A suicide attack on Friday at a Shiite mosque in northern Afghanistan killed at least 17 people, according to hospital officials and eyewitnesses, in a bloody reminder of the insecurity that remains in the country and has spread to Pakistan two years after the end of the U.S.-led war.
The attack occurred around 1:30 p.m., just as hundreds had gathered at the mosque for Friday prayers in Pul-i-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan Province, a coal-rich and mountainous stretch of northern Afghanistan.
The blast hit the Imam Zaman Mosque, the largest Shiite mosque in the city, and witnesses and Taliban officials said they believe the assault was carried out by a single suicide attacker.
“The explosion occurred in the midst of a crowd of worshipers,” said Mustafa Hashemi, the director of the province’s department for information and culture.
Disputing the death toll provided by hospital staff, Taliban officials said that only seven people were killed in the blast. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which also injured dozens of people.
Sayed Mujtaba Hashemi, whose father is the imam of the mosque, was kneeling in the last row of worshipers as his father was finishing his sermon, he said. Then, as prayers were about to begin, he heard a loud sound and was thrown to the ground.
When he opened his eyes, he saw people’s bodies splayed across the carpeted floor. Screams and wails filled the air. Some people began stumbling out of the building, many limping from injuries they had sustained in the blast.
“As everyone left, one thought crossed my mind: Where is my father?” he said. He rushed to the pulpit and saw him, alive but with pieces of metal lodged into his neck and hand.
Videos and photos of the attack’s aftermath on social media show the emerald green walls of the mosque splattered with red blood. Pieces of the white concrete ceiling were scattered across the floor, much of its red carpet shredded to pieces.
Suspicion immediately fell on the Islamic State affiliate in the region, known as the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, which has targeted Shiite mosques and neighborhoods in the past.
ISIS-K is a Sunni extremist group that was founded in 2015 and has targeted Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan, particularly those from the predominately Shiite Hazara ethnic minority. Shiites make up around 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population, the vast majority of which is Sunni.
After the Taliban seized power in 2021, ISIS-K stepped up its attacks in Afghanistan, reaching into parts of the country that had previously been spared its violence and were far from the group’s stronghold in the east along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.
ISIS-K has been antagonistic toward the Taliban administration, claiming it is not implementing true Shariah law, the legal code of Islam, and carrying out hit-and-run attacks on Taliban security forces.
The violence has drawn a heavy-handed response by the Taliban, which has carried out a brutal crackdown on the group over the past two years. That offensive has pushed some ISIS-K fighters into Pakistan, where the group has carried out a string of major attacks in recent months.
Since the beginning of the year, the Taliban have killed eight high-ranking Islamic State officials, according to American officials. In that time, Afghanistan has been spared the spate of high-profile blasts on Shiite mosques and education centers in predominately Shiite neighborhoods that rocked the country in the first year of Taliban rule.
But the attack on Friday offered a heartbreaking reminder that Afghanistan had not yet shaken free from the threat posed by the terrorist group.
“We thought the situation had improved,” said Bezhan Timory, 22, a worshiper at the mosque. “But now the targeting of the Shia community has started again. This is very worrying for us. I am really worried.”