This story was updated on Oct. 11.
The Islamic State suicide bomber disguised himself as a shepherd as he approached his target: A Shiite mosque in north central Kabul.
It was Friday, Sept. 29, on the eve of one of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar.
Stopped by civilian guards who just days before had been issued five Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, expressly to defend Shiite sites during Ashura commemorations, the bomber detonated himself 200 yards from the mosque, killing six people.
Without the guards’ vigilance, the toll in the latest ISIS attack on Afghanistan’s minority Shiite community could have been far higher.
Throughout Afghanistan’s 16-year war, the primary fight has been between the Taliban insurgency and the government and US and NATO forces, as well as Taliban expansion across one-third of Afghan territory. The fight has been political, not sectarian, with even the Taliban seeing a sectarian conflict as counterproductive to its ultimate aims.
But recently the Afghan branch of ISIS, which calls itself Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), has grown in potency, especially taking aim at Shiites. Why now?
One basic factor is their Sunni jihadist ideology that deems Shiites to be infidels. But another is revenge by ISIS for the procession of thousands of Afghans – most of them ethnic Hazaras, and other Shiite Afghans – who have been recruited by Iran to fight against ISIS in Syria, analysts say.
Though ISKP currently accounts for a fraction of incidents in the Afghan war, at less than 5 percent, the resulting volatility risks changing the character of the battle.
“Most of the violence we’ve seen in Afghanistan is political, and this is an attempt to tip it over into a broader ethnic or sectarian conflict, which is why it is so dangerous,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be further identified because of his work.
“There is a real effort by some actors here, like Daesh, to make this a sectarian war, just strike after strike on Shiite targets,” says the official, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Conditions have become so bad that efforts are under way to raise a new militia, with government and NATO approval, to protect Shiite shrines.
The plan to distribute 2,500 guns mostly to Shiite groups to protect their own religious sites is controversial, because of Afghanistan’s past experience with abusive militias.
“Of all the various militias, this one is perhaps more justified because you’re arming a visible minority that is obviously being targeted by the ongoing violence,” says the official.
Some 200 assault rifles were rush-issued before Ashura, when Shiites traditionally march between shrines to mark the 7th-century death of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, who is revered by Shiites as “lord of the martyrs.”
Shiite mosques have been targeted at least seven times since mid-2016, with five such attacks this year, according to a tabulation by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN). Among other non-mosque attacks, in July 2016 a suicide bomber struck a street protest organized by Hazara activists in Kabul, killing at least 80.
Afghan security forces have grappled with territorial losses to the Taliban in rural areas and with massive Taliban strikes in the capital on government and Western targets, including a rush-hour truck bomb near the German Embassy in May that killed more than 150 people.
ISIS hostility to Shiites has frequently marked the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, with the slaughter of some 1,700 Shiite Iraqi conscripts in Tikrit in June 2014 a notable example.
But that anti-Shiite conviction has been intensified by the instrumental role that Shiite Iran has played in mobilizing Shiite militias to fight against ISIS in Iraq and alongside forces of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Among those Shiite militias, the Iran-created Fatemioun Brigade is entirely Afghan, recruited from among Afghan refugees in Iran, and inside Afghanistan itself, with cash, jobs, and even promises of Iranian citizenship. ISIS and ISKP propaganda both accuse Afghan Shiites of helping the “enemy.”
"For this reason the [Shiite] Hazara community … is [considered to be] the enemy because some Hazara fighters are in the battleground … in Syria, alongside the Assad regime against ISIS,” says Obaid Ali, an AAN analyst in Kabul.
When ISKP first emerged in Afghanistan and proclaimed loyalty to the ISIS leadership in Raqqa, Syria, ISIS delegations were sent to Afghanistan in 2015 and early 2016 to forge channels between Raqqa and ISKP, and to convince the Taliban to pledge allegiance to ISIS.
“That was largely ignored by the Taliban side,” says Mr. Ali. “Once they sent a specific delegation to … ask the Taliban not to allow Hazara fighters to go to Iran and join the Assad regime in Syria. And that, again, was largely ignored by the Taliban.”
The Taliban, who draw the bulk of their support from ultra-conservative Sunni Pashtuns, have their own reasons for not wanting to spark sectarian war at home, not least because they see the Hazaras and other Shiites as part of a nation they want to fully control.
ISKP attacks on Shiite targets “echo the approach of ‘Daesh Central’” to provoke a broader Sunni vs. Shiite conflict, though it “has not succeeded so far,” wrote AAN in a report last week.
“Indeed, attacks have been followed by calls on all sides for national unity and Muslim brotherhood. That includes the Taliban, who have condemned attacks against Shia worshippers and mosques,” wrote AAN.
Still, the death toll for Afghan Shiites has been rising. One result is that Shiite religious ceremonies like Ashura have grown more elaborate, as Shiite believers inundate streets and intersections with flags and banners to show their strength and numbers.
Buying more guns
Another result is self-defense measures taken by a community that has little faith that government security services can or want to protect them. A history of marginalization has contributed, with street protests in 2016 – which were targeted by ISKP – sparked by disputes over a mammoth electricity project bypassing Hazara areas, and a lack of services.
“The terms of the conflict are ethnic, people are angry, they want to show ‘We are here, we are a lot,’” says Daoud Naji, a Hazara activist and a leader of the opposition Enlightenment Movement. But there is also an underlying concern of vulnerability, he says, especially since the Hazara gave up their weapons in disarmament programs more than a decade ago.
“So now every single Hazara is buying the gun, because in the whole of central Afghanistan there is not one unit of the Afghan Army, because there was no violence,” says Mr. Naji.
“People are afraid that if the Americans go as Russia went, and the national government collapses, all other people are armed – so in this case we have to think about saving our lives,” says Naji.
Preventing a worse sectarian shift has been the job of politicians like lawmaker Neamatullah Ghaffari, a Shiite from southern Helmand province.
“Unfortunately the Mideast issues affect our country. Their [ISIS] aim is to bring some differences between Shiites and Sunnis,” says Mr. Ghaffari.
“Those relations between Shia and Sunni are very strong in Afghanistan, unlike in other countries,” he says. “As a scholar of the Shia community, I will do my best to be sure that Shiites do not receive a negative message from those people.”