Yesterday, June 1, a suicide bomber struck the grand mosque in Kandahar City, southern Afghanistan, killing at least 27 people and injuring scores of others. Among the dead was the Kabul police commander, General Akram Khakraizwall. The attack was carried out during a ceremony held to pay respect to a prominent religious scholar killed days earlier in Kandahar. Hundreds of people took part in the ceremony remembering the anti-Taliban cleric.
On Sunday, May 26, two unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle assassinated Mawlawi Abdullah Fayaz, head of the Islamic Council of Kandahar, a government-appointed body. The Taliban claimed responsibility for killing Fayaz, who was a close supporter of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai. Last week, at a gathering of clerics, Fayaz gave a stern speech against the fugitive former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Fayaz, who had organized the meeting of the Afghan Ulema Council (Council of Religious Scholars), revoked the title “Amirul Mominine” (leader of the faithful) that had been bestowed on Mulla Omar when he took over as the leader of the Taliban. No one claimed responsibility for the assassination, although Taliban insurgents had repeatedly threatened Fayaz (Cheragh in Dari, May 30; Erada in Dari, June 1).
This was the second attempt on Fayaz’s life. The first attack occurred several years ago when a bomb was placed in a mosque while he led prayers. In that incident, scores of people were killed and injured. That attack, the first of its kind in Afghanistan, set a precedent in which the sanctity of the mosque was violated. Previously attacks on mosques and religious institutions had been a cultural and religious taboo in Afghanistan. Religious institutions and shrines of any kind were off limits to violence and intrusions. Even criminals who took refuge in these places would be safe for as long as they stayed there. Now the Taliban has breached the sanctity of the mosque (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, May 31).
Wednesday’s attack came after authorities had detained 50 people in connection with Fayaz’s murder. The arrests have been taking place amid ambiguity, as the attackers fled the scene and Afghan law does not allow police to punish anyone for crimes committed by others.
The assassination of Fayaz and the subsequent bombing of the Kandahar mosque raise two important points. First, this was an attack by the Taliban on one of their own. Fayaz was a religious scholar from the same Sunni sect of Islam as the Taliban. Previously, the Taliban were known to attack only Shi’ites. From an ethnic perspective, Fayaz was a Pashtun who hailed from Kandahar, a one-time stronghold of the Taliban.
The Taliban have rarely targeted prominent religious individuals from their own ethnic community. This is tantamount to declaring war on the established religious institution of the country, a strategy that is bound to backfire. The Taliban came to power by fighting corruption and promoting a religious agenda. If they wage war on the religious establishment, they may not be able to get away with it.
Second, the government of President Karzai has tried to lure the Taliban to enter mainstream politics. Although there have been mixed reactions from different Afghan groups, the government is keen on continuing its policy of reconciliation. The aim, as one paper puts, is to split the Taliban. However, this rapprochement with the hard-line religious movement has yet to yield concrete results. Only a handful of prominent Taliban fighters have come forward to join the government, while the rest have intensified their activities in the provinces bordering Pakistan (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, May 31).
The Afghan government swiftly reacted to the attack in Kandahar. Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali told a news conference Kabul: “According to information I have received from Kandahar, the suicide bomber was a foreigner.” Without naming the bomber or his country of origin, Jalali blamed the fatal terrorist attack on Taliban insurgents and their al-Qaeda allies. The interior minister suggested that, since Afghans do not support the combatants, they had hired foreigners to execute their activities.
Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, echoing Jalali’s views, said he had received reports that five Arab fighters had slipped into the city to carry out the suicide attack.
The governor said he had been targeted by the bombers, but survived because he went to the mosque later. As he told journalists, “The explosion bore all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda members who carried out a similar attack in Pakistan the other day; Afghans don’t stage suicide attacks” (Pajwok, June 1).