This frame grab released February 23, 2010 from Iranian state TV shows Rigi under armed guard following his arrest. – Reuters
Iran gets its man
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD – Iran on Tuesday triumphed in the arrest of Abdulmalik Rigi, the 31-year-old leader of Jundallah (Soldiers of God), a Sunni insurgent group accused by Tehran of undertaking a string of terror attacks in the country that have claimed scores of lives over the past few years.
Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi described the capture of its most wanted fugitive as a “great defeat” for the United States, Britain and Israel, which it has accused of supporting the group. “We have clear documents proving that Rigi was in cooperation with American, Israeli and British intelligence services,” Moslehi was reported as saying.
However, while the capture of Rigi is a significant event, Jundallah, which has strong roots among ethnic Balochis in Pakistan, could emerge even stronger from this apparent setback as radical anti-Shi’ite members of Jundallah now linked to al-Qaeda are positioned to carry on without him.
Jundallah carries out its operations against the Iranian Shi’ite regime mostly in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, but its main base is in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Jundallah has claimed it does not seek to break away from Iran to form a separate Balochistan autonomous region; rather, it says it is fighting on behalf of the Baloch population against discrimination and neglect.
Jundallah was expected to launch a new series of attacks against Iran this year. Security officials in Pakistan say that Pakistani intelligence played a substantial role in the arrest of Rigi, described as “a Baloch rebel turned al-Qaeda ally”. It is possible that Pakistan feared Jundallah might attack energy installations in Iran. This would have affected a much-delayed but important Pakistan-Iran pipeline project.
The circumstances surrounding Rigi’s arrest are unclear. Iranian officials claim he was flying in a small plane from Pakistan to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates when Iranian authorities forced the plane to land in Iran. Baloch tribes in the Taftan area of Balochistan in Pakistan say Rigi was arrested inside Pakistan and then handed over to the Iranians. All that Iranian state television showed was a handcuffed Rigi being escorted by four masked commandos off a small aircraft.
Whatever the true story, the fact is that Pakistan appears to have abandoned one of its strategic assets against Iran. This follows closely on the arrest in Pakistan of several such assets among the Afghan Taliban.
Militants change course
When Islamabad signed onto the US’s “war on terror” after September 11, 2001, the fortunes of one of the most active and successful intelligence agencies in the region – Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – were dramatically changed.
Before 9/11, the ISI orchestrated the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir that was bleeding India, in addition to backing the powerful D-Company organized crime syndicate of Dawood Ibrahim in Mumbai. The royalist regime of Nepal turned a blind eye to the ISI’s activities in that country, while the ISI and Bangladeshi intelligence cooperated to support southern Indian insurgencies and the network of the Harkatul Jihad-e-Islami (HUJI), a radical Muslim group. And by supporting the Taliban regime in Kabul, Afghanistan was virtually Pakistan’s fifth province, in effect run by an ISI brigadier.
With this network, the ISI was able to control proxy operations throughout Central Asian and against Iran. One of these networks was Rigi’s Baloch Liberation Organization.
The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that ousted the Taliban and subsequent US pressure on Pakistan forced the military and the ISI to significantly scale back their proxy operations. There was, though, a backlash.
The shunned ISI-sponsored militant outfits became more radical and they shifted their allegiance from the Pakistani establishment to al-Qaeda. The HUJI, for instance, began attacking Pakistani security forces. It remained active in India, although the aim was not to bleed India but to spark a war between India and Pakistan to neutralize Pakistan’s support for the US’s war in Afghanistan.
Rigi faced a similar situation. He was disconnected from Pakistan’s military establishment and his funding dried up. His response was to form Jundallah with the support of Pakistani anti-Shi’ite organizations, such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which provided recruits and money.
These links in turn led Rigi to al-Qaeda, which also provided him money and resources, allowing him to stage significant attacks in Iran last year. These included a bombing in Pisheen, southeast Iran, which killed 42 people, including five Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders.
In return, al-Qaeda received Rigi’s help in moving its men back and forth from Pakistan through Iran to the Middle Easter and Turkey.
With the infusion from other militant groups and al-Qaeda, Jundallah’s membership is believed to have grown to about 2,000 activists, most of whom are based in Balochistan in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi members of Baloch origin mostly come from Karachi’s Lyari slum.
Jundallah’s top echelons are already dominated by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose network spreads across Pakistan. With Rigi’s arrest, the group’s influence is likely to get even stronger, especially among members with ties to al-Qaeda.
This could see its headquarters move to Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area, with Jundallah evolving from an ISI proxy into an ideologically motivated organization with a long reach.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com
Source: Asia Times