Afghanistan – ‘Kabul attack: ISIS claims responsibility after “suicide bombing” kills 80 and injures hundreds’ (Independent, 2016)

By Daniella Genillard (2016-17)

Analysis of ‘Kabul attack: ISIS claims responsibility after “suicide bombing” kills 80 and injures hundreds’ (The Independent, 23rd July 2016)

The act under investigation is the IS (the so-called Islamic State, also known as Daesh, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant “ISIL” and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria “ISIS”) attack on the Hazara’s peaceful protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 23rd July 2016. This attack has been chosen due to its significance; it is the first that IS has executed within the capital and the largest of its kind to occur within the city since the US-lead operation against the Taliban 15 years ago. The Independent reported this incident, publishing an article written by Karim Sharifi, titled ‘Kabul attack: ISIS claims responsibility after “suicide bombing” kills 80 and injures hundreds’ (Sharifi, 2016). This report will be analysed on its approach before a further analysis is conducted into the motivations and underlying causes of IS’ political violence. Considerations will then be made as to whether this can be classed as an act of terrorism or legitimate. Attention will then be drawn towards the counter-terror measures used to prevent the attack and the wider efforts in Afghanistan used to counteract the group. Lastly, a conclusion will be made on how appropriately the article reported the event.

The IS attack upon the Hazara’s (an Afghan Shia Muslim minority) peaceful protest consisted of three suicide bombers, two of which detonated amongst the protestors; 80 were killed and 231 were injured. When assessing the overall approach of the article, it is clear that it condemns the attack. The article gives a sensationalist overview of the events, describing graphically the perpetrators ‘‘explosives-packed clothing’(Sharifi, 2016) and the scenes of ‘horror and carnage, with numerous bodies and body parts spread across the square’ (Sharifi, 2016). The article also includes a video of the injured being transported to hospital. Statements of condemnation are included from The US embassy in Kabul, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Amnesty International. Sharifi sympathises with the Hazara’s stating the persistent discrimination they have suffered, describing them as ‘peaceful’ and stating their home province, Bamiyan, as having ‘potential as a tourist destination’(Sharifi, 2016). Therefore, the victimisation of the protestors is amplified, whilst the inclusion of quotes from both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Haroon Chakhansuri mark the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’, assigning pejorative connotations to the attackers.

The article gives a brief insight into the motivations that directed the attack. It outlines that IS’ anti-Shia ideology is a central motivator by including a quote from Chakhansuri reasoning that ‘“[Afghans] knew that terrorists wanted to bring sectarianism to our community”(Sharifi, 2016). This motivation was later confirmed via Aamaq, IS’ news agency. However, this is a basic explanation, a more detailed assessment is required.

Religion is a primary motivator and is ‘at the very core of [the] extremist group’s political, social and revolutionary agenda’ (Martin 2013, p.161). IS is a hard-line Sunni Jihadist group, based upon a commitment to Salafi- Jihadism. The concept of Salfism is a Sunni Islamic sect that argues Muslims need to regress back to the first generations of Islam. This is based upon a ‘Hadith’ (statement of the Prophet), which states ‘the best of my community are my generation, then those who came after them, and then those who follow them’ (Shepard 2015, p.164). Any form of teaching that follows these three generation is classed as an illegitimate Islamic teaching, which forms IS’ hostility towards other Islamic factions such as the Shias. This belief is all consuming; it directs everyday actions, Martin maintains this belief system constructs a ‘code of self-sacrifice’ (Martin 2013, p.81). It has constructed the moral conviction of IS, a concept Martin has described as an ‘unambiguous certainty of the righteousness of their cause’ (Martin 2013, p.77) as they class themselves as a group ‘promising true Islam’ (Olidort, 2015).

This ‘sense of moral “purity” becomes the foundation for the simplification of good and evil’ (Martin 2013, p.78), which IS practices with an anti-Shia approach. Al-Zarqawi, the groups founder, developed ‘a definition of kuffar, the highly derogatory term for “unbelievers”, which… [included] all the Shia and any fellow Sunnis who did not abide by the strict Salafist covenant’ (Weiss & Hassan 2016, p.14); Al-Zarqawi sought to purge said nonbelievers. Therefore, the Hazaras represent IS’ wider dissatisfaction of Islamic pluralism. This is not the first time that IS have targeted the Hazaras for their Shia beliefs, during November 2015 ‘Afghan militants claiming loyalty to the Islamic State were found to have beheaded seven ethnic Hazara civilians’ (Mashal & Shah, 2015). Pape (2005, p.22) maintains that this distinction between good and evil drives the use of religious self-martyrdom, as demonizes the enemy permitting the label of ‘martyrdom’ rather than a haram suicide. As mentioned in the article, the attack upon the Hazara was religiously motivated by IS’ hyper-Sunni ideology and their opposition to the multiplicity of Islamic sects.

