At least 41 people were killed and dozens more wounded on Thursday in a bombing at a Shiite cultural center in Kabul that also houses a news agency, Afghan officials said. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.
It was the latest in a series of mass-casualty attacks against Shiite targets by the militant group’s Afghan affiliate. The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has documented more than a dozen attacks since January 2016, with hundreds of Shiites dead or wounded. One of the deadliest was in October, when suicide bombers killed at least 57 worshipers in a Shiite mosque in Kabul, the capital, and injured dozens more.
“I have little doubt that this attack deliberately targeted civilians,” said Toby Lanzer, the acting head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan. “Today in Kabul we have witnessed another truly despicable crime in a year already marked by unspeakable atrocities.”
In the assault on Thursday, one suicide bomber entered the Tebyan cultural center during a group discussion for the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and then detonated his explosive vest, said Sadiq Muradi, Kabul’s deputy police chief. Two improvised explosive devices placed nearby went off shortly after that, officials said.
Wahidullah Majrooh, a spokesman for the Afghan Health Ministry, said at least 41 people were killed and 84 wounded in the attack. Workers at the Istiqlal hospital appeared overwhelmed by the number of victims, some of them lying in the corridors. Many were being treated for severe burns. Family members arrived to claim the bodies of loved ones.
The Shiite cultural center attacked on Thursday is believed to have leanings toward Iran; pictures of the country’s supreme leader are often on display at its gatherings.
The cultural center’s website and Facebook page showed it hosting discussions and gatherings on religious and political issues, many of them critical of the West’s approach to the Middle East. At a recent event, members stomped on Israeli flags and burned pictures of President Trump.
Reza Khalili, a reporter for the Afghan Voice Agency, a news organization run by the center, said that the facility was a three-story building, with the news agency on the top floor, and the cultural center and a gathering hall in the basement.
“A suicide attacker entered the hall in the basement, where 150 to 200 people were gathered, and he blew himself up,” Mr. Khalili said. “Most of those killed were participants of the program.”
Hamid Paiman Azimi, 28, another reporter at the agency, was in the agency’s third-floor offices when the suicide blast went off.
“Those who were in the first and second floors all were killed or wounded, no one remained,” said Mr. Azimi, whose father was killed in the mosque attack in October. “I did not see much blood, all the victims were burned by the fire caused by the explosion.”
A local extremist group claiming allegiance to the Islamic State emerged in 2014 in the eastern province of Nangarhar, and spread quickly to at least nine districts there. Sustained operations by American and Afghan security forces reduced its presence last year to three districts; efforts since then to eradicate the insurgents have stalled, although United States military officials said they had “removed from the battlefield” at least 1,600 of the group’s fighters since March. The top American commander has likened the problem to a balloon — when the group is squeezed in one district, it emerges in another.
As Afghan and American officials were busy trying to tackle the affiliate in its stronghold in the east, urban attacks claimed by the group started increasing, particularly in Kabul. The city has long dealt with attacks from the Haqqani Network, a brutal arm of the Taliban, but officials have struggled to gain a clear picture of the Islamic State’s urban cell — such as whether suicide bombers can be traced to Nangarhar, or whether there are overlaps between the networks that facilitate such attacks for the Islamic State and the Haqqanis.
Borhan Osman, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who has closely studied militant groups in Afghanistan, said the Islamic State had claimed seven suicide bombings in Kabul since October, more than the Taliban. And yet with the focus of military operations in Nangarhar, which largely relies on airstrikes, there is little understanding of the cell that carries out such urban attacks.
“As far as I see, the leaders are veterans — they were with the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, or Al Qaeda, and defected to Islamic State in Khorasan, bringing their expertise and network,” Mr. Osman said. “But most of those blowing themselves up are the young Salafis who are indoctrinated into jihadism and find in Islamic State a cool political ideology seeking to dominate the world.”
Also complicating the war in Afghanistan are broader tensions in the Middle East, with fears that Afghanistan could turn into the next proxy battleground between Saudi Arabia, which is predominately Sunni, and Iran, which sees itself as the defender of Shiites around the world. Afghans are already drawn into that rivalry in other battlefields: The Iranian government has openly sent thousands of Afghan Shiites to Syria to fight on behalf of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, while Afghan and Western officials believe Afghans are also fighting on behalf of Saudi allies in places like Yemen.