The Evolution of the Ethnic Baluch Insurgency in Iran

Iran touted the February 2010 capture of Jundallah (Soldiers of God)[1] leader Abdelmalek Rigi as the death knell for the ethnic Baluch insurgency plaguing its southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan (also known as Iranian Baluchistan). Since emerging in 2003, the Jundallah-led insurgency primarily targeted members of the Iranian security services and other symbols of Iranian authority. It eventually widened its targets to include civilians. Attacks by Jundallah claimed hundreds of lives. The group’s violent campaign was derived from its self-declared objective of defending ethnic Baluch and Iranian Sunni Muslims from state repression. The dramatic events surrounding Rigi’s capture continue to be shrouded with intrigue.[2] Rigi was executed in June 2010, following a trial in which he pleaded guilty to all of the charges leveled against him.[3]

A spate of terrorist attacks and other incidents of violent militancy in Iran in 2012, attributed to ethnic Baluch rebels, recast a light on the situation in Sistan-Baluchistan. Jundallah’s seeming demise has given way to a new wave of ethnic Baluch insurgents. In contrast to the height of Jundallah’s campaign, the landscape of violent resistance in Sistan-Baluchistan today is obscured by the presence of numerous, albeit seemingly overlapping, factions. These include Harakat Ansar Iran (Movement of the Partisans of Iran, HAI)[4] and Jaish al-Adl Iran (Army of Justice, JAA)—the two most active insurgent detachments to emerge in the post-Jundallah milieu—among others.

This article will examine the latest trends in ethnic Baluch militancy in Sistan-Baluchistan and the impact of extremist Salafist ideologies on shaping ethnic Baluch resistance to Iranian rule. It finds that the specter of the late Rigi continues to weigh heavily on ethnic Baluch militancy in Iran. A reading of the discourse, symbolism, and iconography that appear on the social media platforms operated by these factions and their devotees reflects a deep reverence for the late Rigi and Jundallah. There is also evidence to suggest a significant degree of operational connectivity between the now-defunct Jundallah and the new generation of ethnic Baluch insurgents. This connectivity is evident in terms of the composition of the aforementioned organizations and the tactics and targeting philosophy employed by the current cohort of fighters.

Festering Grievances

A consideration of the place of ethnic Baluch in Iranian society is essential in understanding the roots of violent unrest in Sistan-Baluchistan Province. Iran’s ethnic Baluch population endures widespread poverty and underdevelopment. Sistan-Baluchistan, where the majority of ethnic Baluch reside, is one of Iran’s poorest and least developed regions.[5] The Sunni faith of most Iranian Baluch places them at odds with the Islamic Republic’s Shi`a identity. The localized ethnic and tribal identities of ethnic Baluch, who share cultural and kinship ties with fellow ethnic Baluch minority populations in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan, are also a source of contention.[6] Iranian Baluch are also subjected to widespread repression by the Iranian security forces and local institutions. Sistan-Baluchistan is located along one of the world’s busiest narcotics trafficking corridors[7] and adjacent to Pakistan’s own southwestern Baluchistan Province—a region simmering in a decades-long nationalist insurgency led by Pakistani Baluch—and Afghanistan’s southwestern Nimroz Province.[8] Consequently, the Iranian government tends to treat the region as a security threat.

Baluch Militancy Reborn

Despite successfully executing a series of attacks to avenge its leader’s execution, Jundallah’s violent campaign weakened by the end of 2011.[9] The capture and subsequent execution of Rigi in 2010 struck a major blow to Jundallah. The arrest and killing of scores of other Jundallah fighters, including members of Rigi’s immediate family and the Rigi tribe,[10] helped deplete the group’s rank-and-file. Iran’s repressive approach toward its ethnic Baluch minority also undermined Jundallah’s capacity to operate.