A secondary motivator, although fuelled by their religious doctrine, is territorial expansion. Their worldview includes a desire to re-establish a Muslim caliphate, ‘an imperial state with no fixed boundaries that purports to represent, and lead, the global Muslim community and to be in the mould of the classical model of the seventh century’ (Haykel 2016, p.77). The ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate, is to construct an ‘Islamic utopia… which aims to replace state sovereignty with God’s rule’ (Gerges 2016, p.223). According to Martin, this form of utopia can be classed as the perception of a “reactionary rightist…[who] seek to return to a time of past glory, which in their belief system has been lost or usurped by an enemy’ (Martin 2013, p.81) Specifically, Afghanistan is territorially significant in relation to this cause. Al Jazeera reports that ‘building a stronghold in Afghanistan’s impenetrable mountains will provide a springboard for the entire region’ and will begin the ‘reconstitution of a historical province known as Khorasan’ (Al Jazeera English, 2015), consisting of Afghanistan and its five neighbouring states. This provides an explanation as to why IS were motivated to infiltrate into Afghanistan and are carrying out violent campaigns against Afghan nationals.

However, dedications to religious and territorial beliefs do not explain why individuals desire to conduct violence. IS’ commitment to violence is seen within IS’ three manifestos who agree ‘to kill with impunity, to observe no limits and follow in the footsteps of the Prophets companions, who, in their opinion, brutally punished dissenters and rivals’ (Gerges 2016, p.36). A key mobiliser of this tactical approach is the presence of a leader with ‘a magnetic personality, a charismatic leader… exercises considerable power over adherents and draws new recruits to the cause’ (Gerges 2016, p.129). A leader such as Baghdadi (the self appointment Caliph) has the power to ‘send fighters to their death, including in suicide bombings, if he sees fit’ (Gerges 2016, p.129). The appeal of this influential figure is reinforced through IS’ ‘social contract that provides … justice and accountability, protection, and services… on compliance with two main obligations: exclusive allegiance to ISIS… [and] support for governance and jihad’ (Revkin, 2016). This reasoning seeks to motivate IS members at an individual level beyond their dedication to religious values. It is therefore apparent that there are other contributing factors that lead to the Kabul attack, beyond the sectarian motivation outlined in the article.

There are numerous underlying causal factors that have resulted in the formation of IS and the subsequent attack on the Hazara protest. Sharifi neglects to provide any root causes for the presence of IS in Afghanistan. This could be due the article denouncing the act and it being ‘controversial to try and understand the political causes of terrorism, … “any focus on underlying causes, motivating factors, and grievances, implies a kind of justification”’(Jackson et al. 2011, p.199). Understanding the systemic settings is key to understanding why the incident occurred. Martha Crenshaw’s framework divides these situational variables into ‘preconditions, factors that set the stage for terrorism over the long run… which provides opportunities for terrorism to happen [and] precipitants, specific events that immediately precede the occurrence of terrorism’ (Crenshaw 1981: 381). Jackson et al. (2011, p.200) maintains these categories are mutually dependent; both need to be present for sustained political violence to occur. This framework will be utilized to account for the causes that ultimately facilitated the July attack in Kabul.

An enabling precondition of IS is the weakness of the states that it resides in; as Crenshaw argues the ‘most salient political factor in the category of permissive causes is a government’s inability or unwillingness to prevent terrorism’ (Crenshaw 1981, p. 382). President Ghani states IS has been unobstructed through ‘the collapse of the Syrian state on the one hand, and the incompetence of the Iraqi on the other’ (WorldsApaRT 2015, 5:20), resulting in their amplified success. Responsibility of this weakness must be partly attributed to the ill-judged strategy of the US coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003. Senior US military advisor, David Kilcullen, claims ‘there would undeniably be no ISIS if we had not invaded Iraq’ (Channel 4 News, 2016). Gerges (2016) argues the occupation caused fractures within Iraqi society, which created space for non-state actors to infiltrate Iraq’s political sphere, causing ISIS to ‘exploit the Arab state identity crisis’ (Gerges 2016, p.24), implementing religion as the dominant status. Fundamentally, the failed states within the Middle East have provided fertile ground for IS to accumulate the power it now enjoys. Ultimately, this has acted as a precursor to their infiltration into other states, such as the equally unstable Afghanistan; supporting Crenshaw’s (1981) claims that revolutionary ideas have always crossed borders with ease.

