Mystery as Afghanistan rocked by wave of targeted magnetic bomb assassinations

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Fatima Khalil's car, Kabul, June 2020
Fatima Khalil's car, Kabul, June 2020

Fatima Khalil had only set off for the office four or five minutes earlier when the sound of an explosion echoed back to her family home.

Panic immediately rose in her mother, who began ringing the daughter she had just waved off to work. “It was ringing, but nobody answered,” Farzana Sarwari recalled.

“I called twice. My son assured me it was nothing. I could not wait. I went outside. My neighbour came in front of me and told me that the white vehicle which carried your daughter has exploded.”

Ms Khalil, also known as Natasha, was killed in June by unknown assassins as she made her way to work at the country's independent human rights commission.

The killing of a high-flying 24-year-old, who symbolised the promise of a new generation of Afghans, for days cast a pall over a country already numbed by relentless killing.

Fatima Khalil's killing shocked Afghanistan
Fatima Khalil's killing shocked Afghanistan

Her assassination by a bomb placed on her car was part of a troubling wave of targeted killings which have spread alarm across the country.

So-called magnetic, or sticky bombs placed on vehicles have become so common that they are now an almost daily menace in Kabul.

While the devices are highly targeted, the bombs' victims have been varied. Those killed recently have ranged from soldiers and police to journalists, activists, civil servants and businesspeople. Others have just been shot dead in the street. 

The attacks have not been claimed by anyone and come as Ashraf Ghani's government and its Taliban foes circle the negotiating table, while American troops rapidly withdraw.

Security officials blame the Taliban for the attacks, saying the wave of assassinations is an attempt to pressure the central government and portray it as unable to protect people.

The Taliban publicly deny many of the killings, including Ms Khalil's, even as they continue to launch deadly attacks and rebuff calls for a ceasefire as part of peace negotiations. 

The bombs are often placed underneath, or on top of vehicles, which are sitting targets in the city's gridlocked traffic. Beggars and even children have been hired to attach the bombs, said Javid Kohistani, a retired general and security expert.

“Assassinations on the one hand kill the target, and on the other hand inject fear into the public,” he said. “The magnetic bombs and assassinations undermine confidence in the national security institutions and create panic. With mistrust, more people from the inside of government will cooperate with the Taliban as they see the government is unable to protect people.”

Fatima Khalil's mother at her grave - Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Fatima Khalil's mother at her grave - Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Journalists and civil rights workers were among the targets because of the publicity their deaths brought, said Daud Naji, an adviser to Afghanistan's national security council.

“If they kill these people, there's huge anger and the people feel a lot of sympathy. They call on the police chief, they call on the army officials and the president and say 'Why can't you stop these kinds of attacks?'”

As such bombs have become cheap and easy to buy, there are suspicions some of the attacks might be the results of personal grievances, organised crime, or even political rivalry. In the capital's febrile political world, there are also accusations some government factions might be carrying out the attacks to discredit the peace process.

The family of a former television news anchor, Yama Siavash, killed by a bomb on his car in November have called for a fuller investigation into who killed him.

Not all the targeted killings are by magnetic bombs. On Thursday a female journalist and her driver were shot dead in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

The killing of Malalai Maiwand, a reporter at Enikas Radio and TV, took the total number of journalists and media workers killed this year in Afghanistan to 10.

Diplomatic missions including the UK earlier this week condemned the attacks. “We consider these not only as savage attacks against Afghan blood, but as an attack on the very peace process in Afghanistan,” a statement said.

Five months after her daughter's death, Mrs Sarwari still has no idea what happened. “I still don’t know who killed her, or why they killed her,” she said. “We think hard about her assassination. There is a big wound in my heart that there is no happiness in life anymore.”

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