War & Peace

Speculation Abounding: Trying to make sense of the attacks against Shias in Herat city


Afghan volunteers carry victims at the scene of a motorcycle bomb explosion in front of the Jami Mosque in Herat on June 6, 2017. (Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP)

Afghan volunteers carry victims at the scene of a motorcycle bomb explosion in front of the Jami Mosque (Grand Mosque) in Herat on 6 June 2017. (Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP)

Herat – the generally safe and prosperous city in western Afghanistan – has seen a series of attacks against Shia religious figures and sites, especially since 2016. Fieldwork shows there is little empirical evidence as to who the perpetrators are or why they carried out these attacks. Based on conversations with Shia and Sunni activists, AAN researcher Said Reza Kazemi reviews the incidents, puts them in the context of Herat’s changing population and presents the main different theories as to who and what is behind them. Specifically, he discusses an increasing rivalry between Shia and Sunni hardliners at the local level and the linkages to regional developments, including the war in Syria and the broader Iranian-Saudi rivalry. He notes that, at least in the foreseeable future, existing Shia-Sunni solidarity in Herat makes sectarian conflict there very unlikely.

Attacks on religious figures and sites

The city of Herat has witnessed an array of mostly small-scale attacks against Shias, particularly since 2016. The targets of these attacks – religious leaders, mosques and worshippers – show that they are deliberate. They have targeted the heart of the local Shia religious community by disrupting and wanting to provoke it, thereby crossing one of the last ‘red lines’ of violent conflict in Afghanistan.

This author has recorded the following chronological list of attacks against Shias in and around Herat city from November 2014 onwards: (1)