An additional precondition is ‘modernization’, this includes ‘sophisticated networks of transportation and communication, [which] offer mobility and the means of publicity for terrorists’ (Crenshaw 1981, p.381). Despite its medieval ideals, IS is progressive when utilizing forms of communication. It is dedicated to centralizing itself not only in news headlines but also amongst more modern means of communication such as social media. Modern communication has provided a platform for IS to increase and maintain its support. This control over public messages has allowed IS to not only spread fear through attacks but also radiate a positive persona. For instance, their online magazine, Dabiq, shows images of ‘smiling soldiers, converts to Islam, social and medical facilities, and diligent children eager to learn about their faith and train for war’ (Kibble 2016, p.138). Farwell (2014) explains ‘by allowing the group to project strength and gain visibility, ISIS social media has inspired recruits from all over the world, including US citizens and Europeans’ (Farwell 2014, p.50). Modernisation in communication has allowed IS to generate support on a global scale, acting as a precondition and facilitator to their subsequent attacks.

The precipitant causes of the attack could be the concentrated use of force inflicted upon the group during July 2016. IS influence within Afghanistan has been limited to Nangarhar province, in the East of the country. Preceding the terrorist attack in Kabul IS experienced increasing confrontation in this area. The BBC reports that in early July ‘key IS commander… Shahidullah Shahid, [was] killed in a US airstrike in Nangarhar province’ (Azami, 2015) and ‘Hafiz Saeed Khan [IS Khorasan governor] had been killed along with 30 fighters in a “co-ordinated” drone strike’ (Azami, 2015). It can be argued that the increased pressure IS had experienced in Nangarhar acted as a trigger event, leading to the retaliatory attacks upon the capital. Overall, the causal factors have facilitated the attack on the Hazaras beyond what is specified within the article.

Considerations need to be made as to whether this IS attack can be rightly  labelled a form of terrorism. ‘Terrorism’ has become an ambiguous term. Therefore, when the article includes quotes from Ghani and Chakhansuri that brand the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’, it is difficult to decipher under what specific criteria this label has been allocated.

The suicide bombing in Kabul meets a number of the characteristics David Whittaker uses to define terrorism. Whittaker (2012) maintains terrorism is violent, political in aims and motives, designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions that is either conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure, which is directly influenced by an ideology. After consideration into the motives and causes of the attack, it can be concluded that under these characteristics the violent attack upon the Hazaras can be deemed an act of terrorism.

However, Whittaker also states that a key classification of terrorism is that it is ‘perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity’ (Whittaker 2012, p.9). Here, the classification of IS becomes challenging. The ‘statehood’ of Islamic State is a debated topic. IS’ territorial claims are not recognised by any legitimate state within the international community, in 2014 Theresa May publically stated ‘I will tell you the truth, [IS] are not Islamic and they are not a state’ (ALFALAQ MEDIA, 2016). Yet, a prominent objective of IS is ‘to dislodge regions from the control of the “apostate” regimes entirely… to be followed by the governance or administration of savagery by the jihadists’ (Weiss & Hassan 2016, p.45) to form the Caliphate. The BBC recounted an IHS Conflict Monitor report stating the population under control of IS ‘is now nearer six million’ (BBC News, 2016). Subsequently, IS has claimed power over these territories, stating ‘the flag of the Islamic State… rises and flutters. It’s shade covers land from Aleppo to Diyala’ (McCants 2015, p.121). However, Whittaker maintains that terrorists ‘generally do not attempt to seize or hold territory and exercise no direct control or governance over a populace at either local or national level’ (Whitakker 2012, p.9). Accordingly, IS do not fit into Whittaker’s definition of terrorism.

IS have asserted themselves as a ruling power and arguably under International Law, specifically the Montevideo Convention, they meet the appropriate state criteria of ‘1) a permanent population; 2) a defined territory; 3) government; and 4) capacity to enter into relations with the other states’ (Boyle, 2015). In light of this, the IS attack on Kabul fits more aptly into Martin’s concept of ‘state patronage of terrorism, [which is] active state participation in and encouragement of extremist behaviour. Its basic characteristic is that the state, through its agencies and personnel, actively takes part in repression violence and terrorism’ (Martin 2013, p.G-22). If the territory controlled by IS is perceived to be a state, this act in Kabul would class as a form of state terrorism as foreign policy, where the perpetrators are a derivative of the Islamic State pursuing its interests on foreign soil in Afghanistan.

