The Future of Sunni Jihadist Violence in Iran

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 15

Iranian police respond to June 7 terrorist attack in Tehran.

Since Islamic State (IS) declared its caliphate in June 2014, the rate of jihadist violence has escalated throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Until last month, Iran had proved to be an exception to this general trend, with its aggressive efforts to combat IS outside its own borders and its experienced domestic security forces regularly arresting “takfiris,” a term used by the regime to describe those suspected of links to Sunni militant groups.

This situation changed dramatically on June 7, when 17 people were killed in simultaneous attacks by IS at the parliament building and at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini (al-Jazeera, June 7). The attacks came as a shock to many Iranians, unused to such violence in Tehran, but militancy by domestic Sunni extremists is only likely to increase as IS loses ground in Iraq and Syria.

Potential for Jihadist Recruitment

Iran views minorities in its peripheral regions as most vulnerable to radicalization and militancy. Following the June 7 attacks, the Iranian intelligence ministry identified one of the alleged perpetrators as Serias Sadeghi, an Iranian Kurd from the western town of Paveh near the Iraqi border. Further, the ministry said at least three of the four other attackers were also of Kurdish origin and that they had fought in Iraq and Syria before returning to the country.

Security forces subsequently cracked down on radicals in Kurdish-majority areas in the northwest, reflecting the increased perceived threat from this group (Rudaw, June 23). Additionally, Balochs in the country’s southeast suspected of jihadist sympathies have also been killed and detained by security forces, despite the lack of evidence suggesting any direct involvement in the attacks  (Press TV, June 19).

These incidents illustrate the key areas where extremist ideology most often translates to potential support for jihadist groups seeking to conduct attacks against the Iranian state. This is not always that case, however. In the southwestern Khuzestan province, where the security services are also highly active, members of the Ahwazi Arab minority involved in anti-state violence are mostly Shia and, as such, are not a significant potential source of future jihadist recruits.

Kurdish Threat and IS Links

Kurds make up an estimated nine to ten percent of the Iranian population, and most are Sunni. Despite initial support for the 1979 revolution, which they hoped would lead to greater political autonomy, Sunni Kurds abstained from voting for the creation of the Islamic Republic, which established Shia primacy. This ultimately led to an uprising, which was brutally repressed. Oppression of the Kurdish minority continues to the present day. Indeed, nationalist groups continue to wage insurgencies in response. These ethnic tensions therefore clearly provide a potential source of recruitment for militancy that can be exploited by radical groups.

However, while this may provide a source of hostility against the regime, the rise across the region of Salafist ideology, which justifies anti-Shia violence, has played a crucial role in forming Kurdish jihadists in Iran. A key development occurred in 2003, when members of Ansar al-Islam (AAI), a Kurdish Salafist-jihadist group established in Iraqi Kurdistan, fled to Iran during the U.S. occupation. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) allowed AAI’s members to regroup and tolerated their presence as their fighters were focused on fighting the United States in Iraq.

Although Tehran ultimately outlawed the group, AAI ensured its extremist views gained traction among some Iranian Kurds. The dissemination of such ideas may also have been facilitated by members of al-Qaeda, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who also spent some time in Iran during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

This predisposition to IS’ extremist worldview will have incentivized the group’s own efforts to boost its support among Kurds. Indeed, IS has recently released propaganda videos in Kurdish, making clear that IS seeks to win further Kurdish backing (Jihadology, November 12 2016). Geography will also have played an important role in the development of links to the so-called IS caliphate, as militants will have been able to take advantage of pre-existing fuel smuggling networks along the Iran-Iraq border to exit and return without detection. Around 150 Kurds were reported to have joined IS by early 2016, likely via such routes (Radio Zamaneh, February 29, 2016). Returning fighters now probably represent the key source of future jihadist violence in Iran.

Growing Radicalization in Balochistan

Like the Kurds, ethnic Balochs who seek greater political independence have suffered long-term oppression, something that was again exacerbated by the advent of the Islamic Republic, which further marginalized this majority-Sunni group. Baloch nationalism intensified as a result, but also took on a sectarian dimension that had previously been of little political significance — fighting against the Shah’s government had been principally led by secular groups.

This more sectarian focus was evidenced by the establishment of Jundullah, a militant group founded by Abdolmalek Rigi in 2003 to fight for greater rights for Iranian Sunnis and ethnic Balochs. Although the group claimed to reject religious extremism, Rigi was himself educated at the Binnori Town seminary in Karachi, a madrasa that has played a significant role in helping to establish several major radical, and particularly anti-Shia, militant groups. Rigi’s background, as well as other cross-border linkages with radical Islamists in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan, will doubtless have further influenced Jundullah. Notably, major successor groups that have gained prominence since Rigi’s death in 2010, and the subsequent weakening of Jundullah, have included Jaish al-Adl (JaA) and Ansar al-Furqan, both of which present themselves as openly Salafist-jihadist organizations.

None of these have expressly sworn allegiance to transnational jihadist groups, and their own established networks in Iran’s southeast will have faced greater difficulties than Kurdish jihadists in establishing direct links with IS’ central command, owing to the greater distance from Iraq and Syria. However, given that these groups have a sectarian agenda and are fighting a Shia state, there is a degree of synergy between their ideologies. It is therefore possible these groups will be sympathetic to IS and provide future recruits.

Future Militancy Risk

While for now Kurds provide the most significant source of further IS violence, the threat may rise in the southeast, particularly if security forces engage in a wider crackdown against Balochs. That could in turn prompt Baloch jihadists to increase operations within the Iranian interior rather than confine themselves to attacks in border areas, such as that in April by JaA in which 10 Iranian military personnel were killed near the border with Pakistan (See Terrorism Monitor, July14; Tehran Times, April 28).

Tehran’s strategy of allowing some Sunni militants to use Iran as a safe haven and logistics hub, on the understanding that they will focus on targets outside Iran, has helped limit the threat of jihadist violence.  Such groups, including al-Qaeda, were unwilling to jeopardize this arrangement. However, the rise in Salafist ideology among Iranian Sunnis, as well as the growing regional Sunni-Shia divide, will provide fertile ground for future jihadist recruitment.

Indeed, IS will look to continue its insurgency in neighboring Iraq despite the recent fall of Mosul. The group has already increased its activities to win greater support in Pakistani Baluchistan, including involvement in the recent kidnapping and killing of two Chinese nationals (Dawn, June 9).

An IS presence in Baluchistan will ensure the group can further develop links with Kurdish and Baloch extremists in Iran over the longer-term, increasing the risk of further jihadist violence, especially as Iran presents an important symbolic target for IS as it seeks to maintain its relevance while its caliphate fades away.