Balochi Nationalists Intensify Violent Rebellion in Iran

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 3

The conflict between Iranian security forces and ethnic Baloch insurgents led by the Jondallah (Soldiers of God – an obscure militant group also known as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran) that has been raging in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan since 2003 is experiencing an increase in hostilities. The latest spate of violence was sparked by Iran’s refusal to heed Jondallah’s June 2008 demand that it release Abdulhamid Rigi, the brother of Jondallah founder and leader Abdulmalak Rigi, along with three other jailed members of Jondallah. Pakistani authorities detained Rigi and his associates in Quetta in neighboring Pakistan’s Balochistan province for attempting to pass as Pakistani nationals. The men were later transferred into Iranian custody (Fars News Agency [Iran], June 15, 2008; Press TV [Iran], June 14, 2008; Dawn [Karachi], June 15, 2008). After the handover, Jondallah ambushed an Iranian police outpost and abducted 16 police officers in Saravan, a town located near the Pakistani border. The Iranian hostages were reportedly then transferred over the Iranian-Pakistan border into Pakistani Balochistan (Fars, June 19, 2008). 
 
In another incident, Iranian security officials arrested a prominent Baloch cleric in early August 2008, setting off a wave of protests in the province. Iranian authorities then bulldozed the Abu Hanifa mosque and school in Zabol a few weeks later and arrested students and members of the congregation, sparking further outrage among the Baloch (Rooz Online [Iran], January 12). [1] Jondallah later released a video that was aired on al-Arabiya news channel claiming that they had executed 2 of the 16 police officers they were holding and were prepared to kill the rest of the hostages if Iran failed to release 200 of its members currently held in Iranian prisons (Fars, December 30, 2008). Jondallah also assassinated an Iranian official in Sistan-Balochistan, prompting another crackdown by the security services. While Jondallah is reported to have freed one of the hostages under mysterious circumstances sometime in September 2008, a December 5 announcement by Iranian authorities claimed that all of the hostages had been executed. The statement also promised “massive retaliation” against Jondallah (Press TV, September 9, 2008; Fars, December 6, 2008). 
 
A Resort to New Tactics
 
Tensions in Iranian Balochistan flared again when Jondallah introduced a new tactic in its violent campaign against Tehran by executing a suicide car bombing on December 28, 2008, against the headquarters of Iran’s joint police and anti-narcotics unit in Saravan (Daily Times [Lahore], December 30, 2008).  The attack killed four officers and injured scores more. The bombing was highly uncharacteristic of Jondallah’s previous operations (Rooz Online, January 12). While suicide car bombings have been used to great effect by Iraqi insurgents, especially among groups representing the radical Islamist strain of the Sunni Arab insurgency and increasingly by militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, similar attacks are unheard of in Iran. Jondallah’s violent track record has generally entailed terrorist attacks and guerilla-style operations against Iranian security forces and other symbols of the state across Sistan-Balochistan, as well as abductions and assassinations of state officials (see Terrorism Monitor, January 11, 2008; Terrorism Focus, February 28, 2007). The introduction of suicide bombings into the conflict points to a new and increasingly violent stage in Jondallah’s struggle against Tehran, one that is sure to elicit harsher crackdowns by Iranian security forces and contribute to wider instability in the region. 
 
The identity of the bomber also adds to the significance of Jondallah’s attack. By all accounts, the bombing was executed by Abdulghafoor Rigi, the younger brother of Jondallah leader Abdulmalak Rigi. According to Baloch activist sources, the attack was intended to serve as an example for others within the Baloch nationalist movement to follow, in Iran and beyond. At the same time, the same sources also emphasize that suicide bombings are not compatible with Baloch values, but have become necessary due to the nature of the Baloch struggle and Iranian repression. [2] The suicide attack is also being compared to the first and, until recently, only suicide bombing by a Baloch militant; in 1974, Abdul Majeed Lango targeted Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a suicide bombing in Pakistani Balochistan, but failed to hit his target. [3]
 
While Jondallah’s emphasis has been to attack Iranian targets in Sistan-Balochistan, the group threatened to carry out more suicide attacks in other parts of Iran, including in major cities such as Tehran. [4] Despite this apparent threat, there are no indications that Jondallah has a genuine interest or ability to expand its violent campaign outside of Sistan-Balochistan in the foreseeable future. Suicide attacks against Iranian targets in Sistan-Balochistan, however, especially those targeting Iranian security services, may become more common.
 
