Magazine article The Spectator

Al-Qa'eda's New War

Magazine article The Spectator

Al-Qa'eda's New War

Article excerpt

Sectarian bloodshed, in Afghanistan and Egypt is a tool to thwart democracy

From a distance, the devastating attacks on Shia Muslims in three Afghan cities this week looked like the type of sectarian religious attacks which we got used to in Iraq. The faultline between Sunni and Shia is one of the greatest and most violent in the world, and now and again it divides countries. But in Afghanistan, nothing is ever this simple. For all its woes, it hasn't seen a sectarian religious attack for ten years. And while the Taleban have had their history persecuting the Shia, it is highly unlikely they were responsible. The more likely explanation is less obvious - and even more sinister.

These attacks were intended to kill as many as possible. In Kabul a suicide bomber walking among the crowds detonated his bomb killing at least 54 people and wounding over 150. A similar walking bomber detonated himself in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, killing four and wounding 20, while a third bomb left on a bicycle in a bazaar in Kandahar missed the procession and instead wounded two policemen.

The timing also made a sectarian point.

The attacks took place on the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, the end of Ashura, the holiest ten days in the Shia calendar, when all Muslims, but particularly Shia, commemorate the death of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

The processions wind their way through city streets all day; young men beat themselves with chains as penance, while many thousands of others walk beside them. All easy targets. The bomb in Kabul went off as hundreds of young Shia were singing at the Abu Fazl shrine.

And there was political symmetry too.

The bombs came just a day after the conclusion of an important conference in Bonn where the international community (led by the US and Nato countries) pledged to continue helping Afghanistan for the next decade. The bombings certainly demonstrated the fragile nature of Afghanistan at present, but the Taleban issued a statement to the BBC denying that they were responsible. So who did it, and why?

To understand this requires a little history. Afghan Shia account for no more than a tenth of the population and are largely made up of Hazaras - an ethnic group descended from Genghis Khan and the Mongols.

They live in the poorest region, Hazarajat in the centre of the country and zealously guard the Bamiyan Buddhas - massive statues of Buddha - which the Taleban blew up when it was menacing the Shia in 2001. There are large Hazara populations in Kabul and Mazar. For centuries the Hazaras were treated like slaves by the Pashtun kings of Afghanistan, and they are known for their ability to work hard and their love for education - as well as being extremely moderate Shia.

Between 1992 and 2001 the Hazaras were victims of bloody ethnic massacres first by Tajiks and Uzbeks, who fought each other in the bloody civil war; and they suffered again at the hands of the Pashtun Taleban who set out to conquer the country in 1994 and carried with them an ideological hatred for Shia, regarding them as non-believers.

But the worst massacres of Shia took place in 1998 when Afghan Taleban commanders were supplanted by Arab fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden. They deliberately sought out Hazaras to kill. The Shia-killers - as the Arabs of al-Qa'eda were called - were joined by Pakistani extremists who slew Shia in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But all that really is just history. …

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