Suicide bombings in Iran and India; all fingers point to Pakistan
On Wednesday 13 February, an explosives-laden car rammed into a bus carrying members of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) on a road in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province, killing 27 IRGC personnel and injuring 13 others. The militant-separatist group Jaish al-Adl (JaA), or the Army of Justice, claimed responsibility. Since its creation in 2012, JaA has conducted numerous strikes in Sistan and Baluchestan province along the Iran-Pakistan border, targeting Iranian military, security forces and civilians.
The group hails from Jundullah (Army of God) and was created following the capture, trial and execution of Jundullah’s founder and leader, Abdul Malik Riggi by Iranian security forces in 2010. JaA adheres to ultra-orthodox Sunni-Deobandi ideology and is currently led by militants Salahuddin Farooqi and Mullah Omar. Between October 2013 and November 2015, JaA conducted 12 terrorist attacks, resulting in a total of 53 fatalities and 25 injuries of Iranian security forces and civilians. Most of these attacks involved ambushing border security patrols near the Pakistani border. In October 2013, JaA massacred 14 Iranian border guards, later claiming that it was in response to the hanging of 16 Sunni prisoners, suspected members of Jundullah, and the “..cruel treatment of Sunnis in Iran, and an overall discriminatory behavior of Iranian regime against Sunnis”. In October 2018, the same group abducted 12 Iranian security personnel near the border with Pakistan.
The day after the suicide attack in Iran, India was also struck with tragedy. On Thursday 14 February, at least 40 members of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed in Pulwama in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir, in a suicide bombing. This was the deadliest assault on Indian forces in the troubled region in decades. Soon after the attack, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan based extremist Islamic organization, whose aim is to annex Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir to Pakistan, claimed the attack and released a video identifying the suicide bomber.
In its justifiable outrage, India has pointed its finger at Pakistan, accusing it of supporting Jaish-e-Mohammed and giving the group “full freedom” to operate on its territory. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking to be re-elected for a second term in May of this year, has vowed to punish those responsible. Pakistan denied the allegations and has demanded that India conduct an investigation and provide them with proof before making such claims. In a statement, Pakistani Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan assured that Pakistan would retaliate if India declared war following the Pulwama attack. He also insinuated that India’s actions would be determined by their upcoming Lok Sabha (lower house of the bicameral Indian Parliament) elections. The Indian government rejected this allegation and issued a statement declaring that “...India's democracy is a model for the world, which Pakistan would never understand. Pakistan should stop misleading the international community and take credible and visible action against the perpetrators of Pulwama terrorist attack and other terrorists and terror groups operating from areas under their control". India is, understandably, not keen to take PM Imran Khan’s promises and assurances of acting against terrorists seriously, as perpetrators of the Mumbai Attack in 2008, including its mastermind, Chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) Hafiz Saeed, continue to roam freely in Pakistan, even ten years after the deadly attack, proving that Islamabad is not serious in bringing terrorists to justice. This in addition and despite the United States (US) offering a $10 million reward on Hafiz Saeed’s head.
On 16 February, India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj met with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Aragchi in Tehran where the Ministers discussed the attacks and agreed on “close cooperation between the countries to combat terrorism in the region”. Aragchi announced this in a tweet followed by the phrase: “Enough is enough!”
As well as India, Iran has previously issued warnings to Pakistan regarding their policy of harboring terrorist groups. In 2014, when JaA abducted Iranian border guards and allegedly took them across the border to Pakistan, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli warned that: "If Pakistan doesn’t take the needed steps to fight against the terrorist groups, we will send our forces onto Pakistani soil…We will not wait”. Eventually, negotiations prevailed and JaA handed over four of the border guards, having killed one. Reacting to Wednesday’s attack, Senior Revolutionary Guards commander Ali Fadavi stated: "Our response in defense of the Islamic Revolution will not be limited to our borders... The enemies will receive a very firm response from the Revolutionary Guards like before". Similarly, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC’s chief commander, also responded to the attack in Iran: “If Pakistan fails to punish them (Jaish al-Adl) in the near future, Iran will do so based on international law and will retaliate against the terrorists". Furthermore, Iran's Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri, by accusing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for sponsoring terrorism, warned that a “fiery revenge” awaits Jaish al-Adl and asserted that “...If a group is holed up in Pakistan using Saudi and Emirati money, carrying out such acts of terror by sending in some people, they should know that the flames of the Iranian nation’s revenge will burn them to ashes”.
According to SITE intelligence, an American group which tracks white supremacist and jihadist organizations, Jundullah had previously claimed to receive Saudi donations from an unnamed "philanthropist". Although Saudi Arabia denies any allegation concerning their supposed funding of terrorist organizations, Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani journalist in exile in France, has stated that Pakistan has no interest in taking concrete actions against terrorist groups such as JaA as the said group receives funds from Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan depends on Saudi Arabian aid. As recently demonstrated, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister came away from a controversial Saudi conference with a pledge of at least $6 billion in financial support from Saudi Arabia to help ease Pakistan’s economic crisis. To complicate matters, Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out subversive activities from Pakistani soil, albeit “against Pakistan’s will”. In June, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed Iran had intelligence that Riyadh was “actively engaged in promoting terrorist groups operating on the eastern side of Iran in Baluchestan … using the territory of one of our neighbors against its will to launch attacks against Iran”. In this milieu, it looks increasing possible that Iran and India could evolve their already strategic and economic relationship into a semi-military and political cooperation against Pakistan.
