Until Saturday, Kabul residents mostly knew of Islamic State's operations in Afghanistan through reports of pockets of militants fighting under that name in some eastern districts. They had never felt their presence up close.
On Saturday, that appears to have changed. According to the group’s news agency, Amaq, it was Islamic State (also known as Isis) that sent two suicide bombers into a crowd of peaceful civilian protesters, killing at least 80 and wounding more than 200.
The statement called the crowd “a Shia gathering”. Most of the protesters were members of the ethnic Hazara minority.
The Taliban were quick to condemn what was one of the deadliest single attacks in Afghanistan since 2001. While the exact number of attackers or blasts was unknown, Afghan authorities confirmed that Islamic State was behind the bombings.
If true, it would be the jihadists’ first attack on a civilian crowd in Kabul, and its largest ever attack in Afghanistan, only months after the Afghan president boasted that the country would be a “graveyard” for Islamic State.
Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Wilson Center said the attack bore the hallmarks of Islamic State, and was likely carried out by former Taliban “aligned with Isis and determined to demonstrate their clout”.
Bette Dam, an investigative reporter specialising in the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, warned against drawing premature conclusions. She said the attackers were also likely to have been “lone wolves” willing to sacrifice themselves in return for money for their families, and for Islamic State to claim the attack afterwards.
Islamic State has an interest in projecting strength in Afghanistan, and has previously claimed to be behind attacks without presenting proof.
For instance, French investigators have yet to find any link between the Nice attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, and Islamic State. The group also claimed that attack via its Amaq news outlet.
In Afghanistan, the jihadist group is viewed largely as a foreign entity by civilians and the Taliban alike. The Kabul attack, Kugelman said, signalled capacity rather than strength.
“Carrying out a huge attack in the country’s capital is horrific,” he said, “but it’s not necessarily going to be a prelude to taking over territory and gaining a deep foothold.”
For its part, the Afghan government has used Islamic State to argue for the necessity of a continued US presence. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, in a speech to US Congress last year, called the jihadists a "terrible threat".
Judging from its statement, Islamic State may have intended to stoke sectarian tensions in Afghanistan, which despite divisions has not experienced the ethnic the violence suffered by other countries in the region.
A similar attack in 2011, where up to 80 Shias, predominantly Hazaras, were killed during Ashura holidays, did not prompt retaliation.
As for an international response, Dam warned against expanding the US military presence.
“A military solution to this small movement in Afghanistan will only increase the unrest and support for the insurgency, just as we have seen in the last 15 years,” she said.
– (Guardian service)