  • 13 November 2014: Two men on a motorcycle shot dead Sheikh Azizullah Najafi, an influential Shia cleric and former member of the Herat Provincial Council. In his funeral procession two days later, thousands of Herat residents including notably both Shias and Sunnis protested in front of the Provincial Governor’s Office and demanded the arrest of those behind this assassination. The then provincial governor, Fazlullah Wahidi, told the demonstrators that the provincial government would arrest the perpetrators within three days. The following day (16 November), the then Herat police spokesman, Abdul Rauf Ahmadi, reported the police had arrested six suspected people – a statement that was rejected by the then police security director, Aminullah Azad, the day after (see here). This resulted in a dispute between the provincial governor and the police security director, with the former alleging the latter had corruptly handled the case.
  • 22 November 2016: A blast in Rezaiya Mosque, a Shia mosque in the Ghor Darwaz area in the north of Herat city, injured four people including the mullah imam (mosque leader) named Mustafa Rohani. The explosion took place during evening prayer.
  • 8 December 2016: 50-year-old Sheikh Abdul Wahed Saberi, the mullah imam of Muhammadiya Mosque, a Shia mosque in Baghche-ye Mustaufi in Police District (PD) 9 of Herat city, was assassinated by two men on a motorbike. The mullah imam was shot in the head while going from his home to the mosque. The assassins escaped. Previous to this incident, armed men killed Sayyed Yunus Alawi, a Shia cleric, on his way home after evening prayer.
  • 1 January 2017: An explosion in the vicinity of Imam Muhammad Baqer Mosque, a Shia mosque in Pul-e Bagh-e Zubaida in the Darb-e Iraq area of Herat city, wounded six people including a woman. One of the injured, the mosque leader Mullah Ramazan Sarwari died afterwards in hospital. The blast took place next to the mosque wall after evening prayer (see pictures of this attack here).
  • 19 January 2017: A blast in Abul Fazl Mosque, a Shia mosque in Jebrail area in PD 13 of Herat city, destroyed many parts of the mosque. There were no deaths or injuries.
  • 11 April 2017: There was an explosion in the vicinity of Saheb ul-Zaman Mosque, located in PD 7 of Herat city. The explosives, carried on a motorcycle, killed one person and injured two others including a woman. It is thought the explosives went off prematurely before the motorbike reached the mosque.
  • 6 June 2017: A blast near the northern gate of the Grand Mosque, Herat’s ancient mosque situated near the Office of the Provincial Police Chief in the city centre, killed at least seven people and injured at least 16 others including influential Shia clerics. Among the killed were Hujjat ul-Islam Fayyaz, head of the Shia ulama council in Injil district of Herat province, and Hujjat ul-Islam Karimi, manager of the Rasul-e Azam Madrasa in Jebrail area of Herat city. Sheikh Musa Rezai, head of the Herat Shia ulama council, was severely wounded. The explosion happened while a funeral ceremony was under way in the Grand Mosque.
  • 1 August 2017: So far the worst attack in Herat, two suicide bombers stormed the fully-packed Jawadiya Mosque, a Shia mosque in Bekrabad neighbourhood of Herat city, during evening prayer. They began shooting at the worshippers and then blew themselves up, killing at least 34 people and injuring dozens of others (see the mosque after the attack here). Afterwards, local protests broke out with angry people throwing stones at a nearby police station and later setting it on fire. They alleged that the policemen were the first to escape the area when the incident happened. A later demonstration was attended by thousands of Herat residents, both Shias and Sunnis. The demonstrators criticised the Afghan government for failing to provide security for religious sites and figures. Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for this attack.
  • 5 March 2018: Two suicide bombers attacked Nabi Akram Mosque, a Shia mosque located in Bazar-e Lelami area in downtown Herat. They were challenged by security guards who opened fire on them. One of the two suicide attackers was killed. The second detonated his explosives, killing at least one person and injuring eight others. ISKP said it carried out the attack.
  • 23 June 2018: Armed men killed Sheikh Jafar Tawakkoli on his way home from mosque after prayer in the 64-Metre Road area of Herat city. Sheikh Tawakkoli was an important local Shia cleric: he owned a local radio station called Hekmat (Wisdom), represented Ayatollah Hakim, an influential Shia ayatollah based in Iraq, and was a member of the Shia ulamacouncil (see reporting here).
  • 21 September 2018: The police and mosque guards prevented an attempt to attack worshippers in a Shia mosque in Injil district close to Herat city. Two attackers were arrested carrying rifles and riding motorbikes. One was injured in the clash with the police and mosque guards.

A changing population

Attacks on religious figures and sites are a new phenomenon in Herat (read previous AAN analysis on the start of such violence in post-2001 Afghanistan). In Herat where Sunnis and Shias have coexisted and intermingled peacefully for long, the incidents have shocked the overwhelming majority of the local population.

To make sense of these attacks, one needs to bring in the wider social context. The population of Herat city has been changing over the last couple of decades, especially since 2001. A greater Shia segment is the main feature of this demographic change. Repatriation from neighbouring Iran and displacement from central provinces of the country have increased the numbers of Shias that have settled in and around Herat city, building homes and mosques in new settlements. The change in demographics has led to greater Shia assertiveness, which in turn has led to sensitivity among some Sunnis.

It is thus not difficult to come across Shia and Sunni hardliners in and around Herat city. They reduce deep-rooted and longstanding local Shia-Sunni interactions to an incessant and potentially violent struggle for supremacy. One example from each side should suffice here.

When getting out of the Sadeqiya Seminary, the principal Shia Muslim religious organisation in downtown Herat, after a visit in August 2014, a talaba(religious student) pointed to a minaret that was being raised to increase its visibility from across the city. “The Sunnis cannot stand to see our tall minaret, the mosque that is being built behind it and the development of the Sadeqiya in general,” he told this author. This was while, he alleged, “They have themselves built a huge complex with Saudi money,” referring to the huge size and development of the Ghiasiya Seminary, the Sunni counterpart of the Sadeqiya, in the east of the city.

