Suicide bomber strikes religious conference in Kabul

A suicide bomber struck a gathering of the Afghan Ulema Council (AUC) in Kabul earlier today. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State oppose the government-aligned AUC’s rulings, but only the latter has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, quickly disassociated his group from the attack, tweeting that it “has nothing to do with the Mujahidin of Islamic Emirate.”

Not long after Mujahid’s denial, however, the Islamic State said that its “martyr” carried out the bombing and had targeted “clerics loyal to the Afghan government,” as well as security forces. The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency released two short statements on the attack. In the first, Amaq claimed that the dead or wounded totaled about 40 people. Amaq then claimed in the second message that the casualty count had risen to 70.

The AUC was formed in 2002 and draws together religious figures from throughout the country. It claims to have approximately 3,000 members, making it both the “biggest (official)” and “highest religious body” in Afghanistan. A “majority of the members are Sunni, but there is a sizeable Shia minority of 25 to 30 per cent – something that was not seen in similar pre-war councils,” the AUC says.

The AUC compares itself to the College of Cardinals at the Vatican, noting that while it is “nominally independent” it is really under the Afghan government’s “control” and “supports” the president of the country. Its “clerics and members” are appointed by the president and “paid by the Afghan Government.” The council continues to advise the office of the Afghan president to this day.

Shortly before the bombing, according to TOLOnews, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty and other media outlets, the AUC declared suicide bombings to be religious forbidden. The AUC also deemed the jihadists’ entire war effort against the Afghan government to be “illegal.”

TOLOnews reported that one council member, Ghofranullah Murad, read from the AUC’s statement, saying “the ongoing war in Afghanistan is illegal and has no root in Sharia law.”

“It is illegal according to Islamic laws and it does nothing but shed the blood of Muslims,” the AUC added, according to TOLOnews. “We, the religious Ulema, call on the Taliban to respond positively to the peace offer of the Afghan government in order to prevent further bloodshed in the country.”

The US State Department condemned the bombing in a statement, noting that the AUC had just sought to undermine the jihadists’ ideological rationale for the war. “Prior to the bombing, Afghanistan’s ulema issued a fatwa that rejected any justification for jihad against the Government of Afghanistan, denied the legitimacy of suicide attacks under Islamic law, and called on all parties to halt fighting,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said.*

Despite denying any culpability for the bombing in Kabul, the Taliban criticized the AUC’s religious rulings. In a separate statement posted online, the group denounced both today’s conference and a similar event that was held in Indonesia on May 11. The Taliban, which consistently refers to itself as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” claims that its jihad is defensive in nature and, therefore, religiously justified.

Both the Taliban and the Islamic State have targeted their religious rivals inside Afghanistan. Afghan officials have warned that the pace of such attacks has risen over time. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Taliban and Islamic State target religious opponents in Afghanistan.]

*Note: The State Department’s statement was added after this article was originally published.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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