An Al Qaeda 'Foothold in Iran'?
As the U.S. and its European counterparts pursue engagement amid the post-election strife in Iran, continued violence between the Iranian government and Jundullah threatens to further inflame regional tensions and provide an outlet for extremist forces seeking respite from U.S. and Pakistani operations in the tribal areas.
Jundullah, a Baluch, Sunni terrorist group was responsible for a devastating suicide bombing in May.
Just last week, the Iranian government arrested four suspected members of Junullah, and in July, the regime executed 13 members of the group for their participation in terrorist attacks throughout Sistan-Baluchistan, Iran's southeastern-most province. Contrary to the government's charges, Jundullah's leadership characterizes its campaign against the Iranian state as an effort to assert Baluch rights and protest the government’s repressive treatment of the country’s 1 to 4 million ethnic Baluch.
While the violence between Iran's government and Jundullah is certainly alarming, the broader consequences could be far worse. Chris Zambelis, writing in the CTC Sentinel, suggests that the minority Baluch community in Iran, plagued by persistent poverty and a sense of subjugation shared by Baluch communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, could be exploited by Sunni militant organizations such as Al Qaeda seeking safe havens to launch international terrorist attacks and evade foreign armies.
At the very least, Zambelis asserts that the May 28 terrorist attack, which killed 25 civilians and injured over 100 at a mosque in the city of Zahedan during an important Shia religious holiday, marked a portentous escalation of Jundullah’s campaign against the Iranian state:
Jundullah’s decision to target a prominent Shia mosque in Zahedan signified a new and more dangerous phase in the insurgent group’s war against the Iranian government. The latest attack was against a purely civilian target that claimed the lives of at least 25 worshippers and injured more than 125. Significantly, the attack occurred while the worshippers mourned the death of the prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima – an important day of mourning for Shia Muslims and a national holiday in Iran – at the second largest Shia mosque in the predominantly Sunni Muslim city and region.
Additionally, Zambelis notes that the nature of the attack, a suicide bombing targeting civilians during a Shia religious holiday, raises the specter of "Al Qaeda style radicalism within the Baluch nationalist movement" and suggests a possible transformation from a primarily nationalist orientation to one more Islamist in nature:
Proponents of this theory argue that Jundullah’s ideology may have evolved from a strictly nationalist one emphasizing the assertion of ethnic Baluch national identity, culture and religion within an Iranian context that guarantees greater rights and opportunities to a radical Islamist-oriented ideology that is influenced by Al Qaeda’s brand of extremism. Additionally, the strategic space occupied by Jundullah in southeastern Iran adjacent to Pakistan…may be beneficial for Al Qaeda’s plans for Pakistan, as it provides another base to operate against Islamabad and the U.S. outside of the tribal areas. As a result, Al Qaeda could see in Jundullah an opportunity to gain a foothold in Iran.
While the Iranian government would absolutely be concerned about the proliferation of Islamism within the Baluch nationalist movement, particularly given the violently anti-Shia leanings of many radical Sunnis, it's unclear why Al Qaeda would seek to destabilize or weaken an enemy of the U.S. that may one day possess nuclear weapons. More likely, Al Qaeda would try and exploit a subjugated Sunni minority in order to secure an outlet for fighters fleeing U.S. and Pakistani incursions in the tribal areas.
Of course, as Zambelis states explicitly, there is no evidence that Al Qaeda supports Jundullah. While it's plausible that Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban see Iranian Baluchistan as a safe haven as well as a potential launching point for international terrorism, there is no logical motive to support the type of suicide attack perpetrated against Iranian Shia civilians on May 28. Such action would imperil rather than strengthen Al Qaeda's campaign against the U.S. by providing a possible point of cooperation between the U.S. and Iran, namely opposition to Sunni Islamist terrorism.
True, given the viral nature of Islamist networks, Jundullah may have co-opted Al Qaeda's methodology and acted without its imprimatur. So far though, the group's leader, Abdulmalek Rigi, insists that Jundullah's aim is only to improve the well-being of the Baluch people. How blowing up fellow Iranians praying at a mosque furthers their cause is another question, but Zambelis speculates that the group launched such an incendiary attack to gain notoriety amid the international scrutiny in the run-up to the June 12 Iranian elections.
Regardless of which groups may or may not support Jundullah, continued suicide attacks could lead to tensions between Iran and Pakistan. In an article for the Asia Times Online, Raja Karthikeya writes:
The Zahedan attack...proved to be a watershed of sorts in bilateral relations. Tehran had apparently alerted Islamabad in advance about the possibility of the attack and requested the latter's authorities crack down on Jundullah on Pakistani territory as a pre-emptive measure. Hence, when the Zahedan attack happened, Iran made unprecedented diplomatic maneuvers. It not only lodged a strong protest with Islamabad, but the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan called a press conference and lambasted the Pakistani authorities for inaction.
Some very deft diplomacy as well as the Iranian elections arrested the crisis from deterioration. But it remains a fact that although there is some amount of understanding between Islamabad and Tehran in tackling the group, this cooperation is far from translating into effective intelligence-sharing or cross-border operational coordination.
Given this lack of cooperation, another Jundullah suicide attack, according to Karthikeya, could deeply strain relations between Iran and Pakistan. Iran already refers to Jundullah as a "Pakistan-based terror group" and has alleged that Jundullah receives support from Pakistan, maintains close ties with Al Qaeda and even enjoys the backing of the U.S. and Israel, the latter with the intent of overthrowing the Iranian government.
If Jundullah were to provide safe haven to Al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban, the AfPak region could destabilize even further. All parties should be alert for any signs of contact between AfPak militants and Baluch insurgents.
Brendan Boundy is an intern with the New Atlanticist. He is pursuing a master's degree at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.