Death of Dawood Muzammil: Internal Tension or ISIS Attack?

Ali Sajad Mawlaee

On Thursday morning, March 9, a suicide bomber entered the office of Mohammad Dawood Muzammil, the governor of Balkh, and detonated explosives, killing Dawood and two of his bodyguards. Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman of the Taliban group, wrote on his Twitter that an investigation has been launched. There are speculations that Dawood may have been a victim of internal tensions within the Taliban since they came to power, or an attack by ISIS.

1. Who Was Dawood Muzammil?
Dawood, a member of the Ishaqzai branch of the Durrani tribe from Garshag district in Helmand, had been a senior commander of the Taliban in the south and southwest of Afghanistan for the past 20 years. He had fought against the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and international forces in Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, and Farah, and was renowned among the Taliban for his battles with British soldiers in Helmand. After the war in Helmand, he was appointed deputy governor of the Taliban group in Farah, where he had been in charge of drug trafficking since 2015. He had also visited Iran. After the Taliban took power on August 15, Dawood was appointed governor of Nangarhar, where he was responsible for suppressing the Khorasan branch of ISIS. Following the successful suppression of ISIS in Nangarhar, he was promoted to deputy of the Taliban’s Ministry of Interior. Most recently, he had become governor of Balkh province, where he was killed.

2. Media Response in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan

The domestic media reaction to the killing of Dawood was relatively muted, with many outlets only reporting the news after it was confirmed by Asif Waziri, the spokesman of the Taliban police in Balkh. Pakistani media such as Dawn, Express Tribune, Geo news, and others covered the news of his death, attributing it to ISIS and discussing the rivalry and tension between ISIS and the Taliban, without mentioning any internal disputes within the Taliban. Iranian media also reported the news without providing further details.

3. Dawood’s Relationship with Iran
Dawood was a close associate of Ibrahim Sadr and Akhtar Mansour, the former leader of the Taliban, who had strong ties with Iran. In May 2016, Mansour was killed by US drones in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province while returning from Iran. Both Mansour and Sadr were from the Ishaqzai branch of the Durrani tribe. Due to their close relations with Iran, Dawood also had a good relationship with the country and was active in the border strip of Iran (Farah Province). When he was the Taliban’s deputy governor for Farah, Shahjahan (the former governor of this province) said that the Taliban were being equipped by Iran. During 2020, when the Afghan war was at its peak, there were rumors that the Taliban were planning to set up a council in Mashhad, which would be in opposition to the Quetta council.

Despite the fact that the Helmand Council was never officially formed, the ties between it and Iran were maintained. People such as Mansour, Sadr, Qayyum Zakir, and Dawood were known to have close relations with Iran, and the country invested in them after the Taliban took control. These individuals are not on good terms with the US due to their connections with Iran. Additionally, the Iranian embassy in Kabul also denounced the attack, believing it would not be beneficial to the stability of Afghanistan.

4. Possible Murder Scenarios
No Taliban senior officials had been attacked since August 15, 2021. Dawood, the most prominent Taliban commander, was killed in the last 18 months, and there are many rumors and speculations surrounding his death. This article considers two possible scenarios.

4.1. Internal Tensions
For the past twenty years, Sadr has been referred to as the de facto Defense Minister of the Taliban. He was in charge of the Taliban’s military commission until 2020, when Mullah Yaqoob assumed the responsibility. It was rumored that Sadr was displeased with the decision, and even that he had been “detained” by the Quetta Council. When the Taliban took power, Sadr had expected to be appointed as either the Minister of Defense or the Chief of Staff of the Army, but he was not. After a series of long controversies, he was eventually elected as the Deputy Minister of Interior. The commanders of the Helmand front are all dissatisfied with the current situation, and Mullah Shirin Akhund, Deputy Minister of Defense, Sadr, Zakir, and Fazel Mazloum are prominent figures of the Helmand Council who are not content with their current positions. From the very beginning, there have been many rumors of discord between the Taliban, but the group has consistently denied such rumors. However, in the last few months, tensions between the Haqqani Front and the Kandahar Front have been escalating.

The Haqqani network has several reasons for not wanting pro-Iran figures in the Taliban cabinet, including their connections to foreign intelligence services. This strengthens the hypothesis that the Haqqani network may be behind the case. Previously, Sadr had been saved from two assassination attempts. According to independent sources, the Helmand Taliban, mainly from the Ishaqzai branch, are in the crosshairs of the Haqqani network. It is reported that Hedayat Badri (Gol Agha Ishaqzai), the finance minister of the Taliban group, has resigned. Although the media has attributed his resignation to dissatisfaction with Hibatullah, there is a possibility that he resigned to save his life. Badri had been in charge of the financial commission of the Taliban for the past 20 years. Additionally, according to the information, “Naeem Barah”, the son of Mansour, is also one of the people whose name appears on the purge list.

4.2. ISIS Khorasan
If the ISIS claim of planning this attack is legitimate, they have exacted a severe revenge on Dawood. It had been nearly two months since ISIS members in Khorasan had not engaged in any kind of field activity. However, on Wednesday, they released a statement taking responsibility for the attack on a member of the Herat Water Supply department. Now, after 13 hours, ISIS Khorasan has also taken responsibility for the attack on Dawood. Consequently, it appears improbable that ISIS is capable of such an attack as footage shows that the suicide attacker was able to pass through the security measures and reach the governor’s office with ease.

It can be inferred from this description that the internal conflict within the Taliban has reignited and both sides are attempting to undermine each other. Therefore, there is a potential for this dispute to become more intense in the near future.