Islamic State Khurasan’s Attack on Iran and Its Regional Consequences
On 3 January 2024, twin explosions targeted the commemorating ceremony of Iran’s late IRGC commander, Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani, near his burial site in Kerman city's Martyrs' Cemetery. Soleimani was killed on the same day in 2020 by an American drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. According to Iranian Minister of Interior Ahmad Vahidi, 89 people, including 77 Iranians and 12 Afghans, were killed in the Kerman explosions. In addition, 284 individuals were injured in the incident. Men, women, and children were among the casualties of the incident.
The claim of responsibility
On 4 January 2024, with one day delay, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Kerman attack, clarifying that two suicide bombers detonated their explosive vests among ‘thousands of Shiites who were performing Shiite rituals near the grave of Qasem Soleimani – who was involved in dozens of massacres against Muslims in Iraq and Syria – on the anniversary of his death.’
The delay could be explained by the announcement of a new militant campaign by the Islamic State group on 4 January titled, ‘And Kill Them Wherever You Find Them’– a name which was also the title of the recent audio statement by the Official Spokesman of the Islamic State group, Abu Hudhayfah Al-Ansari, focused on the Gaza conflict. The Islamic State group had refrained from publishing claims since the start of 2024. On 4 January, they released a total of 32 claims for attacks carried out in all provinces of the Islamic State over the past four days, including that of Iran.
Amaq News Agency, affiliated with the Islamic State group, published a photo portraying the two suicide attackers with covered faces, who targeted the Shiite gathering in Kerman. The attackers were named Omar al-Muwahid and Saifullah al-Mujahid, though their countries of origin remain unclear.
On 7 January, Amaq News circulated a video featuring the two purported assailants of the Kerman attack, pledging allegiance to the supreme leader of the Islamic State group.
Past Attacks Claimed by the Islamic State in Iran
Based on the data extracted from the Islamic State group’s weekly newsletter Al Naba, three attacks were claimed by the group in Iran:
● On 7 June 2017, five Islamic State group attackers launched two separate attacks on the Iranian parliament building and the country’s late supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum in Tehran, killing a dozen people and injuring over 40 more.
● On 22 September 2018, a group of five Islamic State group attackers targeted a military parade in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, killing at least 25 people, including military personnel and civilians. Over 50 more were wounded in the attack.
● On 26 October 2022, an Islamic State attacker entered a Shiite shrine, Shah Cheragh in Shiraz city and killed 13 people.
The Islamic State does not consider Iran as its independent province or part of any other province. Except for the Ahvaz attack in 2018, which was claimed under the Khorasan province, all other attacks were claimed just with the name of Iran without the word ‘province’.
Regional factors in the Kerman attack
The Tajikistani factor:
On 5 January 2024, Taliban-affiliated Al Mersaad media, known for anti-ISKP propaganda, published an article titled: ‘Attackers Who Targeted Iran Are Tajik Nationals.’ The article contends that Tajikistan has become ‘a hub for Daesh production,’ constituting a notable menace to regional and global security and stability. The article argues that numerous citizens from Tajikistan have been linked to attacks in Afghanistan, Iran, and several other nations.
A couple of hours after the article was published by Al Mersaad, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry issued a statement about the Kerman incident, stating that one suicide bomber was a Tajikistan national and efforts were underway to identify the second attacker.
On 6 January 2024, an Afghan Salafi ideologue, Sheikh Abdul Rahim Muslimdost, who had surrendered to the Taliban in 2022, shared on his X account that the assailant responsible for the Kerman attack had entered Iran from Tajikistan via Pakistan on 13 December 2023. Notably, he asserted that Daesh (ISIS) now maintains only a propaganda presence in Afghanistan and the surrounding region, emphasising the absence of any physical presence. The ideologue, who initially pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014 but departed from the group in 2015, went on to suggest that various intelligence services, including those from Pakistan and Tajikistan, manipulate their operatives, labelling them as Daesh for their strategic purposes. The veracity of Muslimdost's assertions could not be independently verified.
The ISKP factor:
On 5 January 2024, two sources told Reuters that communications intercepts collected by the United States confirmed that Islamic State’s Afghanistan-based branch (ISKP) carried out twin bombings in Iran.