There is a similar thinking on the part of local Sunni hardliners. The author encountered a rickshaw driver in October 2016, who was upset by increasing Shia assertiveness especially during the mourning month of Muharram in 2016 when they carry out their religious rituals in mosques and other places of worship and get out onto the streets in large numbers towards the climax of the rituals (read our dispatch on the last Muharram in 2018). He revealed his strong anti-Shia leanings with unsolicited remarks, saying, “What have the Shias become? Who do they think they are? Look at what they are doing in the city. They have closed the roads for their nonsense mourning. I would be pleased if a suicide bomber attacked them or someone detonated explosives among them.”

Some local Sunnis think the Iranian government has intentionally supported the Shia population increase in Herat. They accuse Iran of carrying out a “policy of changing Herat’s population fabric in favour of Shias” with a view to promoting “Iran’s soft power and revolutionary Shiism” in Herat and in Afghanistan more generally (see pages 48-50 of this paper). They hold that, aided by Sayyed Hussain Anwari, a Shia Hazara who served as Herat provincial governor from 2005 to 2009, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC), a key Iranian charity organisation, has provided “non-indigenous Shias in Herat with development assistance and interest-free loans” to encourage the development of settlements that now encircle the city of Herat (see also here and here). “Seen from the view of Sunni hardliners,” Abdul Qadir Salehi, a leading local Sunni activist, told AAN, “it is like what Israel is doing in occupied Palestinian territories.”

Iran’s role in local Shia affairs and the fact that it sees Herat as its buffer zone in Afghanistan cannot be ignored (read about it in this publication), but seeing all recent Shia settlements as entirely engineered by the western neighbour is hard to marry up with the reality of life for Afghan returnees, said Ali Ahmad Jebraili, an influential local Shia leader. “Razavi Khorasan [Iran’s north-eastern province bordering Herat] does not give Afghan returnees money to buy and own lands and build houses in Herat. They even take money from the returnees for leaving Iran under what they call municipal fees.” However, Jebraili did admit that the concentration of Shia newcomers in settlements circling the city of Herat was “a cause of concern for some Sunnis, especially their hardliners.”

A distinction is made by both local Shias and Sunnis between the recent Shia settlers, who are mostly Hazara, and what are called ‘the indigenous Shias of Herat’ who are Farsiwan, ie Persian speakers with a Herati Dari dialect. Salehi, the Sunni activist quoted above, said that the indigenous Shias were “not the problem” because they and local Sunnis were related through longstanding family, business and other ties over the years. It was the recent Hazara settlers, he said, who made some local Sunnis sensitive by their increased presence and the settlements they constructed around the city.

From a technical urban development perspective, the way recent Shia settlers and IDPs have built their places to live does not seem to have had a specific ethno-political agenda. Many of their settlements are informal and thus unplanned. Research shows that such settlements across the country, including in Herat, have arisen because of “the extremely limited absorption capacity of major urban areas and the lack of affordable formal settlement solutions for many city dwellers, i.e., migrants and refugees and their families” (see page 15 of this paper).

Nevertheless, the changing demographics has built up some tension, especially between hardliners in both Shia and Sunni camps, which in turn may have contributed to the range of attacks against Shias in and around Herat city. It may also have contributed to the conjectures that Heratis make and the narratives they tell about who is attacking Shias and why.

Four theories as to why Herati Shias have been attacked 

Few people in Herat city want to talk about or investigate the recent attacks against Shias, at least publicly. There is one obvious reason: almost all are afraid of the potential security implications. Shias in particular fear that raising the issue could put them in danger by singling them out for more attacks in the future – either individually or as a community. Both Shias and Sunnis may also fear that by paying too much attention to the violence, it may become entrenched.

