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EFSAS Commentary

Despite loud confessions of guilt by ISIS over the Kabul Gurdwara terrorist attack, the orchestrators might actually be different


The Sikh community in Afghanistan that once constituted a vibrant, well integrated and economically active part of Afghan society has, since the Taliban grabbed power in the 1990s, been persecuted, attacked, killed, and driven away from the country that they had called home for generations. Their depletion has been so rapid that of the close to a quarter of a million that called Afghanistan home in 1992, a miniscule 1000-odd still remain in the country, barely eking out a livelihood in extremely trying and violent circumstances. Their plight is heart-rending. To imagine that a community such as this, women and children included, would be attacked with automatic fire and grenades while they had congregated in their place of worship for morning prayers is harrowing. Yet, that is exactly what happened on the morning of 25 March.

Heavily armed terrorists stormed the Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul at about 7.45 am, where, as Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a Sikh member of the Afghan parliament, described it, “…About 150 people were gathered inside offering morning prayers. Families are also living there, and they usually gather too”. A witness to the attack, Raju Singh Sonny, told AFP that a man dressed in a police uniform had burst into the Gurdwara in central Kabul, shot a guard and started attacking worshippers in the main hall. He added, “Several other attackers also entered the building and they were going from room to room shooting people”. At least 28 Sikh worshippers, including a child, were killed in the gruesome mayhem that ensued, and several others who were injured were rushed to hospital. Afghan security forces soon cordoned off the area where the Gurdwara is located in old Kabul, and Afghan interior ministry spokesman Tariq Arian later informed that after a six hour battle the operation by the security forces had concluded and that all the terrorists involved had been killed. In photographs shared by the interior ministry, about a dozen children were seen being rushed out of the Gurdwara by Afghan forces, many of them barefoot and crying.

The horrific attack, quite expectedly, drew angry and indignant responses from the Afghan government, the international community, and Sikh organizations worldwide. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that, “The attack on the religious sites shows the extreme weakness of the enemy. Religious sites should not be vulnerable to attacks and violence”. Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, described it as an, “attack on the people of Afghanistan”. Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s political rival, tweeted that the attack against the “peaceful community” of Sikhs is “unconscionable”. Describing Afghanistan as a, “rich and colourful multicultural community”, he said no effort will be spared to bring the culprits to justice. In his tweet, Afghan National Security Advisor Hamidullah Mohib also strongly condemned the attack on, “our Sikh sisters and brothers”, adding that, “This attack shows why a comprehensive ceasefire is a need and why we insisted on a peace process that puts an end to all forms of violence against the Afghan people”.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric issued a statement conveying Guterres’ condemnation of the attack, and calling for the perpetrators to be held accountable. He emphasized that there can be no justification for the killing of civilians at a religious house. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in a tweet said that it was “outraged” by the attack. The High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), Miguel Angel Moratinos, expressed his “dismay” at the terrorist attack at the Gurudwara and aptly underscored that the “despicable attack comes at a time when the world is facing a pandemic which adversely impacts all of us, requiring us to stand together as One Humanity”. He stressed that attacks targeting sacred sites and worshippers were unacceptable and had to be brought to a stop, and while drawing attention to the UN Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites, he called on all governments and relevant stakeholders to support its implementation to guarantee the sanctity of places of worship and the safety of worshipers.

The United States (US) Embassy in Kabul did not mince words in condemning the attack and its perpetrators. It stated, Our condolences to the families and victims in today’s attack against the Sikh temple. We strongly condemn these fanatics & criminals who target a house of worship to harm innocents. Peace will only come when people resolve their differences through words, not guns”.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a statement pointed out that, “Such cowardly attacks on the places of religious worship of the minority community, especially at this time of COVID-19 pandemic, are reflective of the diabolical mindset of the perpetrators and their backers”. It added that, “We convey our sincerest condolences to the immediate family members of the deceased and wish speedy recovery to the injured. India stands ready to extend all possible assistance to the affected families of the Hindu and Sikh community of Afghanistan”. The MEA also praised Afghan security forces for their “valorous response to the attack and their exemplary courage and dedication to protect the Afghan people and secure the country”.