There is consequently definitional ambiguity as to what type of perpetrator of terrorism IS is, state or non-state. It therefore creates uncertainty as to what grounds the article includes the term ‘terrorist’. The difficulty to define the organization derives from its rapid evolution and sophistication. This has lead to it to be classed as a hybrid phenomenon, such as Cronin classifying IS as a ‘psuedo-state lead by a conventional army’ (Cronin, 2015) and Coll labelling it a ‘part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state’ (Coll, 2014). Ghani states ‘if Al-Qaeda was terrorism version one, Daesh is terrorism version six… it is a fast changing phenomenon, and one needs to grasped in its own terms, not imposed categories’ (WorldsApaRT, 2016). What can be concluded is that the IS does not fit neatly into a definition of terrorism. The attack upon Kabul meets the initial criteria of terrorism presented by Whittaker, but ambiguously crosses the boundaries of a non-state and state perpetrators of terrorism.

The term ‘terrorism’ conveys pejorative and immoral connotations; therefore Sharifi’s inclusion of it within the article eliminates any allocation of legitimacy. A deeper level of analysis through Just War Theory (JWT) needs to be considered in order to conclude whether this attack lies within the parameters of legitimate political violence. As Michael Walzer states in JWT, ‘war is always judged twice, first with reference to the reasons… for fighting [jus ad bellum], secondly with reference to the means they adopt [jus in bello]’ (Walzer 1978, p.21).

Firstly, jus ad bellum requires a rightful argument for political violence to be just. Sussman (2013) states that under JWT violence can be justifiably used in arguments of self-defence or humanitarian crisis. The attack upon the Hazaras does not satisfy either of these justifications. However, as previously mentioned, IS argues their cause is justified through their perception of Islamic religious texts, instructing them to conduct an offensive campaign. JWT fails to account for this religious logic, as the rationale for initiating violence is not objective; it is a product of perspective. Perpetrators ‘always consider their cause just… they are in their own minds, freedom fighters waging a just war’ (Martin 2013, p.13). Yet, IS’ claims to Islam have been disputed. The US persistently condemns IS as not being Islamic, but as a secular state they lack the grounds to debate the correct form of Islam. However, IS is additionally denounced by ‘Abu Qatada al Filistinin and Abu Mohammad al- Maqdisi, the two most influential jihadist scholars alive’ (McCants 2015, p.128), they deem IS to be ‘simpletons who have deluded themselves… [practicing] a ”heinous conspiracy”’ (McCants 2015, p.128). Therefore, under the analysis of JWT, IS does not present a legitimate argument for political violence, while being additionally undermined on religious grounds.

With regards to jus in bello, IS does not reach the threshold of legitimation as there is a moral difference between ‘aiming at particular people because of things they have done… and aiming at whole groups of people, indiscriminately, because of who they are’ (Walzer 1978, p.200). ‘The Principle of Non-combatant Immunity’ dictates that ‘it is never permissible to aim to kill (or severely harm) non-combatants’ (Smilansky 2004, p.791). IS has defined their ‘strategy as “moving like a serpent between the rocks”- in other words, using its forces as shock troops to take out easy targets’ (Cockburn 2014, p.13), showing their intention to victimise non-combatants. This was clearly the case in Kabul; the perpetrators infiltrated a non-combatant gathering. Therefore, in accordance with the article, it is apparent that IS’ attack on Kabul lacks any form of legitimacy.

Forms of short-term counter-terrorism strategies were applied on the day of the protest. The article informatively writes that efforts were made to safeguard the protestors, declaring ‘road blocks that had been set up overnight to prevent the marchers accessing the centre of the city or the presidential palace’ (Sharifi, 2016). This form of counter-terrorism strategy is termed “target hardening… which attempts to deter or prevent terrorist attacks’ (Martin 2013, p.451). This tactic has also been seen as a more permanent feature in Kabul with the construction of a series of armed checkpoints, named the “Ring of Steel”.  In this instance it failed, the article further critiques its affectivity by stating it ‘hampered efforts to transfer some of the wounded to hospital’ (Sharifi, 2016). Security was therefore enhanced on the day but lacked efficiency.

