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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Afghanistan: Murder at the mosque as worshippers prayed 

ISIL is trying to drive a wedge between Sunnis and Shiites that has never been there, say Afghan activists

Prayers for the dead, killed in the attack on a Shiite mosque in Kabul on August 25,2017  - with a security guard keeping watch. The suicide bombing and gunfight that followed ti were claimed by ISIL. Shah Marai / AFP
Prayers for the dead, killed in the attack on a Shiite mosque in Kabul on August 25,2017 - with a security guard keeping watch. The suicide bombing and gunfight that followed ti were claimed by ISIL. Shah Marai / AFP

Minutes after entering the Iman Zaman mosque in west Kabul, 13-year-old Murtaza was an orphan, his parents among the victims of a suicide bomber who entered the mosque as the congregation were in the middle of Friday prayers.

“I had just stepped outside the mosque when I heard the blast,” he told the The National. “All I remember is seeing the bodies being brought out and hearing gunfire.”

His account of the next 24-hours is at times incoherent. He remembers searching for his mother and father among the bodies lining the bloodied corridors. On Saturday, he helped to bury them in a mass grave but beside each other. At 13, Murtaza is now the head of his household, responsible for his three sisters.

“We are still in our house as of now, but I don’t know who will look after us later,” he said.

Murtaza's plight was tweeted by Khalid Ahmad Noori, a senior producer for the BBC World Service based in Kabul.

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Read more: Afghanistan is the US's new Vietnam

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The attack began at 1.30pm when worshippers were in the middle of prayers. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the door, killing the guards and clearing the way for two gunmen who then waged a four-hour gun battle inside.Several survivors said the gunmen made their way to the women’s side of the mosque and killed female worshipers.

The interior ministry told The National that 24 civilians and four policemen were killed and more than 50 people were injured, but survivors and witnesses say they saw many more casualties - as many as 40.

The attack was claimed by ISIL, a relatively recent arrival in Afghanistan's conflict that has been attempting to establish itself in the region. Its timing and location ensured maximum casualties. it is the fourth time this year that a Shiite place of worship has been targeted in Kabul, following attacks in October and November 2016 and in June this year. Beyond Kabul, 14 people were killed last October in Balkh and more than 50 earlier this month in Herat.

All were claimed by ISIL.

As it loses ground in Iraq and Syria, ISIL is growing stronger roots in Afghanistan with a very distinct anti-Shia terror model. They have also attacked demonstrations by the Hazara community, a predominantly Shia ethnic group in Afghanistan. The timing of Friday's attack is also significant, coming less than a month before the Muharram, a sacred time for Shiites, raising fears of more to come.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission condemned attacks on all holy places as "explicitly contrary to all the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, international humanitarian law and domestic laws,” and urged the Afghan government to bring the perpetrators to justice. The interior ministry has promised more security at sensitive locations.

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Read more: Afghans bury Kabul mosque attack dead as toll rises to 28

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Meanwhile, political activists such as Abdul Nasir Folad are mobilising condemnation from both Sunnis and Shia. “This Shia-Sunni conflict is not inherent to Afghanistan; this is a foreign fight brought from the outside by the terrorists who call themselves Daesh,” Mr Folad said.

With others, he helped organise a candlelit vigil on Saturday at the site of the attack after the mass funeral. More than 500 people attended, both Shiites and Sunnis from a cross section of Kabul’s society.

“They keep attacking the Shias over and again, in an attempt to divide Afghanistan. The harder they try, the harder we will resist,” Mr Folad said.

In fact, sectarian violence is not entirely new to Afghanistan. The Taliban has also been known to target minority groups. The ethnic conflict between the predominantly Hazara minorities and the mostly Sunni Pashtuns Pashtun majority goes back Abdur Rahman Khan, known as the Iron Amir, who forced Shias on pain of death to convert to Sunni Islam, a policy that culminated in a Hazara uprising in 1891.

More than a century later, there are fresh attempts to stir ethnic tension. Hikmat Yousufzai, a Sunni who attended Saturday’s vigil, sees a political conspiracy in the latest killings. “The weaker we are, the stronger they [the insurgents] feel. We cannot allow them to divide us on ethnic or religious lines. The latest attacks reiterate an urgent need for the government to recognise that the minority population is a vulnerable target of terrorist groups.”

Young Murtaza is also determined. "I am not afraid to go to the mosque,” he said. “As long as Hazrat Ali [first imam of the Shiite faith] is with us, I will never stop going.”