After a brief respite, Rigi loyalists and other ethnic Baluch militants appeared to marshal their ranks.[11] Indications that a resurgence of organized and sustained ethnic Baluch-led militancy was on the rise began to manifest in late 2011. For example, HAI reportedly formed around December 2011, although its exact date of creation is unclear.[12] JAA reportedly organized sometime in mid-2012.[13] Both groups claimed responsibility for a multitude of attacks across Sistan-Baluchistan against members of the Iranian security services, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite Quds Force, Basij militias, police and border guards, as well as symbols of the Iranian state, political and clerical leaders, and soft civilian targets such as Shi`a mosques. In most respects, the tactical and operational character of HAI and JAA activities bore Jundallah’s signature.

HAI claimed responsibility for an October 19, 2012, suicide bombing in the port city of Chabahar in Sistan-Baluchistan. The assailant, who was reportedly targeting the Imam Hussein Mosque, detonated his explosives-laden vest outside the mosque after he was denied entry into the premises by Iranian security forces.[14] The attack left two Basij officers dead and a number of civilians injured.[15] The attack represented the first suicide bombing since a December 2010 attack claimed by Jundallah at the same mosque, which claimed at least 40 lives.[16] HAI has since claimed responsibility for a string of attacks, including small unit ambushes and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attacks against Iranian security forces.

HAI was reportedly co-founded and led by an obscure Baluch militant referred to as Abu Yasir Muskootani until his death.[17] Notably, the group refers to the late Rigi as its spiritual amir (commander).[18] HAI’s spokesman, Abu Hafs al-Baluchi, is described as a friend of the late Jundallah leader but not a previous member of Jundallah, as well as a co-founder of HAI.[19]

Despite their shared goal of fighting the Islamic Republic and mutual reverence for Jundallah, the presence of numerous ethnic Baluch militant factions in the wake of Jundallah’s demise apparently encouraged rivalry and dissension. These cleavages may have stemmed from possible regional and tribal disputes. This is not without precedent, as there are indications that regional and tribal dynamics and ideological disagreements also impacted Jundallah on multiple levels.[20] HAI addressed this issue in an announcement declaring solidarity with another shadowy fellow militant organization, Sepah-e-Sahaba Iran (Soldiers of the Companions Iran, SSI).[21] HAI also refuted reports of discord among the numerous insurgent factions as a ploy by the Iranian intelligence services to discredit their cause.[22] In a further attempt to unify the rank-and-file, in December 2013 HAI announced its formal merger with another murky militant group known as Hizb al-Furqan[23] (Party of the Criterion,[24] HAF) to form Ansar al-Furqan (Partisans of the Criterion, AF).[25]  Since its merger with HAF, HAI operates under the banner of AF.

Much like HAI, JAA has been implicated in a series of terrorist and insurgent-style attacks. In February 2014, JAA abducted five Iranian soldiers outside the village of Jakigur along the Iran-Pakistan border in Sistan-Baluchistan.[26] JAA killed 14 Iranian border guards and injured five others in an October 2013 ambush against a border checkpoint in the town of Rustak near the city of Saravan located along the Iran-Pakistan border in Sistan-Baluchistan.[27] In retaliation, Iranian authorities executed 16 ethnic Baluch men on charges ranging from terrorism to narcotics trafficking.[28] JAA would later claim responsibility for the November 2013 assassination of a public prosecutor in the city of Zabol located in the northeastern part of Sistan-Baluchistan near Iran’s border with Afghanistan.[29] The group called the attack an act of retaliation for the execution of the aforementioned prisoners.[30]

JAA reportedly formed after Rigi’s capture and the subsequent fragmentation of Jundallah. It is led by Abdulrahim Mulazadeh, who uses the pseudonym Salah al-Din al-Farouqi. JAA is also alleged to include former members of Jundallah within its ranks.[31]  Some observers have claimed that former Jundallah fighters simply renamed their group JAA.[32] Iran stated that JAA represented “remnants” of Jundallah,[33] and that it exploits the Iran-Pakistan frontier to enter Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province as a sanctuary. Iran believes that JAA is holding the five Iranian soldiers abducted in February 2014 on Pakistani soil.[34] JAA’s purported use of Pakistani territory as a safe haven provoked a sharp response from Iranian authorities, who threatened to deploy troops inside Pakistan and Afghanistan to free the abducted soldiers and to root out other threats affecting its frontier territories.[35]