India’s Minister for Civil Aviation, Hardeep Singh Puri, himself a Sikh, tweeted, “Suicide attack on a Gurudwara Sahib in Kabul needs to be strongly condemned. These killings are a grim reminder of atrocities that continue to be inflicted upon religious minorities in some countries and the urgency with which their lives & religious freedom have to be safeguarded”. Captain Amarinder Singh, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Punjab where the largest population of Sikhs can be found, tweeted, “Horrific news coming from Kabul where a barbaric terror attack happened in the Gurudwara Guru Har Rai. It's extremely tragic and unfortunate. Request President @AshrafGhani Ji to find out the perpetrators and look after our people”.

Exactly who was behind the dastardly attack is a question that has cropped up in its aftermath. The Taliban, eager to ensure that fingers were not pointing at it as the obvious culprit at a sensitive time in the proposed, but hiccupping, intra-Afghan peace process, was quick to distance itself from the attack. The Khama news agency reported that Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid had said in a statement that the militant group had no link with the attack in the Shor Bazar area of Kabul. On the other hand, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was even quicker in claiming responsibility, and this raised eyebrows. The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist networks worldwide, said in a statement that the ISIS’ media arm, Aamaq, had claimed even as the attack was underway that its fighters were currently carrying out the attack on the Gurdwara.

On the very day the attack in Kabul took place, an article titled, ‘The prospect of the ISIS Islamic State in Afghanistan: future spoiler?’, by Timothy Foxley, Research Fellow at EFSAS, had argued that the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the name under which the ISIS operates in Afghanistan, had not been defeated but was looking to regroup in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, and that ISKP had the potential to be a significant “spoiler” and destabiliser in the highly fragile period of US withdrawal and Taliban/Afghan government negotiations. An attack shocking enough to draw international attention, even if against a remarkably soft and highly vulnerable target, could have been an ISKP attempt to assert its presence and capabilities just prior to when the scheduled talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were to commence. It would also suit the ISKP to send a strong message to the Taliban, which had pledged to the US to not allow the ISIS to operate in Afghanistan, that it was still a player of substance in Afghanistan that could not be wished away, but would rather need to be accommodated and provided space.

The choice of the target for the attack, a tiny minority Afghan group of Indian origin with no real stakes within Afghanistan, drew focus on neighbouring Pakistan’s role, especially given that it has been behind all other major attacks over the years against Indian interests in the country. Pakistan has made no bones about its keenness to force India out of Afghanistan. Amrullah Saleh, a former head of the Afghan intelligence agency the National Directorate of Security, was quoted in a recent report of the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies as saying that, “the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan is not genuine. It is an intelligence game played by some of our neighbors”. Pakistan, the report says, supports the ISKP as part of a “hedging strategy”.

Another clue that raised the specter of Pakistani involvement was the reported release of a second statement by ISIS after the Gurdwara attack in which it said that the killings in Kabul were revenge for Indian actions in Kashmir. News portals such as the Afghanistan Sun quoted highly placed Afghan sources as asserting that Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had ordered the attack on the hapless worshippers in the Gurdwara.

Hussain Ehsani, a Kabul-based researcher on fundamentalist groups like ISKP, believes that the attack was carried out by the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, both of which are supported by the ISI. On why, then, had the ISIS claimed responsibility, Ehsani explained that “A number of attacks have been executed in Kabul recently, with responsibility being claimed by the ISIS. But the ISKP does not have tactical and strategic capabilities for executing such complex attacks. The Haqqani group realized the importance of ISKP brand and put itself behind the scenes”.

In essence, what Saleh, Ehsani and several other experts believe is that the ISKP serves as a red herring for the Haqqani network. Therefore, despite the rather prompt and loud confessions of guilt by the ISIS, it appears almost certain that the ISI played a clear role in orchestrating the attack.

What is absolutely without doubt, however, is that only inhumanly cruel, nauseatingly sick and exceedingly perverted minds could have ordered an attack as dastardly as that on the defenseless innocent worshippers at the Gurdwara.