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Jul 28, 2010 | 12:15 GMT

Iran: An Examination of Jundallah

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Jundallah, a secretive Sunni Balochi militant group operating in southeastern Iran, claimed responsibility for the dual suicide bombing that occurred July 15 in Zahedan, Iran. Information about the group's funding, training and size is hard to come by; what is known is that Jundallah has been operating for eight years and has demonstrated the ability to continue to stage significant attacks even though its founder, Abdolmalek Rigi, was arrested and executed.
Jundallah, a Sunni Balochi rebel group active in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Balochistan province, claimed responsibility for the July 15 dual suicide bombing in Zahedan, Iran. The attack, which left approximately 28 people dead and more than 300 injured, fits Jundallah's operational style and targeting preferences. The bombing also shows that the group can still launch attacks even after its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, was captured Feb. 23 by Iranian security services in a complex intelligence operation and executed June 20. Intermittent cooperation between Islamabad and Tehran (and possibly Washington) has damaged Jundallah, leading to the arrest of Rigi and his brother along with other militants over the last three years. However, the July 15 attack proves that Jundallah has not disintegrated as Iran had hoped it would.

The History of Jundallah

Jundallah, not to be confused with the Pakistani group of the same name, is a very secretive group based in a remote region rife with insurgencies. Substantial and reliable information on the group is hard to obtain because the Iranian government, Jundallah supporters and the group itself attempt to control and distort what is known about it to serve their own ends. Jundallah means "Soldiers of God" (though the group also calls itself the People's Resistance Movement of Iran). Rigi, a charismatic and capable young Balochi, created the group in the early 2000s in the village of Nahug near the city of Saravan in Sistan-Balochistan province near the Pakistani border. Most of the available information about Jundallah focuses on Rigi. He was born in 1979 and first gained fighting experience in Iran's Balochi region at age 14 with Lashkar Rasoolulallah, a Sunni Islamist group, according to a STRATFOR source. This group, one of many Balochi rebel groups in the region, was led by Mola Bakhsh Derakhshan and was involved in a small-scale insurgency against the Iranian government. The Balochis are one of many minority ethnic groups that Iran's central government has always struggled to control. The Balochi minority spans the Iranian-Afghan-Pakistani border region, and many Balochis seeking at least de facto sovereignty from their respective national governments are involved in militant groups. Rigi went to Pakistan in 1999 to receive an education from a Sunni madrassa. According to a STRATFOR source, he attended either Jamiatul Uloom Islamia in Binori Town or Jamia Farooqia in Karachi; both madrassas have a history of recruiting and teaching jihadists. It was in Pakistan where Rigi developed his Sunni Islamist ideology, and he could have also made connections with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which in the past supported militants from these madrassas. He returned to Iran in 2002, combining his Balochi insurgent background and jihadist ideology to form Jundallah. The group's Sunni Islamist influence makes it unique in the Balochi region, as most militant groups there are secular. But Rigi's use of jihadist ideology seems more opportunistic than genuine, as Jundallah is still more of an ethno-nationalist militant group. Rigi's leadership and his group's successful attacks attracted many other armed groups in Sistan-Balochistan to his cause. After Lashkar Rasoolulallah's leader was killed in 2007, members of that group joined Jundallah. Militants from other small groups including Militant Organization of Balochistan and Sistan led by Nematollah Shahbakhsh, the Alforghan Party led by Molavi Ghanbarzehi, Dorra Shah, the Balochi People's Movement and al Jihad Balochistan also joined Rigi's group. Jundallah is tribally based within the Rigi clan in Sistan-Balochistan, which explains why many of the captured or killed Jundallah militants have the surname Rigi. Aside from the other small militant groups that have joined Jundallah, most of the Balochi tribes, such as the Marri, Narouie, Shahnavazi, Gamshadzai and some members of the Shahbakhsh tribe are opposed to Jundallah and its tactics due to general tribal rivalries. Jundallah does not appear to have any major support among the Balochi tribes in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Jundallah's leadership structure is unknown, but after Rigi's arrest Jundallah announced on its website Feb. 27 that Muhammad Dhahir Baluch became their new leader.

