By Aram Mirzaei for the Saker blog
While terrorism is a phenomenon most of us have come in touch with during our lifetime, much of the coverage is shadowed by terrorism in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, where US backed terrorist groups have wreaked havoc in devastating the wars that have plagued these countries.
Nonetheless, terrorism is widespread across the region, even in Iran. Due to Iran’s relatively strong internal stability, terrorist groups have been unable to catch major headlines in the Islamic Republic as terrorist groups often conduct hit and run attacks or the occasional kidnappings of young drafted border guards and soldiers near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border areas as well as across Iran’s western borders towards Iraq. Some groups are motivated by separatist goals, while others are driven by religious extremism. In this first part I will cover terrorism across Iran’s eastern borders, one that is driven by the Salafist ideology.
Iran has been familiar with terrorism for many decades through the Saddam Hussein-backed “People’s Mujahideen”, a strange group of “Marxist-Islamists” who waged war on their own country in an attempt to grab power, shortly after the Islamic Revolution. During Saddam’s 8 year war on Iran they were backed and armed by Iraqi security forces, often resorting to terrorist attacks, killing many innocent people in the process. While this group was effectively defeated, it has nonetheless survived as it was sheltered by the Saddam regime and recently have found refuge in Albania. I will come back to this group later.
Since the 9/11 attacks when Al-Qaeda became a household name, Takfiri groups have become increasingly widespread in the Middle East and central Asia. Many Takfiri groups have found their haven in neighbouring Pakistan which they use as a home base to launch cross border attacks on Afghanistan and Iran. Pakistan’s government and security apparatus are known to support Takfiri groups across the region, at the behest of Washington, a fact that former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf admitted to.
Pakistan is home to multiple Saudi funded so called Madrasas, terrorist recruitment centres focused on brainwashing young men into joining militant groups with similar ideologies such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. For decades, since the days of the Soviet-Afghan war, Islamabad has used terrorism as a tool for its foreign policy towards its neighbours. But it is important to understand that Islamabad and Pakistan’s security services are working for Washington’s interests, because had they had their own interests at heart, they wouldn’t allow the Waziristan province to turn into a terrorist controlled region in the country, endangering the lives of Pakistanis across the country. These Takfiri groups have committed heinous crimes against Pakistanis as well, such as the notorious Peshawar school shootings of 2014 where 132 schoolchildren were murdered.
Since 2003, Iran has been plagued by Takfiri terrorism that has penetrated through Iran’s south-eastern borders into the Sistan and Baluchistan province. One of the more active groups in the region was the Jundallah terrorist group, made up of the predominantly Sunni Muslim Baluchis (a people living in southeastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan). Jundallah claimed to be fighting for Baluchi rights in Iran while also espousing the formation of a Sunni Baluchi state. From their bases in Pakistan, over the course of 8 years, Jundallah conducted multiple terrorist attacks in Iran, such as the 2007 Zahedan bombings where 18 members of the IRGC were killed.
The following investigation pointed towards external backing by the U.S and Israel, as Mossad agents posing as CIA officers met with and recruited members of Jundallah in cities such as London to carry out attacks against Iran. In late 2008, in an interview with the Saudi Al-Arabiyah TV, Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi said that his group had been “given 2000 men as well as military and ideological training”, indicating that external support to his group was indeed an ongoing process. In the following two years more attacks were carried out in the Sistan and Baluchistan province as Jundallah stepped up their operations. Despite Pakistan’s official policy of cooperating with Iran on the matter of cross border terrorism in this region, some Iranian officials have directly accused Pakistan of playing a double game. It has been claimed that Jundallah can not operate with at least some degree of support from within Pakistan and that elements from within Pakistani security establishment, particularly ISI with financial support of Saudi Arabia and its supplementation through the largest opium black market in the world have created a network of drug smugglers and terrorists in the region.
In 2007, ABC News cited US. and Pakistani intelligence sources as saying American officials had been secretly advising and encouraging Jundullah militants to carry out attacks against targets inside Iran. The following year, in 2008, Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker investigation revealed that the Bush administration had been funding covert operations inside Iran designed to destabilize the country’s leadership since 2005. According to Hersh, these covert activities included support for Baluchi groups such as Jundullah. That same year, Pakistan’s former army chief, General Mirza Aslam Baig, claimed to have first-hand knowledge that the US was providing training facilities to Jundallah militants in Pakistan and southeastern Iran, specifically to sow unrest between the two neighbouring countries.
The final piece of evidence was uncovered when Abdolmalek Rigi was captured in 2010. In a televised interview with Iranian officials before his execution, Rigi confessed that the Americans “promised to help us and they said that they would co-operate with us, free our prisoners, and would give us military equipment, bombs, machine guns, and they would give us a base.” Rigi added that “The Americans said Iran was going its own way and they said our problem at the present is Iran… not al-Qaeda and not the Taliban, but the main problem is Iran. We don’t have a military plan against Iran. Attacking Iran is very difficult for us (the US).”
Rigi’s arrest and subsequent execution weakened and ultimately dissolved Jundallah as members broke off to form new terrorist groups such as Harakat Ansar Iran and the more notorious Jaish ul Adl. Like Jundallah, Jaish ul-Adl is operating in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, as well as Pakistan’s Balochistan Province. The group has carried out numerous attacks against Iranian government institutions, including one infamous incident in March 2014 in which five Iranian border guards were kidnapped, with one being executed later. The latest attack was carried out just two months ago, when a suicide bomber targeted a bus carrying IRGC personnel in the city of Zahedan (Sistan and Baluchistan).
Aside from carrying on Jundallah’s previous goals of creating a jihadist Baluchi state in southeastern Iran, Jaish ul-Adl is also opposed to the government’s active support of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which they regard as an attack on Sunni Muslims. This is where the Syrian war again is connected to the rise of salafist groups across the region, and shows us how these groups are indeed the same as the US backed terrorist groups in Syria. Takfiri extremist organizations such as Jaish al-Adl see their war against Iran as an extension of the war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, itself part of the broader jihad against Shia Islam.
In the next part of this series, I will cover the much broader and frequent support for Kurdish nationalist and separatist groups in Western Iran, as well as the recent rise of Arab separatism in southwestern Iran.