Roots of the Baloch Insurgency
 
To understand the roots of the Baloch insurgency, it is important to consider Iran’s complex ethno-national and sectarian composition. Iran’s ethnic Persian and Farsi-speaking population represents only a slight majority of Iran’s total population of approximately 70 million, a population that includes sizeable Azeri, Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, and Baloch ethnic communities. A large majority of Iranians are Shi’a Muslims.  In contrast, the ethnic Baloch minority in Iran numbers between one and four million, nearly all of whom are Sunni Muslims. Iranian Balochistan is also one of Iran’s poorest and most underserved provinces. Tehran has great difficulty administering law and order in the region, having to rely instead on harsh security crackdowns that alienate the public. Given its poverty, lawlessness, and porous border with Pakistan, Iranian Balochistan has emerged as a smuggler’s paradise, a reputation that has made it both a regular target of the Iranian security services and an attractive base for enterprising criminals. These factors contribute to the belief among many Baloch – and other ethnic and sectarian minorities in Iran – that the highly centralized Sh’ia Muslim and Persian-centric face of the Islamic Republic operates a policy of state-sponsored discrimination and cultural subjugation of non-Persian and non-Shi’a minorities (see Terrorism Monitor, August 2, 2007).
 
Baloch disaffection with the Islamic Republic must also be seen in the context of the Baloch historical narrative. Iranian Baloch, for instance, identify strongly with their kin in neighboring Pakistan, which is home to the region’s largest Baloch community, and the Baloch community in Afghanistan. Baloch family and tribal links also span across the Iranian, Pakistani, and Afghani borders. Iranian Baloch look to their kin in Pakistan, who have been waging a war for self-determination for decades. Baloch nationalists often refer to the lands where all Baloch reside as “Greater Balochistan,” and Iranian Balochistan as “West Balochistan.” The Baloch narrative is also shaped by a feeling that the legacy of colonialism has left the Baloch people divided and without a homeland, much like the predicament facing the Kurds in the Middle East (see Terrorism Monitor, June 29, 2006). 
 
The Baloch also feel as if they have no allies, as even regional rivals of Iran have a history of collaborating to curb Baloch nationalist aspirations to further their mutual interests. Iran and Pakistan, for instance, have a history of jointly suppressing Baloch nationalism through harsh measures, as both countries perceive Baloch activism as a threat to their territorial integrity. Pakistan’s speedy handover of Jondallah members to Iran reflects one aspect of Iranian-Pakistani security cooperation in this area. The politics of energy pipelines also help foster closer cooperation between Iran and Pakistan in suppressing Baloch nationalism. The greatly coveted Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline that will carry natural gas from Iran’s South Pars field to Pakistan and India will traverse both Iranian and Pakistani Balochistan on its way to India and possibly even to China down the line (Fars, December 31, 2008; January 16). For Iran and other countries with a stake in IPI, the potential for insurgent groups such as Jondallah to threaten critical energy infrastructure is cause for serious concern. The threat of attacks by Jondallah against regional energy infrastructure will surely increase if the Baloch feel that they are not reaping any of the benefits of the revenue earned by Tehran from its gas exports via IPI.
 
Radical Islam and Baloch Nationalism
 
Given the Sunni faith of its members and its violent history, some observers suggest that the group maintains ties to radical Sunni Islamists. Tehran also regularly accuses Jondallah of maintaining ties to Sunni extremists such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban in what likely amounts to an effort to tarnish Jondallah’s image abroad. Iran also happens to accuse Jondallah – among other minority ethno-national and sectarian insurgent groups operating on its territory – of receiving support from U.S., British, and Saudi intelligence in an effort to destabilize the Islamic Republic from within by fomenting ethnic and sectarian strife (Press TV, June 14, 2008). Jondallah fervently denies any links to radical Sunni Islamists and any suggestion that it operates at the behest of foreign intelligence services (see Terrorism Monitor, June 29, 2006).
 
