Explosion in Khost reportedly targeting Pakistani Taliban members
The incident triggered various reactions and claims on both sides of the border – and is set against a backdrop of rising political tensions between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
18 Aug 2023
On August 14, 2023, news agencies reported an explosion at the Qari Zadran Hotel located in the Speen Jumat (White Mosque) area in the centre of Khost city, eastern Afghanistan. According to the Kabul police spokesperson, Khalid Zadran, the incident occurred around 1100 local time and killed “several Waziristan refugees" and “Khost citizens”.
In his post, Zadran stated that “three martyrs and seven injured were transferred to hospitals from the location of the incident.” The same information was also shared minutes later by the Taliban Khost police spokesperson, Mustaghfir Gurbuz.
Shortly after the reports of an explosion emerged, various social media accounts and news agencies claimed the blast resulted from a drone attack. Aaj TV Urdu, a Pakistani news agency, claimed that Hafiz Gul Bahadur* (HGB) members were the target of the claimed drone attack. It should be noted there were no claims or evidence of drone activity within Khost province prior to the blast.
The Khorasan Diary, a project run by a group of journalists based in Islamabad, announced on X (formerly Twitter) that “a suspected aerial strike has targeted a local hotel in Khost, Afghanistan, which is frequented by fighters affiliated with the Hafiz Gul Bahadur faction of the Pakistani Taliban.” They claimed to have spoken to a senior Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander on the phone, who confirmed an explosion in a hotel in Khost, causing the roof to collapse on the people inside.
Afghanistan International also shared similar claims in an article, citing unnamed Pakistani sources as saying “four important commanders of the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan were killed in the attack”. Shafiqullah Daqiq, an Afghanistan International reporter shared a photo of a crowd overlooking the location of the reported explosion. The accompanying text claimed: “In an air raid on Pakistani terrorists in the centre of Khost province, several Pakistani terrorists were killed.”
Despite various claims of an airstrike targeting HGB members in Khost, the Taliban denied their presence in the area. The Independent (Urdu) quoted Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid as saying the victims were “local and poor people”. The BBC Pashto service quoted Khost Information and Culture Department spokesperson, Shabir Ahmed Osmani, as saying there were no signs of an airstrike in the area.
Various journalists and news agencies shared photos of the aftermath of the explosion in Khost. The images show extensive damage to a building, corroborating the claim of a large explosion. Pajhwok News also posted photos taken after the blast showing armed Taliban blocking the roads and securing the area.
Afghan Witness (AW) investigators geolocated the explosion to the Khost city centre. The figure below shows the location of the explosion (outlined in dark blue) and the armed Taliban and vehicles in the area (outlined in green).
Figure: Geolocation of the explosion and the armed Taliban in the area following the reported blast [33.336130, 69.921951].
AW analysed the aftermath of the explosion and found no evidence to confirm or deny a drone strike. However, several observations possibly contradict reports of a drone strike:
Limited shrapnel damage on the inside of the building
No visible crater, which would be common for many missiles with downward pressure
Taliban officials reject claims that attack targeted HGB members
Khalid Zadran posted [WARNING: GRAPHIC] photos of seven reported blast victims. Four minors were among the seven casualties, two of whom were already deceased. The same [WARNING: GRAPHIC] photos were also shared by other social media accounts, including anti-Taliban users.
Bilal Sarwary, an Afghan journalist in exile, shared a photo of the list of victims received by the Khost Hospital following the explosion. According to the information provided, five people died, and eight were injured, ranging from 10 to 50 years old. Three dead bodies remained unidentified. The list only contained details on one underage person, despite photographic evidence provided by Zadran showing at least four minors injured or killed in the explosion. It is possible that the others were either marked as unidentified in the list or were taken to a different medical facility.
In addition to photos of the victims, Zadran also shared a video allegedly recorded at the Khost Hospital. The footage featured three adult male victims talking to the person recording. According to their statement, the explosion occurred in a small hotel. They recalled that there were around eight to 10 civilians inside at the time of the blast. The post shared by Zadran was written in English, possibly aimed at an anglophone audience. The text stated that all victims of the Khost explosion were civilians and warned “let no one try their luck here with our blood anymore”.
