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An Afghan branch of ISIS claims responsibility for a deadly attack in Iran

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

An Afghan branch of the violent extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack this week in southeastern Iran that killed 84 people. The group says two of its members detonated suicide vests in a crowd of civilians who were marking the killing of a prominent Iranian general four years ago this week. The same group has said it was behind two previous attacks in Iran. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul to talk about this. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So what more do we know about this Afghan branch of the Islamic State?

KENYON: Well, they call themselves Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISKP. Now, Khorasan's a big province. It includes part of northern Afghanistan, parts of Iran and Turkmenistan. And this same group also said it was behind a shooting attack at a Shia shrine in Shiraz in 2022 and another one last year. Now, the governor of the Iranian province where the two shooting attacks occurred has said the second was in response to Iran executing the gunmen from the first attack, and analysts say the group's motive is believed to be primarily sectarian. The ISKP is a Sunni Muslim group. Iran's population is predominantly Shia, and the ISKP considers Shias to be apostates. This week's suicide bomb attack was by far the deadliest of the three.

FADEL: So how significant is it that the attack targeted a crowd going to honor the late General Qasem Soleimani that was killed by the U.S. back in 2020?

KENYON: Well, there is a connection there, yes. Iranian officials credit Soleimani with playing a key role in fighting Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. Soleimani for years worked with militant groups designated as terrorists by Western countries. And, of course, it was a coalition led by the United States and the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces that played a decisive role in eradicating ISIS from Syria and Iraq, effectively eliminating their so-called caliphate. But the fact that Iran gives credit to General Soleimani for having had an important role in ending ISIS control in those countries may help explain, in part, why the ISKP would target a ceremony honoring Soleimani's life and career.

FADEL: Now, there were some early suggestions from Iranian officials that Israel could have been involved in the attack, but this claim would seem to eliminate that possibility, right? I mean, that's not on the table anymore.

KENYON: Yes. And U.S. officials said from the start there was no evidence this bombing was an Israeli attack. Israel has launched attacks inside Iran over the years, but it has kept a narrow focus on its operations there. It's targeted Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities that are involved in Iran's nuclear program. In 2021, for instance, Iran blamed Israel for a mysterious explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility that knocked out the power there. Reports at the time said the operation was carried out by Israel's spy agency, the Mossad. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said then that there's no threat in the Middle East, quote, "more serious, more dangerous, more pressing" than that posed by what he called the fanatical regime in Iran.

Now, Tehran has always maintained its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and Israel has never been convinced by those declarations. Israeli officials have repeatedly said they will do what it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And Western officials say there's nothing to indicate Israel would have been behind an attack on civilians at a ceremony for General Soleimani. This claim by Islamic State, if confirmed, would seem to settle that question. This appears to have been a Sunni extremist group attacking Shia Muslims.

FADEL: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon talking to us from Istanbul. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Peter Kenyon
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.