The Herat provincial authorities have in practice done and achieved very little, despite publicly assuring Shia and Sunni protesters that they are serious about arresting the culprits for prosecution. “The government has thus far just informed us about the prosecution of a 21-year-old man,” Jebraili told AAN. “He is accused of having provided board and lodging and motorbikes for the perpetrators of the attacks on the Jawadiya Mosque and the Grand Mosque in summer 2017. He has been sentenced to death. That youth doesn’t look very criminal to us. Nothing else has been done by the government to address the incidents.”

So the strategy both for most people and the government has been to let time pass and hope no further incidents like the ones listed above occur. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Shia and Sunni residents of Herat have felt great relief that there have been no new attacks, since late September 2018.

However, speculation about the attacks abounds. Four theories are presented here. The first three focus on domestic aspects and the last relates to regional dimensions, although there is significant overlap between them. 

The first theory is that the attacks, or at least some of them, have been perpetrated by local insurgents affiliated to ISKP, as this group has itself claimed responsibility for at least two of the attacks listed above. Many Shia youth from Herat have gone to fight on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and its backer Iran, in the war in Syria (read this author’s previous dispatch). ISKP might have thus resorted to carrying out disparate attacks to take revenge on Shias in Herat for the involvement of some of their members in the war in Syria. At the same time, ISKP might have tried to show that its reach is not restricted only to eastern Afghanistan, Nangrahar province in particular (read previous AAN analysis on ISKP in Afghanistan here and here).

Blaming ISKP for each and every attack, however, conceals internal religious dynamics that may have contributed to the attacks. The second theory therefore points to the growing radicalisation in Herat, particularly among some sections of Sunnis (and some groups of Shias), that may be driving the anti-Shia violence. In his typology of religious trends in contemporary Herat, (2) Abdul Kabir Salehi, a researcher writing for the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS), describes the increasing activity of Sunni religious groups (see pages 30-31, 44-45, 58, 65-67 and 71 of his paper). He has given the following five examples, the first and, to some extent, the fifth are part of regular Sunni religious practice, while the second to the fourth concern more hardline ones:

  • The Herat branch of Tablighi Jamaat (a largely South Asian Sunni missionary movement focusing on return to what it sees as ‘original Sunni Islam’) held a three-day congress in Herat in October 2017 that was attended by over 35,000 people, potentially making it “one of the most influential social groups in Herat.”
  • The Herat High Seminary (Dar ul-Ulum-e ’Ali-ye Herat), connected to Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and run by Mawlawi Jalilullah Mawlawizada and his five sons, has become increasingly politically active. Mawlawizada was a top justice official in the Taleban regime. In July 2017, the seminary declared Ahmad Zia Rafat, a Herati poet, lecturer in Kabul University and former member and spokesman of Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaint Commission (ECC), an apostate for what it regarded as his “sacrilegious poetry” (see also here). In August 2017, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) office in Herat, moreover, arrested what it called “two terrorists” from inside this seminary (see also here). On 17 April 2018, the seminary gathered about 500 ulama from across Afghanistan to announce that they would boycott the 20 October 2018 parliamentary elections if foreign forces did not withdraw from Afghanistan unconditionally and the heads of the National Unity Government did not apologise for an aerial operation on a religious gathering in Dasht-e Archi district of Kunduz province and hold its perpetrators accountable (read AAN analysis of this incident here). (3) These ulama did not say a word about the growing attacks against Shias in Herat, where their gathering was held.
  • The Gazergah Mosque has become a major venue for Wahhabi Salafism in Herat city, a religious trend called “the road-opener for takfiri jihadists” by Salehi (see page 57 of this paper). According to Salehi’s description, the mosque is run by Mawlawi Mujib ul-Rahman, who often travels to Saudi Arabia, and his younger brother, who have turned it into a platform for “violent and fiery speeches against Afghanistan’s national interests and security.” In addition to this mosque, Mawlawi Mujib ul-Rahman is working with “Saudi-financed Persian-language TV channels to promote Salafism and provide violent religious teachings,” according to Salehi. Mawlawi Mujib ul-Rahman himself escaped an assassination attempt in November 2018 (see this media report).
  • Hardliners have also come to dominate the “intra-paradigm dialogue” in the Herat branch of Jamiat-e Eslah, says Salehi, pushing out moderates such as he himself (for background details on Jamiat-e Eslah, see this AAN paper). The dialogue, which was mostly conducted through a monthly publication called Mahname-ye Marefat (Knowledge Monthly), dealt with the extent to which “modern values and institutions such as human rights, democracy, pluralism, elections, the rule of law and women’s political participation” were compatible with their interpretations and understandings of Islam.
  • Hezb ut-Tahrir (an international, pan-Islamist political organisation that promotes the re-establishment of the Islamic caliphate) has become increasingly popular among students in Herat University (see also this paper on radicalisation among some university students in Herat).