On January 11, 2024, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence provided detailed information about the planner and a Tajikistani suicide attacker involved in the Kerman incident, confirming the involvement of ISKP in the attack. Iran asserted that the suicide bomber had undergone training at an ISKP camp situated in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan. The mastermind, using the alias “Abdullah Tajiki” illegally entered Iran on 19 December 2023, employing the cover of a woman and a child and aided by local smugglers along the southeastern borders of the country. Tajiki, an acknowledged expert in explosives, reportedly left Iran two days prior to the Kerman attack. The ministry identified one of the suicide attackers as Bazirov Israeli, son of Amanullah, and a 24-year-old citizen of Tajikistan. Israeli is allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State group via the Telegram platform. Over the preceding months, he relocated to Turkey and, utilising routes through Iran with the assistance of smugglers along the western and eastern borders entered Afghanistan. He underwent diverse ideologic and operational training at the ISKP camp in Badakhshan province. Subsequently, he was sent to Iran through the Jaliq crossing point in Kalagan, Sistan and Baluchistan province, facilitated by local smugglers. His journey took him through Khash, Iran-Shahr, and Jiroft, ultimately reaching Kerman.
Between 2015 and 2020, when the ISKP had territorial control in Afghanistan, the group's training centres were primarily operational in Nangarhar and Kunar in the east, as well as Jawzjan in the north of the country. Conversely, Badakhshan served as a base for numerous Central Asian foreign fighters, affiliated with the Taliban rather than with ISKP. If Iran's assertion proves accurate, it implies that foreign fighters in Badakhshan are extending support to ISKP, presenting a significant concern for both the Taliban and the broader region.
Additionally, the intelligence ministry unveiled a video depicting the residence of the attackers after the attack, showcasing their movements around the house recorded by CCTV cameras. The footage also documented the apprehension of several individuals linked to the attack. The ministry reported that 35 individuals were arrested in connection with the Kerman attack. Furthermore, foreign nationals implicated in the attack have been identified and added to the watchlist for subsequent tracking and apprehension.
Iran closes some border entry points with Afghanistan and Pakistan
A day after the Kerman attack, Iran’s Interior Minister told Iranian media, ISNA, that his country will implement a plan of securing its border, especially prioritising the vulnerable borders. “Both on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have points that are a priority in our plan of securing/blocking borders,” the minister clarified.
On 19 January 2024, Iran’s State-run News Agency, IRNA, reported that the Ministry of Intelligence released a photograph of Mohammed Adel Aref, also known as Adel Panjshiri, an Afghan implicated in the Kerman attack, urging citizens to promptly share any pertinent information regarding his whereabouts with the information branch of the Ministry of Intelligence, using the designated hotline (No. 113) for reporting. According to the ministry, Adel was seen in western Tehran.
The Islamic Republic Government of Afghanistan apprehended Adel Panjshiri for his complicity in an attack on Kabul University, claimed by ISKP, in November 2020. In a widely circulated online video, he confessed to serving as the military commander of ISKP for the southern region of Kabul, playing a pivotal role in orchestrating the Kabul University attack. After the Taliban's takeover of Kabul in August 2021, Adel found himself among the prisoners granted release amid the tumultuous regime change.
Calling Adel Panjshiri, a collaborative outcome of both the Taliban and ISKP, Iran state-funded newspaper Jomhouri-e Eslami in its editorial of 23 January 2024, warned the Iran government about the dangers associated with the proliferation of militancy under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and its risks to the neighbouring countries and wider region.
ISKP propaganda around the Kerman attack
Pre-Attack ISKP propaganda:
The focus of the ISKP’s propaganda is against the Taliban and a remarkable number of products, including articles and videos criticising the Taliban’s relations with Iran, calling the latter ‘Shiite Rafidis.’ In December, pro-ISKP Al Hadid media published a poster in Persian titled, ‘Taliban are the followers of Shiites.’
