‘Sticky Bombs’ Sow Terror and Chaos in a City on Edge

The Taliban’s recent shift to magnetic bombs to target Afghan officials in Kabul underscores the government’s struggle to protect its own people.

As he has done most workdays, Mahbubullah Mohibi left his home on Tuesday morning in a white armored S.U.V. with government plates, bound for his office job as deputy governor for Kabul Province.

His driver was wheeling through the narrow streets of Kabul’s Macroyan neighborhood when the S.U.V. was rocked by an explosion. Mr. Mohibi, 42, and his secretary were killed and two bodyguards were wounded, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said.

Someone had attached a homemade magnetic bomb to Mr. Mohibi’s vehicle, an increasingly common and lethal tactic targeting government officials and other prominent Afghans in the capital.

The dull, crumpling echo of a magnetic bomb detonation has lately provided the daily soundtrack to Kabul’s busy morning commute. A so-called “sticky bomb” exploded nearly every day somewhere in Afghanistan this fall — with dozens such attacks in Kabul alone the past six months, according to New York Times tallies.

A few hours after the attack on Mr. Mohibi, a magnetic bomb killed Abdul Rahman Atshan, the provincial council deputy chief of central Afghanistan’s Ghor Province, and seriously injured a council member riding with him, a provincial police spokesman said.

And on Wednesday morning, a police officer and a government intelligence officer were killed in separate blasts in Kabul caused by magnetic bombs attached to their vehicles, a police official said.

Magnetic bombs are part of a Taliban strategy to sow terror and chaos among Afghans, particularly in the capital, local security officials say. Coupled with assassinations of government employees, security forces and civil leaders by roving gunmen, the attacks have underscored the government’s inability to protect its own people — and are adding fuel to the public’s growing discontent and distrust of Afghanistan’s leaders in the midst of their efforts to negotiate peace terms with the Taliban.

“It’s a great outcome for the Taliban — each one is like a news bomb in the media,” Mohammad Arif Rahmani, a member of the Afghan Parliament’s security committee, said of the magnetic explosives. “These bombs are spreading big fears through society.”

As part of a deal signed with the United States in February that laid out the timeline for a final American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban pledged to curtail mass-casualty attacks, like truck-bombings, in cities.But the group has instead expanded its use of magnetic bombs to demonstrate the extent of its reach into the capital, as well as the government’s vulnerability, as it seeks leverage at the next round of peace talks that are scheduled to reconvene in Qatar in January.

Magnetic bombs have been used in Afghanistan since the early years of the insurgency around 2005, as well as in Iraq. But the intensified pace of such attacks this year has shifted the security equation in Kabul, forcing anyone connected to the government to reassess how and when they use their vehicles.

Kabul’s chaotic traffic works to bombers’ advantage. Vehicles are often pinned in traffic jams, where attackers on motorbikes or passing pedestrians can ease past and furtively attach a magnetic bomb.

The capital now feels like a city under siege, with something as prosaic as a commute to work a source of dread, and every car on the street a potential deathtrap.

“The situation is so unpredictable — you don’t know what will happen tomorrow when you get into your car,” said Aiman Mayar, 22, whose father, a Ministry of Education official, was killed by a magnetic bomb in Kabul three months ago.

The official, Dr. Abdul Baqi Amin, was riding in a ministry vehicle that had been parked in a ministry parking lot the night before, his son said. Like the loved ones of so many other bombing victims, Mr. Mayar was left wondering why his father was targeted — and how someone managed to attach an explosive device to his vehicle despite government bodyguards and security precautions.

“I want to know how it’s possible that a car with a governmental number plate gets blown up with a magnetic bomb and the government doesn’t even know who did it or how,” Mr. Mayar said. “It’s been three months since they promised an investigation, but there’s been nothing.”

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for some magnetic bomb blasts, but others go unclaimed, such as the attacks on Mr. Mayar’s father and Mr. Mohibi, exacerbating public fears that anyone could be targeted at any time for reasons that will never be explained.

The brazen attacks leave an enduring impression that the militants can operate in the government’s capital with near impunity, said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired Afghan general who watched an insurgency slowly strangle Kabul in the early 1990s until Afghanistan’s Russian-backed government collapsed.

“Kabul is an open city — these Taliban live here and make their bombs here,” Mr. Amarkhel said. “After each one of the magnetic bomb explosions, the government gets more discredited.”

The magnetic bombs are typically assembled using plastic high explosives and powerful magnets, a government intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said insurgents smuggle explosives into Kabul using an underground courier system known as belti.

Attackers try to attach the bombs as close as possible to a car’s fuel tank to ensure that the vehicle is engulfed in flames. The devices can be detonated remotely with radio signals or with a time-delay fuse.

At the same time, the Taliban have stepped up widespread attacks against government forces in rural provinces and remote district centers. Afghan civilians are frequently killed in the crossfire. At least 212 civilians were killed in October, the deadliest month for civilians since September 2019, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

Even low-level functionaries affiliated with the government have been targeted by magnetic bombs. In October, Yousaf Jan, an Afghan contractor hired to deliver fuel for police vehicles, was killed by a bomb attached to his delivery vehicle in Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan.

Gul Nawaz, the contractor’s cousin, said he had no idea who had attacked Mr. Jan or why.

“I just know that nobody has investigated his case and nobody has helped his family,” Mr. Nawaz said.

The magnetic bomb attacks are likely to persist. The device is a brutally effective weapon — cheap, precise and lethal.

“It doesn’t cost much and requires little in the way of facilities,” said Mr. Rahmani, the Parliament security member. “But it has a very high impact.”