The String of ISIS Attacks That Killed Three Generations of One Afghan Family

Over two weeks, the Rajabis suffered loss after loss as suicide attacks on Shiite mosques in two parts of the country ravaged their family.

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — When Masooma Rajabi saw her relatives flooding into the family’s courtyard, she broke down in sobs.

Her family had congregated there twice over the past two weeks: First to mourn the loss of her husband, who had been killed in a suicide attack on a Shiite mosque in northern Afghanistan, and then again after another blast ripped through a Shiite mosque in Kandahar, killing her father-in-law and lodging shrapnel in the skull of her 15-year-old son, Maisam.

She had clung to hope that Maisam would recover. But now, seeing her husband’s cousins and her mother quietly weeping, Masooma knew she had lost him, too.

“How is this possible?” asked Masooma, 32, burying her face in her damp head scarf.

For decades, violence has torn through Afghanistan’s Shiite community, perpetuated first by the Taliban — who consider Shiites heretics — and in more recent years by the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K.

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An imam gave a sermon during a ceremony last month at Bibi Fatima Mosque in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for people killed in a bombing there.

When the Taliban, hard-line Sunni Muslims, seized power in August, they vowed to end decades of bloodshed and sought to reassure Afghan Shiites that they would not again be their targets, as they were during the group’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001. This time around, the Taliban have allowed Shiites to observe the holy holiday of Ashura; they dispatched a Shiite cleric to do outreach in Shiite communities; they visited Shiite mosques to demonstrate solidarity and they vowed that the new government would keep them safe.

But two suicide bombings by ISIS-K at mosques in October, which together killed more than 90 people and injured hundreds of others, stoked fears that in fact the Taliban would allow the Islamic State’s campaign against Afghan Shiites to go unchecked. The attacks also fueled concerns in neighboring Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy and self-proclaimed defender of Shiite Muslims around the world, where officials have voiced concerns about the fate of Afghan Shiites under Taliban rule and the threat of a resurgent ISIS-K launching attacks on Iranian soil.

Now many Afghan Shiites fear the beginning of a new brutal chapter, one in which their security depends on the very movement that once targeted them.

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After the Bibi Fatima Mosque ceremony, a man sobbed at the sight of sandals belonging to his father, who had been killed.

Few understand that devastating new reality more than Masooma and her family. In the span of just two weeks, she and her relatives lost a grandfather, father and son — three generations of Afghan men who spent most of their lives in a country at war but died after the bloodshed was meant to be over.

“When the Taliban became in power, we were not expecting these things,” said Masooma’s uncle-in-law, Abdul Raziq Rajabi, 50, the morning after Maisam died. “But I can’t say now whether the Taliban will support our people or not.”

After the attack, an uneasy quiet enveloped their neighborhood of mud brick houses stitched together with narrow alleyways and electric wires dangling overhead. It is one of a handful of Shiite districts in Kandahar, the Pashtun heartland of the country. Some Shiites there are Hazara — an ethnic minority that has been persecuted for centuries — who migrated to the southern city for work or to flee violence. Others have lived in the south for hundreds of years.

Masooma’s father-in-law, Haji Nematullah Rajabi, 60, migrated from the central province of Ghazni to Kandahar nearly half a century ago and lived a comfortable life in the relative calm of the city. He started selling agricultural equipment, married his wife, Sughra, and eventually had a daughter and two sons.

Ezzatullah Rajabi, 33, Sughra and Nematullah’s son, married Masooma and they had three boys of their own. They moved to Kunduz, an economic hub of northern Afghanistan. The move made sense to expand the family business but terrified Ezzatullah’s mother. After the Taliban briefly seized the city in 2015 and 2016, Sughra called every week begging him to return to Kandahar.

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Sughra and Masooma Rajabi mourned at home in Kandahar. In just two weeks, their family lost a grandfather, a father and a son.

Still, when the Taliban began their military offensive last summer, even Ezzatullah was on edge. After the group seized power and offered public pledges to protect Afghan Shiites, who make up 10 to 20 percent of the country’s population, Ezzatullah said his fears dissipated.

Then on Oct. 8 an Islamic State suicide attack devastated Ezzatullah’s mosque in Kunduz, killing at least 43 people.

