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Back with a Vengeance: The Baloch Insurgency in Iran

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 2
January 14, 2011 02:58 PM Age: 4 yrs
Category: Terrorism Monitor, Home Page, Global Terrorism Analysis, Domestic/Social, Terrorism, Middle East, Iran

Aftermath of Jundallah bombing in Chabahar on December 15, 2010.

When Iran’s security forces announced in February 2010 that they had successfully captured Abdelmalek Rigi, the elusive commander of Jundallah (Soldiers of God), many observers wondered aloud about the impact Rigi’s capture might have on the Baloch insurgency. [1]

Jundallah, an ethnic Baloch nationalist rebel group, has been waging a campaign of violence and terrorism in the name of local Baloch minority rights against Tehran in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan since 2003. As the founder and leader of this often enigmatic militant group, Rigi was widely assumed to be the integral piece in solving the Jundallah puzzle. From Iran’s perspective, capturing or killing Rigi would, in essence, hasten Jundallah’s downfall.

The circumstances behind Rigi’s capture by Iran’s intelligence services rivaled those found in the most suspenseful spy stories.  Rigi’s movements were tracked for months and his group was infiltrated, with his younger brother Abdelhamid allegedly recruited as an informant just prior to Rigi’s Kyrgyzstan Airways flight being forced down over Iranian airspace.  Tehran claimed Rigi was on his way to meet with his alleged handlers in U.S. intelligence.  The arrest led many to believe that Tehran had broken Jundallah’s back.  Rigi’s trial and subsequent execution on June 20, 2010, along with the trials and executions of scores of purported Jundallah members in the months prior appeared to affirm Iran’s claims of victory over the group (see Terrorism Monitor, April 2, 2010).  In light of events on the ground following Rigi’s execution, however, Tehran’s reports of Jundallah’s imminent demise proved to be premature in spite of its numerous losses.

Persistent Grievances

In addition to inhabiting the poorest and most underdeveloped region of Iran, the Baloch, who number about four million, also see themselves as the victims of systematic ethnic and religious oppression by the ethnic Persian and Shi’a-dominated clerical regime that fails to respect Baloch rights and their Sunni faith.  In this context, Jundallah sees itself as the defender of Iran’s Baloch minority community.  Notwithstanding the veracity of Tehran’s claims that Jundallah is essentially a product of hostile intelligence agencies seeking to destabilize the Islamic Republic or an extension of the scourge of violent Sunni Islam typical of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, the social, political and economic situations in Sistan-Balochistan leave it susceptible to violence and instability. Absent any avenues for peaceful dissent and activism among the region’s ethnic Baloch inhabitants, violent resistance has emerged as a political choice.  

Sistan-Balochistan shares a border with Pakistan’s Balochistan province, a region that is home to the largest group of ethnic Balochs and has also witnessed a decades-long nationalist insurgency against Islamabad.  It also borders Afghanistan, which hosts a small ethnic Baloch minority. In this context, the Baloch plight in Iran also cannot be detached from regional politics and the conditions that gave rise to the historical division of the Baloch people in the lands comprising what Baloch nationalists call “Greater Balochistan.”  

Escalating Momentum  

Jundallah has been implicated in a steady stream of attacks against Iranian security forces, political officials and other symbols of the state in Sistan-Balochistan province since emerging on the scene in 2003.  Small-unit ambushes, assassinations and abductions characterized Jundallah’s operations until the group launched its first suicide bombing; Abdelghafoor Rigi, a brother of the late Abdelmalek Rigi, rammed an explosives-packed vehicle into the joint police and counter-narcotics office in Saravan on December 28, 2008 (see Terrorism Monitor, February 9, 2009).  Jundallah’s resort to suicide bombings marked a serious escalation in its campaign against Tehran.  Moreover, on the surface, the suicide bombing seemed to support Iranian claims that the group was either directly influenced by or actively cooperating with radical Islamist movements that have employed similar tactics, namely, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  Jundallah’s Sunni Muslim pedigree and its targeting of symbols of Shi’a Islam have attracted allegations by its detractors of ties to radical Sunni extremists (al-Jazeera [Doha], June 20, 2010).  

In a demonstration of its organizational prowess and determination to continue its violent resistance against the Islamic Republic following the arrest of its leader, the group wasted no time in announcing that the previously unknown Muhammad Dhahir Baloch would assume the role of Jundallah leader.  The announcement of the movement’s new chief was accompanied by the following warning:

"Let the [Iranian] regime know that it will face a movement that is stronger and much more solid than ever before and one whose existence it has not been aware of…. It will see what our believing heroes among our Baloch children can do to the occupiers, the aggressors and the unjust.  The falsehood of the senior leaders of the regime will soon be exposed" (al-Jazeera, February 28, 2010).  

