A peaceful protest involving thousands of people from Afghanistan’s Hazara minority became the scene of yet another ISIS atrocity today, as three suicide bombers (only one seems to have been successful) attacked the protesters, killing at least 80 people and injuring more than 230 others:
The Afghan Interior Ministry, in a statement, said the attack on thousands of Hazaras, an ethnic minority group staging the protest, had been a suicide mission.
“The attack was carried out by three suicide bombers: The first person carried out a blast, the second one failed at his detonation, and the third terrorist was killed in shooting by the security forces,” the ministry said.
The second assailant was presumed to be at large, a security official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters.
Despite ISIS’s best efforts it hasn’t been particularly successful at making inroads into Afghanistan; it’s expanded into the country, of course, but as extremist Muslim organizations in Afghanistan go, the Taliban remains easily more powerful and imposing. I suppose this is partly a credit to the Taliban, if you’re looking for a reason to give them credit for something (they condemned today’s bombing as an attempt to foment civil war in Afghanistan). But this attack targeting Hazaras exhibits one of the organization’s trademarks: killing Shiʿa. ISIS has attacked Shiʿa targets in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and also previously in Afghanistan, and it’s probably the case that those attacks have won it some Sunni support in those places. This is more of the same.
For those who don’t know who the Hazaras are, well, that’s what I’m here for. Hazaras comprise a very small community globally (I’ve seen estimates of their total population as high as eight million, and those are the high estimates) that still also manages to be Afghanistan’s third-largest ethnic group (somewhere around 2.8-2.9 million Hazaras live in Afghanistan). At one time their numbers in Afghanistan were much higher, but after a failed uprising in 1893 a majority of them were either executed or forced into exile from their homeland–which, while we’re on the subject, is in central Afghanistan (the Hazarajat region, named as you can see after the Hazara). They speak Hazragi, which is a dialect of Dari, which is the variant of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. Almost all Hazaras are Shiʿa, mostly of the Imamiyah branch so prevalent in Iran, though there are exceptions.
The Hazaras’ origins are something of a mystery. Genetic testing shows that they are at least partly of Mongolian origin, and they may be the outcome of intermixing between local Persian populations and the Turkic and Mongolian armies that routinely marched through Afghanistan during the 10th-16th centuries. In fact, without getting too far into the weeds, there are particular Mongolian genetic markers that are often thought to suggest direct descent from Genghis Khan, and the Hazaras exhibit these with a greater frequency even than people living in Mongolia, which reinforces the idea that their origins are somehow connected to Mongolian military campaigns. The word Hazara probably comes from the Persian word hazar, which means “a thousand” and this further suggests a military connotation, since the Mongols used groups of 1000 as standard military units.
Hazaras have always been surrounded by Sunnis–the Pashto to the south and east, Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north–and consequently they’ve frequently been on the short end of the stick in Afghanistan over the centuries. They revolted three times against Kabul in the last dozen or so years of the 19th century, to no avail. The most recent round of systemic mistreatment came about after the Afghans drove out the Soviets in the 1980s, first because some Hazara participated in Afghanistan Soviet-controlled puppet government and later, once the Taliban came to power, because they were mostly Shiʿa. In recent years they’ve taken to protesting state policies that are deliberately meant to keep the Hazarajat poor (like allowing nomads to graze Hazara land every year), but today they were protesting for something that might be able to help their community:
The demonstrators are demanding the 500 kV transmission line from Turkmenistan to Kabul be rerouted through two provinces with large Hazara populations, an option the government says would cost millions and delay the badly needed project by years.
Waving Afghan flags and chanting slogans like “Justice!” and “Death to discrimination!”, demonstrators gathered near Kabul University, several kilometers from the main government area.
The transmission line, intended to provide secure electricity to 10 provinces is part of the so-called TUTAP project backed by the Asia Development Bank, linking energy-rich states of Central Asia with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Hazaras say they want the line to come through Bamyan and Wardak provinces, west of Kabul, where many Hazaras live, to ensure their power supply.
As I’ve written before, ISIS survives on an “us vs. them” mentality that applies not only to “Muslims vs. the West” but also, maybe even more powerfully to “Sunni vs. Shiʿa.” Attacks like this are undoubtedly an attempt to outrage the Hazaras enough to take some kind of drastic action, like a new uprising, which ISIS figures will send Afghan Sunnis flocking to its banner. It’s unlikely that any one attack would have that kind of impact, but this isn’t the first time ISIS has attacked Hazaras and, based on what we know of their standard operating procedure, it won’t be the last.