Jundallah's Enablers

Details on Jundallah's funding, training and size are limited, but the group's eight-year history and operational tempo indicate its sustainability. Estimates of the group's size range from a few hundred militants to 1,000 fighters, as a spokesman for the group claimed in 2007. Its size is more likely on the low end of these estimates. Tehran has long pushed the idea that the United States is backing Jundallah and got a public confession from Rigi that he had CIA connections. But since Rigi was under Iranian control, the confession most likely was given under extreme duress and hence is highly questionable. The alleged Jundallah-U.S. connection was also publicized in a 2007 ABC report. However, the United States has been more wary of insurgent groups since the 1980s after some militant groups previously supported by the Americans turned on them. Support for Jundallah would require a presidential directive, and lawyers within U.S. intelligence services would make any support very difficult to orchestrate. If the CIA is somehow working around those limitations, as ABC reported, there is no public information available to support that case. It could be in the United States' interest to use Jundallah as a tool to destabilize Iran. However, recent actions indicate that Washington is not looking to use Iranian militant groups against the Iranian government. Washington has backed away from the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, another insurgent group opposed to the Iranian regime. Furthermore, the United States and Pakistan both were likely party to Rigi's arrest. Recent reports from STRATFOR's Iranian sources say Rigi was actually arrested in Kandahar, Afghanistan. STRATFOR has argued that the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan all likely were involved in discussions over Rigi's arrest. If it is true that Rigi was arrested in Kandahar, it verifies U.S. consent for the arrest in a place where the United States would have control and that whether or not Washington supported Jundallah in the past, it is not supporting the group now. Foreign support is more likely orchestrated through other sources. According to STRATFOR's Iranian sources, Jundallah's funding comes mostly from Iranian Balochi expatriates worldwide (though some of that money could come from other sources, such as Saudi or U.S. supporters, and be distributed via the expatriates). Pakistan's ISI could have provided some support in the past, as the ISI often supports militant groups, and Jundallah could have served as a bargaining chip against Tehran. Specifically, STRATFOR sources believe Jundallah would be useful to Islamabad if Iran grew too close to India or Afghanistan or began supporting Pakistani Shiite militants. However, the decision to surrender Rigi to the Iranians in effect played the Pakistanis' card and showed that they are not strongly supporting Jundallah at this time. Jundallah also benefits from Sistan-Balochistan's economy, which is based on cross-border trade — specifically smuggling. A large portion of Afghanistan's opium crop travels through this part of Iran, and the Rigis allegedly have agreements with Afghan producers to export their opiates. Because Sistan-Balochistan has so many insurgent groups, several of which feed into Jundallah, familiarity with weapons and combat is common in the area, and outside training is not crucial to Jundallah. However, the deployment of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers in the July 15 attack likely required expertise from outside the region. The tactics may have been learned from militant groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan, or from the ISI. Anecdotal information indicates that an alleged Pakistani bombmaker named Uthman was affiliated with Jundallah. Uthman reportedly was killed in Iran in October 2008 but appears to have passed his bombmaking knowledge to Jundallah members.

Shifts and Capabilities

Jundallah's major attacks began in 2005 and, with the exception of an attack in Kerman on May 13, 2006, all occurred in Sistan-Balochistan. Jundallah has concentrated its operations in the cities of Zahedan and Saravan, between which lies the Rigi clan's traditional pastoral land. Although Jundallah has demonstrated capability in Sistan-Balochistan, it has not shown the intent or capability to attack in other regions of Iran. The group first gained notoriety in June 2005 when it claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy of Iranian security officers. That month, Jundallah also released a video recording of the beheading of Shahab Mansouri, who the group said was an Iranian security services agent. Jundallah might have also been involved in some bombings in Zahedan. But the group's breakout moment, according to a STRATFOR source, was an attack on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's motorcade Dec. 14, 2005. This attack occurred just after Ahmadinejad's election as president. He was seen as much less flexible with the Balochis than his predecessor, whose representatives had held discussions with Jundallah discussing the Balochis' demands — such as more autonomy and access to high-level government jobs. Ahmadinejad reversed this policy, thus making himself a logical target for Jundallah and increasing local support for the militant group. As the group became better-known in 2005 and 2006, Rigi gave interviews saying Jundallah was fighting for Balochi and Sunni interests. In March and May 2006 and twice in February 2007, Jundallah attacked Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers in Zahedan. Between 2005 and 2009, the group carried out multiple armed assaults with the aim of kidnapping or killing and used IEDs. Sometimes the attackers combined an IED with an armed assault as a force multiplier. Jundallah carried out three to six attacks per year from 2006 to 2009. The targets usually were security forces, though civilians were nearly always among the casualties and some civilians were kidnapped. A tactical shift began in December 2008, when the group carried out its first suicide IED attack, this one targeting security forces headquarters in Saravan. Then in May 2009, Jundallah fighters detonated a suicide IED at a mosque in Zahedan — the group's first attack on a major civilian target. This shift in methods and targets toward those used by the jihadist movement is perhaps a sign that Jundallah has become increasingly influenced by jihadist ideology (though this does not mean the group is associated with the Taliban or al Qaeda, who tend to reject what they consider doctrinally impure groups like Balochi nationalists).

Jundallah's Survival

In October 2009, Jundallah carried out the attack that signed Rigi's death warrant. The Pishin suicide bombing killed at least five high-level IRGC commanders, including the deputy commander of the IRGC's ground forces, and led to a major crackdown on the group. Rigi was arrested several months later, and STRATFOR began speculating about the end of Jundallah. However, the July 15 attack in Zahedan proves that Jundallah has retained the capability to launch a successful attack in spite of Rigi's death. The group's operational tempo has decreased substantially, with only one major attack since October 2009. Jundallah could have found a capable leader in Baluch or another unknown person, and leadership will be key in sustaining the group. But Iran's emphasis on dismantling Jundallah will only increase, since the July 15 attack proves that the ongoing campaign against the group has not been as successful as Tehran had hoped.
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