Jundallah has proven itself unrelenting on the battlefield.  On July 15, 2010, less than a month after the execution of its leader, two suicide bombers struck the Grand Mosque in Zahedan, the provincial capital of Sistan-Balochistan, killing 27 and injuring over 300 others.  Several members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a common target of Jundallah attacks in the past due to the central role they play in Sistan-Balochistan, were among the casualties (Islamic Republic News Agency [IRNA], July 16, 2010; Tehran Times, July 18, 2010).  The symbolism underlying the timing of the attack was three-fold:

• In a statement broadcast on its website and later issued to al-Arabiya television, Jundallah declared that it had acted to avenge the execution of its leader and fellow members of the group.

• The bombers struck while worshippers were commemorating the birth of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, an important day for Shi’a believers.

• The attack occurred on Pasdar (Guard) Day, the day Iran honors the IRGC and other branches of its armed forces (Tehran Times, July 18, 2010; Tehran Times, July 15, 2010). [2]

Significantly, the attacks were executed by Abdelbaset Rigi and Muhammad Rigi, two of the late leader’s relatives.  Both attackers were shown donning explosives-laden vests in a Jundallah statement that contained a warning of future attacks (al-Arabiya [Dubai], July 16, 2010).

Tactics and Motives

Jundallah’s first major strike against a civilian location occurred on May 28, 2009, in the form of a suicide bombing targeting the Amir al-Momenin mosque in Zahedan.  The bombing, which according to Jundallah represented a form of retaliation against Tehran for detaining and executing a number of local Sunni clerics, left at least 30 dead and over 100 others injured.  The timing of the attack was again significant; May 28 is the day Shi’a Muslims mourn the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, a national holiday in Iran (Press TV [Tehran], May 30, 2009).

In the most recent high-profile strike in Iranian Balochistan, two suicide bombers struck the Imam Hussein mosque in the port city of Chabahar on December 15, 2010, killing 38 and injuring over 100.  The newest attack mirrors previous strikes against Shi’a mosques during periods of religious significance; in this case, the attack occurred as worshippers participated in a mourning ceremony on the eve of Ashoura, the ten-day period that marks the death of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson (a revered figure among Shi’a Muslims) (Press TV, December 20, 2010; al-Jazeera, December 15, 2010).  The attackers, Sayf al-Rahman al-Chabahari and Hessan Khashi, were both pictured wearing explosives-laden vests in a Jundallah announcement that included the following words: “This operation was a revenge for the hanging of the head of the movement Abdulmalek [Rigi] and other members of Jundallah…In this suicide operation in the city of Chabahar, tens of guards [IRGC] and mercenaries have been killed. The operation was carried out to expose the aggressors in Baluchistan" (al-Jazeera, December 15, 2010). [3]

Jundallah has also demonstrated its interest in mounting operations outside of Sistan-Balochistan.  In response to Abdelmalek Rigi’s arrest, Jundallah issued a threat to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Tehran warning that the group would target the office for “helping” Iran in its campaign against Jundallah and the Baloch community (Press TV, May 3, 2010).  Furthermore, on October 8, 2010, Jundallah announced that it had abducted Amir Hossein Shirvani, a man the group claimed had vital information regarding the role of senior Iranian officials in the country’s nuclear program. The kidnapping occurred hundreds of miles away from Jundallah’s traditional stronghold in the southeastern part of the country (Middle East Online [London], October 10, 2010).  In exchange for Shirvani’s safe return, Jundallah demanded the release of 200 Baloch and Sunni figures it claims are being held as political prisoners inside Iranian prisons (al-Arabiya, December 22, 2010).  An official representing the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) confirmed that Shirvani was previously employed by the organization in Isfahan as a welder at the nuclear facility and then as a driver for a private firm contracted by AEOI, adding that he had no links to the nuclear program.  Another official also refuted Jundallah’s claims about the hostage’s credentials, claiming Shirvani had run into trouble with narcotics traffickers in Sistan-Balochistan (presumably associated with Jundallah), hence the reason for his abduction (Press TV [Tehran], October 9, 2010).  Jundallah released a videotaped statement in late November 2010 that showed Shirvani discussing alleged details of Iran’s nuclear program and proclaiming that Iran is a “threat to the Arab region and entire world” (al-Arabiya, November 28, 2010).  Iranian officials brushed off Jundallah’s effort to exploit Shirvani’s abduction as a propaganda ploy designed to attract the attention of the West.  