There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that HAI and JAA coordinate operations. Significantly, despite HAI’s announced mergers with fellow ethnic Baluch militant organizations, they have yet to reference JAA. Both groups seem to operate in overlapping spaces in Sistan-Baluchistan, and both attracted members of the former Jundallah to their ranks. HAI’s penchant for suicide bombings in urban areas set it apart from other militant organizations.[36] The austere geographic characteristics of Sistan-Baluchistan, coupled with the prevalence of local tribal identities and rivalries, may explain the lack of broader cooperation between HAI and JAA and other ethnic Baluch insurgent factions.

Along with conducting attacks, the new generation of ethnic Baluch militants places a greater emphasis on advancing its campaign in the virtual domain. In contrast to the new generation of ethnic Baluch militants, Jundallah’s online presence was fairly limited.[37] The most significant extremist organizations maintain an assortment of online social media platforms, including officially managed websites, blogs, along with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+ pages.[38]

In an effort to reach a wider audience, many of these platforms contain material in Persian, Arabic, and English. In addition to broadcasting official statements and related commentary, ethnic Baluch insurgents exploit social media’s force-multiplier potential by showcasing videotaped footage of alleged attacks. While it is difficult to determine the precise number of organized insurgents operating in Sistan-Baluchistan, the ability to air videotaped footage of alleged battlefield successes and other forms of propaganda can serve to amplify the strength and resolve of the insurgency in the eyes of its sympathizers, as well as in the eyes of Iranian and international public opinion.

Salafist Discourse and Dogma

Notwithstanding its Islamist-themed namesake and its Sunni rank-and-file, Jundallah rejected any association with radical Islamist and particularly Salafist extremism.[39] The late Rigi at one point framed Jundallah’s struggle as a fight for freedom and human rights for a people under siege by a repressive regime.[40] Ultimately, Jundallah began to frame its mission in the context of a struggle to defend Sunni Muslims in Iran. Yet it was Jundallah’s incremental resort to sectarian-imbued rhetoric against Shi`a Islam and its use of suicide bombings that raised questions about the creeping influence of radical Islamist ideologies within Jundallah. These trends appeared to lend credence to Iran’s claims associating Jundallah with groups such as al-Qa`ida and the Taliban despite doubts to the contrary. Iran also accused a combination of foreign powers—including its rivals the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Kingdom—of supporting ethnic Baluch militancy.[41]

In contrast, there is little ambiguity about the centrality of radical Salafism within the latest current of ethnic Baluch militancy. The rhetoric and discourse of groups such as HAI and JAA are replete with anti-Shi`a polemics and hardline Salafist tones.[42] HAI and JAA often refer to the Islamic Republic as the Safavid regime, in reference to the Safavid dynasty that ushered in Iran’s turn to Shi’ism. They also frequently refer to Shi`a believers as rawafidh (rejectionists), a pejorative label frequently used by Salafist extremists against Shi`a Muslims.[43] Yet it is the global focus of the commentary, especially in regard to events in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, that illustrates the hardline Salafist undercurrents driving ethnic Baluch militancy in Iran today.[44] In this regard, Iran’s support for the Ba`athist regime in Syria, Hizb Allah in Lebanon, and the Shi`a-led government of Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq serves to vindicate the claims of ethnic Baluch militants that Iran and its regional Shi`a allies are waging a campaign to destroy what they believe to be true Islam.

Conclusion

The influence of radical Islamist and, in particular, hardline Salafist ideologies among ethnic Baluch militants is likely to remain an important driver of events in Sistan-Baluchistan in the foreseeable future. The heightened sectarian tensions that crystallized around the greater Middle East in recent years provide a fertile ground for the expansion of these ideas. The geopolitical implications of this trend should not be understated, especially in the context of Iran’s resilient alliance with the Bashar al-Assad regime, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and the expanding regional proxy war featuring rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this regard, the return of violent militancy to Sistan-Baluchistan in its current form may signal the start of a new and increasingly dangerous front in an expanding war of regional proxies.

