An Islamic State suicide bomber has struck at a mosque packed with Shi’Ite Muslim worshippers in northern Afghanistan, killing at least 46 people and wounding dozens in the latest security challenge to the Taliban as it transitions from insurgency to governance.
In its claim of responsibility on Friday, the region’s IS affiliate identified the bomber as a Uygher Muslim, saying the attack targeted both Shi’Ites and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uyghers to meet demands from China. The statement was carried by the IS-linked Aamaq news agency.
The blast tore through a crowded mosque in the city of Kunduz during Friday noon prayers, the highlight of the Muslim religious week. It was the latest in a series of IS bombings and shootings that have targeted Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, as well as religious institutions and minority Shi’Ites since US and NATO troops left in August.
The blast blew out windows, charred the ceiling and scattered debris and twisted metal across the floor. Rescuers carried one body out on a stretcher and another in a blanket. Blood stains covered the front steps.
The worshippers targeted in Friday’s were Hazaras, who have long suffered from double discrimination as an ethnic minority and as followers of Shi’Ite Islam in a majority Sunni country.
The Islamic State group and the Taliban, who seized control of the country with the exit of the foreign troops, are strategic rivals. IS militants have targeted Taliban positions and attempted to recruit members from their ranks.
This comes at a critical moment, as the Taliban attempt to consolidate power and transform their guerrilla fighters into a structured police and security force. But while the group attempts to project an air of authority through reports of raids and arrests of IS members, it remains unclear if it has the capability to protect soft targets, including religious institutions.
The Biden administration condemned Friday’s attack.
“The Afghan people deserve a future free of terror,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
In Kunduz, police officials were still picking up the pieces Friday at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad Mosque. Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told The Associated Press that 46 worshippers were killed and 143 wounded in the explosion. He said an investigation was under way.
The death toll of 46 is the highest in an attack since foreign troops left Afghanistan.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan condemned the attack as “part of a disturbing pattern of violence” targeting religious institutions.
Earlier this week, a report by Amnesty International found the Taliban unlawfully killed 13 Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, in Daykundi province, after members of the security forces of the former government surrendered.
In Kunduz province, Hazaras make up about six per cent of the province’s population of nearly one million people. The province also has a large ethnic Uzbek population that has been targeted for recruitment by the IS, which is closely aligned with the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Friday’s attack was the third to target a place of worship or religious study in a week.