A New Wave of Terrorist Attacks in Afghanistan: Religious Conflicts or Strategic Game?

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After the Taliban came to power, it was expected that the bloodshed in Afghanistan would stop and the feeling of fear would disappear. However, their rule’s expectations did not come true over the past year. Towards the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan witnessed an escalation in the intensity of terrorist attacks. The most recent was on September 2, 2022, when a massive explosion occurred inside a famous mosque in the Gazargah district of the strategic city, Herat, in the northwest. The suicide attack during the Friday prayer killed the influential pro-Taliban Salafi imam of the mosque, Mujib-ul-Rahman Ansari while leaving a dozen civilian casualties.

This attack was not the first of its kind, as it was preceded by another attack less than a month ago, on the first Friday of August. This attack targeted a Shiite area in the capital, Kabul, in which eight people were killed and 18 others were injured. The chronology of terrorist attacks in the past year extends to Friday prayers and mosques. Although the Taliban adopted the same approach in targeting mosques and synagogues in the past, the continuation of such attacks has posed many questions after their takeover of the country.

Though most of the attacks are carried out by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the responsibility for some attacks remains unclear. The Taliban continuously try to limit the activity of ISKP amid the escalation of their attacks inside Afghanistan. Despite this, nothing was reflected in the reality of the operations on the ground, and the targeting of public places, especially mosques, escalated. In most attacks, the ISKP follows the “individual-leader” strategy, where one element of the organization leads and executes the attack. Usually, the attacker’s identity remains concealed unless the organization wants to send a message. This was clear, for example, in the disclosure of the attacker of a Shiite Mosque in Kunduz in October last year. After the attack, the ISKP declared that the perpetrator belonged to the Uyghur minority in China, who was also known to be close to some of the Taliban members. Thus, the organization’s goal from this announcement was to emphasize its ability to attract elements with loyalties to the Taliban.

It can be argued that the attacks on mosques and places of worship in Afghanistan come against the background of many goals. First, targeting mosques is one of the most efficient mechanisms of ISKP in Afghanistan that seeks to fuel sectarian division, to which the fertility of Afghan land is deemed desirable. Thus, it is believed that they could drag the country into a civil war again, as the political differences in the country turned into sectarian differences and civil conflicts earlier. These differences are highly likely to resurface. It is undeniable that the sectarian card was the winning strategy and guarantor of the central organization’s control for years in Syria and Iraq; the ISKP seeks, in this context, to consolidate its presence in light of a faltering political situation by maintaining the instability that prevails in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, one of the most important goals of ISKP is to weaken the Taliban regime at the lowest possible cost. With the increase in attacks, ISKP once again projects its power to the world and shows that the Taliban lack the potential to stop them. The Taliban have been facing a crisis of international recognition for the last year. On the eve of the 77th summit of the United Nations General Assembly, the Taliban were removed from the list for the second time. Meanwhile, the killing of the Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a few meters away from the Taliban’s administrative palace, damaged their prestige more than before. To ISKP, relative peace in Afghanistan will mean strengthening the Taliban and their international recognition.

Strategically, ISKP has attacked large cities such as Kabul, Kunduz, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Herat. They launched their attacks on the regions of strategic importance at the economic and military levels. Kunduz province, for example, enjoys a prominent geographical location, which makes it an important trade corridor for Central Asia, in addition to its richness in natural resources, especially minerals. Therefore, strengthening ISKP’s presence in this province means controlling its natural resources and benefiting from them in financing its operations, which happened in the past when the central organization took control of several cities in Iraq and Syria. The Kandahar province in the south is an important commercial centre, given the passage of the leading trade routes linking the Indian subcontinent with the Middle East and Central Asia. It means that controlling this province is nothing but control over the road and the trade transiting through it. Herat in the northwest of the country, adjacent to Iran, is one of the other cities targeted by ISKP. This city is crucial in linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India through a pipeline project known as TAPI. Last Friday’s deadly attack on one of the most influential clerics of this province was carried out while the city was hosting a meeting on the TAPI project, in which senior Taliban leaders, including Abdul Ghani Baradar, participated.

