Attack on Taliban gathering for Loya Jirga in Kabul, ISKP claims responsibility
As photos and videos emerged online in the 24-hours following initial reports of an attack, Afghan Witness investigators were able to use open source techniques to gain a fuller understanding of events.
On June 30 at around 09:30 (BST), explosions and heavy gunfire were reported near the Polytechnic University of Kabul in Police District (PD) 5, where over 3000 religious scholars, including the majority of senior leaders within the Taliban, were gathering for the Loya Jirga of the ulema council.
According to witnesses and videos posted on social media, the explosions were followed by heavy gunfire. AW was able to geolocate footage showing a large Taliban presence and audible gunfire to the main intersection, Kart e Mamureen Square, in front of the Kabul Polytechnic University in PD5.
In the immediate aftermath, while the details of the incident were still unclear, official Taliban sources either denied or played down the severity of the attack, claiming any threat was quickly neutralised.
Ahmadullah Wasiq, Acting Director of Intelligence, responded on Twitter saying that allegations of an attack were an absolute lie, reportedly tweeting from inside the venue. According to Shamshad Network, security officials reported that two armed assailants had tried to enter the building, but that they had been killed by guards. Using the hashtag #scholars_conference, Taliban supporters continued to congratulate Taliban leadership on the Loya Jirga, while claiming that the security was good. Some suggested that ‘western media’ were playing up the incident to detract from the importance of the meeting.
The spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied the severity of the attacks, stating:
“There is no problem around the meeting. Several shots were fired by security forces at a suspicious location. The other situation is control, who doesn’t worry about it. There are no problems around the roundabout. Security forces fired several shots at a suspect, but there were no other concerns.”
Later in the day, a BBC article quoted the spokesman as saying two gunmen had been killed by Taliban, who fired at a suspicious location where a grenade had been launched by attackers.
Further details emerge
Over the course of the next 24-hours, more content surfaced, allowing a fuller understanding and a reconstruction of events.
Images and a video were shared on social media showing three bodies instead of the two previously mentioned. This was confirmed by official statements, with reports [GRAPHIC] citing a Taliban security official as saying: “Taliban Special forces from the interior ministry shot dead 3 attackers who got into a building and wanted to disrupt the gathering.”
According to reports from sources including journalist Bilal Sarwary, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) members had conducted the attack and had prepared well in advance, renting an apartment in a building overlooking the Loya Jirga complex. Sarwary also claimed that at least three Taliban soldiers were killed and one was injured as a result of the fight against the alleged attackers.
Sarwary’s account appears accurate: images of the three deceased alleged attackers were geolocated by AW investigators to the roof of an apartment building, across the street from the Kabul Polytechnic University, where the Loya Jirga hall is located.
The alleged attackers appeared relatively well-equipped. In one of the images of a deceased alleged attacker, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) can be seen lying next to body. It is possible they intended to fire from the roof onto the complex or entrance. The roof is approximately 600 metres from the main event venue.
Other photos [GRAPHIC] taken near the bodies at the top of the apartment building showed explosives and ammunition, including M47 CS grenades and M40 mini-hand-grenades, suggesting they were ready for a confrontation with security forces.
Footage shared by a pro-Taliban Twitter user claimed to show another cache of explosives and ammunition near the Loya Jirga Hall building, supposedly belonging to the attackers. It is not possible to geolocate the video from the filming angle, but it is clearly filmed at ground level. The video was original to the day and not recycled, giving it credibility even if it is not possible to verify.
The video shows a mixture of explosives, such as the M47, also seen next to the body of one of the attackers. There are also OG-7 HE/Frag rockets for a RPG rocket system, specifically designed for use against infantry targets due to its precision and fragmentation, and the RGD-5 Russian-made high-explosive (HE) hand grenades.
While the bodies of the alleged attackers were found on the roof of the building, images shared on social media indicated there had been fighting or an assault on the apartment by security forces to displace the attackers. The heavy damage suggests explosives were used within the building, either by the attackers or potentially the security forces as they stormed the block. One image showed a significant amount of blood on the internal stairs of the apartment block, suggesting the alleged attackers had moved up the building as security forces attacked, with fighting on the stairs before two were killed on the roof and another in the room leading to the roof.
Claims of responsibility
At 09:43 (BST), shortly after the attack had hit the headlines, the National Liberation Front claimed they had orchestrated the attack, releasing a statement on their Facebook page saying:
“Right now, the Special Operations Group of the National Liberation Front attacked the Loya Jirga Hall, where the Taliban terrorist group is going on. The present Taliban held the Jirga without the participation of women, intellectuals, representatives of parties and civil society.”
Less than two hours after the announcement from the National Liberation Front, at 11:14 (BST), a second resistance group, Freedom Corps, also claimed the attack. The Freedom Corps stated:
“This noon, the [Freedom Corps] forces carried out a series of explosions near the tent of the Loya Jirga during the meeting of Taliban scholars. After that, the [Freedom Corps] clashed directly with the Taliban terrorist group. In this organised operation of the [Freedom Corps], heavy losses were inflicted on the terrorist Taliban. Several hours before the start of the operation we also warned the participants of this assembly not to participate in this assembly. Hoping for the victory of the [Freedom Corps]”.
The warning they referred to in the claim stated “To legitimize the Taliban terrorist group, do not gather in the name of the Council of Islamic Scholars. Otherwise, whatever happens to you will be responsible for you. It was up to us to inform!”
Both these claims were treated with a degree of scepticism by Afghan-watchers, who were wary of previous false claims by opposition groups and believed ISKP were the most likely culprits. As expected, on July 1, ISKP claimed responsibility [later backed up by video evidence] in a statement shared on their Telegram channels, stating:
“By the grace of God Almighty, three soldiers of the Caliphate attacked Taliban militia elements while they were guarding a conference of militia leaders in a meeting room in (Kabul) yesterday. The three Mujahideen were stationed on a nearby building and killed two Taliban elements who were liberating the roof of the building. Clashes took place with various weapons, which pushed the militia to bring in planes to repel the attack. The Mujahideen also detonated explosive devices on the militia patrols, which led to the killing and wounding of a number of them, amid the Taliban’s heavy silence on what happened.”
On July 2, Aamaj News, published a video featuring three ISKP members, recorded before the attack. The man holding the camera claimed the video was recorded on June 30 and announced they were planning on attacking the Loya Jirga Hall where the “apostate and infidels are consulting with each other against Muslims”. The clothes and faces/eyes seen in the video are consistent with those of the dead attackers.
At the end of the video one of the attackers approaches the window and shows the street outside the Loya Jirga Hall, leaving little doubt over the legitimacy of ISKP’s claim.
From the available open-source evidence, it is clear ISKP had prepared a well-planned, high-profile attack, moving a well-armed team into the location in advance to evade security set up in the days before the Loya Jirga. Despite the planning and equipment, the attack itself did not achieve its potential and it appears the Taliban’s claims that they had quickly neutralised the threat are broadly true. Nevertheless, the attack has significant propaganda value to ISKP, and undermines the Taliban’s security narrative, showing ISKP can strike at the highest value targets.
The incident follows ISKP attacks on other gatherings of senior Taliban figures in recent months, including a suicide bombing of the event commemorating the Taliban’s former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in late May. This could indicate ISKP will continue to pursue a high-profile attack on senior Taliban leadership.
A second attack on the Loya Jirga took place the following day on 1 July, also claimed by ISKP. AW is working on a detailed report for this incident, which will be published next week.
7 Jul 2022