Attack in Iran: What are the links to Pakistan?

October 18, 2009

A week after suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents attacked the headquarters of the Pakistan Army, a suicide bomber killed six senior Revolutionary Guards commanders and 25 other people in Shi’ite Iran in one of the deadliest attacks in years on the country’s most powerful military institution.

Were these two events connected only by the loose network of Sunni insurgent groups based in and around Pakistan? Or are there other common threads that link the two?

Iranian state media said Jundollah, an ethnic Baluch Sunni insurgent group, claimed responsibility for the attack in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan. The group, led by Abdomalek Rigi, is believed to have bases in neighbouring Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

Jundollah has been linked in some reports to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an anti-Shia sectarian group based in Pakistan’s Punjab province, and to the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), based in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Both the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the TTP are believed to have close ties to al Qaeda, and are suspected of involvement in the attack on the headquarters of the Pakistan Army.

Trawling through published reports about Jundollah, it is not easy to work out how clear its links are to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda. This article in the Asia Times Online cautions that there are two organisations with the same name, one focused on Pakistan and the other on Iran.  Pakistani newspapers, however, have reported links specifically between Rigi’s group and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and TTP.

Being fellow travellers in the network of Sunni Islamist insurgent groups does not necessarily mean they are pursuing a common agenda. However, it does raise intriguing questions about how far they are collaborating, and about how far al Qaeda might be directing operations behind the scenes.

According to the Jihadica website, al Qaeda has been publicly cementing its ties with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, whose declared aim is to take over Pakistan.  The TTP is currently under siege in its stronghold in South Waziristan, where the Pakistan Army launched a long-awaited ground offensive on SaturdayA series of militant attacks acrossPakistan in the past few weeks have been seen as an attempt by the Tehrik-e-Taliban and its al Qaeda-linked allies to show it can outwit the Pakistani security forces.

So was the bombing in Iran part of that deliberate attempt to spread mayhem across the region? That’s almost impossible to tell for now, although the Long War Journal earlier this year quoted an al Qaeda commander as talking about expanding the jihad into neighbouring countries, including Iran.

Of all the many players in the region, al Qaeda probably has the most to gain from the fall-out of the attack in Iran.

The Iranian armed forces, which have long harboured suspicions that Jundollah was funded by the west to weaken Iran, have accused the United States and Britain of involvement in the attack and vowed revenge.  That could torpedo efforts by President Barack Obama’s administration to improve relations with Iran and seek its help in stabilising Afghanistan.

It could also raise tensions between Pakistan and Iran, which reacted sharply to the bombing of a mosque in the Iranian city of Zahedan earlier this year. As Pakistan struggles to fight militants within the country and defeat them in South Waziristan, the last thing it needs is trouble on its border with Iran.

So is there an overall plan at work here? Or instead, is it simply that the region has become so destabilised that insurgents are finding it easier to operate both inside and outside of Pakistan?

(Photos: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Pakistani soldiers in Lahore)

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