If proof was needed of the Islamic State’s growing presence in Afghanistan, it came with Saturday’s gruesome suicide attack on Shia Hazaras in Kabul that claimed 80 lives.
The attack, which the IS claimed through its Amaq news agency, introduced a dangerous sectarian element to the war-torn country. Despite decades of conflict in Afghanistan, divisions between the majority Sunnis and minority Shias were rarely heard of in recent years.
The IS was very specific about the targeting of the minority – its claim of responsibility on Saturday clearly stated two fighters had detonated their “explosive belts amid a Shiite gathering”.
So much so that even the Afghan Taliban, locked in a bitter turf war with IS, condemned the attack as a “plot to ignite civil war” and an act to “divide the nation into ethnic groups and sides” and then push them into war.
This was the first major attack claimed by the IS since it announced the formation of its “Wilayah Khorasan” – the branch covering Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India – in January 2015. But the IS has targeted Shia Hazaras several times in the past.
In November last year, thousands of Hazaras demonstrated in Kabul with the coffins of seven members – four men, two women and a child – of the ethnic minority who were kidnapped by the IS in Ghazni and later beheaded.
The Hazaras – who make up an estimated 9% of Afghanistan’s population – are one of the most persecuted Shia groups. Hundreds of them have died in suicide attacks and bombings in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province.
Even before the IS announced its chapter for Khorasan last year, it had been working to woo militant commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are also reports that Abdul Rauf Khadem, a former Taliban adviser to Mullah Omar, visited Iraq in October 2014 for meetings with IS leaders.
A report by the United Nations’s al Qaeda monitoring team in September last year said the IS had been making inroads in Afghanistan by winning over sympathisers and gaining new recruits. The report also said some 70 IS fighters had moved from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan to form the core of the Wilayah Khorasan.
The fighting between the IS and the Afghan Taliban, especially in Nangarhar province. Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, is one of the handful of cities in Afghanistan where India has a consulate and a suicide attack on a bank in Jalalabad in April last year that killed 30 people was claimed by the IS.
Nangarhar also borders Pakistan’s volatile tribal areas, which, experts say, would allow the IS to easily cross the porous border and also allow the group to have access to a large number of battle-hardened fighters inside Pakistan.
Following Saturday’s attack and the Taliban’s condemnation of the IS, the fighting between the two groups could intensify and further complicate the fragile security situation in Afghanistan. For India, a country that has invested so much in rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure and boosting the nascent democratic set-up, this could only mean more problems.
The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @rezhasan