The Shia Fatemiyoun Brigade: Iran’s Prospective Proxy Militia in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 6

In December 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif offered the Afghan government use of the Iranian-backed Shia militia, Fatemiyoun Brigade, to fight Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K) in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Afghan English daily, Tolo News, Zarif described the Fatemiyoun fighters as “the best forces” to fight Islamic State and said that Iran is “prepared to help the Afghan government regroup these forces under the leadership of the Afghan National Army in the fight against terrorism.” Zarif added that Iran was “supporting” the Fatemiyoun in Syria, but it was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who “was making [operational] decisions and implementing them.” Likewise, in Afghanistan, Iran is “prepared to support” the Fatemiyoun “under the leadership of the Afghan government,” Zarif said (Tolo News, December 21, 2020).

Iran’s Fatemiyoun Foot Soldiers

According to noted Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai, Fatemiyoun is “already very active in Afghanistan and its influence is expanding in Shiite areas.” [1] This has serious implications for the conflict in Afghanistan as it will generate a new sectarian dimension. That could become a major threat not just to Afghanistan’s security but also to the region, and could deepen the involvement of regional Sunni and Shia countries and militias.

Recruited, armed, and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Fatemiyoun Brigade has been deployed to Syria since 2013 and has fought alongside al-Assad’s forces, first against U.S.-backed Syrian opposition militias and subsequently Islamic State. Fatemiyoun fighters are mainly Afghan Shia Hazaras. While some of them came from Afghanistan to fight in Syria, the majority were recruited from the large Afghan migrant and refugee population in Iran. At the peak of the Syrian civil war, Fatemiyoun fighters comprised around 20,000 individuals. The group is said to have fielded an estimated 50,000 fighters in its ranks over the roughly decade-long Syrian conflict (Tolo News, February 7).

Pursuit of geopolitical objectives underlies Iran’s decades-old strategy of arming, training, and deploying Shia militias in various conflict zones, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In Syria, Iran’s objective in deploying Fatemiyoun fighters was to support the al-Assad government, which is an Iranian ally, against U.S. attempts to topple it (Alarabia News, September 22, 2016). Having strengthened al-Assad’s control over power and with the Syrian conflict winding down, these militias are returning back to Iran from Syria. However, Fatemiyoun’s use to Iran may not be over, as Tehran can now use the brigade in other Gulf States like Bahrain and Yemen in addition to Afghanistan (Salaam Times, April 23, 2019; Middle East Eye, September 26, 2020).

What Role for Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan?

Apprehensions that Fatemiyoun will turn its guns toward Afghanistan soared in the wake of the U.S. assassination of IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 in Baghdad, Iraq. It was widely believed that Iran would strike back against the U.S. by mobilizing Fatemiyoun to target American interests in Afghanistan, where some 13,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed at that point (Gandhara, February 7, 2020). Although this scenario did not eventually unfold, concerns over Iran’s possible use of the militia in Afghanistan persist. Indeed, Zarif’s comments have further fueled such fears, especially in the context of American troops likely remaining in Afghanistan and the worsening security situation there (Pajhwok, March 19).

The Iranian government has been engaging the Taliban with a view to safeguard its interests in case the Taliban forms or becomes part of a government in Kabul. However, should the Taliban go back to being hostile toward Iran as in the past, Tehran is keen to have a fallback position. Additionally, Iran “is worried” about the Taliban “getting close” to the United States. It “does not want to be unprepared,” according to Sami Yousafzai. Fatemiyoun is a useful asset in this context. Should Fatemiyoun emerge as an organized force in Afghanistan, it would complicate the already complex conflict in the country. The Afghan conflict is largely an ethnic one, featuring Pashtun-led Taliban fighters versus ethnic Tajiks, among others, but there is a danger of the conflict turning sectarian, with the Shia Fatemiyoun setting its guns on the Salafist-Sunni IS-K and Deobandi-Sunni Taliban. This would result in Afghanistan becoming a Sunni versus Shia war zone, drawing in forces and militias backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf powers.

Hazaras, who are Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic group and account for 10-15 percent of the predominantly Sunni country’s population, are mainly Shia and have suffered persecution for centuries. Thousands of Hazaras were massacred under Taliban rule and in recent years by IS-K, which has repeatedly targeted members of the community (Gandhara, November 16, 2018). In 2020, IS-K carried out several suicide attacks and bombings in predominantly Hazara Shia neighborhoods in Kabul and other towns (India Today, October 24, 2020).

Understandably, Hazaras are insecure and angry. Poverty, desperation and insecurity in Afghanistan drove many Hazaras to flee to Iran. Those same reasons prompted their youth to join the Fatemiyoun ranks in Syria (Salaam Times, March 13, 2020; Diyaruma, December 25, 2020). Thousands of Fatemiyoun fighters are returning now to Afghanistan. They are still poor, unemployed and insecure. Importantly, they are now battle-hardened. They may not be averse to picking up arms again, only this time in Afghanistan. According to Rahmatullah Nabil, a former chief of Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, around 2,500 to 3,000 Fatemiyoun fighters have returned to Afghanistan. He said, ”At this stage it seems they are not in a position to pose an immediate threat to Afghanistan’s national security… [as] they are not organized but scattered in different parts of the country.” But they could pose a threat should they “establish a central command” (Gandhara, February 7, 2020).

Zarif’s Warning

With Zarif’s offer of the Fatemiyoun to Afghanistan to fight against IS-K, the Iranian foreign minister has sent a “clear message” regarding how “actively involved Iran is in Afghanistan,” according to Sami Yousafzai. [3] The message is aimed at not only the Afghan government, but also the Taliban and the U.S. Should Iranian interests in Afghanistan be threatened, Tehran is ready and willing to unleash the Fatemiyoun in the war-ravaged neighboring country of Afghanistan.


[1] Author’s Interview, Kabul-based Afghan journalist, Sami Yousafzai, March 21, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.