History also proves that those mentioned above three strategic cities played a crucial role in the downfall of central governments. Ashraf Ghani, the fugitive President of Afghanistan, in one of his speeches in Herat, considered the fall of this city as the fall of Afghanistan. In fact, after the fall of Herat, the control of the Taliban in other provinces of Afghanistan became stronger. Kandahar has also played a key role in providing the bases of central governments since the old empires of Afghanistan. Though ISKP is not strong enough to occupy the cities, its troublemaking approach could undermine the Taliban’s economic visions with regional countries, especially China.

Mosques and places of worship are among the easiest targets for terrorist groups, especially mosques in Islamic countries, which are usually not subject to security protection. Through this tactic, terrorist organizations can create a state of panic among the general public because of the number of unarmed victims. Thus, by focusing on these targets, the ISKP seeks to achieve significant gains in terms of impact.

Moreover, through its continuous attacks on crowded places such as mosques, ISKP seeks to intensify anti-Taliban sentiment among the public by signalling that the Taliban government cannot secure the people. As a result, the public will be forced to resort to the organization and surrender its orders morally. Indeed, this tactic is identical to the Taliban’s approach in the recent years before the takeover. It is true that the veterans of the former Afghan Security Forces, whom the Taliban commanders harass, tend to join ISKP in order to fight their common enemy, the Taliban. As happened in Iraq, when the organization took control of many Iraqi cities and publicly established its own rule, numerous former Iraqi soldiers extended a hand of friendship to ISIS. However, the Afghan veterans cannot go to the extent of targeting civilians; their support for any anti-Taliban movements will deteriorate the situation.

According to several religious fatwas issued by the leaders of the central ISIS, Shiites and Sufis are considered to be of the “misguided category”, whose mosques should be treated as “pagan temples”. This is the same fatwa issued by one of the leaders of ISIS in 2015 entitled “The Call to Prayers in the Ruling of the Temples of Najran” by a leader of the organization, Abu al-Muqatil. His fame is “Abu al-Layth al-Kinani,” who also issued a fatwa targeting all the mosques belonging to the Ismaili Shiites in Najran of Saudi Arabia, likening those mosques to temples in which idols are worshipped. Thus, the ambiguity is that, while the central ideology of ISKP is based on radical Salafism in Afghanistan, the Salafi influential clerics are the primary targets, following the Shiite religious community.

In this context, one last analysis suggests that the Taliban are involved in these attacks for specific reasons. First, to be recognized by the international community, the Taliban resorted to the strategy of “fishing in the troubled waters.” Even if the Taliban are not directly involved in the attacks, they facilitate the ISK to carry out the attacks. This way, the world’s attention, especially the regional countries, is deemed to be attracted, resulting in a joint deal with the Taliban to fight terrorism.

Secondly, some of the Taliban leaders, especially those loyal to Serajuddin Haqqani, strongly oppose Salafi’s religious minority in Afghanistan. Compared to the previous regime, in the past year, the majority of the victims of the attacks on the religious segment were Salafis. This anti-Salafi sentiment among Hanafi-majority Taliban is also manifested in the statements of the Taliban Acting Minister of Higher Education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani.

In the last scenario, the attacks on the religious community can be attributed to the Taliban. So far, the attacks on the religious community have been carried out in the framework of target killing. Although the killing of influential neutral clerics had started long before the Taliban came to power, this process was not separate from strategic games at that time either. In the previous government, there were also hands involved in killing clerics critical of both the government and the Taliban. Currently, the Taliban government is not easy with those clerics who were not originally members of the Taliban but pledged allegiance to them after their takeover. Fearing the influence of these clerics, the Taliban wants to vacate the space and substitute them with the clerics of Taliban origin.

In sum, both actors, Taliban and ISKP, strive to establish their dominance and influence with a combination of religious motivations and strategic objectives. It is safe to argue that the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan will likely continue soon. The repeated attacks on mosques and places of worship remain the soft targets to fuel instability with a heavy toll in terms of collateral damages.

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