The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is on a week-long tour of South Asia, having had visits in Islamabad, New Delhi and currently Beijing to discuss infrastructure and trade investments. As it is a critical time for the region, the topic of terrorist attacks has been brought up and the Prince’s stance is to de-escalate the tensions between Pakistan, India and its neighbors and explore a diplomatic and peaceful path instead of resorting to conflict between the nuclear powers. During an interview with India Today, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir stated: “We have been very clear about the fact that any terrorism, anywhere, for any reason is unacceptable”. He added that Saudi Arabia’s objective is to enhance international cooperation “..in order to rid the world of this scourge [terrorism]”. While not outrightly naming and condemning Pakistan, the Saudi Minister, in response to Iran’s recent allegations, called Iran the “world’s chief sponsor of terrorism” and accused it of sponsoring terrorism for decades. Respectively, if Saudi Arabia takes on the unlikely role of mediator in this latest Indo-Pak issue, Iran may present some form of opposition.
Another regional power advocating for negotiations rather than retaliation is China. Cheng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, urged restraint from both India and Pakistan and called for peaceful dialogue. He added that a stable bilateral Indo-Pak relationship is essential for the stability of the region. However, China still refuses to back India’s and other countries’ bid to place Masood Azhar (JeM’s leader) on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) designated terrorist list. All of India’s previous initiatives to do so were blocked by China, the latter citing the reason to be a “lack of consensus” amongst the UNSC members.
The US has assured India that it will support their right to self-defense against cross border terrorism. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has confirmed that the US “stands with India as it confronts terrorism” and the Trump administration has condemned Pakistan for creating terrorist safe havens within its territory. The attacks in Iran and Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir coincided with the US led Warsaw summit, which Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif was quick to point out. The summit was held to promote peace and security in the Middle East, but was largely seen as an attempt to rally world support for President Trump’s tough anti- Iran policy. For decades, the US has viewed Iran as the “big bad wolf” and alongside Saudi Arabia, has been continuously condemning the country. In light of recent events, hostile regional neighbors and their allies may be forced to confront each other, preferably at a negotiating table rather than on the battlefront.
Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategies or so-called “War on Terror” policies have been highly ambivalent and confusing. They are a mixture of supporting and tolerating some terrorists, but also adopting countermeasures against others at the same time. On the one hand Pakistan uses “good” terrorists and jihadi militant groups like Hizb ul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad, even though these groups are officially banned by the Pakistani government, vis-à-vis India and to further its dubious strategic objectives in Jammu & Kashmir, against US troops and the Afghan government. The US has also been routinely criticizing Pakistan for supporting, sheltering and tolerating the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network (a US designated terrorist group). On the other hand, Pakistan is battling “bad” terrorists and separatist movements in its Balochistan province, home to Gwadar Port, a key pillar of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. While smooth implementation and operationalization of the CPEC plays a pivotal role in Sino-Pakistani ties, separatist movements and people in other provinces than Pakistan’s Punjab province have vehemently opposed CPEC plans. Respectively, Baloch separatists carried out various attacks against Chinese officials and construction workers including an attack on construction workers near Gwadar in May 2017, targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November 2018 and a suicide attack against Chinese engineers in August 2018. BLA’s suicide bomber released a message in which he stated: “Through this act, I want to make China and its people realize (that) whosoever will try to meddle in Baloch issues without Baloch nation’s consent, will face the wrath of Baloch nation”. All these Baloch insurgent organizations that were earlier peeved at Pakistan for unfairly exploiting the province’s resources, especially its natural gas and minerals, and for crushing dissent by blatantly resorting to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, have now also turned their anger against China, accusing it of conspiring to take over Baloch lands surreptitiously. In response, Pakistan has not only raised a Special Security Division comprising approximately 15,000 personnel in order to provide security of CPEC against attacks, but has also implemented various deadly counterterrorism attacks against such dissenting voices.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistani Army, in his speech at the Munich Security conference on 17 February 2018, implicitly stated that Islamabad supports ‘good terrorism’ if it can be used against any country it considers oppressive. While Pakistan’s too-clever-by-half policy of supporting the likes of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taibah, Hizbul Mujahideen and others against India and battling groups it considers a threat to its own security has appeased China's economic and strategic concerns, it has also contributed to the rise of a radicalisation in Pakistan itself. Pakistan’s duplicitous policy of “good terrorists, bad terrorists” and its use of terror as an instrument of State policy has been acknowledged and criticized heavily by the US State Department and various European countries.
The attacks in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province and in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir mirror Pakistan’s ‘double-game’. The country’s policy of supporting those that fight for the military’s strategic interests, like JeM, LeT, Afghan Taliban and HM, and condemning those that threaten said interests, has opened the eyes of the international community. This realization has led to a growing and rare consensus between the US, Iran, India, Afghanistan and many EU Member States: Pakistan must take action to combat all types of terrorist activities on its territory. As for potential retaliations, all eyes are turned towards India. The alleged mastermind behind the Pulwama attacks, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, was killed in an encounter with Indian forces in Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir on Monday, yet this is unlikely to quench the call for revenge resonating among the majority of Indians.
Better sense must prevail despite the fact that both Iran and India feel the need, and the right, to retaliate. De-escalation and active, cooperative diplomatic channels are of paramount importance. At the same time, the reservations both countries, along with other countries in the region and the West, have regarding terrorist organizations based in Pakistan and enjoying patronage from the country’s military establishment must be conveyed and stressed in order to increase pressure on Pakistan to shut down its terror infrastructure - Failing which, the current vulnerable situation amid heightened tensions, and looming threat of future terrorist attacks, could push South Asia to the brink of a destructive war.