At approximately 22.40hrs local time on Saturday 17 August 2019, a suicide bomber initiated an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in the crowded Dubai City Wedding Hall, located on Darulaman Road in Kabul, Afghanistan. Reports suggest that the perpetrator of the attack arrived at the Dubai City Wedding Hall by bicycle, before making his way to a stage in the men’s reception area (to which guests were returning following the Nikah ceremony) and initiated the device. 63 people were killed and more than 180 injured, including a number of women and children. The majority of the victims belonged to western-Kabul’s minority Shia Hazara community.

On Sunday 18 August, the Islamic State (IS) affiliate grouping known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for the attack, identifying the suicide bomber as Abu Asim al-Pakistani, a man they referred to as a Pakistani fighter seeking ‘martyrdom’. A statement released by the Taliban questioned why United States security forces based in the country had failed to identify and interdict ISKP in advance of the attack.

Analyst Comment

Weddings and religious ceremonies are often targeted by militants operating in Afghanistan, as they provide attackers with a ‘soft target’, with a concentration of people and minimal security to circumvent. On 12 July 2019, a suicide bomber attacked a wedding congregation in Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan. The wedding celebrations were taking place in the house of a pro-government commander in Pachir Aw Agam district. IS claimed responsibility, and at least six people were killed. In November 2018, at least 50 people were killed when the Uranus Wedding Palace, Kabul, was attacked during a gathering of prominent religious figures.

Subsequent investigations raise questions as to the motives behind targeting this wedding ceremony. Unlike previous attacks, there were no prominent religious, community or security officials in attendance. Further, reports suggest that al-Pakistani passed two security force check points on his route to the Dubai City Wedding Hall, a venue that is in close proximity to Darul Aman Palace and a regional Police Headquarters. Darul Aman Palace is a prominent cultural landmark that has been earmarked for numerous regeneration projects, including consideration as a seat for Afghanistan’s parliament.

At the wider scale, the attack occurs as months of negotiations between US officials and Taliban leaders appear to be coming to fruition. The talks are aimed at bringing the enduring conflict in Afghanistan to a close, though it is of note that the Taliban delegation refuse to enter into negotiations with the extant government, presided over by President Ashraf Ghani. Key to this aim are the withdrawal of US troops from the country, a potential power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and government representatives in Kabul, and the Taliban’s interactions with various transnational terrorist organisations operating on Afghan soil.

The talks have occurred against a backdrop of continued violence, with militant groups, including the Taliban, conducting a variety of attacks across the country. Elements of the affiliate group Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) are known to be operating alongside Taliban fighters, bolstering the group’s capabilities whilst also complicating the potential for divisions within the ranks of fighters whose ideology may stand at odds with the diplomatic process. Such disenfranchisement may result in defections to militant groups, such as the IKSP, that adopt a harder line where negotiations with the US or power sharing with the Afghan government are concerned. The Taliban and IKSP are considered rivals, and a divergence in ideology and doctrine has led to a number of clashes in the face of the more extreme Islamic State affiliate seeking to assert its capability in Taliban territory.

Reports suggest that the IKSP commenced operations in Afghanistan in 2015. The group’s designation refers to the Khorasan Province, a region that encompassed large parts of Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan during the Middle Ages. Established by Hafiz Zaeed Khan, a Pakistani national, its membership consisted of mostly Pakistani militants and disenfranchised members of other militant groups; including the Taliban. Its area of operations has predominantly been confined to the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. Despite a series of military set-backs in the first half of 2019, the group has maintained a robust capability through exploitation of local resources, extortion of the local population, and kidnapping for ransom.

In much the same way as the wider IS group, ISKP has ambitions to establish an Islamic caliphate through the acquisition of territory and the assertion of control. Primarily, this aim is pursued through adherence to the management of savagery doctrine, and the group are renowned for violent attacks against civilians; predominantly from the Shiite community. The 17 August attack sees a continuation of this trend. Conducting such an attack in Kabul is a deviation from their previous targeting and may suggest a bid to expand their area of operations.

In the wake of wide-ranging territorial losses across Iraq and Syria in recent years, the wider IS grouping has been forced to seek alternative regions in which to operate, opting to wage a transnational insurgency as opposed to governing the caliphate it once held. Attacks such as that conducted on 17 August enable the group to show case both its intent and capability for force projection through minimal outlay against a soft target, whilst also attracting extreme elements of the Taliban membership who may increasingly become disillusioned with what they see as their leadership’s diplomatic concessions.

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