Grievances Provoke Surge in Baloch Separatist Militancy on Both Sides of Pakistan–Iran Border

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 9

Jaish al-Adl militants patrolling. (Source: Daniele Garofalo Monitoring)

Executive Summary:

  • Recent activity by Baloch separatists since the start of 2024 in both Iran and Pakistan has drawn international attention, especially after the actions of Iranian Baloch Islamist group Jaish al-Adl led to a brief, surprising exchange of missile and air strikes between the two countries. While Pakistani Baloch militants are more secular than their cousins in Iran, increasing oppression from their respective countries has combined with the after-effects of the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan to result in insurgencies that are better armed, more capable, and more popular with the Baloch civilian population than in years past.
  • It is possible that Iran and Pakistan are playing their respective Baloch separatist groups against each other. Regardless, both states’ failure to satisfy the Baloch people’s fundamental demands has turned the region’s youth into a fertile recruiting ground for separatist militants.

A series of targeted attacks on law enforcement agencies and civilians in Sistan-Baluchestan, Iran, and Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan since the beginning of 2024 has drawn renewed attention to the activities of Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) and secular Baloch separatist-nationalist insurgents. Jaish al-Adl is an anti-Iran Sunni armed group. Jaish al-Adl operates from bases in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan in Iran and neighboring Pakistan and is supported by ethnic Baloch tribes. Sistan-Baluchestan is home to a Sunni Baloch population which complains of discrimination in Shiite-dominated Iran.

Meanwhile, secular ethnic Baloch separatist militants in Pakistan have been engaged in a long battle with the government for decades, alleging that the central government unfairly exploits their natural resources (see Terrorism Monitor, September 22, 2022). The Baloch lands on both sides of the Goldsmith Line—the international border dividing the Baloch people between Iran and Pakistan—spans approximately 909 kilometers. [1] Baloch land across the Goldsmith Line has been reeling from violent attacks by Baloch armed groups seeking either separation from Pakistan or greater rights for Sunnis in Sistan and Baluchestan, Iran.

The escalating activities of Jaish al-Adl and Baloch separatist insurgents have further exacerbated mistrust between two once-friendly neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. They had previously collaborated in combating the Baloch insurgency in the 1970s. However, geopolitical interests, competition over Pakistan’s Gwadar port and Iran’s Chabahar port, and Pakistan’s strong ties with the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, have driven a wedge between these former allies (Dawn, January 19).

Iran accuses Pakistan of providing sanctuary to Jaish al-Adl. In contrast, Pakistan accuses Iran of providing sanctuary to ethno-Baloch separatist nationalist groups, such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) (Dawn, January 19).

Where It Began: The Goldsmith Line

In a surprising turn of events on January 16, Iran launched missile strikes into Pakistan’s Balochistan province, claiming to have hit two strongholds of the anti-Iran insurgent group Jaish al-Adl allegedly based in Pakistan (Tasnim News Agency, January 16; Terrorism Monitor, January 31). Pakistan responded by launching airstrikes against alleged hideouts of the BLF, one of the secular Baloch nationalist insurgent groups seeking separation from Pakistan. Pakistan accuses Iran of providing sanctuary to the BLF and other anti-Pakistan Baloch armed groups. At least nine individuals were killed during Pakistani airstrikes inside Iranian territory (Express Tribune, January 18). Although both countries agreed to de-escalate tensions—including a three-day official visit to Pakistan by now-late Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi—militant activities increased on both sides of the border (The News [Pakistan], April 22).

For example, on May 9, seven barbershop workers were killed in Surbandar, a cluster of villages in Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan (Geo News [Pakistan], May 9). Earlier, on April 12, in the Nushki District of Balochistan Province in Pakistan, the BLA offloaded nine passengers from a passenger bus and later killed them. The attackers first checked the identity cards of the passengers, who were from Punjab, before shooting them on a deserted roadside under a bridge (Pakistan Today, April 13). Ironically, similar incidents occurred on the southeastern side of the border in Iran. For example, between the nights of January 27 and 28, nine Pakistani workers from Punjab were gunned down by unidentified attackers in the city of Saravan in Sistan and Baluchestan Province (Mehr News Agency, January 28). In the months to come, other Punjabi workers were killed in the Pakistani part of Balochistan’s Nushki and Gwadar districts in April and May in Nushki and Gwadar (Geo News [Pakistan], May 9; Pakistan Today, April 13).

In the wake of these attacks, on March 20, Pakistan’s security forces claimed to have foiled a major suicide attack in the port city of Gwadar when eight armed fighters were killed while attempting to enter the Gwadar Port Authority complex (SAMAA TV, March 20). In another incident on March 25, Pakistani officials killed at least four insurgents trying to infiltrate a naval air base in the southern district of Kech in Balochistan Province (Dawn, March 26). Responsibility for both attempted attacks was claimed by the BLA’s suicide wing, the Majeed Brigade. The group declared that it targeted officials of Pakistani intelligence agencies’ installations, ranging from Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI) in Gwadar and the Pakistan Navy in Turbat (see Terrorism Monitor, May 6).

Following the deadly attacks inside Pakistani territory, a number of similar brazen attacks occurred in the southeastern Iranian bordering towns of Rask and Chabahar (Mashregh News, April 9). On the night of April 4, 18 gunmen stormed various security and military compounds simultaneously in Chabahar and Rask, killing ten Iranian security guards (Mehr News Agency, April 6). Violence has not been limited to the Pakistani side of the border.

