KABUL, Afghanistan – On an otherwise ordinary Friday evening, a stranger entered the Imam Zaman mosque in West Kabul, just as worshippers were completing the evening prayer.
Unnoticed in the crowd, he detonated the explosives hidden in his vest, killing at least 50 people – including a 14-year-old boy in the eighth grade –and injuring another 50. By the next morning, the strange man was identified as Abu Ammar al-Turkmani. He had been sent to the mosque, full of worshippers from Afghanistan’s Shi’a minority, by the local branch of the Iraq and Syria-based so-called Islamic State group.
The bombing marked the second time in a less than a month that a Shi’a place of worship had come under attack in the Afghan capital. It’s also one of six attacks against security forces and civilians by armed groups over the last week, leading the parliament to call top security officials in for questioning, as they have several times in the past when insecurity begins to spike. The attacks come as the United States sends a few thousand more troops mostly as trainers and advisers to Afghan forces to bolster the roughly 11,000 U.S. forces stationed there, and calls into question whether the modest boost in numbers will have an impact on security.
In the Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood where the mosque bomber hit, it felt personal. The memories of a Sept. 29 blast targeting another Shi’a place of worship in the Qalai Faetullah neighborhood of Kabul were still fresh, so residents pitched in to take care of their own.
Some began to drive the injured to a nearby hospital. Others began to take up arms, according to local residents who spoke to The Cipher Brief. Hours after the attack, locals were stopping and searching passing cars themselves.
“Everyone in there were our family and our friends, we knew them all,” Abdullah, a fruit seller near the mosque, said the following morning. A few meters down the road, a makeshift black banner hung from the Barchi Business Center, with the handwritten words: “Mourners of Imam Zaman martyrs.”
The Imam Zaman mosque was also the second attack on a place of worship on Friday. In the afternoon, a bombing in a mosque in the central province of Ghor left at least 30 people dead.
No group claimed responsibility for the Ghor bombing, but Mohammad Iqbal Nizami, spokesman for the provincial police chief, said the target appeared to be a local commander, Abdul Ahed, a former militia leader who had since allied with the government.
Located along a principal arms and drug smuggling route, Ghor is home to more than 130 separate armed groups who control 70 percent of the mountainous province.
Both attacks came after a particularly bloody week in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations, six attacks across the East, west and south of the country over the last week have taken a particularly heavy toll on the lives of civilians and the Afghan National Security Forces.
“This week alone, hundreds of Afghan civilians going about their daily lives, including practicing their religious faith, have fallen victims to brutal acts of violence,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said in a statement.
Equally troubling is that Friday’s attacks brought the number of attacks on mosques since August to five. An Aug. 1 attack targeted a Shi’a mosque in the Western city of Herat. At least 33 people were later killed when a suicide bomber and a gunman stormed the Jawadia mosque. And the first attack on a Kabul mosque came on Aug. 25, when 30 people were killed in another ISIS-claimed bombing targeting the Shi’a minority.
Nader, a shop worker in Kabul’s Chicken Street shopping district, echoed a commonly held sentiment while watching television coverage of the Imam Zaman attack.
“What is this country coming to, we aren’t safe in a mosque and we aren’t safe on the streets, the enemy is everywhere now,” he said.
Ali M. Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance correspondent. He has reported for the Los Angeles Times, The New York times and Al Jazeera English, with a particular focus on Afghan refugees in Greece and Turkey.