پشت پرده انفجار بلوچستان
A suicide attack in Iran 's Baluchistan area that killed several top Revolutionary Guards commanders was a major feat of planning, coordination and execution; it was also an embarrassment to the Guards at a time when their image has taken a beating for repressing dissent, Kamal Nazer Yasin comments for ISN Security Watch.
By Kamal Nazer Yasin in Tehran for ISN Security Watch
Jundollah is a small armed group of Baluchis that was formed in 2003 to fight the central government in what it termed "national discrimination against the Baluchi people of Iran."
Since that time, it has carried out a series of spectacular attacks against government targets. Remarkably, despite a massive show of force in the area and the arrest and interrogation of hundreds of people, no Jundollah leaders or cadres have been arrested so far – the exception being Abdolhamid Rigi, the brother of the group's leader. Rigi was extradited by the Pakistani authorities last year and is pending execution.
It is not hard to see why the tiny group of militants has been able to survive and thrive against a far more superior force. Iran's Sistan and Baluchistan province is far and away the poorest region in the country; living conditions are several decades behind the rest of Iran.
The province's proximity to two volatile countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, has turned its western borders into a frontier-like no-man's-land where smugglers, refugees and spies roam freely in both directions. This has increased the level of paranoia and brutality by the mostly Shia forces brought in from outside the province. (Every year, several border guardsmen fall to smugglers' bullets.)
The Shia government is also insensitive to and has failed to comprehend the local customs and beliefs, further antagonizing Iranian Baluchis against the government. For example, four years ago, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inexplicably appointed several Shias from the city of Zabol in the north to run the city and state governments in Baluchistan.
The yawning rift between the government and the local population has been vital for Jundollah's survival.
Jundollah revolves around its leader and founder, Abdolmalek Rigi, who in 2003 was only 20 years of age and hails from a tribe of the same name. He was expelled as a university student for his political activities and has reportedly suffered torture at the hands of the regime's agents.
Last year, after it became clear that NAJA (the Iranian law enforcement agency) was unable to stem Jundollah's power and violence, the Revolutionary Guards (RGCI) took over responsibility for providing security to the restive area. This was done with great fanfare and with undisguised slight toward NAJA personnel. As such, last Sunday's audacious attack against the Guards' top commanders is all the more embarrassing.
Few people in Iran have forgotten the heavy-handed repression meted out by RGCI paramilitary officers against peaceful protesters in the streets of Tehran. The Guards have also distinguished themselves lately by bellicose rhetoric against dissidents. To these must be added several recent embarrassing news items that indicate a plan by the RGCI to grab the most prized parts of the Iranian economy.
In Sunday's attack, a man apparently in Guards' uniform blew himself up in the midst of a heavily protected gathering of tribal leaders and top RGCI regional commanders, killing himself and dozens of others. Among the dead was General Noorali Shushtari, the man in charge of overall Baluchistan security. He was also the deputy commander of the RGCI ground forces.
At a time when the Guards' rhetoric has focused increasingly on its supposed invincibility and prowess, Jundollah's intelligence-gathering and penetration of the camp undermines the RGCI’s self-image to a remarkable degree.
In the days ahead, the RGCI is expected to use indiscriminate force against its opponent. Iran has already accused the US, the UK and Pakistan of involvement with Rigi's group. All the three countries have rejected the charge. But one influential website, Ayandenews, has indicated that Iran may be preparing to hit suspected targets in Pakistan where Jondullah is supposed to have found refuge. If so, the problem may soon become an international issue.
Perhaps the worst fear among many quarters both inside and outside Iran is that this may be the beginning of an al-Qaida-type insurgency in Iran, particularly since a month ago, a violent al-Qaida-linked group came into being through a series of assassinations in Iran's Kurdish region.
As far as Rigi's group is concerned, there is little evidence to support this hypothesis. He has repeatedly, most recently through the BBC Persian TV program, rejected such a possibility. The group's rhetoric — despite some heavy doses of religious propaganda — and its terrorism, the use of a suicide attack on Sunday aside, is much closer to radical ethnic insurgency groups than the internationalism and the glorification of violence associated with al-Qaida and its accolades.
Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the government's heavy-handed anti-Sunni policy of exclusion and discrimination, plus the widespread disgruntlement running among large swaths of the Iranian population, is creating the ideal breeding ground for small but virulent groups of radical Sunni insurgents.
The bombing was a very big deal. It was indeed a suicide bombing, the man’s name was Abdul Rahed Mohammadi Sarabani, who was associated with the military wing of Jundullah, headed by Abdulmalik Khan Rigi. The IRGC had killed two of his brothers, and this was an act of vengeance, carried out to inflict maximum damage on the RGs. The target was a large theater, which holds up to two thousand people. It is part of a large military complex, one of the most important in the country. The people there were attending an urgent strategy session. Due to the recent attacks by the Pakistani armed forces in Waziristan, many al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and fighters had fled to the Iranian side of the Baluchistan border (Sarbaz is less than an hour’s drive from the Pakistani side). Here is a map from Google.
The purpose of the strategy session was to assist the terrorists, to help them reorganize, to rearm them, to arrange to get them back into Pakistan and, for at least some of them, thence to Afghanistan. For that reason, attendance counted many very important people. The gathering in Sarbaz included not only top RG officials (including the commander in chief, General Mohammed Ali Jaafari, whose fate is unknown as of now), but also top civilian intelligence officers from the State of Sistan and Balouchistan (the second largest state in Iran), and members of an elite RG brigade named after the Imam Ali, along with the military governor of the city of Sarbaz, and the terrorists who had run away from Pakistan. The bomber, Sarabani, was dressed in an officer’s uniform, and he knew exactly where to go. The blast brought down the roof of the structure. The real casualty figures are impossible to obtain, but they are considerably higher than the ones officially announced. At a minimum, 108 were killed, including 57 members of the Revolutionary Guards. Some of the names have already been announced, but so far Jaafari’s name has not been mentioned. I cannot evaluate the impact on the AfPak theater, but it may be significant. It has already had a major impact on the border area. All flights in and out of Sarbaz and nearby cities were canceled Sunday and Monday, and the roads are blocked. Many local hospitals are counting the dead and treating the wounded. One hospital, in Iranshahr, reported more than fifty fatalities. Meanwhile, there are other explosions. The most famous tea factory in the country, the Golestan Tea Factory, has been burned to the ground. There were reports of an explosion near the Oil Ministry in downtown Tehran on Sunday night (blamed on a faulty air tank), and there have been three major fires in the Tehran Bazaar since mid-June. Airplane incidents are so common they are rarely noted. A train from Tehran to Kerman derailed on Sunday evening, and it’s a train that typically carries many military personnel. And, as several reports have noted, in addition to the bombing in Blouchistan, there was also an ambush of a Revolutionary Guard convoy.
An explosive situation. And a big opposition demonstration is scheduled for November 4th.
UPDATE: Apparently Jaafari survived. He is quoted by an Iranian news agency, as per the New York Times. He blames US and Britain for the bombing. If he is indeed alive, this would be the second assassination attempt he has survived in recent months.