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Blast kills 21 in Kabul mosque, including influential cleric

People gather on Aug. 18 for the funeral of a victim of an attack at a mosque in Kabul. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

KABUL — A bomb blast at a mosque in north Kabul killed 21 people, including children and a prominent cleric, Taliban officials and residents said Thursday.

The attack struck Wednesday night during evening prayers. No group has claimed responsibility, but the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan has claimed similar attacks in recent months.

Thirty-three others were injured, Kabul police spokesman Khalid Zadran told The Washington Post. Eyewitnesses at the mosque and a nearby graveyard estimated the death toll to be higher. One NGO-run hospital reported receiving 27 injured people Wednesday night, including five children.

Celebration, uncertainty and fear grip Kabul one year on

The bombing is a blow to Taliban leadership, which boasted earlier this week of the increased security the group has brought to Kabul and the rest of the country. Monday marked one year since Taliban fighters took control of the capital, and while security has improved for most Afghans, the Islamic State remains active and lethal.

Past attacks claimed by the group have targeted Taliban members, places of worship and Afghan minority groups. Last week, a prominent Taliban cleric was killed by a suicide bomber in a Kabul seminary.

By Thursday morning, Taliban fighters had blocked off the blast site in Kabul’s Khair Khana neighborhood.

“The killers and perpetrators of the blast will be arrested soon and will be punished,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said in a tweet condemning the bombing.

For years, the Taliban maintained security in the parts of Afghanistan it controlled with a mix of effective intelligence networks, intimidation and harsh, often public punishments. But it’s unclear if the group’s approach will remain successful when applied countrywide, especially in cities.

In north Kabul, residents said the cleric who was killed, Amir Mohammad Kabuli, was well known, but not closely associated with any group.

Kabuli “was a great Islamic preacher and always spoke the truth,” said one resident of the neighborhood where the attack occurred. “I am not sure who targeted Mawlawi or why,” he said, using the cleric’s honorific.

The man spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Taliban sends hundreds of fighters to eastern Afghanistan to wage war against Islamic State

The Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan is the only group that has posed a sustained threat to the Taliban’s grip on security, though its fighters no longer control territory as they did before a massive U.S.-led operation in 2019 that pushed the group out of the country’s eastern province of Nangahar.

Taliban authorities have repeatedly pledged to crush the group, employing harsh tactics in areas where it is most active. But some reports indicate the Taliban’s approach may only be fueling Islamic State recruitment since the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.