The deteriorating security situation in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially in the context of the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014, further complicates an already difficult set of dynamics affecting Sistan-Baluchistan and potentially other locations along Iran’s eastern frontier. The further destabilization of Iran’s eastern neighbors is sure to transcend borders in the form of accelerated refugee flows, arms, narcotics, and human trafficking, and the spread of violent political and religious militancy. Iran’s oppressive posture toward Sistan-Baluchistan over the years has been largely attributed to its security-centric treatment of the region. Growing unrest along its frontier will almost certainly compel Iran to maintain its hardline methods of control. Yet it is precisely this strategy that has helped to feed the grievances fueling armed rebellion in the region. Barring a major turn of events, Sistan-Baluchistan will continue to fester in the months and years ahead.

Chris Zambelis is a senior analyst specializing in Middle East affairs with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C. area. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.

[1] Iran forced down a Kyrgyzstan Airways flight reported to be en route from Dubai to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek when they learned that Rigi was on board. Iranian officials claimed that Rigi’s itinerary included a meeting with U.S. officials at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. See “High-Profile U.S. Official Was Waiting for Rigi in Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan,” AhlulBayt News Agency, February 28, 2010.

[2] There is a great deal of speculation surrounding the events leading up to Rigi’s capture. For more background, see Meir Javedanfar, “Was Rigi’s Arrest by Iran Staged?” PBS Frontline, February 24, 2010. Also see Chris Zambelis, “Political Theater or Counterterrorism? Assessing Iran’s Capture of Jundallah Leader Abdelmalek Rigi,” Terrorism Monitor 8:13 (2010).

[3] Rigi was found guilty of 79 criminal charges, including founding and leading a terrorist organization, murder and attempted murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, and collusion with hostile foreign forces such as the intelligence services of the United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Israel.  See Nazili Fatahi, “Iran Executes Sunni Rebel Leader,” New York Times, June 20, 2010.

[4] Harakat Ansar Iran has since announced a merger with another obscure ethnic Baluch militant organization known as Hizb al-Furqan to form Ansar al-Furqan. See “Important Announcement: Merger of Hizbul-Furqan and Harakat Ansar Iran,” Harakat al-Ansar, December 7, 2013.

[5] Notable communities of ethnic Baluch and other Sunni minorities, including ethnic Baluch, ethnic Persians, and others, inhabit Iran’s eastern provinces of North Khorasan, South Khorasan, and Razavi Khorasan, in addition to other locations across Iran. See Ali Mamouri, “Iranian Government Builds Bridges to Sunni Minority,” al-Monitor, December 1, 2013. Significantly, ethnic Baluch militants and other Sunni-centric Islamist extremists often reference the plight of Iranian Sunni believers across the country. For example, see Sons of Sunnah Iran, located at www.sonsofsunnah.com.

[6] Karlos Zurutuza, “Inside Iran’s Most Secretive Region,” Diplomat [Tokyo], May 16, 2011.

[7] Amin Ahmed, “New Routes of Heroin Smuggling Emerging, Says INCB,” Dawn, March 5, 2014.

[8] Umar Farooq, “The Battle for Sistan Baluchistan,” Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2013.

[9] For example, Jundallah claimed that its July 15, 2010, twin suicide bombings against Zahedan’s Grand Mosque, which left upwards of 30 dead, was revenge for Rigi’s capture and execution. See “Iran to Mete Out Justice in Zahedan Blast,” Press TV [Tehran], July 17, 2010.

