Just two days ago, nearly 50 rockets were fired at Kabul’s main airport during a visit by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg. Both the Taliban the Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack.
Friday’s attack on the Shiite mosque took place near the center of Kabul. There was a heavy security presence in the area ahead of the Ashura commemoration, but the attackers managed to reach the gates of the mosque.
Najib Danish, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said five people were killed and 20 others were wounded. Health officials put the number of wounded at more than 30.
The police arrested three suspects at the scene of the explosion, Mr. Danish said.
Witnesses said worshipers, including women and children, ran from the mosque after the blast. In August, after an explosion at the gate of another Shiite mosque in northern Kabul, suicide bombers stormed the building, killing at least 40 people and exchanging fire for hours with Afghan forces.
“I heard a big explosion close to the mosque,” said one witness to Friday’s attack, Ahmad Fawad, 14. “The attacker was posing as a shepherd with sheep, and when he was trying to get to the Shiite mosque those who were providing security asked him to stop and he detonated his suicide vest.”
Two vehicles and several shops were damaged by the blast. Several sheep that were part of the attackers’ ruse were also killed, their bodies scattered near the mosque. Young men in civilian clothing roamed the area with assault rifles.
While Shiites are a religious minority in Afghanistan, a predominantly Sunni nation, they are spread across the country. Dai ul-Haq Abed, the deputy minister for the hajj and religious affairs, said there were about 10,000 Shiite mosques across the country, with about 400 in Kabul alone.
“We are seriously worried about the attacks on Ashura commemorations — in last 24 hours, we had two attacks,” Mr. Abed said. “The police are trying their best to provide better security because there are serious threats. Local people are also armed. But we hope nothing will happen.”
The second attack Mr. Abed refered to happened on Thursday night in the Chindawul area of Kabul, another largely Shiite neighborhood. A sticky bomb attached to a police vehicle killed two police officers and one civilian, and wounded two police officers and 14 civilians, the Interior Ministry said.
Gen. Afzal Aman, commander of the Kabul security garrison, confirmed that the Interior Ministry had distributed a total of about 500 weapons to civilians in Kabul to help them protect mosques. Other officials said even more weapons had been handed out, some of them from the country’s intelligence service.
Security officials in Kunduz and Balkh Provinces also said that the security forces there were on high alert, and that they, too, had armed some local residents to help protect Shiite mosques.
“This year, security will be tighter compared to previous years to let people perform the rituals in peace,” said Zia Durani, the police spokesman in the southern city of Kandahar.