A suicide bomber struck a packed mosque in western Afghanistan Friday, killing at least 18 worshippers, including a prominent cleric loyal to the ruling Taliban.
Police officials said the influential slain scholar, Mujibur Rahman Ansari, was leading afternoon prayers at his Guzargah Mosque in the city of Herat, bordering Iran, when the powerful bomb went off.
At least 24 worshippers also were wounded in the attack and the death toll was expected to rise, according to local police and witnesses.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, denounced the fatal attack on Ansari and vowed the perpetrators would be brought to justice. “The country’s courageous and influential scholar was martyred in a brutal cowardly attack,” he said on Twitter.
Ansari had been a vocal critic of the country’s former U.S.-backed governments for allowing Western militaries’ deployment in Afghanistan over the past two decades. He was seen as a strong supporter of the then-insurgent Taliban and had called for the beheading of those opposing the return of the Taliban to power a year ago.
The Taliban took over the conflict-torn country in August 2021 when all U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from the country after almost two decades of war with the insurgents.
There were no immediate claims of responsibly for Friday’s deadly bombing. But the suspicions fell on the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s Afghan branch, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K).
The terror outfit has claimed credit for plotting a series of attacks in recent months against mosques in Afghanistan, killing, among others, high-profile pro-Taliban clerics.
Sunni-based ISIS-K militants, who consider Shiite Muslims to be infidels, also have routinely carried out bombings against places of worship and gatherings of Afghan Shiite minority in the country, killing scores of people.
The Taliban also follow Sunni Islam, the dominant stream in Afghanistan, but they have engaged in intense deadly clashes with ISIS-K since its emergence in Afghanistan in 2015.
Taliban security forces have raided ISIS-K cells in Kabul and elsewhere in the country in recent weeks, claiming they have significantly degraded the group’s ability to launch major attacks.