[10] The Rigi tribe is considered one of Sistan-Baluchistan’s largest tribes. There are indications, however, that the late Jundallah leader failed to earn much support among the wider tribe. Nevertheless, Iran has frequently singled out the role of Rigi’s immediate family and clan members, along with members of the broader Rigi tribe, in Jundallah’s activities. For example, Abdel Ghafoor Rigi, one of the late Jundallah leader’s brothers, executed the group’s first suicide attack—the first such attack in Iran’s history—in December 2008. For more background, see Amineh Soghdi, “Baluch Celebrate Rebel’s Arrest,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, March 10, 2010; Sonia Ghaffari, “Baluchistan’s Rising Militancy,” Middle East Report 39:250 (2009). Consequently, Iran frequently refers to the former Jundallah (and many of its successor factions) as the “Rigi Clan” or “Rigi Group.” See “Jundallah, Iran’s Sunni Rebels,” Reuters, July 16, 2010; “Rigi Group Sets Up Den Near Iran Border,” Press TV, March 3, 2011.

[11] Muhammad Dhahir Baluch was announced as Rigi’s replacement to head Jundallah. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that Jundallah remains functional in any substantive form.  See “Iranian Rebels Pick New Leader,” al-Jazira, February 28, 2010.

[12] Hussein Kirmani, “Harakat Ansar Iran ‘Responsible for Suicide Bombings in Chabahar’?” Deutsche Welle Persian, October 20, 2012.

[13] Sajid Hussain, “The Other Jihad,” The News International, December 11, 2013. Also see Nima Abdelkah, “The Army of Justice and the Threat of Sunni Islamist Militancy in the Sistan-Baluchistan Province of Iran,” Terrorism Monitor 11:23 (2013).

[14] “Suicide Bomber Kills Two at South Iran Mosque,” Reuters, October 19, 2012. The attack was part of what HAI called its “Operation Ra’ad (Thunder) 1” campaign.  See “Announcement: The Beginning of Operation Ra’ad,” Harakat al-Ansar, November 13, 2012.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “HAI Council Announcement: Martyrdom of Abu Yasir Muskootani and Selection of New Emir,” Harakat al-Ansar, May 7, 2013.

[18] The late Rigi is lionized by Harakat Ansar Iran and its successor faction Ansar al-Furqan. In a public message posted on its network of official websites and social media outlets, Abu Yasir Muskootani boasted that the “students of our emir Abdel Malek Baluch are still alive.”  See “Speech by Emir Abu Yasir Muskootani on the Eve of Our First Successful Operation,” Harakat al-Ansar, April 16, 2013.

[19] “Abu Hafs al-Baluchi and His Role in the Jihad in Baluchistan,” Harakat al-Ansar, May 19, 2013.

[20] Audun Kolstad Wiig, “Islamist Opposition in the Islamic Republic: Jundallah and the Spread of Extremist Deobandism in Iran,” Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI), July 2, 2009, pp. 30-34.

[21] “Harakat Ansar Iran Announce Cooperation with Sipah-e-Sahaba,” Harakat al-Ansar, April 16, 2013.

[22] Ibid.

[23] See the official website of Hizb al-Furqan at www.hezbulfurqan.blogspot.com. Also see Hizb al-Furqan’s official Facebook page at www.facebook.com/hezbulfurqan1.

[24] In general terms, the reference to al-Furqan (the Criterion) refers to the belief of the Qur’an as the standard upon which to judge right and wrong.

[25] “Important Announcement: Merger of Hizbul-Furqan and Harakat Ansar Iran,” Harakat al-Ansar, December 7, 2013.

[26] “Iran, Pakistan Form Committee to Free Abducted Guards,” Press TV, February, 23, 2014.

[27] “Iran Pursuing Saravan Terrorist Attack: Deputy FM,” Press TV, January 3, 2014.

[28] Golnaz Esfandiari, “Violence Returns to Sistan-Baluchistan Province,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 7, 2013.

[29] “Armed Group Claims Iran Prosecutor’s Killing,” al-Jazira, November 7, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[32] Mehdi Jahantighi, “Iran News Agency Claims Border Attack Rebels Backed by USA, Israel,” Fars News Agency [Tehran], October 27, 2013.

[32] Hussain.