Several Shias, including the hardliner ones, told AAN that they thought the greater radicalisation among some locally active Sunni groups had been the source of attacks against members of their religious denomination in Herat. This allegation was rejected by several Sunnis who spoke to AAN. In a similar fashion, they regarded increasing radicalisation among some Shias, especially the ones attending seminaries in or supported by Iran or taking part in the war in Syria as mobilised by Iran, as responsible for provoking the attacks that have been perpetrated against the Shia population in Herat. 

Thirdly, there is speculation that increased political party rivalry may have played a role in some of these incidents, particularly in the context of the previous parliamentary and upcoming presidential elections. One observer, Ali Mousavi, speculated that these incidents could have been “the deadly and bloody outcome of hard and expanding retaliatory acts between rival and hostile ethno-political groups, including Jamiat-e Islami, Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [both mainly Sunni] and different Hezb-e Wahdat factions [all mainly Shia] in Herat province” (see here). This observer linked the incidents, in particular, to the re-entry of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami into the power game in the western province, since their leader’s return in May 2017. However, this speculation is very weak as it fails to explain why and how this might have led to targeting of mosques, religious leaders and worshippers. It would not be easy for these organisations to justify this type of violence, even to their members and sympathisers.

Nevertheless, the existence of ethnically-inspired political rivalry may be further exacerbated by the recent arrival in and around Herat city of what the daily newspaper Hasht-e Sobh says are “one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Farah, Ghor, Badghis and some southern provinces” (4) many of whom are Sunni Pashtuns. There are mounting concerns among many Heratis about the change these newcomers might make to provincial public life. Some local residents told AAN they feared there may be an organised policy to settle Pashtuns in the city in order to destabilise it, just as Farah had been destabilised as a result of Taleban attacks on the provincial centre (read our previous dispatch on insecurity in Farah city here). However, many of these IDPs have fled either war or drought, or both, in their provinces and taken refuge in Herat; changing the sectarian demographics of the city must surely be very far from their thoughts or intentions.

Lastly, there is perennial speculation about what the ramifications of the Iranian-Saudi, Shia-Sunni rivalry for security in Herat might be and whether it may be driving the recent wave of attacks against Shias. Some Shias and Sunnis, especially their hardliners, see any development or prosperity of ‘the other’ as a deliberate act of the opposing regional rival, either Iran or Saudi Arabia (as seen in the remarks of the religious student discussing the size of various religious buildings in the city, quoted earlier in this piece). Such thinking extends to the regional level with Iranians seeing the attacks against Afghan Shias, as part of a broader Saudi strategy to strengthen its Sunni allies, scare the Shia population out of and increase its influence in Herat and the wider western region of Afghanistan. Its ultimate aim would be to encircle and hurt Iran (read such an Iranian analysis here). A similar perception is held by the Saudis about what it considers Iran’s interventionism in its own sphere of influence, in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen and, of course, Afghanistan (for details, see here). According to researcher Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, both Iran and Saudi Arabia would prefer a government in Herat, and Afghanistan more broadly, that is “friendly to their interests at best, or in the worst case scenario – a renewal of civil war – to protect their interests, investments, and even territories” (see page iv of this PRIO paper).