Despite reports linking Jondallah to radical Sunni Islamists, there is no hard evidence linking Jondallah to radical Sunni extremists such as al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Since its inception, Jondallah has been keen to frame its cause as a mission to improve the daily lives of the Baloch in Iran. At the same time, Jondallah has also presented its struggle in sectarian terms, essentially as a struggle between a besieged Sunni minority and an aggressive Shi’a Islamist order. While Jondallah’s emphasis on sectarian grievances may lend credence to the argument that the group does harbor radical Sunni Islamist leanings akin to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, in reality this approach most likely reflects the group’s effort to showcase its plight as an ethnic and sectarian minority community that faces systematic discrimination within Iran.  In fact, given that the name Jondallah is imbued with religious overtones typical of radical Sunni Islamist movements, the group’s decision to begin referring to itself as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran (PRMI) – in addition to Jondallah – may have represented an attempt to reintroduce itself internationally amid growing concerns about the spread of al-Qaeda’s brand of radical Islam (see Terrorism Focus, February 28, 2007). 
 
Baloch leader Abdulmalak Rigi has stated that Jondallah and the Iranian Baloch are not interested in independence from Iran, but only seek to achieve a better life for the Baloch minority, within a state that respects their human rights, culture, and faith. During an October 2008 interview, the Baloch leader also stated that Jondallah is prepared to lay down its arms and to enter Iranian politics: “If we were allowed to practice our rights in full, we are willing to drop weapons and enter political life.” [5] Jondallah’s stated willingness to enter the political process in Shi’a Islamist-dominated Iran also suggests that the group’s radical activities and violence are meant to further nationalist objectives as opposed to radical Islamist objectives.
 
Jondallah’s decision to execute a suicide bombing nevertheless raises questions regarding the potential influence of radical Islamist ideologies on the larger Baloch nationalist movement in Iran, even if only among a fringe minority within the larger movement. At the very least, Jondallah’s decision to resort to suicide bombings indicates that tactics used by radical Islamists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are serving as a template for other militant groups to emulate in their own campaigns across the globe. There are also indications that radical Sunni Islamists in Iran and abroad who are strongly opposed to the Islamic Republic are following events in Iranian Balochistan closely, as evidenced by the growing number of extremist websites and chat room forums appearing in Arabic, Farsi, English and other languages concerning the plight of the Baloch and other Sunni minorities in Iran. The radical fringes of Sunni Islam consider Shi’a Muslims to be heretics and non-believers. Sunni extremists who subscribe to al-Qaeda’s brand of radicalism also consider Shi’a Muslims and Iran as secret allies of the United States and part of a conspiracy to undermine Sunni Islam. Increasing violence and instability in Iranian Balochistan may eventually attract foreign fighters to Iran. Jondallah’s threat to expand its violent campaign outside of Iranian Balochistan will also highlight the plight of Sunnis in Iran and may therefore attract radical Sunni Islamists to the Baloch cause.   
 
Conclusion
 
While concerns regarding the spread of radical Sunni Islamist ideologies within the Baloch nationalist movement in Iran will continue to receive attention, there is no conclusive evidence linking Jondallah to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or affiliated groups.  By all accounts, the trajectory of Jondallah’s militancy will continue to emphasize the plight of the Baloch as a disaffected minority within Iran.  At the same time, the ongoing violence and instability in Iranian Balochistan can potentially draw radical Sunni Islamists to the Baloch cause. There is also evidence that radical Sunni Islamists are paying closer attention to events in Iran, a trend that is likely to continue due to the widely held belief among many Sunni extremists that Iran and Shi’a Muslims constitute an enemy akin to the United States.
 

Notes:
 
1. For more details regarding these and related incidents in Sistan-Balochistan from a radical Sunni Iranian perspective that is staunchly critical of the Shia Islamic Republic, refer to the official website of the Sons of Sunnah Iran, “Iran’s War Against Sunni Muslims,” October 20, 2008, http://sunnairan.wordpress.com/2008/10/20/irans-war-on-sunni-muslims/. The same site carries an extensive list of Sunni Islamist websites opposed to Iran and Shi’a Muslims.
2. Reza Hossein Borr, “The Armed Struggle in the Eastern Parts of Iran Entered a New Phase When the First Suicide Mission Was Carried Out in a Military Base in Sarawan, Baluchistan, on 29 December 08,” January 1, 2009, http://www.thebaluch.com/010109_report.php.
3. See “An Overview of the Baloch Students Organization,” http://www.balochistaninfo.com/magazine%20of%20balochistaninfo/BSO2.htm.   
4. Reza Hossein Borr, op cit.
5. Quoted in Sons of Sunnah Iran, “Iranian Sunni Group Wants to Enter Political Life,” October 24, 2008, http://sunnairan.wordpress.com/2008/10/24/iran-sunni-group-jundollah-wants-to-enter-political-life/.