On February 13, 2019, a suicide bomber driving a vehicle laden with explosives attacked a bus transporting members of the Iran Revolutionary Guards on the road between the cities of Khash and Zahedan in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, near the Pakistan border. The bombing killed 30 Revolutionary Guards and wounded at least 20 people. The attack comes two days after Iran marked the 40th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Jaish al-Adl (“Army of Justice”) claimed responsibility for the attack on Telegram. The group has carried out several attacks recently against security personnel in Sistan-Baluchestan.
The Iranian Response
The Revolutionary Guards blamed “takfiri terrorists and mercenaries of the intelligence services of hegemonic powers,” without naming them.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari has threatened to retaliate against neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He claimed without providing evidence that the US and Israel ordered Saudi Arabia and the UAE to carry out the attack.
Iran also urged neighboring Pakistan to crack down on the militants, or expect military action by Tehran to punish the terrorists. “If Pakistan does not carry out its responsibilities, Iran reserves the right to confront threats on its borders... based on international law and will retaliate to punish the terrorists,” Jafari was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
President Hassan Rouhani also blamed the United States and Israel for the attack. He has warned its neighbors not to let terrorists abuse their territory, and he added that Iran reserved the right to take action if other countries in the region failed to prevent terrorism.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif linked the bombing to a US-led conference on the Middle East taking place in Warsaw, Poland.
The Jaish al-Adl Group
Jaish al-Adl (known as JA) or “Army of Justice” is a Sunni insurgent group in Iran’s southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan province fighting Iranian security forces in the region.
The group was founded in April 2012 by Abdul Rahim Mollazehi, a Baluch militant, after the Iranian regime captured and executed Abdul Malek Rigi, former leader of the Jundullah insurgent group. JA was first comprised of former members of Jundullah. Since 2013, it has become one of the most active movements.
The Iranian government recognizes it as the successor of Jundallah, and Iranian state media has alleged that Saudi Arabia and the United States are key backers of the group.
The group is currently led by militants named Salahuddin Farooqi and Mullah Omar. Little is known about Farooqi, but Mullah Omar is the brother of Maula Bux Darakhshan, the leader of another Sunni sectarian outfit named Sipah-e-Rasoolallah that is also active in Sistan-Baluchistan province.
JA operates primarily in the Sistan-Baluchestan province, but it also operates from bases in neighboring Baluchistan province in Pakistan where it gets support from local Baluch tribes.
The group describes itself as a “political-military” movement and claims to be fighting to achieve justice for the “oppressed Sunni Baluch” people. JA says it must fight the Shi’ite-dominated regime in Iran because it persecutes the Sunni minority. “Since this regime only uses the language of force and humiliation, we have no other means but to fight back,” JA said in a video statement in late 2012.
JA also said it opposes Iran’s military involvement in Syria where Iranian forces and the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah are supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
According to a statement on the group’s website, JA is “composed of young Iranian Sunnis who have come together to defend the oppressed to the divine command.”
The exact number of JA members is unknown, but according to some reports, it has over 500 members and followers. The number of active fighters is said to be over 100. Some of its fighters are seasonal, including some from Pakistan, who are called upon for occasional operations against Iranian security forces.
More than 200 Attacks since 2012
Since 2012, JA has claimed responsibility for more than 200 attacks, as well as killing and abducting more than 150 Iranian security forces members. JA’s first attack killed at least ten members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Forces (IRGC), days after the group was formed. Iranian authorities have confirmed some of the JA claims. Most of these attacks involved ambushing border security patrols near the Pakistani border. Previous attacks by the group include:
On February 4, 2019, a Revolutionary Guards soldier was killed and five wounded in an attack on a Basij paramilitary base in the city of Nik Shahr in southeast Iran. The assault was during official celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Mohsen Golmohammadi, Nik Shahr’s prosecutor, said two attackers scaled the wall of the base and opened fire. Both escaped. The semi-official outlet Tasnim said Jaish al-Adl had claimed responsibility for the attack.
On January 29, 2019, two bombs exploded in front of a police station in the city of Zahedan in southeastern Iran, causing minor injuries to three police officers. JA claimed responsibility for the explosions. The group said it had targeted a police station with “two strong bombs,” damaging a police car and a motorcycle.
On December 6, 2018, a suicide attack killed at least four people – including two police officers – and wounded 41 others, in the Iranian port city of Chabahar. The suicide bomber set off the explosion after stopping the car at the IRGC headquarters in Chabahar. The Sunni militant group Ansar al-Furqan has claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement, Ansar Al-Furqan said that its members used a booby-trapped Nissan type van to target the military headquarters.
On October 16, 2018, militants abducted 14 IRGC members near the Pakistan border. Two of those abducted are members of the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence department and the rest include seven members of the Basij force, as well as regular Iranian border guards. Five of 14 were freed in Pakistan in November 2018 and have returned to Iran while the fate of others remains unknown.
On April 17, 2018, an Iranian police officer was killed in an ambush on a border post in the city of Mirjaveh in Sistan-Baluchistan, and two soldiers died when their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED). The Revolutionary Guards' statement, posted on state media, said three people it described terrorists were killed by Iranian security in a “firm and timely response.” Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for attacks that killed eight border guards in April 2015 and 14 in October 2013 near the Pakistani border. In its attacks, JA has taken credit for shooting down a military helicopter and destroying dozens of army vehicles.
On March 13, 2018, Iran claimed that four “terrorists” were killed after infiltrating Iran and attacking a military checkpoint near the city of Saravan, about 50 km from the Pakistani border, in the province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Revolutionary Guard troops fought off the attack. Two members of the Basij paramilitary force were wounded in the fight, during which one of the attackers was killed after detonating an explosive vest.
Iran shares more than 900 kilometers of largely porous border with Pakistan. Traditionally deep cultural, economic and religious bilateral relations have come under pressure in recent years in the wake of an increase in deadly cross-border attacks, particularly in poverty-stricken Iranian Sistan-Baluchistan province, next to the Pakistani border. The southeastern Iranian region of predominantly Sunni Muslims has long been plagued by drug smuggling gangs and separatists.
Jaish al-Adl, or the Army of Justice, has claimed responsibility for the majority of recent attacks on Iranian soil. Tehran has long alleged that anti-Iranian Sunni extremists use hideouts in the Pakistani border province of Baluchistan for plotting terrorism against Iran. Iran also says that militant groups are sheltering across the border in Pakistan and has threatened to attack their bases if Islamabad does not confront them.
Iran regularly accuses intelligence services of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia of fomenting internal dissent to destabilize the regime from within, a charge that Riyadh, Israel and Washington deny.
Iran has also accused Pakistan of supporting Baluch insurgent groups even though the two countries have a shared interest in quelling Baluch nationalist aspirations and have a history of cooperating to crush Baluch uprisings.
The latest attack against Pakistani security forces took place on December 14, 2018. Some 30 militants attacked the Frontier Corps convoy, killing six soldiers and wounding 14. Four attackers were killed in the shootout. The attack took place in southwest Pakistan in a mountainous road near the border with Iran.
Iran condemned the attack and vowed to cooperate with Pakistan but Pakistan has lodged a protest with Iran over the incident. The Foreign Ministry said it summoned Iran’s ambassador to demand it take action against the armed group responsible for the attack.
Both countries have lately beefed up security on their respective sides. The Pakistani military has recently deployed about 12,000 troops and established new outposts along the frontier, while the Iranians are building a fence on their side.
[Sources: Al Arabiya, BBC News, VOA, United States Institute of Peace, Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, Asharq Al Awsat, EA World View, Reuters, Arab News, The New Arab, The Gulf Times, Al Jazeera]