The mass kidnapping of members of Afghanistan's Hazara minority has raised concerns that Islamic State militants are entering a new, active, phase in the country.
Details about the mass abduction, which took place in Zabul Province on February 23, remain murky, with claims that it was carried out by Islamic State militants countered by denials that the group is present in the southeastern province.
Thirty members of the predominately Shi’ite ethnic group were stopped as they traveled in two buses on a dangerous stretch of highway from Kandahar to Kabul. According to local officials, gunmen rounded up male Hazara passengers and whisked them away, while women, children, and non-Harazas were left behind.
The fate of the missing passengers is unknown.
The Interior Ministry said on February 25 that a manhunt involving police and the army is under way in Zabul, which is located along the porous border with Pakistan. Local officials believe the passengers, believed to be Afghan refugees returning from Iran via the western Afghan city of Herat, have been taken to the restive tribal areas in northwest Pakistan.
No group has claimed responsibility for the mass abduction, but kidnappings for ransom by bandits, local militias, and Taliban militants are common in Afghanistan. In the summer of 2014, 14 Hazaras were killed while traveling through central Afghanistan.
Local officials have offered competing claims over who was behind the abduction.
Provincial government official Abdul Khaliq Ayubi blamed the abduction on IS, which has a strong anti-Shi'ite agenda. He said the gunmen all wore black clothing and black masks. Eyewitnesses who spoke to ToloNews said the gunmen spoke in a foreign language.
Other Afghan officials have expressed skepticism about the involvement of IS in the abduction, however. Islam Gul Sayal, the spokesman for Zabul’s governor, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that he believes the Taliban was behind the abduction.
"These gunmen were antigovernment forces," he said. "It’s possible that they were [Pakistani] Taliban. But the Islamic State group does not have a presence here. They are simply Taliban who have changed their flags."
Nevertheless, the incident has fueled suspicions that IS militants are moving beyond the recruitment phase in Afghanistan.
The presence of alleged IS fighters has been reported in pockets across Afghanistan, mostly in the volatile south and east. In January, officials in the southern province of Helmand said IS was operating in the area. In early February, Kabul announced that the IS head in southwest Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Rauf, was killed in a military operation.
Most recently, officials in Logar Province said IS fighters had burned several homes and destroyed a shrine. IS's black flags have also appeared in the eastern province. In western Kabul, which has a large Hazara community, residents have received night letters bearing the IS logo in which Shi’ite Muslims are denounced as infidels.
Analysts have played down the presence of IS fighters in Afghanistan, saying that local officials might be exaggerating their presence in a bid to attract funding from the central government.
But U.S. General John Campbell, the commander of the remaining NATO forces in Afghanistan, said this week that IS has a "nascent" presence in Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has said the risk posed by the group could force the White House to seriously consider slowing the pace of its troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.
Hazaras are often the target of sectarian violence at the hands of Sunni extremists in Pakistan, though such attacks have been relatively rare in Afghanistan. An exception was a large-scale sectarian attack in Afghanistan in 2011 in which dozens of Shi’ite worshippers were killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul. The Taliban denounced the attack, which was claimed by the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e Jhangvi extremist group.
Hazaras were persecuted during the 1990s when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan.