Analysis Experts attribute attack to ISIS-K

Why Islamic State attacked Iran on the anniversary of Soleimani’s death

Last week’s bombing near the grave of the Quds Force general that killed 84 is the latest episode in ISIS’s war on Shiite Muslims

People attend the funeral ceremony of the victims of Wednesday's bomb explosion in the city of Kerman about 510 miles (820 kms) southeast of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday, January 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

In the immediate aftermath of the January 3 blast that killed at least 84 people near the grave of general Qassem Soleimani in the Iranian city of Kerman, some low-level Iranian officials hinted at a possible Israeli involvement. Iran’s deputy parliament speaker claimed it had the signs of an Israeli assault — even though it showed radically different features from Israel’s alleged operations in enemy territory, which usually involve precision killings of key enemy figures.

The next day, the Islamic State terror group took responsibility, stating that the assault had been carried out by two “martyrdom-seekers,” Omar al-Mowahid and Sayefulla al-Mujahid, who detonated their explosive belts in the middle of the crowd 20 minutes apart from each other.

The attack took place on the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s death. The terror organization justified the bombing by charging that Soleimani had been “involved in the killing of thousands of Muslims [i.e., ISIS fighters] in Iraq and Syria.”

“The attack dealt a strong security blow to the Iranian government at a time when several counterparts are trying to promote the Iranian project in the region,” the claim read, according to a translation provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Soleimani, commander of the expeditionary Quds force within the Islamic Revolutionary Corps Guards (IRGC), had played an important role in combating Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, through the deployment of Shiite militias controlled by the IRGC. He was assassinated in a US airstrike at a Baghdad airport in 2019.

Islamic State further indicated in its statement that the bombing was aimed at killing Shiite Muslims, whom they accused of “performing polytheistic rituals,” namely visiting a grave – a practice that is strictly forbidden under ISIS’s strict Sunni interpretation of Islam.

Iranians walk past a poster of slain military commander Qassem Soleimani off a main square in the Islamic Republic’s capital Tehran on January 11, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

All eyes on ISIS-K

Last week’s suicide bombing was the latest in a series of operations by ISIS on Iranian soil. The first assault dates to June 2017, when ISIS claimed responsibility for a twin attack on the Iranian Parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini. Sixteen people were killed.

The latest major operation in the country was in October 2022, when ISIS gunmen opened fire on visitors to a major Shiite holy site in the city of Shiraz, killing at least 15 and wounding dozens.

Emergency personnel transport the injured following a shooting attack at Iran’s Shah Cheragh mausoleum in the Fars province capital Shiraz, on August 13, 2023. (MOHAMMADREZA DEHDARI / ISNA / AFP)

While ISIS did not indicate which one of its branches perpetrated last week’s attack, various experts attribute it to ISIS-K, shorthand for ISIS’s Khorasan Province.

ISIS rejects modern state borders and Khorasan is the name of a historical region in Central Asia, comprising parts of today’s northeastern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan. The assumption among experts is that the attack was planned outside of Iran, in Afghanistan or Pakistan, where a power vacuum is allowing the group to proliferate. ISIS-K is estimated to have between 4,000 and 6,000 members, the vast majority of whom are based in Afghanistan.

ISIS-K was founded by disgruntled members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, lured by ISIS’s more extreme version of Islam and promises to unite the Muslim world and wage jihad against infidels.

In January 2015, the group pledged allegiance to Iraqi leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who at the time was heading ISIS at the height of its expansion.

Illustrative photo of men holding up an Islamic State flag. (AFP/Tauseef Mustafa)

Since January 2017, ISIS-K terrorists have carried out hundreds of attacks against security forces and civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including minority Shiite Muslims, according to the Center for International and Strategic Studies. Hundreds were killed in attacks on Shiite mosques.

Shiites are estimated to make up roughly 10 percent of the Afghan population. Many of them are Hazara, an ethnic group that has been persecuted in Afghanistan for decades.

In August 2021, shortly after the US announced the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan at the end of an unsuccessful 20-year counterinsurgency, ISIS-K perpetrated a deadly attack on a Kabul airport that killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 US service members, the deadliest attack on US troops in a decade.

Hostility against other Muslims

The ISIS terror group has a long history of hostility against Shiites. The antagonism stems from a religious dispute over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad dating back to the 7th century CE. ISIS consistently refers to Shiites as “rejectionists” for refuting the authority of the first three successors, or caliphs, and as “apostates” and “polytheists” due to their religious beliefs and practices.

ISIS developed from a splinter of Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch after the American invasion of the country in 2003. In subsequent years, its ranks increased manifold as the group recruited among disaffected Iraqi Sunnis, leveraging their animosity at the Shiite majority that had risen to power in the aftermath of the American invasion and overthrow of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

In 2014, leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque the establishment of the ISIS caliphate, comprising the territories conquered by the group in an area straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.

That same year, the group executed roughly 1,700 unarmed Shiite cadets of the Iraqi army in the Camp Speicher massacre.

Image grab taken on July 5, 2014, from a propaganda video released by ISIS showing the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, addressing Muslim worshipers at a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP)

At its peak, the terror group ruled over a cross-border region the size of Britain. Various Islamist groups from around the Middle East and Africa joined the caliphate and pledged allegiance to its leader, known as the Caliph.

But by December 2017, ISIS had lost 95 percent of its territory, including its capital Raqqa in Syria and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. In early 2019, the terror group suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a US-led international coalition at Baghouz, on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph, was killed in October of that year.

The Islamist terror organization has been in steady decline ever since. Its operatives in Iraq and Syria broke down into cells that went into hiding in the vast deserts of the region.

Today, the terror group is mostly active in various parts of Africa. In Mali, it has managed to exploit the existing power vacuum and double the territory it controls.

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