Through condemning the attack, articles such as this provide governing powers the platform to pursue longer term counter-IS operations. Within his concept of the ‘Propaganda model, Noam Chomsky, goes as far to claim that the media ‘serves to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state’ (Herman & Chomsky 1988, p.1), in this case mobilize support for counter-terrorism acts. On the 13th December 2016, Ban Ki Moon released a UN report on the situation within Afghanistan, he outlined that ‘Afghan security forces, supported by international military assets, have conducted regular air and ground operations against ISIL-KP in both Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces’ (Secretary General Moon 2016, p.5). Therefore, with the use of their military assets the Afghan government and the international community have conducted an overt suppressive campaign against IS.

Beyond the presence of counter-terrorism operations, IS faces additional barriers to it’s success in Afghanistan. IS is a relatively new phenomenon in Afghanistan, the full extent of their achievements are yet to materialize. Presently, IS has seen partial success, it has claimed territory within the East of the country and obtained public recognition through attacks such as those on Kabul. From a distance, Afghanistan would seem to provide the ideal groundings for IS to establish due to its geographical location, mountainous terrain and political instability. Yet, IS faces insurgent competition; the Taliban has a far superior establishment in comparison, ‘it is deeply entrenched in Afghanistan’s militant communities… it can draw on tribal relationships and ethnic loyalties, an inherent advantage over ISIS’ (Barr & Moreng, 2016). Additionally, IS fails to appeal to Afghanistan’s population. For instance, ‘ISIS has undermined its prospects by criticizing Pashtunwali, the tribal code [of] Pashtuns’ (Barr & Moreng, 2016), the largest ethnic group in the country. U.S General John Nicholson supports this argument, stating that IS fighters within the country ‘subscribe to the broader ISIL philosophy which is the antithesis of Afghan culture and society so they are completely rejected by the Afghan people’ (NBC News, 2016). Subsequently, ‘Afghanistan does not provide a natural constituency from which ISIS can recruit’ (Mellbin 2015). It can therefore be argued that counter-terror operations are not IS’ only challenges, the ideological and power dynamics of the country do not provide an ideal political landscape for IS, lessening their chances of their success.

In light of the case study, the appropriateness of the article is varied. The case study reveals Sharifi has selected some motivations, causes and reactions, while neglecting to include others. Jackson et al. (2011) maintains in doing so a “news frame” is constructed; this means a ‘very particular understanding of the events being depicted, giving them a broader meaning (Jackson et al. 2011, p.54). Sharifi creates a frame focused upon the perpetrators being wrongdoers. Contrastingly IS portrayed the same event with their news agency, Aamaq, by labelling it a ‘martydom attack’ (Mashal & Nader, 2016). This presents the attack as noble rather than a villainous act. Therefore, it is apparent that the way this event has been portrayed is the product of ‘choices rather than neutral or objective presentations’ (Jackson et al. 2011, p.55). The article provides a summary of the event, which satisfies ‘the public’s right to know’ (Martin 2013, p.373). However, the article is only marginally appropriate as it lacks a full and unbiased analysis of the incident.

To conclude, an investigation has been conducted into the attack upon the Hazara protest in Kabul. This study has revealed the contributions of Salafi’s news report and expanded upon explanatory areas such a motivations, causes, legitimacy, appropriate labelling and counter operations of the attack. This has revealed IS, an organization hard to define, conducted an illegitimate attack that was primarily motivated by religious beliefs, while territorial expansion was secondary. These beliefs have been mobilized into political violence through effective leadership and IS’ “social contract”. Underlying long-term causes of the attack include weak states and modernisation of communication. Although not confirmed, a suspected trigger could have been the counter-terrorism operations conducted in the Eastern provinces. Overall, the article is selective about the information it includes, generating a “news-frame” which creates an insufficient and biased report.



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One thought on “Afghanistan – ‘Kabul attack: ISIS claims responsibility after “suicide bombing” kills 80 and injures hundreds’ (Independent, 2016)

  1. This is an excellent essay which demonstrates very good understanding of the case study and perceptive critical thinking. It builds on a wide range of relevant sources which it deploys well. It is very well structured, very well written, and very well referenced (except for some page numbers in the bibliography).

    At the same time, some lines of analysis are more fully and rigorously developed than others. The discussion on counter-terrorism, for instance, could have reflected further on what else really ought to be done that would be more likely to work. The discussion of the weakness of the Syrian and Iraqi states as a cause is good, but it is odd that the Afghan state and broader context are not mentioned here too. There could be more discussion of ‘achievements’ (in ISIS’s eyes) too.

    Still, on the whole, this is an excellent analysis, reflecting originality, insight and mastery of the topic, demonstrating critical enough reading of a wide range of texts, built on independent research, and putting forth a persuasively articulated argument.


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