ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This morning in Kabul, Afghanistan, more than 40 people were killed and dozens more wounded when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest. He got inside a building that housed a cultural center and a news agency, both associated with Shiite Islam. ISIS has claimed responsibility for this attack.
And for more on this and on the growing ISIS presence in Afghanistan, we're joined by Reuters bureau chief James Mackenzie from Kabul. Welcome to the program.
JAMES MACKENZIE: Hello.
SIEGEL: And first, tell us a bit about these targets, a cultural center and a news agency.
MACKENZIE: Yes, it's a slightly unusual target. There have been a number of attacks on Shiite sites in Afghanistan recently. Most have been mosques or else demonstrations of people from the Hazara community, which is mainly Shiite. This one was on this sort of cultural center, this news agency, which were housed in a building in a kind of mainly Shiite area of the city. And, yeah, as you saying, it was claimed by Islamic State, which made the explicit link with the fact that it was a Shiite center and said it was receiving support from Iran, which is something they have done in past attacks as well.
SIEGEL: What was going on inside this building at the time of the attack?
MACKENZIE: There was a kind of panel discussion going on, you know, involving researchers. There were students in the audience. It was a sort of - a conference about the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And while this was going on, this explosion happened in the middle of the big room where it was all - where the event was taking place. And, you know, that's where a great, you know, bulk of the casualties were caused.
SIEGEL: And you say that ISIS, Islamic State, which is drawn from Sunni Islam, from the majority Orthodox stream of Islam, specifically spoke of the Shiite or the pro-Iranian nature of these targets that it has selected. And that's typical of what ISIS has been doing?
MACKENZIE: That is typical of what ISIS has been doing. It's been a very, you know, nasty and unwelcome development over the past two years roughly. Previously, attacks on Shiite targets specifically - you know, this sectarian thing that is so widely seen in places like Iraq was very rare in Afghanistan. But since the beginning of 2016, really, there have been, you know, many of them - you know, around about 12, I think - claimed by Islamic State with the apparent aim of sort of fomenting this kind of sectarian violence that's seen in other areas that was quite rare in Afghanistan before.
SIEGEL: How active is ISIS in the country? And does the level of its activity there have to do with the defeats that it has experienced in Iraq and Syria recently?
MACKENZIE: Well, that last question is really one that nobody knows the answer to. It's one of the great questions there is. Islamic State has been active in Afghanistan for the past three years or so. It first appeared in kind of the very beginning of 2015 in an area in eastern Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan, and has since sort of spread its activities in other areas of the country. But its exact nature is still really a bit of a question.
SIEGEL: Kabul, being the capital of the country, is I believe the most heavily fortified place in Afghanistan. Was there security at all at this site? And what did people make of the ability of the attacker to get through whatever security there was?
MACKENZIE: Well, certainly the center of Kabul, in the area where the foreign embassies and the many government buildings are, is very heavily fortified - concrete blast walls, police checkpoints, barbed wire everywhere. But, you know, it's a big city. There's, you know, 5 million inhabitants or so. And a city that size can't be locked down completely. So outside this sort of government center that level of security isn't seen. Questions will be asked about what security arrangements were taken. But, you know, once you get outside the kind of diplomatic area, you know, the security isn't quite - isn't nearly as tight. And, you know, there are opportunities for these attacks to take place.
SIEGEL: Well, James Mackenzie, Kabul bureau chief for Reuters, thanks for talking with us.
MACKENZIE: Thank you.
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