinces.
It comes at a critical moment, when the Taliban try to consolidate power and transform their guerrilla fighters into a structured police and security force. But despite reports of raids and arrests of IS members, the group has sought to air its authority, but it is still unclear whether it has the capacity to protect soft targets, including religious institutions.
Police officers in Kunduz were still picking up the pieces at the Gojar-i-Syed Abad Mosque. Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told the Associated Press that 46 worshipers had been killed and 143 injured in the blast. He said the investigation is ongoing.
The death toll in any attack is the highest since foreign troops left Afghanistan.
The UN mission in Afghanistan has condemned attacks targeting religious institutions as “part of a disturbing pattern of violence.”
Prominent Shiite cleric Saad Hussein Alimi Balkhi called on the Taliban to provide security for Shiites in Afghanistan. “We hope the government’s security forces will provide security for the mosque, as they have collected the weapons they provided for the security of the shrine,” he said.
Kunduz’s deputy police chief, Dost Mohammad Obaida, has vowed to protect the province’s minorities. “I assure our Shia brothers that the Taliban are ready to ensure their safety,” he said.
At least the new tune struck by the Taliban in Kunduz is the complete opposite of the clearly documented history of atrocities against minorities, including thousands of Taliban fighters. The Taliban, now in control, used the same tactics as IS during their 20-year insurgency, which included suicide bombings and attacks.
And they did not stop attacking the Hazaras.
Earlier this week, a report by Amnesty International found that the Taliban had illegally killed 1,000 people, including a 17-year-old girl, in Dayakundi province after members of the former government’s security forces surrendered.
In Kunduz province, about 6% of the population of Hazara province is about 1 million. The province also has an Uzbek population targeted for recruitment by IS, which is closely linked to the militant Islamic movement in Uzbekistan.
Friday’s attack was the third in a week to target any shrine or religious study.
IS has claimed two deadly bombings in Kabul, including a horrific bomb blast that killed at least 19 Afghans and one US military member outside Kabul airport on the last day of the withdrawal of chaotic Americans from Afghanistan.
IS also claimed that at least five civilians were killed in a bomb attack outside Kabul’s Eid al-Adha mosque on Sunday. Another attack on a madrassa, a religious school in Khost province was not claimed on Wednesday.
If Friday’s attack is claimed by IS, it will also be of concern to Afghanistan’s North Central Asian neighbor and Russia, which has been helping the Taliban for years as an ally in the fight against IS in the region.
Akhgar reported from Istanbul. Kathy Gannon, an Associated Press writer in Islamabad, and Sarah Al Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.