FOR the second time in a week, carnage has been visited upon Shia worshippers during Friday prayers in Afghanistan. Over 40 people were killed and scores more injured after a group of suicide bombers detonated their explosive vests in an attack on the minority community’s largest mosque in the southern city. Exactly a week ago, 55 people were killed in a suicide bombing on a Shia mosque in Kunduz city in the north of the country.

The militant Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter claimed responsibility in both cases, marking a significant escalation of its sectarian agenda in war-torn Afghanistan while overall — counting the Kabul airport bombing on Aug 26 — it was the terrorist outfit’s third attack within two months.

This bloody timeline indicates a marked deterioration in the war-torn country’s security situation since the US withdrawal and the world’s subsequent wait-and-see approach towards the Afghan Taliban regime. An uptick in violence was on the cards with the Taliban unable and unwilling to rein in jihadi groups for logistical, ideological and political reasons, despite IS-K being their sworn enemy, and notwithstanding their pledges to the world earlier. Nevertheless, it is significant that the latest attack occurred in Kandahar, which is a Taliban stronghold and its spiritual heartland.

Editorial: In IS-K, the Afghan Taliban have a new challenger

Earlier reports have held that some Afghan Taliban, those who see the group as insufficiently fundamentalist, have defected to the IS. The 28th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, prepared for the UN Security Council and released in June, also apprehended an increased likelihood of foreign militants relocating to Afghanistan following the US troops’ drawdown. It also stated that IS-K, having suffered territorial, leadership, manpower and financial losses in 2020 at the hands of US and Afghan security forces in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, has formed sleeper cells in other provinces. The situation now is more conducive to its operations, a large chunk of which is rooted in its virulently anti-Shia ideology.

How does the situation translate in the context of Pakistan? This country was blighted by years of sectarian violence; there were targeted killings, suicide bombings at shrines, on religious processions and gatherings, even at hospital emergency rooms where the wounded had been taken. The Shia Hazaras settled in Quetta in particular have seen horrific, mass casualty terrorist attacks. What is happening in Afghanistan now will breathe new life into sectarian outfits on this side of the border. But Pakistan’s anti-extremism policy is in many ways half-baked and inconsistent — consider that some individuals affiliated with takfiri groups were allowed to contest the 2018 general elections — and the results are predictable. In January this year, 11 Shia Hazara coal miners were slaughtered in Balochistan’s Bolan district by Islamic State militants. Then in June, an Ashura procession in Lahore was bombed, killing two and injuring 59. The situation next door could reignite the flames of simmering extremism in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2021

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