Jaish al-Adl’s Reemergence Threatens Iran-Pakistan Relations

Jaish al-Adl’s Reemergence Threatens Iran-Pakistan Relations

Publication: Terrorism Monitor

By: Farhan Zahid

The Jamestown Foundation

Pakistan’s tense relations with its neighbor Iran were further impacted on April 27 when militants from Jaish al-Adl (JuA, Army of Justice), a Sunni group that allegedly operates from across the border in Pakistan, killed 10 Iranian border guards in an attack in Iran’s Baluchistan-Sistan province (Dawn, April 27).

JuA has launched a number of attacks on Iranian security forces in the border areas since 2012, often resulting in the kidnapping and murder of members of the Iranian security forces.

The attack on April 27 in Mirjaveh County has since been overshadowed by the more daring attack, apparently perpetrated by Sunni militants allied with Islamic State (IS), in Tehran in June. However, the re-emergence of JuA is significant as it comes as Pakistan-Iran relations are reaching a new low, with Pakistan facing pressure to pull out of Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror alliance.

Pakistan-Iran Relations

Iran, which itself faces accusations of supporting insurgent groups abroad and was once designated part of the so-called “Axis of Evil,” has time and again accused Islamabad of failing to curb Islamist militants operating from Pakistani soil. In particular, Iran claims that on a number of occasions JuA fighters have carried out attacks in Iran and then fled across the border into Pakistan.

Despite the Pakistani government’s condemnation of the April 27 attack, the situation has recently gone from bad to worse. The Iranian government has warned that Pakistan must bear “ultimate responsibility” for the attack, and, in a statement from Iran’s foreign ministry, that Islamabad “should be accountable for the presence of terrorist groups on its soil and for the outlaw groups operating against Iran from its territory” (TOI, April 27; IRNA, April 27).

JuA emerged from Jundullah (Army of God) following the capture, trial and execution of Jundullah’s founder and leader, Abdul Malik Riggi, in 2010 by Iranian security forces. The group adheres to ultra-orthodox Sunni-Deobandi ideology. And although relatively little information is available about the group’s ambitions, the aim of its parent organization was to fight for Sunni-Baluch rights inside Iran. In that regard, it is notable that Riggi never called for the separation of Baluchistan-Sistan from Iran.

JuA conducted 12 terrorist attacks between October 2013 and November 2015, resulting in a total of 53 fatalities and 25 injuries of Iranian security forces and civilians. [1] Most of these attacks involved ambushing border security patrols near the Pakistani border. In October 2013, JuA massacred 14 Iranian border guards, later claiming that it was in response to the hanging of 16 Sunni prisoners (suspected members of Jundullah) and the “cruel treatment of Sunnis in Iran, and an overall discriminatory behavior of Iranian regime against Sunnis” (BBC, October 2013).

The group is currently led by militants named Salahuddin Farooqi and Mullah Omar. Little is known about Farooqi, but Mullah Omar is the brother of Maula Bux Darakhshan, the leader of another Sunni sectarian outfit named Sipah-e-Rasoolallah that is also active in Sistan-Baluchistan province. [2]

Controversial Appointment

Further complicating the issue, Iran has also accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out subversive activities from Pakistani soil, albeit “against Pakistan’s will.” In June, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed Iran had intelligence that Riyadh was “actively engaged in promoting terrorist groups operating on the eastern side of Iran in Baluchistan … using the territory of one of our neighbors against its will to launch attacks against Iran” (Times of Islamabad, June 14).

The Saudis have also impacted Pakistan-Iran relations with the appointment of retired Pakistani general Raheel Shariff, the former army chief of staff, as military advisor to the recently unveiled Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). General Shariff was offered the post by the Saudi government prior to his retirement in November 2016, but the issue remained controversial and the Pakistani government did not allow him to take up the post for five months, only issuing him a so-called No Objection Certificate (NOC) in April this year (Geo TV, April 21).

General Shariff is well respected in Pakistan for overseeing Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which substantially reduced terrorist attacks during his tenure as army chief between 2014 and 2016. Riyadh attempted to justify Shariff’s appointment on purely professional grounds, but there were serious concerns in Islamabad and elsewhere over the general’s appointment. It was well understood that Tehran would never accept such a move, and would view it, along with IMAFT as a whole, from a sectarian perspective.

Since then, relations between Islamabad and Tehran have further declined with the shooting down of a drone that Iranian security agencies were reportedly using to track JuA’s activities. According to reports, on June 20, a JF-17 Pakistan Air Force fighter jet shot down the drone that was flying about 3 kilometers inside Pakistani airspace. The incident took place near the Panjgaur district of Pakistani Baluchistan province, close to the Iranian border (Dawn, June 21).

Showing Restraint

Neither Iran nor Pakistan finds the other to be an easy neighbor. Following the JuA attack, Tehran bolstered its security forces and carried out tactical maneuvers along its border with Pakistan. In the past, Tehran has also threatened to target terrorist bases “wherever they are” (al-Jazeera, May 9). However, both Islamabad and Tehran have hitherto shown restraint. Pakistan’s shooting down of the Iranian drone in June was in fact an unusual escalation.

With cross-border tensions raised, the re-surfacing of JuA, a Sunni-Baluch group, at a time when Iran is reeling from recent terror attacks in its capital, has created great unease among the Iranian security establishment.

Previous Iran security efforts to wipe out Jundullah were ineffective, leading instead to the formation of JuA. Iran can ill afford a further deterioration in the security situation along its border with Pakistan. In order to avoid that, the two neighbors need to liaise on terrorism and border security issues. For that to happen, Tehran and Islamabad will need to focus on their common security concerns.

NOTES

[1] Information sourced from the START Global Terrorism Database https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/

[2] Author interview with an Islamabad-based security analyst who requested anonymity (06/26/17).

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https://jamestown.org/program/jaish-al-adls-reemergence-threatens-iran-pakistan-relations

Photo source: Image uploaded in the original article by The Jamestown Foundation is Jaish al-Adl militants (Source: The Baghdad Post)

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