On 1 January 2024, ISKP-affiliated Al-Azaim media released a poster in the Pashto language condemning the role of Iran in the Palestine-Israel conflict. The text of the poster was extracted from the editorial of the 413th issue of Al Naba weekly, and a photo portraying Iran’s foreign minister, Dome of the Rock, and an Islamic State group’s suicide attacker was added to it. The contents of the text are very similar to the audio message of the Islamic State group’s spokesmen, released on 4 January 2024.
Post-attack ISKP propaganda:
On 6 January 2024, in a propaganda poster released by ISKP-affiliated Al-Azaim media regarding the Kerman attack, the group stated that the Rawafid (Shias) ‘should know that they are not safe from Baghdad to Kabul, and now in their home, Iran, they pay the price for the crimes they committed and [are] still committing in Iraq, Syria and the region.’ “The Islamic State’s fighters will not allow Rawafid and their projects to [succeed] in the region.”
On 8 January 2024, ISKP propaganda channels released a poster to justify the contradiction between the Gaza-focused rhetoric of the "And Kill Them Wherever You Find Them" militant campaign and the attack in a city of Iran, a country that supports the Palestine cause. The Islamic State group cited Iran's alleged killing of Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, questioning its defence of Muslims in Gaza. Furthermore, the IS group criticizes the relationship between Hamas and Iran, accusing Hamas of associating with Shia Iran, which, according to the group, disrespects the wife and companions of Prophet Mohammad.
Taliban-affiliated Al-Mersaad media’s efforts to reject the ISKP’s regional role
Taliban-affiliated anti-ISKP Al-Mersaad media outlet released nearly a dozen articles in various languages including Pashto, Persian, English, and other languages, trying to blame Tajikistan, Pakistan and America for the Kerman attack and for strengthening the Islamic State group in Afghanistan and its surrounding region. Some articles are listed below:
- ISIS Exploitation of Tajik Citizens Reaches Its Peak in the Region and Neighbouring Areas
- Tajikistan's New Relationship with the West
- Who Attacked Iran?
- Where Is the Hub of the ISIS Khorasan Branch Located, and Where Does It Get Its Funding From?
- Factors and Objectives Behind the Attack in Kerman, Iran
- Attackers Who Targeted Iran Are Tajik Nationals
In its weekly publication, Al-Naba, the Islamic State group underscored the Kerman attack as the inaugural event of the group's militant campaign in 2024
The 425th edition of the Islamic State's central publication, Al Naba weekly, prominently featured the Kerman attack on its cover page. It emphasized that the commencement of the 'And Kill Them Wherever You Find Them' militant campaign was marked by this attack in Iran.
The editorial of the weekly was also dedicated to the Kerman attack, stating that the attack was not the first that targeted Iran and will not be the last targeting the country. On the fourth page of the weekly, the Islamic State group refuted any claims of individuals associated with the attack being apprehended by Iran.
The Kerman attack highlights the vulnerability of Iran to the Islamic State’s attacks, primarily for two reasons: 1) Contrary to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Islamic State has no established base in Iran to facilitate such a sophisticated attack; 2) Iran was aware of the risks of attacks against Soleimani’s commemorating ceremony, and despite measures taken, the attackers were still able to carry out their operations.
Another noteworthy point is ISKP’s transborder or regional capacity for supporting or conducting major terror attacks. Despite the Taliban’s downplaying of the strength and capacity of ISKP, analysts believe that the group is capable of transnational attacks. In the absence of a reliable counter-terrorism partner for the international community in Afghanistan, hundreds of Central Asian militants living under the Taliban regime in the country have the potential to flame regional terrorism either under ISKP or any other flag.
The reappearance of the seasoned Afghan ISKP commander, Adel Panjshiri, in Iran, raises apprehensions among regional nations and the global community regarding the potential escalation of militancy and the spread of international terror groups, particularly the Islamic State, emanating from Afghanistan under the Taliban's rule.
From 2015 to 2020, the ISKP operated training centres in Nangarhar, Kunar, and Jawzjan, with Badakhshan hosting Central Asian fighters associated with the Taliban. If Iran's assertion about the training of the Kerman attacker in Badakhshan is accurate, it implies that foreign fighters in Badakhshan are backing the ISKP, posing concerns for both the Taliban and the broader region.