What Is Jaish al-Adl?

Jaish al-Adl first came into the limelight in 2012. After Iranian security agencies executed Abdolmalek Rigi in 2010, his group, Jundullah, was weakened. Eventually, a new group named Jaish al-Adl reportedly emerged, with members of Jundallah joining its ranks by 2012 (Dawn, January 19).

Since then, Jaish al-Adl has intermittently carried out attacks in Sistan and Baluchestan, Iran. The Islamic Republic refers to the group, therefore, as “Jaish-al-Zolm,” or the “Army of Injustices” (Habilian, May 5). The group claims to advocate for the rights of Sunnis, particularly in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. Compared to ethnic Baloch separatists in southwestern Pakistan, Jaish al-Adl is more radicalized and strongly adheres to the principles of Sunni Islam (MEPA News, November 16, 2022). Ethnic Baloch insurgents seeking separation from Pakistan, in contrast, are secular by nature.

After Abdolmalek Rigi was hanged by Iran in 2010, differences soon emerged within Jaish al-Adl. Raouf Rigi broke away and formed another group called Jaish al-Nasr, though he was later killed in Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, on August 28, 2014. The motives behind his killing remain unclear, although some reports suggest Pakistani intelligence agencies targeted him after he had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, while Iranian media reported he had been killed due to infighting within the group (Daily Azadi, August 30, 2022).

After Raouf Rigi’s assassination, Abdulrahim Molazadeh, more popularly known as Salahuddin Farooqi, took over the group. Molazadeh was born in Rask, although not much more is known about him. However, he reportedly turned to militancy after one of his brothers was arrested and executed by Iran. Following this, Molazadeh fled to Pakistan and has allegedly been living there ever since (Habilian, May 1; Daily Azadi, August 30, 2022).

Another prominent leader of Jaish al-Adl was Mullah Omar Irani, also known as Omar Shahouzahi. However, he was killed in a clash with Pakistani police in the southern district of Kech in southwestern Pakistan in November 2020. This occurred just days after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had visited Islamabad. Shahouzahi was believed to have run a vast network of drug smugglers, using the money acquired from smuggling to finance Jaish al-Adl (Dawn, November 10, 2020).

Why Has Violence on Both Sides of the Border Increased?

Resentment and emotions have been running high in Sistan and Baluchestan since February 2021, when ten Baloch fuel carriers were killed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards near Saravan. Moreover, widespread protests erupted in Sistan and Baluchestan in September 2022 after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, who died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s controversial Hijab rules (Dawn, January 19). To quell the local protests that occurred as part of the wider national demonstrations sparked by Amini’s death, Iranian security forces killed at least 108 protesters, bystanders, and worshippers—including children—in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchestan Province, on September 30, 2022. The Iranian Baloch community marks the day as “Black Friday” (IranWire, October 1, 2022). Meanwhile, Iran executed 853 people in 2023, the highest number in eight years, and according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights NGO (IHRNGO), 29 percent of these executions were ethnic Baloch (Iran International, April 4). These actions by the Iranian theocracy have fueled militancy in Iran and increased sympathy and support for Jaish al-Adl among ordinary Iranian Baloch. This is in no small part why the anti-Iran Sunni militant outfit has become increasingly capable and well-resourced.

Meanwhile, there has also been an uptick in the activities of Baloch separatist insurgents in southwestern Pakistan. Multiple factors have fueled the Baloch insurgency there, including a political vacuum in the province since 2018, when a political party, the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), was created overnight and brought into power (Dawn, November 16, 2023). Extrajudicial killings of Baloch youth, the fall of Kabul in August 2021—allowing Baloch armed groups access American weaponry—increasing Chinese economic activities in Pakistan, the increasing presence of the Pakistani military in Balochistan, and, more recently, the mistreatment of Baloch women in Islamabad by the police in December 2023 have only further increased the sense of deprivation among Baloch people (Business Recorder [Pakistan], December 21, 2023). This has led many youths to join armed groups.

The similar pattern of attacks and activities on both sides of the Goldsmith Line also raises questions about whether Pakistan and Iran are engaged in an indirect war, using ethnic Baloch separatist armed groups and Sunni militants to attack one another. The answer might be blurred, but it is worth noting that three of the militants killed at the Gwadar port complex on March 20 were graduates in business, political science, and chemistry, achieving educational success despite coming from extremely poor families (X/@KiyyaBaloch, March 22). Similarly, those killed during the ambush in Chabahar and Rask were of humble backgrounds. Iran claimed they had American weaponry and were supported by foreign intelligence services (Mehr News Agency, April 6). While Jaish al-Adl denies it receives foreign support, there are a limited number of ways to explain its improving capabilities.


Baloch armed groups on both sides of the Goldsmith Line may be taking advantage of the Pakistan–Iran rivalry and Pakistan’s increasing tension with neighboring Afghanistan and India. However, Baloch grievances in both Iran and Pakistan need to be readdressed as a top priority, something which has rarely been a focus in Pakistan’s turbulent history. Unless Iran and Pakistan satisfy Baloch demands for greater respect for their rights, militancy on both sides of the border will continue. Regional powers may exploit the situation, but both states also provide an opportunity to the militants by not addressing the fundamental grievances of the Baloch people.



[1] The Goldsmith Line refers to the international border dividing Baloch lands between Iran and Pakistan, finalized in 1905 between Persia and the British. It spans approximately 909 kilometers from a tripoint with Afghanistan to the northern Arabian Sea.