The Islamic world’s Sunni-Shiite conflict took an ominous turn this month when Shiite Iran experienced the worst suicide bombing in its history. Forty-nine people, including seven senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, died in the explosion in the south-eastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Several of the province’s tribal leaders were also killed in the attack.
The group claiming responsibility for the carnage, Jundullah (“Soldiers of Allah”), is an Iranian Sunni extremist group, based in Pakistan, whose members are ethnic Baluchis. Mostly unknown in the West, Jundullah actually poses a serious security threat to Iran. Over the past five years, it has allegedly killed several hundred Iranian government and security personnel, sadistically filming 16 captives’ executions last year, some by beheading.
Prior to this month’s terrorist attack, Jundullah’s most notorious action was the blowing up last May of the main Shiite mosque in Zahedan, Sistan-Baluchistan’s capital. Twenty-five people were killed and scores more were wounded in the attack. One Iranian observer commented the bombing occurred to coincide with a Shiite festival, which celebrates Fatima, the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, as a martyr, a belief Islam’s Sunni branch disputes.
Of Sistan-Baluchistan’s estimated three million inhabitants the overwhelmingly majority are Sunnis, whose rights, Jundullah states, it is defending in the predominantly Shiite state. But this may be true only to a certain extent, as some believe the group’s real purpose is simply to eradicate Shiites, using lethal violence, and allying itself with al Qaeda and the Taliban in the process.
Columnist Pepe Escobar shares this view, calling Jundullah’s claim to be protectors of Iran’s Baluchi minority “nonsense.” There are other Sunni Baluchi nationalist groups across the border in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, he writes, who better represent this nationalist claim. One, the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), is currently waging a low-intensity insurgency against Islamabad with the province’s independence as its goal.
At its core, Escobar states Jundullah is an “ultra-sectarian, anti-Shiite outfit immersed in the intolerant Deobandi interpretation of Islam.” Jundullah was allegedly founded in 2003 by a Pakistani Taliban commander, killed in 2004, and is currently led by Abdel Malik Rigi who studied at the Binori mosque in Karachi, which many Taliban also attended.
Escobar believes Jundallah is not only connected to the Pakistani anti-Shiite terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Jhagnvi, but is also “tactically connected” to al Qaeda. So it is no surprise Baluchis have been reported training in al Qaeda’s Waziristan camps.
Joining forces with al Qaeda would make a natural alliance for Jundullah. Al Qaeda also possesses an unmatched hatred for Shiites, declaring them heretics. And like in the Christian Middle Ages, Osama bin Laden believes heretics deserve only death.
And death is what al Qaeda’s inflexible and ultra-conservative Wahhabi doctrine has brought to Pakistan’s Shiites. While sectarian killings existed in Pakistan long before bin Laden’s arrival, al Qaeda is partially credited with an increase in their number. Sunni-Shiite violence, which caused 247 deaths in 2002, may exceed 800 by this year’s end.
Only last month, for example, Taliban extremists in a Pakistani tribal area attacked a group of Shiite schoolboys, killing four and wounding six. The Taliban, like its al Qaeda ally, also detests Shiites, the only group it treated worst than women when they ruled Afghanistan.
But some observers believe the Jundullah-al Qaeda relationship has gone beyond a tactical connection and has developed into a full-blown alliance. One observer noted last May that Rigi was to meet with an al Qaeda representative in Baluchistan to coordinate the two terrorist groups’ operations.
Al Qaeda would obviously like to help Jundallah spread its terrorist operations into the Shiite heartland to destabilize a heretical Iran and end its support of Shiites elsewhere. A destabilized Iran would also be unable to press its claim to the leadership of the Islamic world, a position it is currently disputing with Saudi Arabia.
At first, al Qaeda was said not to trust Jundullah because of its suspected connections to British and American intelligence. The CIA under George Bush may have used Jundullah as a counterbalance to Iran’s interference in Iraq. Israel is also suspected of aiding Jundullah due to Iran’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon. But these ties, if they ever existed, would have been only tactical ones for the Iranian Sunni extremists.
The Iranian leadership also trundled out these anti-Western accusations after this month’s terrorist attack, saying the United States and Great Britain were behind Jundullah’s atrocity. But Western involvement seems highly unlikely. Talks concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons program had just gotten underway in Vienna, which the Western states involved would not have wanted to jeopardize.
Moreover, by its own actions, the Iranian government does not appear to believe its own accusations. Tehran did not break off the Vienna talks or take any retaliatory action against NATO forces in Afghanistan. Instead, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad held a phone conversation with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Zardari, telling him the terrorists in Pakistan need to be “quickly confronted.”
Pakistan has actually been cooperating with Iran in its struggle with Jundullah. It turned over Rigi’s brother to Iranian authorities; and he was one of 14 Jundullah terrorists the Iranian government executed earlier this year. But Islamabad denies Jundullah is based in Pakistan and turned down Iran’s demand that it hand over Abdel Malik Rigi, saying he was not in the country.
By targeting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard leadership, Jundullah struck at a main pillar of the Shiite Islamic revolution. After the attack, the Revolutionary Guard was described as “seething.” Another such terrorist success by Jundallah could see Iran and Pakistan on the brink of war despite the agreement they have to build a major pipeline.
Locked in a military showdown with the Pakistani army, al Qaeda would definitely welcome such a distracting development. But a real shooting war that would terminally weaken both states to its advantage is most likely al Qaeda’s main goal. The terror group clearly sees Jundullah as the instrument for bringing this about.