Tehran, Kabul and Baghdad: A Snapshot of Terror


On the 7th June ISIS struck the Iranian Parliament building and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. They killed twelve people in suicide attacks targeting two important symbols of Iran’s revolution and government. That Iran is an ISIS target is no surprise, as they are natural enemies. ISIS is an ultra-conservative Sunni influenced organisation with a jihadist agenda and claims to be a caliphate, calling itself the ‘Islamic State’ and Iran is a major Shia majority state, is the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ and holds elections, if for candidates selected by the state. Shia militias, Iranian backed and Iraqi, have been at the forefront of the battles in Iraq against ISIS. The Sunni-Shia division in Islam is not the reason for the violence in the Middle-East, but it is a major factor, and the social and political differences between states and sub-state actors in the region centre around it. The surprise is that ISIS has managed to strike at the heart of Tehran, the capital of what is seen as a strong state with a powerful and experienced security apparatus.

In contrast, the government in Afghanistan can hardly be described as strong. In the absence of NATO’s forces they have struggled to contain a resurgent Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the new addition of ISIS, depending strongly on US military support to maintain security. A bomb that struck at Kabul’s diplomatic quarter killed 150 people and injured hundreds more, adding to the woes of a government that is in a permanent state of crisis. The attack was claimed by the Taliban, an ultra-conservative Sunni influenced organisation, which wants to establish an Islamic State in Afghanistan, and had done so previously until the US led NATO intervention in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. After the attack in Kabul a number of people were shot dead during a protest over security and at one of the funerals suicide bombers struck and killed at least twelve people. This time the Taliban have not claimed responsibility. People are up in arms over the question of security and there have been calls for government officials to resign.

On the 30th May suicide bombers struck in Baghdad in the first of a series of bombings. The first attack took place in the Shia majority Karrada district and killed at least 15 people, injuring over 50 more. The timing and location of the bomb was deliberately callous and provocative: the breaking of Ramadan fasts outside an ice-cream parlour packed with families. In a rare show of solidarity the lights of the Eiffel Tower were turned off, a response common after attacks in Europe. ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for this and other attacks. For ISIS, the Karrada district is a legitimate target as for them the Shia are heretics, a label that dehumanises and invites brutality. Iraq, like Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state, although in Iraq the Shia are in the majority, clustered in the general region of centre, east, and the south. In Iraq there was no surprise that a bombing took place, or that the ice-cream parlour quickly reopened, or even that the holy month of Ramadan was violated, the surprise was that after years of violence there is still the capacity for new depths.

The above is merely a snapshot of the week after the terrorist attack in London and for the sake of brevity a great deal has been missed out. There is no underlying message here about the nature of conflict-related terrorism and its consequences across the Muslim world. Nor is there an attempt to reduce the violence to the context of a Sunni-Shia split, which would be far off the mark, as politics, power, ethnicity, and lack of representation provide equally pervasive explanations. There is only one message and this is that the terrorism that is taking life and maiming people across the cities of Europe is the tip of the iceberg of a problem in which the only people not deemed worthy of killing are the fundamentalists whom deem only their own extreme ideology worthy and everyone else a legitimate target. This is totalitarianism pure and simple, and in the case of ISIS, the reason why even the most bitter of rivals in the Middle-East wars agree on the need for their destruction. ISIS are losing their territory and the fears of terrorism specialists that they will focus on targets in what they call the ‘far abroad’ are well founded as they revert from proto-statehood and insurgency to a primary tactic of terrorism. The consequences of the battles in Iraq are there to be seen in the rubble of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul, but the consequences of Jihadist ideology reach further. These are felt through the attacks that are truly global and not only the work of ISIS; let us not forget Al-Qaeda and the rest. Terrorism is notoriously difficult to define, although as one commentator quipped ‘we know what it is when we see it’, and the best reduction is that terrorism is the deliberate and random targeting of civilians for political aims in order to send a message and provoke a response. That the message is often lost and the response crippling is but one outcome. Terrorist attacks in Iraq and other parts of the Muslim world are seen as ‘normal’, the ‘new normal’ that the West fears, and they shouldn’t be, buried as they in conflict zones and wars. Despite their loud denunciation of the ‘West’ and its values and vulnerable minorities the Jihadists are managing to kill more Muslims than they do anyone else, trampling over Muslim traditions as they do so. If the lights of the Eiffel Tower went out every time civilians were killed by a terrorist attack somewhere in the world they would remain off for a long time.

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Dr Carl Turner,

Site Coordinator

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