KABUL — At least 63 people were killed when a suicide bomber linked to the Islamic State blew himself up in a crowded wedding hall in the Afghan capital late Saturday, one of the most devastating attacks on civilians in years of conflict and terror.
The local affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility in a statement online with an image of a young man with an assault rifle. The extremist Sunni militia described the man as a Pakistani named Abu Asim who had attacked a gathering of “rejecter polytheists,” as the group describes followers of Shiite Islam.
Officials initially said 38 people had died, but the scale of the attack became apparent Sunday morning, when the Interior Ministry said at least 63 had been killed and more than 180 wounded. City hospitals were overwhelmed, and relatives waited hours outside for news of their loved ones.
The unprecedented targeting of a wedding party, attended by women and children, struck at the heart of Kabul’s lively, family-
oriented social scene. Brightly lit, multistory wedding halls here often hold several such celebrations on a single weekend night.
A spokesman for the Taliban insurgents, Sohail Shaheen, denied any connection to the bombing in a tweet Sunday. He called it a “brutal act” and said the group “condemns it in the strongest terms.”
The Taliban is in peace negotiations with U.S. officials, who have said they expect to reach a deal soon that would lead to most U.S. troops leaving the country.
Speaking to reporters Sunday about drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, President Trump said: “We’re talking to Afghanistan. Both the government and we’re also talking to the Taliban, having very good discussions. We’ll see what happens. We’ve really got it down to probably 13,000 people, and we’ll be bringing it down a little bit more. And then we’ll decide whether or not we’ll be staying longer or not.”
Regarding the suicide bombing and whether he would trust the Taliban to police the situation, he replied, “I’m not trusting anybody. It’s a horrible situation that’s been going on in Afghanistan. It has been for many years.”
The Taliban, an Afghan militia with extremist Sunni beliefs, often attacks military and government targets. The Islamic State, an international Sunni terrorist group, is notorious for savage attacks on civilians and views Shiites as apostates. Its local affiliate, the Islamic State in Khorasan, has claimed numerous attacks in Kabul, many of them in the city’s western, Shiite-dominated districts.
President Ashraf Ghani still blamed the Taliban in part. In a tweet offering condolences for the victims of the “barbaric” attack, he said the “Taliban cannot absolve themselves of blame, for they provide platform for terrorists.”
More than 1,000 guests were gathered in the salon in the Dubai City wedding hall at 11 p.m. Saturday. Dinner had just been served, with male and female guests in separate sections. In the men’s section, loud music was pounding and young boys were dancing near the stage when a man posing as a guest detonated his bomb at a nearby table.
“There was a huge boom and the hall went dark. People were running and falling in all corners. It was like doomsday,” said Sakhi Mohammed, a guest. He was waiting outside the city’s Emergency Hospital, where his brother was being treated for wounds.
The bride and groom survived the blast but lost family members, including 14 on the bride’s side. The groom, a tailor in his 20s named Mirwais Elmi, told Kabul’s ToloNews TV that his family was in shock and would never recover.
“My bride keeps fainting. I lost my brother, my friends, my relatives,” Elmi said. “I never thought such a thing would happen at my wedding. I will never see happiness in my life again.”
Jamshid Alami, a wedding singer and musician, was performing at a different event Saturday night, but he said a group of his brothers, cousins and friends in the band were onstage at the Dubai City event when the bomb exploded. Five were killed.
Alami sobbed uncontrollably outside the Istiqlal Hospital early Sunday. “My brothers are gone,” he said. “How can I take them home? What will I tell our mother?” He cursed Ghani, the president, saying his government had failed to protect the people.
Many of the dead and wounded were members of the same families, and children were reported to be among the casualties. By Sunday morning, the first funerals were being held, some for multiple related victims.
At a funeral in a parched cemetery in western Kabul, Hussain Dad, 70, watched while two young men, both friends of the groom, were buried in wooden coffins. A Muslim cleric bent over the graves and recited prayers in Arabic. Unmarked stones were placed at the head of each grave.
The victims were members of the ethnic Hazara and Shiite minority, which predominates in western Kabul.
“They were innocent young men,” Dad said. “They had not harmed a single fly.”
The few mourners disbanded quickly afterward, worried about further violence.
“The Taliban and Daesh are two sides of the same coin,” Dad said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They used to attack mosques, and now they have started with wedding halls.”
Western Kabul is the center of urban commercial and residential life for ethnic Hazaras and Shiite Muslims. The wedding Saturday was attended largely by Hazaras. The bride and groom are Shiite.
The bombing was one of the deadliest ever in the Afghan capital, which has suffered scores of terrorist attacks in the past decade. The targets have included military and police facilities and convoys, places of worship, government offices, hotels and foreign compounds.
A car bombing near a police facility a few blocks from the Dubai City wedding hall on Aug. 7 killed 65 and wounded 145. A truck bomb and ground attack near government compounds on July 28 killed 45 and wounded 116. The worst attack was a truck bombing in May 2017 in a diplomatic and official district that killed 150 and hurt more than 400.
On Sunday afternoon, the Dubai City hotel was silent and empty. Dozens of tin roof sheets gaped open to the sky. Bucolic alpine scenes painted on the salon walls had been shredded. Furniture lay at odd angles, spattered with blood.
Mohammed Naeem, 24, a part owner, surveyed the damage. He said he was in the hotel’s flower shop when the bomb exploded and guests began screaming.
“When I reached the room, dead and wounded bodies were piled up.”
Naeem said the group that had booked the hotel for Sunday night had already canceled. “Very few people will dare to go to wedding halls from now on,” he said.
Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.