(HRW) – The attack on a Shia mosque in Kabul claimed by the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) on August 25, 2017, is a serious violation of the laws of war, and an apparent war crime, Human Rights Watch said today. The hours-long attack on the Imam Zaman mosque in the Qala-e Najara neighborhood of northern Kabul killed at least 20 people and wounded at least 30 others, media reports said.
The attackers, reportedly wearing police uniforms, initiated the assault with a grenade attack and then entered the mosque and fired on worshipers. Gun battles continued for several hours. An armed group claiming allegiance to the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) reportedly claimed responsibility.
“An attack on a place of worship during prayers is a horrific crime meant to maximize civilian deaths,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher. “This contemptible act against a religious minority, claimed by ISIS’s Afghan affiliate, is a grim reminder that civilians bear the brunt of Afghanistan’s war.”
The attack is similar to others that ISIS affiliates have committed over the past year targeting Afghanistan’s Shia minority. On August 1, an attack claimed by ISKP on a Shia mosque in Herat killed at least 20 and wounded more than 30. Since July 2016, sectarian suicide attacks have injured or killed hundreds of members of the Shia community in Afghanistan. This wave of attacks on Shia is largely attributable to the emergence of militant groups affiliated with ISIS.
Attacks deliberately targeting civilians in Afghanistan have increased sharply in the past year. In its most recent report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said that it recorded more civilian deaths and injury from suicide and complex attacks in the first half of 2017 than in any previous period. The country’s overall security environment has been worsening in the face of an intensifying insurgency, claiming high levels of civilian casualties as fighting increasingly occurs in densely populated areas.
Under the laws of war, deliberate attacks on civilians or civilian objects such as houses of worship are war crimes. Dressing as civilian police to carry out a military attack is also a war crime. Criminal acts such as murder committed by state security forces or armed groups as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population such as a religious minority are crimes against humanity.
“Insurgents who carry out atrocities against a specific ethnic or religious community are committing war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity,” Gossman said. “All parties to Afghanistan’s conflict should recognize that such grave international crimes may be prosecuted anywhere in the world at any time.”