- Following a week of hostility after tit-for-tat missile and air strikes, Iran and Pakistan have deescalated tensions and normalized relations, though Jaish al-Adl—the proximate cause for the recent crisis—remains an active threat to regional stability.
- Jaish al-Adl is an anti-Shia Islamist militant group that has conducted numerous terrorist attacks against Iranian security forces since 2014, resulting in the deaths of at least 22 Iranian personnel in 2023 alone.
Jaish al-Adl (“Army for Justice”) is an Islamist militant group that has engaged in terrorist activities in Iran over the past decade and has become a bone of contention in Iran–Pakistan relations. The two countries share a porous, 900-kilometer-long border, and both accuse the other of allowing or enabling cross-border interference. Iranian authorities have blamed Pakistan for providing safe havens to Jaish al-Adl militants near the border region in the latter’s restive province of Balochistan.
On the other hand, Pakistan has accused Iran of providing shelter to two of the largest and best-known Baloch nationalist-separatist groups, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF; see Terrorism Monitor, January 12). Against an already volatile background, the most recent flare-up in hostilities occurred after Iran launched missiles into Pakistani territory on January 16. Tehran’s stated goal was the targeting of alleged Jaish al-Adl bases at the village of Koh-e-Sabz, Panjgaur District, Balochistan Province. According to Islamabad, two children were killed in the strikes, with four others injured (Dawn, January 18).
The situation quickly escalated when Pakistan retaliated two days later by launching air strikes under the umbrella of Operation Marg Bar Sarmachar (“death to insurgents”). Islamabad allegedly targeted seven BLF hideouts inside Iran. Pakistan claims to have killed several militants (India Today, January 18). Tehran initially alleged that three women and four children were killed in the attacks—all non-Iranian citizens—with the death count later reaching nine (Al Jazeera, January 29). It has been reported that the BLA confirmed that several of its militants were killed in the attacks (India Today, January 18).
Following this, tension between Tehran and Islamabad escalated to an unprecedented level, with both countries recalling one another’s ambassador. Despite the back-and-forth strikes and a week of hostilities, both countries have shown restraint, electing instead to re-normalize relations (Al Jazeera, January 19, January 29). Even if the diplomatic crisis appears to have passed, as a group that has received little attention recently—and as the proximate cause for the tit-for-tat between Pakistan and Iran—Jaish al-Adl should be examined more closely.
Evolution and Background
Jaish al-Adl is the new iteration of Jundullah. This latter group was an ultra-orthodox Sunni Deobandi terrorist group that was disbanded after the 2010 arrest and subsequent execution of its emir, Abdul Malik Riggi, in Iran (BBC Asia, June 20, 2010). Jaish al-Adl claims to advocate for the rights of Sunni Baloch citizens of Iran’s Sunni-majority Sistan and Balochistan province, but the organization is anti-Shia by nature. Currently the group is led by Abdolrahim Mullahzadeh (also known as Salahuddin Farooqi) (DNI, October 2022).
The group has also perpetrated scores of terrorist attacks in Iran since 2014, including in Saravan, Qasre Qand, Mehrestan, Negur, Rask, and Zabul inside Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan Province. Jaish al-Adl has mostly targeted Iran’s security forces (see Terrorism Monitor, July 14, 2017). Such attacks have involved the abduction or killings of Iranian border guards, suicide bombings, and the planting of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) near the Iran–Pakistan border in areas where Iranian police personnel are expected to patrol. Iranian security forces have made incursions into Pakistani territory after these attacks, drawing strong protests from Islamabad (Dawn, January 19).
The most recent incident that provoked a response from Iran was the December 2023 attack on a police station in the city of Rask, Sistan and Balochistan Province. 11 individuals were killed, and the attack was claimed by Jaish al-Adl. Prior to this, a number of other terrorist attacks were claimed by Jaish al-Adl in 2023 on Iranian police and border guards, which resulted in the deaths of at least 11 Iranian security forces personnel (Dawn, December 15, 2023). Iran’s response to this was to conduct the January 16 strikes inside Pakistan, drawing international attention to the two countries’ conflict (Al Jazeera, January 17).
Apart from protesting the strikes inside Pakistani territory at the diplomatic level, Islamabad launched air strikes and claimed to have killed at least seven BLF militants (Sama News, January 18). Following the period of escalation, Pakistani (Caretaker) Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar chaired the high-level meeting of the state’s National Security Council, where it was decided that hostilities should cease in order to calm down the situation (Al Jazeera, January 19). This decision was likely taken because of the deteriorating internal security situation in Pakistan’s provinces of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which have already been destabilized by terrorism and nationalist-separatist violence.
Both the Pakistani and Iranian sides have claimed to have eliminated terrorists in their operations. Pakistan, for example, has claimed to have killed number of BLA and BLF militants in the air strikes (Daily Times, January 19). Iran claimed its cross-border strikes killed Jaish al-Adl members. While the situation appears to have deescalated for now, Jaish al-Adl will remain a thorn in the side of regional peace and Iran–Pakistan relations.