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
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
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