Arrest of Zainabiyoun recruiter highlights Iran's posture toward Pakistan

By Abdul Ghani Kakar

Police commandos patrol in Karachi last June. [Asif HASSAN/AFP]

Police commandos patrol in Karachi last June. [Asif HASSAN/AFP]

QUETTA -- The recent arrest of a Zainabiyoun Brigade recruiter in Karachi once again highlights the ongoing destabilising activities of the Iranian regime inside Pakistan.

In late January, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) arrested the "most-wanted" Zainabiyoun Brigade militant Abbas Jafri during a raid.

Jafri, in addition to carrying out reconnaissance for terrorist activities in Karachi, was allegedly involved in recruiting Shia youth and sending them abroad to fight in wars directed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Jafri "got his military training in neighbouring Iran", Omar Shahid, deputy inspector general of the CTD, said according to Arab News.

In December, the CTD said it had arrested two other members of the Zainabiyoun Brigade in Karachi in connection with a string of killings over the past six years.

"Militants who have been arrested so far in a nationwide operation confessed in interrogations that they had been receiving training and Iranian funding in Parachinar, Karachi, Kurram Agency, Khushab Punjab, and other parts of the country," a senior official of Pakistani Ministry of Defence told Pakistan Forward on the condition of anonymity.

"Iran is currently in a state of crisis, therefore it wants Pakistan to be a supporter of its strategic goals," he said.

In recent months, a new Iran-backed militia with links to the Zainabiyoun Brigade surfaced in eastern Syria.

In November, Pakistani officials said Iranian intelligence agents have recruited a large number of Shia and Sunni scholars in Pakistan as part of an effort to increase Tehran's influence in the country and encourage its proxy wars across the region.

Exploitation of youth

Among the many crimes and atrocities the Iranian regime has been complicit in since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the exploitation of young Afghans and Pakistanis to advance Iranian goals in the conflict is perhaps one of the most heinous and least understood.

The IRGC funds, trains and equips the Fatemiyoun Division -- a militia comprised of Afghans -- and the Zainabiyoun Brigade -- a militia comprised of Pakistanis.

Thousands of Afghan and Pakistani fighters have been reported killed and wounded in combat in Syria over the years, mostly in operations supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran.

Since the early days of the Syrian civil war, IRGC operatives have employed a mix of ideology, financial incentives and coercion to recruit Afghans and Pakistanis as little more than cannon fodder for Syrian battlefields.

IRGC recruiters promise that the young men will defend sacred Shia shrines in exchange for hefty salaries and Iranian citizenship.

The reality, however, is much different.

While estimates vary and are difficult to verify, most observers agree that the number of Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun combatants killed and injured in Syria -- many of them minors -- ranges in the thousands.

Many of the dead fighters have been buried in mass graves in Syria and Iran, leaving grieving families in Afghanistan and Pakistan to wonder about the fate of their sons, according to reports.

The families of dead and wounded militants receive little to no support from Iran -- a fact that emerges in countless interviews with regional observers and the families of Afghan and Pakistani fighters.

In most cases, promises such as housing, financial assistance and Iranian citizenship for the families of dead militants have gone up in smoke, leaving countless grieving widows and children to fend for themselves.

Calls for policy shift

"If Pakistan wanted to strengthen its security in the region, it needs to revisit its foreign policy," said Gen. (ret.) Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based defence analyst.

"Following the developing scenario in the region, it is the need of the hour to neutralise the threat of foreign influence in the country," he said. "For the past twenty years, Iran has consistently made anti-Pakistan rhetoric, even at the diplomatic level."

"Threats to national security cannot be addressed without giving attention to the country's fault lines," Masood said. "The sectarian divide has always been a source of uncertainty for anti-peace elements in Pakistan."

"Iran is not only interfering in Pakistan's internal affairs, but the terrorists who are carrying out attacks on our troops in Balochistan also have safe haven on Iranian soil," said Maj. (ret.) Omar Farooq, a Rawalpindi-based security analyst.

"Serious steps are needed to eliminate Iranian influence within the Shia community in Pakistan," he said. "The government must also take the political leadership of the country into confidence on this important national security issue."

"Iran-backed proxy militias are a major threat to our national security," Farooq said. "Due to these militant groups, Pakistan is also being accused of providing terror financing as Iran has been constantly using these militants for its war in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world."

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