Pakistan investigates possible Iran role in 2011 attacks on Saudis

Suspects arrested in connection with the attacks are members of the al-Mehdi faction of Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP), a proscribed Iran-backed Shia terrorist group, say Pakistani officials.

By Zia Ur Rehman

A pedestrian walks past the marked spot where Hassan al-Qahtani, an employee at the Saudi consulate in Karachi, was killed by gunmen in Karachi May 16, 2011. [Rizwan Tabassum/AFP]

A pedestrian walks past the marked spot where Hassan al-Qahtani, an employee at the Saudi consulate in Karachi, was killed by gunmen in Karachi May 16, 2011. [Rizwan Tabassum/AFP]

KARACHI -- Pakistani authorities, at the behest of an earlier request by Saudi Arabia, have reopened two cases involving attacks on Saudi diplomats in 2011 linked to a banned Iran-backed Shia militant group.

On December 13, a nine-member Saudi delegation met with Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah, as well as local officials from the Sindh Home Department and senior police officers, to discuss progress in the investigation of the May 2011 killing of Hassan al-Qahtani, an employee at the Saudi consulate in Karachi, and a grenade attack on the consulate just days earlier.

Pakistani officials have linked Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP), a proscribed Pakistani Shia terrorist group, to both attacks and say the group's objective was to stoke tensions between the nation's Sunni and Shia communities and between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

In a report submitted to Sindh's Home Department after the Saudi request, Pakistani police officials probing the assassination said that three main culprits involved in the killing are members of the al-Mehdi faction of the SMP, the Urdu daily Ummat reported December 11.

Three other suspects are now hiding in Iran, said the report.

A long-running investigation

"In the past, law enforcement agencies in Karachi had arrested several SMP members for their involvement in fueling sectarian violence," Raees Ahmed, a Karachi-based security analyst, told Pakistan Forward.

A long-running crackdown on sectarian outfits has weakened the SMP considerably, he said.

On May 16, 2011, unknown gunmen on two motorcyclists killed Hassan al-Qahtani outside the Saudi consulate in Karachi, just days after other unidentified attackers threw hand grenades at the consulate.

Both times, the assailants escaped.

A day after al-Qahtani's death in 2011, law enforcement officials arrested Muntazir Imam, an SMP member, in connection with the slaying. He was also accused of other murders, including those of rival Islamist leaders.

Imam told investigators that more than 200 SMP activists, trained abroad and heavily armed, were hunting down Sunnis, Pakistan Today reported at the time.

Meanwhile, on December 30, 2016, a Karachi court sentenced Zaki Kazmi, a militant affiliated with the al-Mehdi faction, to 14 years in prison for the grenade attack at the Saudi consulate.

He carried out the attack with his accomplice Tabish Hussain, also known as Asif Mamu, according to prosecutors.

Iran compromising Pakistani-Saudi relations

Various reports have pointed to Iran's involvement in the killing of al-Qahtani.

Saudi officials, citing Pakistani intelligence reports, have also said the attacker was an SMP member, noting that the terror outfit is linked with Iran's Quds Force, a special forces unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IGRC), the Washington Post reported October 13, 2011.

Pakistani officials and security analysts have been sounding the alarm over the growing threat of Iranian intelligence activities inside Pakistan, which has implications for relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, Riyadh transferred to Islamabad a second tranche of $1 billion (Rs. 139 billion) as part of a $3 billion (Rs. 417 billion) support package meant to help ease Pakistan's financial crisis and to boost the country's foreign reserves. Pakistan received the first $1 billion in November and is expecting to receive the third disbursement from Riyadh next month.

The IRGC has been continuing to recruit Pakistani Shia through the Zainabiyoun Brigade to fight as mercenaries for Iranian military interests in Syria.

Over the past six months, the IRGC's Zainabiyoun Brigade has recruited more than 1,600 new fighters from Pakistan, a senior Pakistani intelligence official told Pakistan Forward in October on the condition of anonymity.

"We have concrete evidence that Iran is boosting its influence via its proxies, but rest assured it will never succeed in its nefarious designs," he added.

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