ISIS claims responsibility for deadly Afghan mosque attack
At least 46 people killed and more than 100 others injured
An Islamic State suicide bomber struck at a mosque packed with Shia Muslim worshippers in northern Afghanistan on Friday, killing at least 46 people and wounding dozens in the latest security challenge to the Taliban as they transition from insurgency to governance.
In its claim of responsibility, the region's ISIS affiliate identified the bomber as a Uyghur Muslim, saying the attack targeted both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to expel Uyghurs to meet demands from China. The statement was carried by the ISIS-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 ISIS bombings and shootings that have targeted Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers, as well as religious institutions and minority Shias since U.S. 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.
A resident of the area, Hussaindad Rezayee, said he rushed to the mosque when he heard the explosion, just as prayers started. "I came to look for my relatives, the mosque was full," he said.
The worshippers targeted Friday were Hazaras, who have long suffered from double discrimination as an ethnic minority and as followers of Shia Islam in a majority Sunni country.
ISIS and the Taliban, who seized control of the country with the exit of the foreign troops, are strategic rivals. ISIS militants have targeted Taliban positions and attempted to recruit members from their ranks.
Challenge to Taliban's power
In the past, the Taliban managed to contain the ISIS threat in tandem with U.S. and Afghan airstrikes. Without these, it remains unclear whether the Taliban can suppress what appears to be a growing ISIS footprint. The militants, once confined to the east, have penetrated the capital of Kabul and other provinces with new attacks.
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 ISIS 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 spokesperson 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.
UN condemns attack
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan condemned the attack as "part of a disturbing pattern of violence" targeting religious institutions.
A prominent Shia cleric, Sayed Hussain Alimi Balkhi, called on the Taliban to provide security for the Shias of Afghanistan.
"We expect the security forces of the government to provide security for the mosques since they collected the weapons that were provided for the security of the worship places," he said.
Dost Mohammad Obaida, the deputy police chief in Kunduz pledged to protect minorities in the province. "I assure our Shiite brothers that the Taliban are prepared to ensure their safety," he said.
The new tone struck by the Taliban, at least in Kunduz, is in sharp contrast to the well-documented history of Taliban fighters committing a litany of atrocities against minorities, including Hazaras.
The Taliban, now feeling the weight of governing, employed similar tactics to those of ISIS during their 20-year insurgency, including suicide bombings and shooting ambushes.
And they have not halted attacks on Hazaras.