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A drug bust was marred by a suicide bombing in Kabul. Was it ISIS, or the ‘mafia’?

Nawid and Ziarmal Hotak hold pictures of their brother, Engineer Hotak, 22, who was killed in a police raid in the Banayee neighborhood of Kabul on Thursday. (Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

Late Thursday night, yet another suicide bombing rocked Afghanistan's beleaguered capital, claiming the lives of more than a dozen police officers. Reporters waited for one of the usual suspects — the Taliban or Islamic State — to claim it, and the latter eventually did. But Afghans familiar with the timing and location of the attack did a double take.

The blast occurred in Banayee, a poor mud-brick urban village fronted by a line of shops well known to Kabul residents for selling black-market booze, narcotics and weaponry, and controlled by a locally powerful Pashtun clan. It had been immediately preceded by an unusually fierce drug bust by the city police, in which a young man was killed and many others detained. 

The raid drew members of the Hotak clan onto a major highway, where, seething in anger over the death of a baby-faced 22-year-old who went by the name Engineer, they shouted: "You kill us! You detain us! Who will listen to us?"

The spontaneous demonstration clogged traffic for miles around. Riot police were called in, and by 9 p.m., they had cordoned off the area from three sides, leaving only the side facing Banayee's shops open. Police officials say it is from that direction that the suicide bomber approached a contingent of their men, taking his and their lives in a ball of fire. 

"This was unexpected," said Maj. Gen. Mohammed Salem Ehsas, Kabul's police chief. "We must now investigate whether the bomber came from among them — that this was revenge."

Ehsas, like other Kabul residents, was immediately skeptical of the Islamic State claim of responsibility. While the group has a regional affiliate that he acknowledges is behind many of the city's most ghastly attacks, he doubted its operatives could react quickly enough to target such sudden police activity. Instead, he thinks the attack could be payback — not for the killing of Engineer Hotak, but for the confiscation of a huge cache of illicit goods. 

On Thursday, he said, police had found two kilograms of heroin, three of opium, more than 500 tablets of ecstasy, hundreds of liters of alcohol — much of it homemade and stored in water bottles and buckets — and guns and grenades.

"Their so-called demonstration on the road was just a typical obstruction technique aimed at preventing us from entering farther into their village," Ehsas said. "That is perhaps what stopped us from finding the explosive vests that we suspect they possess and sell."

As for Hotak's death, Ehsas expressed no regret, and said his elder brother, Hossein, who is in custody, was a ringleader. 

On Saturday, anger simmered in Banayee. Hotak and Hossein's brothers, Nawid and Ziarmal, stood outside their shuttered shops with white envelopes in hand, stuffed with photocopies of pictures of their slain sibling. Their clan's shura, or council, was gathered in a trash-strewn field behind the shops, sitting on red banquet hall chairs assembled in rows. At no point did anyone there acknowledge currently selling illicit goods, even if some muttered that they had in the past.

"They came to our home, spewed bullets everywhere, shot my brother in his neck and dragged him out while he was bleeding to death. He was innocent! Unarmed! They shot him in the neck without even a warning shot for him to surrender," said Nawid, beset by rageful tears. "Does anything like this ever happen in your country?"

In their family home, the upstairs living room carpet was still soaked with blood. A metal door was kicked in, and the walls were pocked by shallow holes where bullets must have hit as they ricocheted around the small room. Hotak's blood was smeared down the staircase leading to the front door.

To the Hotaks, the suicide bombing was incidental, a militant group taking advantage of a coalescence of cops. The police display of confiscated goods? An elaborate setup. The real story, they say, is the corruption and politicization of Kabul's police. 

Malik Ahmad Shah, the head of the Hotak shura, said police have extorted shopkeepers in Banayee since the last presidential election, which ended controversially and almost resulted in a renewed civil war in 2014. His people are supporters of the man who prevailed as president, Ashraf Ghani, and much of the police force, according to Shah, is beholden to his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. And yes, once upon a time, you could buy drugs and alcohol here, but those days are long over, he said.

"Every week, they come asking for 100,000 Afghanis," Shah said, referring to the local currency, or nearly $1,500, paid collectively by the dozen-odd shop owners. "But this month, we finally started rejecting the bribes, and this is why they are retaliating."

Later, Shah would add that he was saddened by the deaths of the police officers, saying that "we didn't want them to be killed; they are our Afghan brothers," and that eight of his own people were also injured in the blast. But if the raid hadn't happened, he suggested, none of this would've ever happened.

Back in his tightly secured fourth-floor office on the other side of town, Ehsas paid lip service to a well-known truth: Many of Kabul's police officers are indeed corrupt, and bribery and extortion are widespread problems. But Thursday's operation, he said, shows how seriously the force takes its civic and Islamic duty to eradicate what he called "mafias," such as the Hotaks.

"These people are as dangerous to us as the terrorists, and in fact, they may collaborate with the terrorists as one big mafia," said Ehsas. "The danger comes at us from all sides."

Sharif Walid contributed to this report. 

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