Asia & Pacific
By Pamela Constable and Sharif Hassan
August 18 at 6:33 AM The Washington Post
KABUL — At least 63 people died in Afghanistan’s capital when a suicide bomber linked to the Islamic State blew himself up in a crowded wedding hall in one of the most devastating attacks on civilians in the long conflict.
The Islamic State issued a statement online Sunday claiming responsibility for the attack. The group has made a brutal name for itself for focusing its attacks on civilians. The message included an image of a young man carrying an assault rifle with a text describing him as a Pakistani named Abu Asim.
The awful scale of Saturday night’s attack on the wedding only became apparent in the morning when the Interior Ministry said that at least 63 had been killed and more than 180 wounded in a blow to an entertainment scene largely centered around weddings.
Enormous multistory wedding halls in Kabul will often hold several of these joyous celebrations in the course of a single night.
A spokesman for the Taliban insurgent group, Sohail Shaheen, sent out a tweet Sunday morning in the Pashto language saying the group had no connection to the bombing. “The attack on the wedding hall is a brutal act,” he said. “The Islamic Emirate condemns it in the strongest terms. We share the sorrow of the people.”
The Islamic Emirate is how the Taliban describes itself. It is fighting to regain power in the country and impose its version of Islamic law.
President Ashraf Ghani, however, ascribed some responsibility to the Taliban in a tweet expressing condolences for the victims. Ghani condemned the attack as “barbaric” and said he had canceled a large rally today, marking the 100th anniversary of Afghan independence from Britain, in a gesture of mourning.
“Taliban cannot absolve themselves of blame, for they provide platform for terrorists,” he added.
Images on social media in the immediate aftermath of the blast showed bloodstained floors and overturned chairs and tables.
More than 1,000 wedding guests were gathered in the huge salon in the Dubai City wedding hall. It was nearly midnight and dinner had just been served at dozens of tables, with male and female guests separated in two sections.
In the men’s section, loud music was pounding and young boys were dancing near the center stage when a man posing as a guest detonated his bomb near the stage.
“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 in his 30s. He spoke early Sunday morning outside the city’s Emergency Hospital, where his brother was being treated for wounds from the blast.
On Sunday afternoon, the 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 add odd angles, spattered with blood.
Mohammed Naeem, 24, a part owner of Dubai City, was there, surveying the damage and thinking about the future. He said he was in the hotel’s flower shop when the bomb exploded.
“Everyone began screaming,” he said. “When I reached the room, dead and wounded bodies were piled up. It was horrific.”
Naeem said it was unprecedented for a wedding to be attacked. The group that had booked the hotel for Sunday night has already canceled.
“Very few people may dare to go to wedding halls from now on,” he said.
The bride and groom both survived the blast, but lost family members, including 14 people 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.”
Many of the dead and wounded were members of the same families, and a number of children were reported to be among the casualties. By midmorning Sunday, the first funerals were being held in Kabul cemeteries, some for several related victims.
Large weddings in Kabul are important social occasions, and families of the bride and groom invite their extended families to travel long distances to attend the ceremony. Dozens of weddings are held every weekend night.
Jamshid Alami, a wedding singer and musician in his 20s, 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 of them were killed.
“My brothers are gone. How can I take them home? What will I tell our mother?” Alami said, sobbing uncontrollably as he stood outside the Istiqlal Hospital early Sunday. He cursed Ghani, the president, as he wept, saying his government had failed to protect the people.
At one funeral in a large cemetery in western Kabul, Hussain Dad, 70, watched while two young men, both friends of the groom, were buried in plain wooden coffins after a Muslim cleric bent over the freshly dug graves and recited prayers in Arabic. Unmarked stones were then placed at the head of each grave.
“They were innocent young men. They had not harmed a single fly,” said Dad, one of several dozen people at the ceremony. The mourners disbanded quickly afterward, amid worries about further violence. The victims were both members of the ethnic Hazara and Shiite minority, which predominates in western Kabul where the wedding took place.
“The Taliban and Daesh are two sides of the same coin,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State extremist group, which has also carried numerous bombings of Shiite mosques and shrines in that district. “They used to attack mosques, and now they have started with wedding halls,” he said.
Presidential spokesman Sediq Sediqqi tweeted after midnight that he was “devastated” by the news and added: “How is it possible to train a human and ask him to blow himself up inside a wedding?!! Why this enmity against innocent humans?”
The attack comes as the United States and the Taliban are deep in talks on pulling U.S. troops out of the country after more than 17 years involvement — negotiations taking place without the participation of the Afghan government.
The bombing was one of the deadliest ever in the Afghan capital, which has suffered scores of terror attacks during the last decade. Some have been claimed by the Taliban and others by its extremist rival, the Islamic State.
The targets have included military and police facilities and vehicles, places of worship, government offices, hotels and foreign compounds. No wedding has previously been targeted, however.
In western Kabul, the center of urban commercial and residential life for minority ethnic Hazaras and Shiite Muslims, the Islamic State has claimed bombings of numerous Shiite mosques and shrines. The Sunni extremist group views Shiites as apostates. The wedding Saturday night was largely attended by Hazaras and the bride and groom were both Shiite.
Among the most deadly attacks in recent months was a car bombing Aug. 7 near a police recruitment facility just a few blocks from the Dubai City wedding hall, which killed 65 people and wounded 145. On July 28, a truck bomb and armed ground attack near government compounds killed 45 people and wounded 116. The worst attack to date was a truck bombing in May, 2017, in a diplomatic and official district, which killed 150 people and injured more than 400.
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.