Iran's Arrest of an Extremist Foe: Did Pakistan Help?

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This frame grab released Feb. 23 on Iranian state TV shows Sunni Muslim rebel leader Abdolmalek Rigi under armed guard following his arrest

Iran is gloating now that it has seized its public enemy No. 1. On Feb. 22, Iranian agents allegedly intercepted Abdolmalek Rigi, leader of Jundallah, a Sunni extremist group that has waged a low-level war against Tehran for the better part of a decade, killing hundreds. According to state media, Rigi, 27, was on a flight bound for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, from Dubai when the Iranians forced the plane to land at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. A day later, Iran's Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi hailed Rigi's arrest as proof of "the power of the Islamic Republic." Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar announced on state radio the same day that the government "had spread a dragnet and managed to capture him. He is now in the claws of justice." A state-backed cinema institute has been asked to make a film re-enacting Rigi's capture.

It's still unclear how exactly Tehran caught wind of Rigi's presence in Dubai. News of the arrest has only been gleaned from accounts revealed by Iranian state-media sources and cannot be independently confirmed. On Feb. 25, Iranian state television broadcast footage of a supposed confession made by Rigi, saying he was flying to Central Asia to meet with American handlers at the U.S.-run Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. Intelligence Minister Moslehi had already pointed his finger at Washington and the hand of the CIA, claiming to have evidence that Rigi was earlier housed at a U.S. base in Afghanistan and set up with fake documentation by the Americans. Accusations blaming the West for fomenting trouble within Iran's borders are nothing new, though. U.S. officials as well as British diplomats in Tehran have denied any links to Rigi.

What's more likely — and more intriguing — is the tacit involvement and cooperation of Pakistan. Jundallah, which means "Soldiers of God" in Arabic, has operated since 2002 in the borderlands between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tehran has long suspected that the group receives tactical support from forces within Pakistan, including the same elements in the country's notorious military intelligence that helped form the Afghan Taliban. If Islamabad was involved in Rigi's capture, the move, combined with recent arrests of senior Taliban leaders living on Pakistani soil, could be a sign of the country's new seriousness at getting to grips with terror groups in its midst. "[It] may mark a dramatically different, and welcome, approach by the Pakistani security setup," suggests a Feb. 25 editorial in Dawn, an English-language daily in Pakistan.

Jundallah draws its recruits from the Baluch, an ethnic group whose historical homeland lies on both sides of Iran and Pakistan's desert border. The group says its aim is to fight for Baluch economic and political rights in Iran's marginalized southwest. But they are set apart from other Baluch outfits warring on the Pakistani side against Islamabad by their staunchly religious character. "The Baluch nationalists aren't really sectarian," says Syed Adnan, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies in Singapore. "Jundallah sees itself fighting a Sunni war against the Shi'a Islamic Republic [of Iran]."

That religious zeal has led some analysts to speculate whether Jundallah has organizational links with al-Qaeda. The group raised its profile in 2005 by kidnapping a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and supposedly launching a botched assassination attempt on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jundallah cemented its terrorist credentials in the past two years, with three bombings, two of which were suicide attacks. The most recent blast, last October in the Iranian border city of Pishin, killed at least 40 people, including many civilians. It also convinced Tehran that Jundallah was Iran's greatest internal security threat.

But cracking down on Jundallah, for all of Iran's own extensive intelligence networks, proved difficult. "There are a lot of ungoverned spaces along this border," says Kamran Bokhari, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas. Like other groups in the region, Jundallah exploited illicit smuggling routes between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, possibly trading in arms and narcotics. Though there's little clear evidence, analysts suspect Jundallah received support and succor from a web of shadowy sources, including perhaps Saudi, Pakistani, Israeli and even U.S. intelligence agents. "The one consensus among experts on this matter is that Rigi was not his own man. He must have been getting aid from somewhere," says Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani government official and currently a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Tehran and Islamabad had largely cordial ties until Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979. By the 1990s, they found themselves facing each other across a post–Cold War battle line as Pakistan built up the Afghan Taliban, whose Sunni puritanism grated against Iran's state Shi'ism. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Islamabad allowed the U.S. the use of two military bases in Pakistani Baluchistan for counterterror operations. This predictably drew Iran's ire and deepened its fears of external forces conspiring to undermine its interests both at home and in Afghanistan.

But in the past year, the two countries have also stepped up diplomatic visits and military exchanges, including a Feb. 21 meeting held in Quetta — capital of Pakistani Baluchistan — between two senior Iranian and Pakistani army commanders. "It seems quite clear that the Iranians could not have [arrested Rigi] without Pakistani cooperation," says Bokhari. Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, is said to have a highly sophisticated operation in Dubai, where Rigi was picked up.

Experts say Jundallah may have served, for a time, as a tool of strategic depth for Islamabad, much in the same way it has allowed the anti-Indian terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban to exist in safe havens in Pakistan. "Rigi was a lever with which to have some leverage with Iran, a check Pakistan could cash in," says Bokhari.

Pakistan has watched warily as both Iran and archrival India have expanded their influence with anti-Pakistani forces in Afghanistan — a country many in Islamabad still view as their backyard. The arrest earlier this month of Mullah Abdul Baradar, rumored Taliban deputy commander, by Pakistani authorities in Karachi has been seen as a sign of Islamabad's desire to now dismember some of the terror networks it once helped create. Handing over Rigi may be another gesture of goodwill. "Actions like this ease pressure on India and Iran," says Abbas. "There's now a chance for more cooperation and coordination."

That's welcome news for Washington as it struggles to bring stability to Afghanistan nearly a decade after its invasion. It's less welcome for Rigi, who now sits in an undisclosed location in Iran, at the mercy of Tehran's interrogators.