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Jundallah: Profile Of A Sunni Extremist Group

Iranians carry the coffin of General Nourali Shoushtari, one of the Revolutionary Guards commanders killed in the suicide attack claimed by Jundallah.
Iranians carry the coffin of General Nourali Shoushtari, one of the Revolutionary Guards commanders killed in the suicide attack claimed by Jundallah.
After the October 18 suicide attack in southeastern Iran that killed at least 42 people, including elite military commanders and tribal elders, the extremist group Jundallah is suddenly at the center of international attention.

Jundallah (God's Soldiers) champions the cause of Iran's 1.5 million ethnic Baluchis, who live under severe political and cultural oppression as a Sunni Muslim minority in the predominantly Shi'ite country.

Following the attack, in which five high-ranking officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were killed, the IRGC's commander accused the United States, Britain, and the Pakistani intelligence services of backing the group, and of protecting its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi.

The three countries have condemned the attack and denied backing Jundallah, but Tehran continues to insist that the group had foreign support.

Immediately following the attack, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad demanded that Islamabad help Iran track down and hand over Jundallah members who Tehran believes masterminded the attacks, and who Iranian officials allege are hiding in Pakistan.

"We ask the Pakistani government not to delay any longer in the apprehension of the main elements in this terrorist attack," Ahmadinejad said. "We were informed that some security agents in Pakistan are cooperating with the main elements of this terrorist incident. We regard it as our right to demand these criminals."

Jundallah, which reportedly has been renamed the Iranian Peoples' Resistance Movement, has claimed many high-profile attacks in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province in recent years. Experts suggest that the group is a good example of how extremism can develop among the marginalized borderland communities in Southwest Asia, and how militant groups can act as asymmetrical tools in complicated relations among competing regional states.

Nationalism And Religion

Abdol Sattar Doshoki, a Baluchi political activist-turned-analyst in London, says that Jundallah leader Rigi was a "young Sunni religious devotee" who had a falling out with the Iranian government a few years ago and found support among young Baluchi religious zealots in his native region.

Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi is described as a 'Sunni religious devotee.'
But his violent movement has also garnered some sympathy from ordinary Baluchis who see their identity as under attack from Iran, and see Jundallah as a defender.

"Baluch people are being discriminated against on two specific grounds. No. 1 is their religion. An overwhelming number of Baluchis are Sunni, and the regime is Shi'ite," Doshoki says.

"The second ground for discrimination is ethnicity. Most of the officials -- or I should say, maybe all of them -- are Persian speaking," in contrast to the Baluchi-speaking minority, Doshoki says. "So this friction and animosity between the regime and the people always existed. And therefore it is a kind of subliminal war going on between the regime and the people."

Despite living along strategic trade routes atop a wealth of untapped hydrocarbon and mineral deposits, members of Southwest Asia's Baluchi minority have found it difficult to emerge from poverty and repression.

More than 8 million members of the beleaguered nation call the Iranian Plateau their home. Their population spans the borders of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, with their southern reaches hemmed in by the Arabian Sea.

Some 60 percent are concentrated in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan Province, where they seek autonomy and have been in the grips of a violent insurgency -- their fifth in modern history -- since 2004. Their insurrection and most political movements are staunchly secular.

But for the 1.5 million Baluchis living in Iran, Doshoki says, the mosque is their only real place of association, leading the causes of Sunni extremism to become mixed with Baluchi ethno-nationalism and separatism in southeastern Iran.

In southwestern Afghanistan, 1 million Baluchis and their Hanafi school of jurisprudence are more in keeping with the majority.

Foreign Connection?

Since its emergence in 2003, Jundallah has taken credit for some 10 attacks, including three suicide bombing since last December and the mass kidnappings of Iranian soldiers and civilians.

Iran has responded by cracking down hard on Jundallah and its perceived supporters. Most of those arrested are summarily executed, according to human rights watchdogs.

Last year, Pakistan extradited Abdolhamid Rigi, a younger brother of Jundallah's leader, to Iran, where he now awaits execution.

Doshoki says that it is difficult to establish who, exactly, supports Jundallah because Tehran has never provided evidence to back its accusations that the group receives support from Washington, London, or Islamabad.

Doshoki sees Jundallah as a pawn in a complicated chess game between states in the region. And he points to the strong possibility that Pakistan supports Jundallah in retaliation for alleged Indian financing of Baluchi rebels fighting the Pakistani Army through Iran.

"There is some evidence and some reasons for Iranian to believe that Pakistan is conniving with Jundallah, or at least not being harsh on them," he says.

“Pakistan, I think, has got this grievance against Iran that it should not allow the Indian Consulate -- at least in Zahedan [the capital of Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan Province] -- to help the Baluch political activists or even the armed [separatist] groups including Baluchistan Liberation Front," Doshoki adds. "So there are some grievances on both sides.... I think is not very clear, really."

In recent years Islamabad, Tehran, and New Delhi have been negotiating a nearly 3,000-kilometer gas pipeline linking Pakistan and India to Iranian gas fields. But instability in the Baluchi borderlands threatens the viability of that significant economic project.

Against Tehran

Tahir Muhammad Khan, a human rights activist and analyst who closely follows developments in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan Province, tells RFE/RL from the regional capital Quetta that to understand Jundallah, one has to understand the complex relationship of extremist ideologies, cross-border smuggling networks, and the ethnicities and alliances among militant organizations.

While suggesting that most information about Jundallah is based on assertions from Tehran and Islamabad that are impossible to verify, Khan says that Jundallah is an extremist Sunni organization that gets field-level support and guidance from Baluchi ethno-nationalists along the Iran-Pakistan border. And its real mission, he says, is to oppose the Shi'ite clerical regime in Tehran.

He suggests that most of Jundallah's cadres are graduates of religious seminaries or madrassahs, and its core members come from the Baluchi Rigi tribe spanning the Iran-Pakistan border. All these factors have pushed it into alliance with the Taliban in Pakistan and other extremist Sunni factions there.

"Organizations, particularly armed organizations, cannot survive without major financing. When they prepare for suicide attacks it requires a lot of finances," Khan says. "So their No. 1 ally is the network led by [former] Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud. The primary goal of this network is killing Shi'a and engaging in Shi'a bashing."

He says the group's primary motives remain political, while it might be providing protection to smuggling rackets in return for funding.

Khan sees very little motive for the Pakistani government to support Jundallah as an instrument of state policy, because "it would never like to mess up its relations with Iran."

But he suggests that the Western forces based in Afghanistan might consider the Baluchi borderlands as Tehran's soft underbelly, and might see groups such as Jundallah as leverage to pressure Tehran.

Analysts suggest that the turmoil in this part of the world will rise unless regional states rethink and reconfigure their relations with their own citizens and with their neighborhood.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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