By Ayesha Tanzeem
August 3, 2020
ISLAMABAD – A deadly Islamic State attack on a prison in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad has left at least 29 people dead and around 50 others wounded, including prisoners and security personnel. Authorities say the attack by the local IS chapter went well into Monday afternoon after starting more than 20 hours earlier.
Army Chief of Staff General Yasin Zia arrived on the scene Monday to lead the clearing operations.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense said in a statement the facility was “completely cleared.” Officials said the operation “resulted in the killing of five attackers inside the prison,” along with three inmates killed by IS. Two of the dead were Taliban.
“The prison is now under the control of Afghan security forces,” Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman told Afghan channel Tolo News.
Ataullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the Nangarhar provincial government, said clean-up operations were under way in nearby buildings.
The prison held nearly 1,800 inmates at the time it was attacked. Police said they arrested more than 1,000 prisoners who tried to flee but some inmates were still missing.
The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group through its media arm, started with a car bomb blast followed by gunmen storming the facility.
Security officials said their operations moved slowly in order to protect civilians in the area.
Various local health officials confirmed that the wounded as well as bodies of the dead were shifted to Nangarhar Regional Hospital.
Nangarhar was a stronghold of the local chapter of IS, called IS Khorasan, before the Afghan government declared the group defeated in 2019 after several years of sustained military operations by Afghan and U.S. forces. The group, however, has continued to attack targets in areas including in Jalalabad and Kabul.
Most of those attacks have been against civilian targets, like the minority Sikh or Shi’ite communities.
Jalalabad is vulnerable due to its proximity to the border, according to Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan at the non-profit International Crisis Group in Washington.
“IS-KP’s cross-border ties and ideological appeal are rooted in Nangarhar’s border areas. For these reasons, attacks on Jalalabad will always be easier than most of the rest of Afghanistan, in terms of logistics and local support,” he said.
The Afghan Taliban have distanced themselves from the attack. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said his group “had nothing to do with it.”
The Taliban are under pressure to keep the level of violence low in the country ahead of direct talks with the government and other Afghan factions expected to begin this month.
The negotiations to end the decades-long conflict were supposed to be part of a deal the United States signed in February with the militant group. The agreement, that included a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, called on the Taliban to demonstrate their commitment to counter terrorism.
Watkins said attacks like these could spoil the atmosphere for talks and needed to be addressed.
“In order to establish greater trust during intra-Afghan negotiations, both sides should quickly discuss practical measures that can be taken to combat the violence of spoiler groups,” he said.
The negotiations have been stalled several times over prisoner releases. They had been scheduled to start back in March.
Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Afghan government was supposed to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for 1,000 Afghan security personnel held by the militants.
President Ashraf Ghani announced last week that he would complete the release of 5,000 prisoners soon. While his announcement was followed by a cease-fire from both sides for the three-day Muslim holy festival of Eid al Adha – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Afghanistan – the dispute on the prisoners continued.
The Taliban want the 5,000 prisoners to be those on a list the militants have provided the Afghan government. Ghani said 400 of the 5,000 were involved in serious terrorist attacks and that he did not have the authority to release them. Instead, he wants to call a loya jirga, a traditional grand assembly, on Aug. 7 to decide their fate.