Conclusion: more solidarity than conflict

There is hardly any empirical evidence as to who the perpetrators of the attacks were and what motives they might have been pursuing. This means there is little to go on when trying to substantiate whether or not any of this speculation might be the ‘real reason’ behind the attacks on Herat’s Shias. Nonetheless, at least three points can be made. 

First, the changing population in Herat and regional dynamics and conflicts have harmed local Shia-Sunni relations by making some Shias assertive and some Sunnis sensitive. In particular, the fact that some Shias, mostly Hazara newcomers, have gone to fight for Assad’s government in Syria, may have singled out the entire local Shia population as targets of resentment and outright attacks, particularly by ISKP.

Second, many locals from both sects feel that hardliners on both sides should be restrained, fearing that, if not, they will only tighten their grip on the practicing adherents of the two religious sects. In fact, the majority of Sunnis in Herat are moderate and tolerant, as are most Shias. In a conversation with AAN, Mawlawi Kababiyani, a well-regarded local Sunni cleric, said that prominent Sunni leaders such as his close colleague Mawlawi Khodadad Saleh, the influential head of the ulama council in Afghanistan’s western region, had time and again stressed the need for moderation, restraint and sustaining the unity of Sunnis and Shias, not just in Herat but beyond. (5) Another local Sunni cleric, Mawlawi Abdul Muqtader, told AAN, “I am 50 years old and in all this time I have witnessed good relations between Sunnis and Shias in Herat and across the country. They visit each other and eat each other’s food at home, have joint businesses and are even tied in family relations.” Similar calls for continued Shia-Sunni solidarity have been made by leading Shia leaders. “During the funeral procession of the late Sheikh Tawakkoli, I made it clear to all those attending, particularly our youth, that there is and should be no space for retaliation,” influential Shia leader Jebraili emphasised in his conversation with AAN. The moderate Sunni and Shia religious leaders and the public at large in Herat are therefore increasingly concerned about the need to restrain hardliners on both sides and prevent any escalation in sectarian tension.

Third, and perhaps most important, it is far too early to speak of a sectarian conflict in Herat. The attacks seen in the city have, apart from the one on the Jawadiya Mosque, been small-scale. Population movements, everywhere, very often create tension. In Herat’s case, however, the tension and the attacks have to be seen against the backdrop of deep-rooted, longstanding cordial ties between the majority of local Shias and Sunnis, which continue to exist. This means, as well, that on the whole both communities continue to staunchly believe that clashing with the other is in no one’s interest.

Edited by Sari Kouvo, Thomas Ruttig, Kate Clark and Martine van Bijlert

(1) The author has compiled this list by crosschecking personal observations, informal interviews and media reports. The list could be incomplete, because there may have been incidents that have not come to the author’s notice. However, the list does cover the major attacks against Shias in Herat city, particularly since 2016.

(2) Salehi presents the following typology of religious trends in contemporary Herat (see page 5 of this paper):

  1. Traditional conservative
  2. Traditional Hanafism
  3. Traditional Shiism
  4. Tablighi Jamaat
  5. Sufi orders
  • Political Islam trends:
  • Deobandi Hanafism
  • Revolutionary Shiism
  • Salafism
  • Muslim Brotherhood
  • Hizb ut-Tahrir
  • New religious thinking (an approach that challenges classic understandings of Islam to establish a connection between religious teachings and modern requirements)

(3) Hasht-e Sobhdaily newspaper, 18 April 2018, page 7.

(4) See Hasht-e Sobh daily newspaper, 11 September 2018, pages 6 and 8. See also this report by The Killid Group, a media organisation, which is also active in Herat.

(5) There was an assassination attempt on Mawlawi Saleh himself during a Friday congregational prayer in Herat’s Grand Mosque in October 2016 which was condemned by both Shia and Sunni leaders.

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