Geopolitical Considerations

Sistan-Balochistan occupies one of the world’s busiest and most hostile narcotics, arms and human trafficking corridors. [4] Locally-based Baloch smuggling networks in Iranian Balochistan cooperate with their tribal kin and associates over the porous borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, prompting Iran to take a heavy-handed approach to managing the region.  In fact, the harsh terrain marking the Iran-Pakistan frontier has enabled Jundallah to sustain itself over the years.  In spite of their history of collaborating to combat Baloch nationalism in the wider region – Baloch nationalism threatens the territorial integrity of both Iran and Pakistan – Iran frequently accuses Pakistan of not doing enough to root out Jundallah positions in Pakistan’s own Balochistan province.  Indeed, Iran often refers to Jundallah as a Pakistan-based group in what amounts to an effort to direct attention away from the domestic climate that gave rise to the group in Iranian Balochistan. [5] Following the recent attack at Chabahar, an IRGC official threatened to pursue Jundallah outside of Iran: “This counter-revolutionary group [i.e. Jundallah] which is based in Pakistan and is supported from there must be pursued and crushed in Pakistani territory, which is the only way to confront it” (Rooz Online [Paris], December 22, 2010).  Iran also accuses the United States, as well as Israel, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia, of supporting Jundallah (al-Jazeera, June 20, 2010).   

Sistan-Balochistan occupies a strategically important space for various pipeline routes that will eventually deliver Iranian natural gas to Pakistan, India, and potentially, China (Asia Times [Hong Kong], December 16, 2010).  Sistan-Balochistan is also home to a strategic port and Free Trade Zone at Chabahar.  With Indian investment and assistance, Chabahar, which lies on the Gulf of Oman and provides access to the Indian Ocean, may eventually compete for business with Pakistan’s much touted port at Gwadar in neighboring Pakistani Balochistan (Daily News [Karachi], February 26, 2009).  Iran, in essence, sees the region through a security prism; the application of harsh security measures has come at the expense of regional development and efforts to better integrate the Baloch into the fabric of Iranian society.    

Conclusion

In light of repeated complaints that Jundallah enjoys financial, material and operational support from the United States (including televised confessions by Abdelmalek Rigi and other detained members of the group), Iran claimed a diplomatic victory in the struggle against its Baloch nemesis when the U.S. State Department announced on November 3, 2010, that it was moving to designate Jundallah as a terrorist organization.  Reminiscent of Washington’s decisions to blacklist the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistan (Party of Free Life in Iranian Kurdistan – PJAK, an ethnic Kurdish nationalist insurgent group fighting its own war against Tehran) in February 2009 and the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI, better known as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq [MEK], a cult-like opposition group with a history of violence and terrorism) in 1997 as terrorist organizations, the move against Jundallah is likely tied to the indirect diplomacy between the United States and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program and the future of Iraq and Afghanistan (Press TV, November 4, 2010).  Jundallah, however, condemned the U.S. move against it, and threatened, in vague terms, to cause “problems and damages” for the United States in Afghanistan (al-Arabiya, November 4, 2010).  There is no evidence to date indicating that Jundallah has carried out its threat to target U.S. interests in the region.

By all accounts, Iran will continue to ramp up efforts to root out Jundallah.  Given the heated rhetoric out of Tehran following the attack at Chabahar, Iranian incursions into Pakistani Balochistan to root out suspected Jundallah positions are not out of the question.  Despite Iran’s efforts, based on the group’s activities following the execution of Abdelmalek Rigi in June 2010 and the persistent grievances felt by the Baloch towards the central government, the situation in Iranian Balochistan will likely continue to generate serious problems for Tehran. 

Notes:

1. Jundallah also refers to itself as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran (PRMI) in what likely amounts to an effort to refute claims by Iran that it harbors a radical Islamist agenda.
2. Various mirrors of Jundallah’s official website, junbish.blogspot.com (no longer active), complete with regular updates from Jundallah and other ethnic Baloch nationalist websites, can be accessed at the Taftan News Agency, an ethnic Baloch nationalist online media venue, at taftana.blogspot.com.
3. For the Persian-language statement issued by Jundallah, along with photographs of the bombers, see “Announcement of the New People’s Resistance Movement (Jundallah),” Taftan News Agency, December 15, 2010, taftana.blogspot.com/2010/12/blog-post_15.html.
4. According to a 2009 United Nations study, Iranian counter-narcotics forces claim the highest volume of opium seizures in the world.  40% of the opium trafficked out of Afghanistan is reported to transit Iran – with much of it transiting Sistan-Balochistan – prior to making its way to global markets. See “Addiction, Crime and Insurgency: The Transnational Threat of Afghan Opium,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), October 2009, p. 7.
5. While the Iran-based ethnic Baloch Jundallah movement that is the subject of this article operates over the border in Pakistani Balochistan, exploiting the harsh terrain along the Iran-Pakistan frontier as an operational and logistical hub to sustain its insurgency against Tehran, Iranian Jundallah should not be confused with a Pakistan-based Sunni militant group that goes by the same name and is linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban as well as a host of other radical Sunni extremist groups in Pakistan.