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Suicide bomb explosion rips through a Shiite mosque in northern Afghanistan


A horrific bombing in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz killed dozens of people yesterday as they worshipped at a mosque. It is the worst attack in the country since the U.S. withdrawal. NPR's John Ruwitch is in neighboring Pakistan and has the latest. John, thanks for being with us.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SIMON: And what do we know now about what happened at the mosque?

RUWITCH: Well, latest reports put the number of dead at around 50 - a little bit less than 50, with over 140 injured. You know, from photos of the scene, it really looked like a tight space. It wasn't a huge mosque. The photos that I saw showed the ceiling was charred. The floor was littered with debris. This was a Shiite mosque, and it was Friday afternoon, which is a time when mosques are often at their most crowded as people gather for Friday prayer. The Islamic State Khorasan, which is also known as ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for this attack. ISIS-K is a branch or an affiliate in Afghanistan of the Islamic State.

SIMON: And we've seen a number of attacks by this Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State in recent days, haven't we?

RUWITCH: That's correct. ISIS-K took credit for the bombing outside the Kabul airport on August 26. That killed 170 Afghans, give or take, and 13 U.S. service members just a few days before America's last troops left the country. This attack in Kunduz is the deadliest since then, but there are reports of a string of smaller-scale attacks in and around the city of Jalalabad, to the east of Kabul - things like bombs and shootings at Taliban checkpoints. Also, ISIS-K took credit for a mosque bombing just about a week ago in Kabul, where Taliban officials had gathered for a memorial service.

SIMON: I gather the organization also said that a Uyghur was responsible for this latest bombing. You usually cover China, a country that - the government says it's long worried about extremism among its Muslim minority, the Uyghurs.

RUWITCH: That's right. The Uyghurs hail from western China, as you say - the Xinjiang region. And for decades, there have been many who, you know, favor more autonomy from Beijing, a small number that favor independence from Beijing. A U.N. report estimated that there were several hundred members of a Uyghur militant group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or Turkistan Islamic Party, in Afghanistan now. The Chinese government is very concerned about Afghanistan becoming a base, a safe haven, for these guys to launch attacks, potentially in China, and have asked the Taliban to ensure that that doesn't happen.

And if you remember, though, China has taken, at home, very hard-line measures against Uyghurs in Xinjiang in the name of preventing terrorism. There's this network of extrajudicial detention camps. Hundreds of thousands, if not a million or more, are reported to be detained over the past four or five years. The U.S. calls it genocide.

SIMON: What does this latest attack tell us about the state of affairs, everyday life, in Afghanistan?

RUWITCH: Yeah. Just the other day, a Taliban spokesman was quoted in Afghan media as saying that ISIS is more of an annoyance than a real threat. But it does seem to be a real problem for the Taliban, and it's not the only one they face. I mean, the Taliban, in a nutshell, is struggling to shift gears from being an insurgency to governing this country of close to 40 million people.

Meanwhile, the Afghan economy is just collapsing. Trade has dropped sharply. Aid is starting to trickle back in, but it's not enough. There's a cash shortage. Salaries aren't getting paid. Most families in Afghanistan cannot put enough food on the table on a day-to-day basis. And it's just going to get worse when winter hits.

SIMON: NPR's John Ruwitch. Thanks so much.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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