[33] “Judiciary: Saturday Terrorist Attack Done by Remnants of Rigi Group,” Fars News Agency, October 27, 2013.

[34] “Iran, Pakistan Form Committee to Free Abducted Guards,” Press TV, February 23, 2014.

[35] Katharine Houreld, “Pakistan Warns Iran Not to Send in Troops After Guards Kidnapped,” Reuters, February 18, 2014. Iran’s threats come despite its participation in numerous bilateral exchanges designed to foster enhanced security cooperation with Pakistan. Iran and Pakistan concluded a bilateral cooperation agreement toward preventing and combating organized crime, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and other threats confronting both countries. In light of recent events, Iran and Pakistan established a joint working body to secure the release of the abducted Iranian soldiers under the auspices of the Iran-Pakistan Joint Border Commission. See “Iran, Pakistan Form Committee to Free Abducted Guards,” Press TV, February 22, 2014.

[36] Based on their history of attacks, some observers suggest a clear tactical and operational distinction between HAI and JAA. See Galen Wright, “Tracking Insurgent Activity in Southeast Iran,” Open Source IMINT, December 14, 2013.

[37] For a sampling of the former Jundallah’s video and online presence, see www.youtube.com/user/taftaanbaloch.

[38] For the official Ansar al-Furqan (formerly known as Harakat Ansar Iran) blog, see www.ansariran1.blogspot.com. For the official Ansar al-Furqan YouTube page, see www.youtube.com/user/ansariran1. For the official Ansar al-Furqan Twitter page, see www.twitter.com/AnsarIran_eng. For the official Jaish al-Adl Iran blog, see www.jashuladl.blogspot.jp. For the official Jaish al-Adl Iran Twitter page, see www.twitter.com/jaishuladl. Jaish al-Adl Iran also operates Edalaat News, located at edaalatnews.blogspot.co.uk. For the official Hizb al-Furqan blog, see www.hezbulfurqan.blogspot.com.

[39] Jundallah also referred to itself as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran (PRMI) in an apparent effort to create distance from reports alleging that it harbored an extremist sectarian agenda.

[40] The late Rigi went as far as to pen open letters to U.S. President Barack Obama, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in November 2009. In each of the individually tailored letters, Rigi made a plea on the behalf of a besieged Iranian Baluch population he claims to be defending.  The letters are available at www.ostomaan.org/articles/news-and-views/4462.

[41] William Yong and Robert F. Worth, “Toll Rises From Twin Suicide Bombings at Iranian Mosque,” New York Times, July 16, 2010. Curiously, Iran sometimes blames Pakistan for encouraging unrest in Sistan-Baluchistan Province even though both countries share a history of actively collaborating to suppress Baluch nationalism in the region. See “U.S., Pakistan Spy Agencies Lead Jaish ul-Adl,” Press TV, November 5, 2013.

[42] This point is illustrated by a statement attributed to purported Harakat Ansar Iran member Nasser Baluchi: “If you think our jihad has anything to do with nationalism, you are wrong. Our Jihad is for Islam. And we will hit the Shi`a wherever they are, whether in Iran, Syria, or Iraq, it makes no difference to us. Our umma has no borders.” See “Why We Fight?” Harakat al-Ansar, April 16, 2013.

[43] Hardline Salafists tend to consider Shi`a Muslims (and adherents of other Muslim denominations) as heretics or apostates.

[44] The importance of global events to the new generation of ethnic Baluch militants is demonstrated in the following statement published by Harakat Ansar Iran: “What is Harakat Ansar Iran?? We are mujahidin of the Ahlus Sunnah of Iran, our aims are to: 1. Protect the oppressed Sunni minorities of Iran against their Shi`a government.  2. Strike at the head and heart of Shi’ism, Tehran and Qum so as to stem the destruction they spread amongst Ahlus Sunnah worldwide (like in Syria and Iraq). 3. Establish Shari`a in our lands. 4. Regain Iran for the Muslims, with the help of Allah [God].”

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