Unclaimed Shia killings spark anti-Taliban protest
After three unclaimed killings of Shia scholars between 22 October and 1 December 2023, protests erupted in Herat against the Taliban’s alleged neglect of the Shia community. Questions remain about the perpetrators of these attacks, as ISKP, a militant group with a reputation for attacking Shias in Afghanistan has remained silent.
23 Jan 2024
1 December 2023: Latest in a series of attacks on Herat’s Shia scholars
On 1 December 2023, multiple [WARNING: GRAPHIC] reports surfaced on social media of an assault on a vehicle carrying Shia civilians in the Injil district of Herat. The civilians were reportedly returning from a funeral ceremony when they were attacked by unidentified gunmen, resulting in the deaths of six individuals, including Shia scholars Mohammad Mohsin Hamidi and Mohammad Taqi Sadiqi. On 3 December 2023, images from the funeral service were posted on X, showing six bodies laid before a sizable gathering of people engaged in funeral prayers at the Sayed Murtaza Alavi Shrine in Herat’s Jebrael town.
Following the 1 December attack, Afghan Shia Leader Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq spoke out about the plight of Herat’s Shia community in a [WARNING: GRAPHIC] post on X, mentioning two separate incidents also involving the deliberate killing of Shia scholars in Herat’s Injil district and Jebrael town in the six weeks prior. On 22 October 2023 Eid Mohammad Etimadi – a member of Herat’s Shia Ulema Council, and Imam of Khoshrod Mosque – was forcibly abducted from his residence, and killed by unidentified gunmen. On 23 November 2023, two assailants on a motorcycle carried out an attack in Herat’s Jebrael town, killing two members of the Shia Ulema Council people – Khadim Hossein Hedayati, Imam of Tawhid Mosque, and Rajab Akhlaqi, a preacher at the same Mosque. None of these attacks were claimed by any group, including the ISKP who are widely known for targeting Shias in Afghanistan. The locations of these attacks are shown on the map below.
Targeted killings spur anti-Taliban sentiment amongst Shias
On the day of the 1 December 2023 attack, hundreds of individuals marched, bearing the bodies of the victims, and denouncing the targeted killings of Shia community members. In addition, Afghan International reported that the Shia community refrained from burying the deceased for two days to protest the Taliban’s perceived lack of attention for Shia security concerns. The outlet added that some Shias were even accusing the Taliban of complicity in the attacks, pointing to the group’s “23-year bias” against the religious minority group. AW investigators, however, found no evidence establishing a direct link between the Taliban and the recent incidents in Herat.
On 2 December 2023, a meeting was held between Shia community elders and Sheikh Noor Ahmad Islam Jar, the Taliban's Governor of Herat. Following the meeting, the Taliban Governor’s Spokesperson shared a post on X (formerly Twitter), quoting Islam Jar saying that, because “the enemy” was unable to confront the government directly, they were resorting to sowing discord within Afghanistan by perpetrating attacks against Shias. The governor then underscored the value of all Afghan lives, stating that there was “no prejudice and discrimination in the Islamic Emirate”, and further committing to provide security and protection to all. Notably, the post made no mention of the protest in Herat, and despite demonstrating support for the Shia community, Islam Jar had previously written a book in which he characterised Shias as a “Takfiri sect” and called them “partners of the infidels throughout history”.
The following day, on 3 December 2023, a funeral took place for the six victims, whose bodies were interred, and a larger protest was conducted in Herat amidst the ceremony, drawing thousands of participants. Demonstrators called for the arrest and punishment of perpetrators and called for the security of the Shia minority. Women from the Shia community, who had assembled for the march, were reportedly not granted permission to participate in the funeral ceremony.
Questions remain about the perpetrators of the attacks
AW’s historical data regarding ISKP attacks in Herat reveals that, over the past seven years, 16 out of 22 attacks claimed by the group specifically targeted Shia civilians. Since the Taliban became the de facto authorities in Afghanistan in August 2021, ISKP has claimed six attacks in Herat, two of which were directed at Shias, while the remainder targeted the Taliban.
As such, though there have been a few instances in the past, where attacks bearing the hallmarks of ISKP went unclaimed, the group's silence regarding these targeted killings of Shia scholars raises questions about the perpetrators of these attacks. Additionally, some, such as Afghan university professor and writer Yaqoob Yasna, have observed that the recent attacks in Herat differed from historical ISKP attacks as they specifically “assassinated” Shia religious scholars, rather than the Shia population in general.
Taliban raid against suspected ISKP cell reported, but poor evidence provided
On 6 December 2023, Afghan journalist Mukhtar Wafayee reported that the Taliban had conducted a raid against a house in the Khoshrod area of Herat province, arresting three people, killing one and injuring another. The identities of these people remain unknown, and neither the Taliban nor ISKP have offered an official comment on the incident.
On 8 December however, pro-Taliban media outlet Al-Mersaad released a report claiming the successful elimination of a significant ISKP network in Herat and Nimruz, following aims to dismantle the group responsible for the 1 December attack. Al Mersaad’s report echoed details in Wafayee’s reporting; that the Taliban security forces’ operation resulted in the death of one ISKP member and the apprehension of several others. Moreover, an unnamed “reliable” source allegedly told Al Mersaad that some of the arrested ISKP members were significant in past attacks on Shia citizens, and in a network operating in a neighbouring country. Notably, Al Mersaad did not provide specifics or visual evidence for the operation in Nimruz province and the photo shared alongside the report depicted four Islamic State fighters that can be traced as far back as February 2021.
While Taliban officials neither confirmed nor denied Al Mersaad's report, it reinforces a possible connection between Al-Mersaad and the Taliban whereby Al-Mersaad is increasingly responsible for announcing Taliban raids against ISKP, and sharing confessions from alleged members of the group, captured in these raids. AW will continue to monitor updates regarding the 22 October-1 December 2023 attacks.
 Herat City is encircled by the Injil district, and the recent incidents occurred on the outskirts of the city. Some reports list the location of these incidents as Herat City, rather than the Injil district. This statement from the Taliban regarding the incident of 1 December 2023, explicitly identifies the location as Injil district.
 The enemy, in this case, is understood to be ISKP, as the group often commits acts of violence against the Shia community; likewise, ISKP is understood to be an enemy of the Taliban. It is also worth noting, similar statements referencing “the enemy” were made by the former government when there were attacks against Shias; these statements suggested that those perpetrating the attacks were trying to incite sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis.
 In this context, ‘Takfiri’ can be understood as a Muslim who is considered a non-believer