KARACHI -- Pakistan's crackdown on terrorism has ensnared not only Sunni militant groups but also Shia ones such as Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP).
Shia militant groups have been accused of both fueling sectarian violence in Pakistan and sending youth to fight abroad in Middle East conflicts.
With support and funding from Iran, SMP first came to light in the early 1990s, when sectarian conflict was at its peak in Pakistan. Since then, SMP has been involved in sectarian attacks on religious scholars and professionals.
In August 2001, the government banned SMP along with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Sunni terror outfit, in an attempt to put a stop to sectarian violence. Tehreek-e-Jafaria Pakistan, a Shia political party, along with Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a Sunni political group, were banned in January 2002 in a similar fashion.
"The group [SMP] was heavily involved in the tit-for-tat killings of leaders of rival sectarian groups, especially the SSP, and religious scholars and professionals of rival sects," said a senior intelligence official on the condition of anonymity.
"But because of the crackdown of the then-government, the Shia outfit had lost its strength by the middle of the decade," said the official, who has been involved in counter-terrorism operations in Karachi. "Also, after being banned in 2001, SMP was further weakened."
Most of SMP managed to flee to neighbouring Iran, but many members regrouped in 2008-2009 in major Pakistani cities, including Karachi and Lahore, he said.
Countering sectarian violence
The National Action Plan, a counter-terrorism policy the government adopted after a Taliban attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar in December 2014, lists "dealing firmly with sectarian militants" and "ensuring against the emergence of proscribed organisations" among its initiatives.
Overall, sectarian violence has decreased. Authorities recorded 12 incidents of sectarian violence in 2018 -- including 11 sectarian-related terrorist acts and one armed battle -- down 40% from 2017, according to an annual security report published by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think-tank.
Dozens of SMP militants are included in the 2018 Red Book of the Sindh Police Counter Terrorism Department (CTD), which contains the names, photos and details of the most-wanted militants.
Efforts against SMP, including members listed in the Red Book, have continued, as the militant group attempts to battle rival Sunni groups.
The Sindh CTD in April arrested six suspected members of SSP who were accused of involvement in sectarian killings in Karachi.
The arrests came after the March 22 attack on religious scholar Mufti Taqi Usmani in Karachi. Usmani survived but three of his companions were killed.
"The money trail of the arrested suspects was ... traced, and it transpired that they got instructions and funds from abroad," CTD official Raja Umar Khatab told Dawn in October.
SMP receives backing from Tehran in a bid to extend Iranian influence in the region, say Pakistani law enforcement agencies.
In December 2018, Pakistani authorities, at the request of Saudi officials, reopened two cases involving violence in 2011 against Saudi diplomats in Karachi.
Pakistani officials linked SMP to the May 2011 killing of Hassan al-Qahtani, an employee at the Saudi consulate in Karachi, and to a grenade attack on the consulate just days earlier.
The group's objective was to stoke tensions between the nation's Sunni and Shia communities and between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, according to the officials.
Tehran's interference comes as Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attempts to recruit Pakistani Shia youth -- especially pilgrims -- for its Zainabiyoun Brigade, a militia made up of Pakistanis sent to fight in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Dozens of Shia youth have been arrested in connection with alleged involvement in the organisation, media reports suggest.
The US Treasury Department in January announced sanctions against the Zainabiyoun Brigade as part of efforts to "shut down the illicit networks the regime uses to export terrorism and unrest across the globe".