x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Resurgence of 'crushed' extremists in Iran

Jundallah, an outlawed group Tehran claims to have destroyed, is alive and dangerous.

Iran's public enemy number one was hanged at dawn in Tehran's Evin prison a month ago tomorrow as some of the families of his many victims watched. The Iranian authorities hailed the execution of Abdolmalek Rigi, 26, as a fatal blow to Jundallah, an outlawed Sunni extremist group responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in the Islamic republic since the 1980s. But in a gloating and defiant message that it remains a threat, Jundallah (God's Soldiers) swiftly claimed responsibility for "heroic" twin suicide bombings on Thursday.

Twenty-eight worshippers, including several Revolutionary Guard, were killed outside a mosque in Zahedan, capital of Iran's remote, restive and impoverished Sistan-Balochistan province, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nearly 300 others were injured, some critically. The attack is likely to deepen strains in a region already unsettled by the Afghan war and increase tensions between Iran and the US, analysts said.

But Jundallah's bloody re-emergence is also stoking political friction in Iran itself, where there was remarkably outspoken criticism this weekend of the government's iron-fisted handling of the challenge it represents. Embarrassed by the survival of a small group it claimed to have virtually crushed, senior Iranian officials and state media blamed "the Zionists" [Israel], Britain and, most of all, the US for the mosque blasts.

"It cannot be true" that Jundallah masterminded the attack, said Ali Mohammad Azad, the province's governor. "Extremist Wahhabis and Salafis trained by US intelligence agents in Pakistan are believed to have carried out the bombings," Iran's state-run Press TV maintained. An Iranian police chief, Ahmadreza Radan, declared that Iran had a right to "pursue rebels inside Pakistani territory". On Saturday, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander warned that the US would pay. "Jundallah has been supported by America for its terrorist acts in the past? America will have to await the fall-out of such criminal and savage measures," said Massoud Jazayeri. His unspecified threat, nevertheless, implied acceptance of Jundallah's involvement. Western countries have condemned the bombings, which Barack Obama, the US president, branded as "outrageous terrorist attacks".

Iran has long portrayed Jundallah as a western-driven, external threat, claiming its enemies are attempting to foment religious and ethnic strife to undermine the Islamic republic. Balochis comprise a significant proportion of the population of Sistan-Balochistan and, unlike Iran's Shiite majority, are mainly Sunnis. Iran has variously claimed that Jundallah is supported by countries including the US, Britain and Pakistan - all of which have repeatedly rejected such accusations.

Founded by Rigi in 2003, Jundallah, also known as the People's Resistance Movement, claims it is fighting for the rights of Iran's minority Baluch community and denies having any foreign links or a separatist or radical sectarian agenda. Sistan-Balochistan is one of Iran's most deprived areas. Sunni Muslims are not employed in senior government jobs, while the regime restricts their religious ceremonies to ethnic regions.

Jundallah exploits such legitimate grievances, but it is far from clear, given its extremely violent methods, whether it enjoys much local support in the province. The regime insists it has none. The group is largely funded by revenue from drug smuggling, analysts say. Jundallah launched its armed campaign in 2005 and is thought to have between 100 and 1,000 fighters. These take advantage of the turbulence of Iran's lawless border province with Pakistan to slip between the two countries, analysts say.

Pakistan denies providing Jundallah any official assistance, pointing out that it has handed over several senior members of the group to Iran in recent years, including Rigi's brother, Abolhamid Rigi, who was hanged in May. There was bold domestic criticism this weekend of the government's handling of the Jundallah challenge. The conservative daily Jomhuri Islami questioned the execution of Rigi, and his brother before the "uprooting" of Jundallah's entire network.

Three members of parliament have resigned in protest over security issues following the bombings. "The culture of this region is revenge. After Rigi's execution, we had warned that this group [Jundallah]would retaliate," Abbas Ali Noora, an MP from the province said. Iran's main reformist party went much further. The Islamic Participation Front strongly condemned the mosque bombings, but also blamed Iran's "coup d'etat" government, saying that the terror attack showed that the government's hardline tactics had failed.

"We believe that such crises are rooted in those kinds of policies which classify Iranians unequally and consider different rights for them," the statement said. "This leads to an increase in discrimination and intensifies a sense of inequality so that dependent terrorist agents will become able to abuse people's dissatisfaction." Jundallah's claim of responsibility last week made clear the mosque bombings were not only bloody payback for Rigi's execution but were also designed to demonstrate that its survival despite the loss of its youthful leader.

The regime "thought that through the martyrdom of Abdolmalek [Rigi]the fight will end", Jundallah boasted in a statement. The blasts had "shattered the dreams of executioners and devils". The group said its two young "martyrs", both members of Rigi's clan, had targeted Revolutionary Guards, who were among the worshippers attending ceremonies marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed's grandson, Hussein, a revered figure in the Shiite faith.

It was perhaps no coincidence that the blasts came as the elite military force, which underpins the regime's survival, was also marking its national day. Jundallah vowed more attacks would follow to punish the Iranian regime for its "incessant crimes" in Balochistan. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae