Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Bombs Targeting Taliban Fighters in Afghanistan

The Islamic State (ISIS) militant group has claimed responsibility for a string of bombings that targeted Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, evidence of seemingly deepening strife between the rival groups in the country, the Associated Press reported.

The explosions hit Taliban vehicles in Jalalabad over the weekend and killed eight people, some of them from the Taliban.

There were unconfirmed reports of more Taliban casualties after three additional explosions were heard Monday in the provincial city, where there is an ISIS presence, AP reported. As the Taliban seek legitimacy in the international community, the group also faces pressure to prevent ISIS extremists from using Afghanistan as a base to stage terror attacks.

Some Afghans held the belief that some level of public safety would be revived under the group's rule, but the prevalence of attacks has led some to doubt the idea, AP reported. Feda Mohammad, whose brother and cousin were killed in one of the explosions on Sunday, said that they thought peace would follow the Taliban taking control.

"But there's no peace, no security. You can't hear anything except the news of bomb blasts killing this one or that," Mohammad said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Afghanistan Explosion Site
The Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility for a string of bombings that took place in eastern Afghanistan over the weekend and on Monday. Above, Taliban members and people gather at the site of a bomb explosion that targeted a pickup truck carrying Taliban fighters in Jalalabad on September 19, 2021, a day after at least two people were killed in a series of blasts in the area. AFP via Getty Images

The latest ISIS bombings come as the Taliban face the daunting task of governing a country shredded by four decades of war. The economy is in free fall, the health system on the verge of collapse and thousands of members of the country's educated elite have fled. International aid groups predict worsening drought, hunger and poverty.

"Our misery has reached its peak," Abdullah, a shopkeeper in Jalalabad, said Monday, a day after ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings that rocked the city the two days before.

"People have no jobs, people sell their carpets to buy flour...still there are explosions and (ISIS) claims the attacks," said Abdullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name.

The weekend bomb blasts served as a reminder of the threat the militants pose. Just weeks ago, as American and foreign troops completed their withdrawal and frantic airlift from the country, ISIS suicide bombers targeted U.S. evacuation efforts outside Kabul's international airport in one of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan in years. The blast killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

The events have bolstered fears of more violence, as ISIS militants exploit the vulnerability of an overstretched Taliban government facing massive security challenges and an economic meltdown.

"They're making a very dramatic comeback," Ibraheem Bahiss, an International Crisis Group consultant and an independent research analyst, said of ISIS. "There could be a long-term struggle between the groups."

For now, the Afghan affiliate of ISIS has shied away from attacks against the West and maintained a local focus, but that could potentially change, Bahiss said.

The goals of the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan are different from those of the Taliban, who seized control of the country days before the U.S. troop pullout last month. While the Taliban have fought to gain ground in Afghanistan, the ISIS chapter seeks to incorporate swaths of the country into a broader self-styled caliphate, or Islamic empire, across the Middle East.

The franchise, largely made up of Pakistani militants pushed across the border by military operations, first embraced the ISIS call for a worldwide jihad against non-Muslims in the months after the group's core fighters swept through Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014.

While they share enmity toward American forces and a harsh interpretation of Sunni Islam, the Taliban and IS are sworn enemies. Just as the Taliban battled U.S. coalition troops in the long Afghan war, the group also waged a successful offensive to drive ISIS militants from their enclaves in the country's north and east—at times assisted by the U.S. and U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Despite years of U.S. airstrikes and other military setbacks that shrank ISIS ranks, the United Nations reported this year the group "remains active and dangerous," a threat to Afghanistan and the wider region. The affiliate has mounted some of the country's most brutal attacks in recent years on schools, mosques and even a maternity hospital, mainly targeting the Shiite Muslim minority.

The affiliate has increasingly drawn hardline Taliban defectors and foreign militants disillusioned with what they see as the Taliban's overly moderate ways. The New York-based Soufan Center said in an analysis on Monday that the franchise poses "one of the most serious risks to future splintering of the Taliban...at a time when the group is seeking to gather strength and play a major spoiler role in Afghanistan." As a power struggle between pragmatists and ideologues in the Taliban leadership intensifies, the ISIS branch has ramped up recruiting efforts.

For now, Taliban forces far outnumber ISIS militants and experts doubt the extremist group poses an existential threat to Afghanistan's new rulers. But if the bombings continue, said Franz Marty, a Kabul-based fellow at the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs, "it could become a large problem."

"It's impacting people's perceptions. If the Taliban can't make good on their promise on securing the country, that could turn the tide of public sentiment against them in the east," he said.

Despite the residents' concerns in Jalalabad, there had been a marked improvement in pubic safety elsewhere, including the capital of Kabul. Before the Taliban takeover, Kabul had been plagued by a sharp increase in crime, and many residents feared to leave their homes after dark.

But in Jalalabad, the grief-stricken father of the 10-year-old boy killed in Sunday's blast described the recent attacks as an ominous portent.

"We live in poverty and we don't have security, either," Zarif Khan said. "Today, my son lost his life, tomorrow others' sons will lose their lives."

Taliban Fighters
Some Taliban fighters were killed during a series of bombings over the weekend and on Monday claimed by the Islamic State militant group. Above, Afghan drivers and passengers stuck in a traffic jam look at Taliban fighters riding in the back of a pickup in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 20, 2021. Felipe Dana/AP Photo