March Issue 2010
Stuck in the Middle
The dramatic arrest of Jundullah’s young leader Abdul Malik Rigi in a covert operation by Iranian intelligence agents on February 23 ended the career of a Sunni militant, who claimed his violent campaign was aimed at winning the rights of his minority Baloch people in Shia-majority Iran.
It would be a surprise if the shadowy rebel organisation continues to operate the way it did under Rigi. A website run by Jundullah, while acknowledging Rigi’s arrest, announced that Alhaj Mohammad Zahir will be the new leader of the organisation. Zahir is an unknown figure outside Jundullah and nothing is known about his background and whereabouts.
Jundullah, or the Soldiers of God, has been dealt a debilitating blow. The loss of its leader has come on top of the capture of his brother Abdul Hameed Rigi, and several other Jundullah operatives by Pakistani authorities some months ago and their subsequent handing over to Iran. Predictably, the Iranian government swiftly put all these men except Abdul Hameed Rigi to death by hanging them in public. The younger Rigi is on death row and is apparently being kept alive to give media interviews, confessing his crime and revealing Jundullah’s secret contacts with the US and UK.
There are reasons for Pakistan to heave a sigh of relief after Rigi’s capture. Sections of the Pakistani media and analysts described Rigi’s capture as a ‘godsend’ and ‘a lucky break’ for Islamabad as it showed that contrary to Iranian accusations, the Jundullah leader wasn’t hiding in Pakistan — at least before and at the time of his arrest. After Rigi’s arrest, the Iranian government alleged that he was at a US military base in Afghanistan 24 hours before his capture, and was travelling on an Afghan passport on a Kyrgyz Airlines passenger plane flying from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan which was intercepted in the Persian Gulf and forced to land by two Iranian jet-fighters at Iran’s Bandar Abbas airport. Pakistani analysts also pointed out that Islamabad’s cooperation with Tehran in netting one of its top public enemies would remove Iran’s misgivings about Pakistan and enable the two countries to work together to defeat their common enemies. It was felt that Rigi’s arrest would ease the pressure on Pakistan, weaken Jundullah and diminish the latter’s capacity to use ungoverned territory in Pakistan’s Balochistan province to launch cross-border attacks in Iran.
It is now clear that Pakistan provided vital support to Iran to capture Rigi. Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran, M.B. Abbasi said at a press conference in Tehran that Rigi’s capture would not have been possible without Pakistan’s assistance. He was quoted as saying that timely Pakistani help enabled Iran to net Rigi. He said that in the past also Islamabad had assisted Tehran in its efforts to tackle Jundullah and recalled that a number of its members, including Rigi’s brother, were captured in Pakistan and delivered to Iran. It was surprising though that the Pakistani ambassador in Iran was allowed to make such a statement that contradicted Iranian minister Heydar Moslehi, who claimed no other country was involved in getting Rigi and whose capture was a result of the operation conducted solely by the Iranian intelligence. Perhaps Ambassador Abbasi didn’t reveal further details despite a promise to do so within two to three days of learning about the Iranian position to avoid misgivings. It is possible he was advised by the foreign ministry in Islamabad to keep quiet.
However, nobody in Pakistan mentioned the possibility of the US becoming angry with Pakistan for cooperating with Iran in capturing Rigi. There have been numerous reports in the world media, particularly in the US, that Rigi was being financed by the CIA to destabilise Iran. Well-known US journalist Seymour Hersh even claimed that some of the $400 million funds allegedly earmarked by Washington to help bring a regime change in Iran were going to Jundullah. After Rigi’s capture, Iran claimed that he was on his way to Kyrgyzstan to meet US officials at the Manas airbase. Rigi also confessed during his TV statement in Iran after his arrest that the US had offered him military aid and even the use of a military base in Afghanistan close to the Iranian border, in case he agreed to work with them.
If all this is true, then Rigi’s capture is a huge embarrassment for the US and also the UK, which has also been blamed by Iran for supporting its enemies. Pakistan, on the other hand, may have earned Iran’s gratitude which is apparent in recent Iranian statements which no longer accuse Pakistan of being under Jundullah’s use for destabilising Iran. But at the same time Pakistan has invited the ire of the US.
The US will not be happy with Pakistan for cooperating with its sworn enemy in capturing its agent, and thus foiling American plans in the region. Even otherwise, it cannot be happy over the close Iran-Pakistan ties. This is one more issue that will continue to be an irritant in Pakistan’s uncertain relationship with the US. Due to Pakistan’s vulnerability to US pressure and its acquiescence in the past to Washington’s never-ending demands with regard to sharing its burden while fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Islamabad will have to tread carefully to keep both Iran and the US happy.
Tehran was clearly angry with Islamabad in the recent past and Iranian officials would routinely bracket Pakistan with the US and UK while blaming outside powers for supporting Jundullah. Even Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad once alleged that Jundullah’s terrorists were launching attacks in Iranian territory by using Pakistan’s soil. Following the October 18, 2009 suicide bombing in Tehran, Iranian accusations against Pakistan grew frequent and louder; its interior minister rushed to Islamabad to demand action to dismantle Jundullah’s network in Pakistani Balochistan and Iran’s ambassador Mashallah Shakeri alleged that Pakistan was allowing its soil to be used against Iran.
In fact, after every terrorist attack by Jundullah in Iran, including the December 28, 2008 suicide bombing of the joint police and anti-narcotics headquarters in Saravan city, the May 28, 2009, suicide hit at the Zahedan mosque and the Tehran bombing in October 2009, the Iranian government became more vocal in asking Pakistan to take action against Rigi and Jundullah. It even alleged that Rigi had acquired a Pakistani identity card in the name of Saeed Ahmad, son of Ghulam Haider.
As many non-Pakistanis have obtained Pakistani identity cards and passports, it would not have been difficult for Rigi to do the same. Besides, he had reportedly studied at the Binora Town madrassa in Karachi and had made friends with Pakistanis including militants. There have been unconfirmed reports that Rigi had developed links with Afghan and Pakistani militants. Then, he had Baloch kinship also and over a period of time had set up a network in Balochistan in the areas bordering Iran. It was probably the first time that a Baloch was so zealously espousing the Islamic cause by naming his organisation Jundullah because the Baloch people are normally secular and nationalist. It seems Rigi had to run his campaign on the v vbasis of an Islamic slogan as he was championing the rights of the Sunni Baloch people in a country dominated by the Shias.
However, Pakistan was lucky that Rigi had lately been taken by the US intelligence under its wings and was being flown around to Afghanistan, Dubai and even Europe if the Iranians are to be believed. His area of operations was spreading and was no longer confined to Pakistani Balochistan. Rigi is supposed to have met the NATO secretary general in what could be interpreted as part of the western military alliance’s designs on Iran and the region. And he was on his way to meet American officials at the US-run Manas airbase near Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, to discuss future plans obviously aimed at destabilising Iran.
Barely 30 years old, Rigi may have genuine reasons while talking about Baloch rights in Iran, but he compromised his position by accepting US patronage and using acts of terrorism to highlight his cause. His capture also showed the dangerous games that the US and its NATO allies are playing in Pakistan and its neighbourhood, and the way Afghanistan’s territory is being used to destabilise almost all its neighbouring countries.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.