On Friday, one of Kabul’s most popular Sufi sites, filled with followers after weekly prayers, became the latest target in a string of terrorist bombings over the past two weeks. The violence has shattered months of calm under Taliban rule and raised fears of further attacks as people prepare to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a joyous Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
Security officials said at least 10 people were killed and 30 wounded when a bomb exploded inside the Sahib Khalifa mosque, located on a major boulevard in the Afghan capital near the national parliament and the American University of Afghanistan. Both of those institutions have been shut down since the Taliban takeover in August.
“We were busy worshiping almighty God when the enemies of God and Islam attacked us,” the mosque leader, 45-year-old Sayed Fazal, said in a telephone interview Saturday. His casualty count was higher than the official tally. He said more than 50 worshipers had been killed in the crowded prayer hall, including two of his nephews, and another 70 injured. Officials said the final number of confirmed casualties could rise.
Sufi Abdullah Rahimi, 28, said he usually stops by the mosque every day. He was just arriving Friday when he heard a “terrible explosion.” When he reached the entrance, he said, “smoke and dust were rising and all our Sufis were drowning in blood.”
“This is the holiest place, where people came to speak of God,” he said. “We hoped that with the emirate, the situation might change and they would provide security for all holy places, but that did not happen. We are still not safe from any explosion or suicide bomb.” The Taliban calls its regime the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The bombing has not been claimed by any group, and authorities have not said whether the device was planted or whether a suicide bomber was among the worshipers. It followed blasts in three cities that have left at least 50 people dead and scores more wounded. One was outside a school in Kabul, another at a mosque in Mazar-e Sharif and a third at a mosque in Kunduz. There were also three attacks on passenger buses.
Most of the bombings took place in minority Shiite communities, sparking an angry outcry among residents and leaders there. Two of the attacks were claimed by the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State, known here as ISIS-K or Daesh, which views Shiites as apostates. The ISIS group has been blamed for dozens of bombings on targets in Shiite areas since 2015, including schools, mosques, hospitals and shrines.
But Friday’s attack seemed especially perverse, given both the Sufi community’s history as a quiet force for peace in a country wracked by repeated conflict, and the public excitement that was building across the country as all Afghans, having fasted from dawn to dusk for an entire month, were about to celebrate Eid this coming week with feasts, gifts and family gatherings.
“No words are strong enough to condemn this despicable act, targeting a place of worship, as Muslims across Afghanistan prepare to celebrate the Eid,” said Mette Knudsen, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan . She called the spate of attacks against civilians targeting ethnic and religious minorities “a disturbing trend” and a violation of rights laws that must “end immediately.”
Taliban officials have pledged to find the perpetrators and put a stop to the attacks, reiterating their commitment to respect and defend all minorities.
On Thursday, the Taliban’s reclusive religious leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, issued a rare public message for Eid, declaring that the government has “prepared the ground for a peaceful and prosperous life.” He did not mention the recent bombings but said the new Afghan army, police and intelligence forces have “ensured security with immense sacrifices. Now it is the duty of all Afghans to work hard and rebuild their country.”
Among Afghan Shiites, who make up about 20 percent of the population and are mostly minority ethnic Hazaras, such pledges have rung hollow, especially since they were persecuted during the Taliban’s first religious reign in the late 1990s. There was also repression against Sufis during that era, as the influence of hard-line Sunni extremism became stronger under Taliban rule.
But the deadly attack Friday on Sufi worshipers has come as a shock to the entire nation. Afghans of all religious backgrounds travel to visit Sufi shrines seeking answers to their problems. Numerous prominent individuals, including a former president, have been followers of Sufism, and its religious leaders have enjoyed wide respect as peacemakers and purveyors of harmony.
The bombing may also have added to growing pressure on Taliban officials — who have so far kept power within a small ethnic and religious circle — to reach out to a wider mix of Afghans for advice and support as the threat of violence grows. Just days ago, the government suddenly announced that it will convene a traditional national gathering of elders, known as a loya jirga, to “discuss some issues.”
“The Taliban have long downplayed the Islamic State threat, but the surging violence is making that position increasingly untenable,” Michael Kugelman, an expert on the region at the Wilson Center in Washington, said Saturday. “The decision to convene a loya jirga is a tacit acknowledgment that the Taliban is in over its head and needs help tackling the threat.”
Jawad Timori in Kabul and Haq Naqaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.