Around 2,000 Shias in western Afghanistan organised a protest on Tuesday against growing sectarian attacks by the militant Islamic State (IS) group, as the government warned that IS had expanded its foothold into 11 provinces.
Shouting slogans such as “Death to the enemies of Afghanistan!” and “Death to Daesh!”, the Arabic acronym for IS, the protesters in the city of Herat marched to the governor’s office, carrying pictures of Shias killed in recent attacks.
“Daesh attacks on our mosques are increasing everyday. They want to create a rift between Shias and Sunnis,” Qurban Ali, a 40-year-old demonstrator, told AFP. “This is a dangerous trend and we want the government to protect us.”
The rise of IS has raised the spectre of sectarian discord in Afghanistan, something that the country has largely been spared despite decades of war. Until a few months ago, IS was largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar bordering Pakistan, where it is notorious for brutality, including carrying out beheading despite a US-backed offensive against the militant group.
But the government this week said the group was steadily expanding into other provinces.
“Our initial information shows Daesh is behind the recent attacks in Herat. They are expanding and are always looking for new geographical areas,” Najeebullah Mani, head of counter-terrorism at the interior ministry, told reporters in Herat.
“They are present in at least 11 (of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces). Their main goal is to create sectarian divisions between the locals.”
Herat, which borders Iran, has recently witnessed a surge in attacks on the minority group’s mosques.
A prayer leader was killed and five others wounded in one such attack on Sunday. The group did not officially claim responsibility for the assault.
“We will not allow Daesh to make Afghanistan another Syria,” said 30-year-old Jawad, another protester. “The government must come up with a plan to protect Shias.”
Last year Afghanistan witnessed a wave of attacks on the Shia community claimed by IS.
At least 14 Shias were killed in October 2016 in a powerful blast at a mosque in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, hours after gunmen targeted worshippers in a shrine in Kabul and killed 18 people.
In July 2016, the IS militants targeted members of Kabul’s Shia community in a suicide bombing that killed more than 80 people and wounded 130.