The incident was the second time in the past six months that an explosion occurred in Khost city, allegedly targeting members affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban. On March 1, 2023, social media users claimed that an explosion in a hotel in Khost targeted and killed various TTP commanders. Similarly to the March claim, the most recent incident also claimed to have targeted a “Waziristan hotel” in Khost. Social media users and news agencies in March also reported that the explosion resulted from an airstrike or drone attack.
Strong reactions, but little evidence
The latest incident and rumours of a Pakistani strike resulted in different reactions from various audiences. Some Taliban supporters criticised the Taliban authorities' silence over the claimed attack. Afghan Taliban opponents in exile described the attack as an embarrassment to the Taliban's sovereignty claims.
Pro-Pakistani security forces social media accounts described it as a significant success against anti-state militants in Afghanistan, who claimed several top commanders from Waziristan were killed in the attack. They included Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Ahmadi, Aleem Khan, and Sadiq Noor, leading the militants against the security forces in the adjacent North Waziristan.
Despite the claims that the explosion targeted Pakistani Taliban-affiliated members, AW investigators did not find evidence to support the suggestion. In both events, social media users also claimed that the blast could have been the product of a gas cylinder explosion. It is a possible explanation given the commercial nature of both establishments and the lack of visible victims identified as affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban.
TTP continues to reject the group’s footprints in Afghanistan via their media channels, claiming its networks are only within Pakistan. However, AW recorded an increase in the number of TTP commanders claimed to have been killed in Afghanistan, noting reports of five separate incidents since June 16 in Kunar, Nangarhar and Paktika provinces. It was reported that three TTP members were allegedly killed and three more wounded by unknown gunmen in Afghanistan. While the killing of TTP members in Afghanistan is not new, there has been a slight increase in incidents in the past months. The Pakistan Army threatened cross-border action against the TTP in Afghanistan following a Tehrik-e-Jihad Pakistan* attack.
Broader context: rising tensions between Afghan Taliban and Pakistan
Political tensions between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban recently escalated after an attack claimed by the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) in the Bajaur district of Pakistan in late July. Pakistani officials blamed militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Afghan citizens for these cross-border attacks, but Taliban officials denied any involvement.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari threatened direct action inside Afghanistan against the militants responsible for attacks in Pakistan – offering support if the Taliban lacked the capacity but also expressing scepticism about their intention to do so. These remarks led to strong criticism from opposition political leaders in Pakistan, as well as a stern reaction from the Afghan Taliban and their supporters.
Days after the attack, on the night of August 2, Pakistani fighter aircraft were reportedly observed loitering over the border regions in north-eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province, which shares a border with Bajaur. Local sources from Kunar confirmed this to AW. Pakistan carried out similar actions on April 16, 2022, when alleged militant hideouts in Kunar were targeted with airstrikes.
On August 7, Pakistan's Army Chief Asim Munir criticised the Taliban regarding militant attacks within Pakistan. Speaking at a grand tribal jirga held in Peshawar, Munir described “the participation of Afghan nationals in terrorist incidents in Pakistan” as a threat to “regional peace, stability, and a violation of the Doha Peace Agreement”.
The next day, Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement indirectly addressing Munir's comments. Mujahid reiterated that the Taliban has no intention of fostering instability in neighbouring countries and is committed to preventing its citizens or territory from being used for such attacks. He argued that a nation should not be held accountable for the actions of individuals, however, adding that the Taliban had killed 18 Pakistani ISKP members involved in terrorist activities in Afghanistan – including arrests of dozens in 2022 – yet had refrained from blaming Pakistan for their actions.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur (HGB) - A militant faction based in the tribal areas of Pakistan, known for its affiliation with the Pakistani Taliban and involvement in insurgency and conflict in the region.
Tehrik-e-Jihad Pakistan - A recently formed militant group conducting high profile attacks in Pakistan with possible links to the TTP.