The death toll from a suicide attack on a mosque in Herat in western has climbed to at least 36, prompting anti-government rallies in what is usually regarded as one of Afghanistan’s safest cities.
Among the victims was the father of a teenage girl who captained .
Islamic State loyalists claimed responsibility for . All those reported killed were civilians. Critically injured people were transferred to hospitals in nearby Iran.
The attack was the latest in a string of attacks on Afghan Shias, who have also been targeted in mosques and public demonstrations in Kabul and Mazar-i Sharif.
On Wednesday, as relatives were mourning the dead, citizens in Herat took to the street, protesting against the government’s inability to stem the escalating Afghan conflict.
The number of civilians killed in the Afghan conflict reached a , according to the UN. This year, with more than 1,700 civilians killed, is on track to beat that number.
“We have seen many such attacks on holy sites in recent months in the city, but the government has done nothing. The morale of the enemy is growing,” said Mehdi Hadid, a Shia member of Herat’s provincial council.
“Nothing has been done to secure Shia holy areas since the attack. Our community is worried they can be targeted by an Isis terrorist in the city at any moment,” he said.
The victims included the father of Fatima Qaderyan, 14, who was one of five girls initially denied US visas to participate in a robotics competition in Washington DC.
The US embassy later , and the girls were hailed as national heroes when they won silver medals for “courageous achievement”. Back home, , and first lady, Rula Ghani.
“Since I was a child, I wanted to do something different,” Qaderyan told the Guardian in July. Her interest in technology was piqued when she saw her first robot in a cartoon at seven years old.
Her father, as the head of the family in a country where girls rarely travel without the permission or company of a close male relative, was her greatest supporter, and went to the airport to see her off to the US.
The team’s mentor, Ali Reza Mahraban, said the girls were devastated by grief.
“They are so sad, and nobody can stop Fatima crying. She hasn’t been able to eat or drink for 24 hours, and she can’t move from one room to another,” he said.
The attack was a rare incursion into western Afghanistan by Isis, who are primarily concentrated in a few pockets in the mountainous eastern region.
However, facing growing military pressure in the east, the group seems to be shifting focus to urban areas, with a string of violent attacks targeting primarily Shia gatherings. It is unclear, though, whether the suicide bomber in Herat acted with logistical support from the group’s leadership.
Speaking to the Guardian from an undisclosed location in Nangarhar province, a militant commander loyal to Isis said the group was behind the Herat mosque attack.
For Afghanistan's all-girl team, robotics contest represents many victories
“Shias are apostates, and they are our prime target. That’s why we killed them in their so-called mosque in Herat, and will continue to attack them in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.
Afghanistan suffers less sectarian violence than other countries in the region, and many Afghans are loth to be pulled into the kind of ethnic or religious conflict they experienced during the civil war in the 1990s.
“People of Herat, especially our community, must not be affected by such attacks. Isis wants to increase sectarian conflict between our communities. If we let them, we help them to reach their aims,” said Hassan Anwari, a Shia resident of Herat.
Azim Kabarzani, a Sunni provincial council member, said: “I witnessed Shias and Sunnis, and even women donating blood in the hospital. Hospital authorities said there is no need for more blood. It shows the unity of our communities.”
, but they are able to take advantage of the country’s lawlessness. Most other insurgent groups are religiously opposed to Isis’s methods and thought.
“This is not a neighbourhood where Isis will find many natural friendships,” said Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a thinktank.
“Isis is a clear and present danger in Afghanistan and the surrounding region, but we shouldn’t overstate the nature of this threat,” Kugelman said.