Masooma heard the explosion and sprinted to the mosque, knowing her husband had gone there to pray. She scoured the bodies being carried out in bloody scarves, looking for him. The next morning, Nematullah arrived from Kandahar and found Ezzatullah’s body — his limbs bent like a rag doll — in a hospital morgue. Seeing him, Nematullah nearly collapsed.

The family returned to Kandahar to bury Ezzatullah and the following Friday — determined to show his unwavering faith — Nematullah went to his mosque to pray. He called Masooma three times that morning asking her to send his oldest grandson, Maisam, to join him.

Masooma relented. But around 1 p.m., she heard another blast — this time from two suicide bombers who barged into the mosque during Friday prayers. The explosion left bodies scattered across bloodstained carpets. Dazed survivors poured out of the building through broken windows, while others looked for loved ones.

Nematullah’s surviving son, Ahmad Zia, found him among the bodies — his right side bloodied, eyes closed and barely able to speak — and then spotted Maisam, whose head was wrapped in a bloodied scarf. He brought them both to the hospital, where Maisam was put on life support and Nematullah died — one of at least 47 people killed that day.

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Maisam Rajabi, right, in a Kandahar hospital bed. Relatives of the boy in the other bed helped to keep him breathing.

The attack on Bibi Fatima Mosque was ISIS-K’s first in Kandahar, the Taliban’s historic stronghold, and it shocked the Shiite community there. For many, the week that followed was a blur of funerals and mourning. In one Shiite neighborhood, mourners poured into a cemetery for bombing victims each day, whispering prayers at the row of fresh graves.

By the cemetery gate, talk of security consumed a group of men as they passed around a pot of tea. The new, untested government could not confront the resurgent threat from ISIS-K, some said. Others questioned the Taliban’s professed intentions to protect Afghan Shiites — even wondering whether some Talibs might see the recent attacks as an invitation to freely kill Shiites.

“The Taliban are just saying they are trying to keep our security, but why should we believe them?” asked Khalil, 36, staring at the graves.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.

How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict. Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.

For Shiite community leaders, the implication of the bombing was clear: It was time to take security back into their own hands. Days after the attack, they met with Taliban officials at the mosque — the air still heavy with the smell of charred flesh — and demanded that the new government return seized weapons to the roughly 40 Shiite places of worship in Kandahar.

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Women mourned at the graves of people killed in the Kandahar mosque bombing.

The Taliban agreed to return up to three weapons to every Shiite mosque and offered compensation to families of the bombing victims.

“It is the right not only of the Shia’s nation, but the right of all Kandahar’s people to be secure,” Haji Mullah Abdul Ghafar Mohammadi 41, the Taliban police chief in Kandahar, said in an interview.

But weeks later, the Taliban had still not yet returned the weapons — prompting some Shiite leaders to take matters into their own hands.

As men poured into Bibi Fatima Mosque the following Friday, two men with Kalashnikov rifles manned the entrance, while plainclothes security guards kept watch from behind nearby shop counters. Others were perched on nearly every roof in the vicinity, their bodies hunched over and weapons aimed at the pavement below.

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An armed guard searched worshipers at the entrance to Bibi Fatima Mosque.

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Still, many remained on edge. At the Rajabi family home, Ezzatullah’s brother, Ahmad Zia, planned to go to the mosque, but his mother would not allow it.

“He is the only son I have left,” his mother, Sughra, said quietly.

He offered her a pained look, Maisam’s condition heavy on his mind. For the past week, the boy had been hospitalized, intubated and unconscious. Eleven relatives had taken shifts squeezing an old manual oxygen pump to keep him alive.

When Ahmad Zia went back to the hospital that night, the doctors gave him the news he feared: Maisam was brain-dead.

The next morning, the family gathered for the now well-rehearsed ritual of death. Relatives visited the family home, prayed at the mosque and took Maisam’s body to the cemetery to bury him, right beside his father and grandfather.

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Posters of Nematullah, Ezzatullah and Maisam Rajabi were displayed during Maisam’s funeral at the family’s home.

Wali Arian contributed reporting from Istanbul.

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