“There are many of us now who believe our lives are in danger. It’s not like before,” said Abdul Fawad Shagiwal, 30, a civil society activist in Kabul whose mentor, a professor and Education Ministry official, was recently killed in a targeted attack.
Shagiwal said fear in Kabul runs so deep that many activists are too shaken to attend funerals and burials after their friends and colleagues are gunned down.
Most of the attacks have gone unclaimed, and in some cases, the Taliban has issued public statements denying involvement. But Afghan security officials say they believe militants with links to the Taliban are responsible.
The “Taliban serves as the umbrella organization for these attacks and provide the infrastructure of terrorism across Afghanistan,” said Tariq Arian, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. In recent months, Arian said, the militant group has increased such attacks to gain leverage ahead of expected peace talks with the Afghan government.
But many Afghan civil society activists fear that the longer those talks are delayed, the more such violence will escalate, slowly chipping away at the gains made in human rights, civil liberties and freedom of speech since the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul in 2001.
Over the past six months, 39 people have been slain in targeted killings, according to the Interior Ministry. Here are the stories of three.
Abdul Baqi Amin, 55, a senior official with the Education Ministry, was an Islamic studies professor beloved by his students and a dedicated peace advocate who his friends say always thought before he spoke.
Just last year, before he joined the Afghan government, he was part of a team of former officials and civil society members who met with Taliban leaders in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The meeting, held long before the militants and government agreed to formal talks, was an attempt to find common ground.
Amin’s students remember him as the rare example of a professor who spoke to them rather than at them. Despite rising within the ministry, he continued to make time to meet with his former students and Afghan youth groups to encourage them toward activism and hear their thoughts on the state of the country.
“He was always trying to tell us that we are the future,” said Ahmad Nazir Usmani, 35, one of Amin’s former students who works for a telecommunications firm. During lectures at Salam University in Kabul, Usmani said, he could see the joy on Amin’s face when his students fully understood what he was saying.
Amin was killed last week on his way to work. An explosive placed in or around the car killed him instantly and wounded his driver. No group asserted responsibility, and the Taliban tweeted that it was not behind the attack. His friends and colleagues believe he was targeted because of his support for peace talks.
“Those who don’t want peace in Afghanistan, who are a barrier to peace, those are the killers of our brother Amin,” said Abdul Zahir Hamidi, a media executive and longtime friend of Amin.
Shagiwal, the civil society activist for whom Amin was a mentor, said, “We were companions on a path, and he was like a light for us.
“But now that he’s gone, we won’t lose the way,” Shagiwal said. “We will always have that ideology he gave us.”
Hard-working, ambitious and smart, 25-year-old Wahid Shah could have excelled in any field, his family said. Right out of college, he decided to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a journalist.
He worked as a cameraman and producer for Khurshid, a national television network that broadcasts news and cultural programming. He was rarely on camera himself, instead conducting, taping and editing interviews. Afghanistan’s struggling economy was the focus of much of his work, and he was passionate about telling the stories of the country’s poor.
“I wanted him to give a voice to the people of Afghanistan,” said his father, Mir Taher Shah Amiri, 51, remembering how proud he felt when his son began working for a prominent news television network in Kabul.
Amiri said even as attacks against other journalists became more frequent, his son never told him that he was afraid. But Wahid’s older brother Zahid said the journalist would sometimes confide in him, mentioning the risks to Afghan media.
“But he was fearless, brave. He never said he wanted to quit his work because of the threats,” Zahid said.
Their father said he doesn’t regret encouraging his son to pursue his dream of working in journalism, but he does regret not telling him to take a taxi instead of riding in the company bus that ferries employees to and from work.
Wahid was killed when a bomb targeted that bus on May 30 as it was taking employees home. The blast also killed one of his colleagues and wounded seven others. The Islamic State asserted responsibility. The group has repeatedly targeted journalists in the past, accusing them of collaborating with its enemies.
When asked if he still watches the news reports his son produced, Amiri nodded, then turned his head and covered his face with one hand.
“Yes,” he said, wiping his tears with a tissue. “I watch them every day.”
Mohammad Ayaz Niazi, 57, was respected across the political spectrum in a bitterly divided country. For 14 years, he preached at Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque in downtown Kabul, just blocks from the Afghan presidential palace and the U.S. Embassy. A vocal supporter of efforts to bring the Afghan government and Taliban together for peace talks, he never shied away from politics in his sermons.
Niazi spent decades away from Afghanistan studying in Cairo. After completing his doctorate in Islamic studies at al-Azhar University, he was offered prestigious positions in relatively safe countries in the Persian Gulf, but he felt a patriotic duty to return to Afghanistan and work for peace.
He quickly gained a reputation as outspoken but fair. He spoke in favor of democracy and against suicide bombings carried out in the name of Islam, and he openly criticized government officials. Even as threats against his life intensified in recent years, he refused to travel with security, often driving himself and doing his own grocery shopping.
“He always told us, ‘Whatever you do, don’t waste your time. Seek knowledge and serve your country,’ ” said Abdul Wakil Niazi, 23, the imam’s oldest son. As a parent, he said, his father taught patience above all else, had a gentle sense of humor and was an eternal optimist. But he was also pragmatic: Recently, he spoke more openly with his family about the possibility of his death.
“He told me, ‘When I pass away, take care of your mother and your siblings, and take care of this mosque, because after me, you will be in charge. You have to keep all these people, all these hearts together as I have kept them until now,’ ” the son said.
Niazi was collecting his shoes at the mosque’s entrance after prayer on June 2 when a small bomb exploded. Several worshipers were injured in the blast, but Niazi was the only person killed.
His son said he has found peace with his father’s death by focusing on his legacy.
“You can’t kill an idea. You can’t kill a school of thought,” he said. “So whether he is with me or not, his lessons are always with me.”
Mohsin Khan contributed to this report.