Iranian intelligence captures anti-Tehran Baloch Sunni leader

By B.Raman

(February 24, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) In a despatch dated February 23,2010, from Tehran,the State-owned Xinhua news agency of China has reported as follows:"Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the Pakistan-based Iranian Sunni rebel group Jundallah ( also spelt as Jondollah), has been captured, Iran’s English-language satellite channel Press TV reported Tuesday (Feb.23). Rigi was reportedly captured on a flight from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, to Kyrgyzstan, Press TV said. Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar was quoted by Press TV as saying that Rigi was arrested outside the country as he was preparing for a new act of sabotage and was consequently transferred to Iran. According to the official IRNA news agency, Najjar said Rigi was arrested during an operation with the cooperation of military, security and Information Ministry forces. The detention of Rigi followed several months of extensive works of the forces, which were determined to arrest him alive, Najjar said. Rigi was an agent of foreign countries and operated their plans and conspiracies, he added. Jundallah, or People's Resistant Movement of Iran, is an insurgent Sunni Islamic organization based in Balochistan of Pakistan that claims to fight for the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran. The group was founded by and had been under the command of Rigi. It has been identified as a terrorist organization by Iran and Pakistan and has been behind numerous acts of terror, kidnapping and smuggling narcotics. In August, Abdolhamid Rigi, the brother of Abdolmalek Rigi, told reporters in Zahedan, the capital city of Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan- Balouchestan, that the United States had a supporting role in launching terrorist plots inside Iran. “After meeting with the U.S. officials in the U.S. embassy in Pakistan four years ago, they (the U.S. officials) promised to help us with everything we needed,” said Abdolhamid Rigi, who had been captured by Pakistani forces and extradited to Iran. “We were deceived by them (the U.S. officials) … We received monetary and armed supports from the United States … We received orders from them to carry out the terrors inside Iran, he said.” ( My comments: Abdolhamid Rigi made these allegations to the media after he had been convicted on a charge of treason and sentenced to death. The death sentence has not been carried out till now)

2.The Arabic language channel al-Alam said Abdolmalek Rigi has been held in eastern Iran, but gave no more details. The semi-official Fars news agency, quoting the Iranian intelligence ministry, said the Jundallah leader was arrested along with two of his group members. The official IRNA news agency said he had been flying to an Arab country via Pakistan before his arrest. The AFP (Agence France Presse) quoted an Iranian official as saying: "His plane was ordered to land and then he was arrested after the plane was searched." Press TV said Rigi had been in a US military base in Afghanistan 24 hours before his capture. It alleged the US had issued Rigi with an Afghan passport. It also said he had recently travelled to "European countries". The Press TV quoted the Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi as saying at a media briefing that Rigi had contacts with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad, and that he had even met NATO military chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Afghanistan in April 2008. He claimed that Rigi’s movements were being monitored for five months before he was captured and that no foreign intelligence service had helped Iran in Rigi's capture.

3.It was not immediately clear as to how the Iranian authorities were able to seize Rigi from the flight between Dubai and Kyrgyzstan. But an official at the Manas airport in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan was reported to have told AFP on condition of anonymity that the plane was forced to land. “While over the territory of Iran a flight from Dubai to Bishkek with 119 passengers onboard was forced to make an emergency landing by military bomber aircraft,” the official said, adding that “a number of foreign passengers were forcibly removed.” In a statement on its blog, the Jundallah confirmed Rigi’s arrest and alleged as follows: “The leader was arrested with the help of the CIA, and Afghan and Pakistani intelligence services.” The Iranian Intelligence Minister accused the Dubai authorities of collusion with the CIA and the Mossad by allowing Rigi to come to Dubai. He showed the media personnel photographs of Rigi whichj, he claimed, had been taken inside a US military base in Afghanistan by Iranian agents.

4.In an Islamabad datelined report, the “Dawn” of Karachi reported as follows: “ Arrest of Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi and his deputy Hamza during a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan marks a lucky break for Pakistan, which has been long accused by Iran of hosting the terror group’s ringleader, and offers an opportunity to ease the tense relations between Tehran and Islamabad. Iran, despite repeated denials by Islamabad, always alleged that the group operated from Pakistan’s soil and that its leader Rigi was based there and carried Pakistan’s national identity card by the name of Saeed Ahmed, son of Ghulam Haider. The militant leader had been educated at Karachi’s Binnori Town seminary, which was school to many of the Taliban leaders. Rigi is believed to have camouflaged his nationalist movement in a sectarian colour to curry favour with Pakistani sectarian groups. Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, who visited Pakistan in October following an attack on elite Revolutionary Guards in south-western Sistan-Balochistan province along Pakistan’s border, is said to have handed over proofs of Rigi’s travel to Pakistan. “We have documents that show (Abdolmalek) Rigi travels readily to Pakistan ... we are here to ask Pakistan to hand over Rigi to Iran,” Mr Najjar had said in a statement. Bilateral relations between the two countries had been on the slide ever since the group was formed in 2002 and stepped up cross-border raids out of their havens along Pakistan-Iran border targeting Iranian security personnel and civilians. In view of enhanced Iranian concerns, Pakistan had offered Tehran with increased intelligence sharing and intensified border patrolling. Pakistan had been insisting that Rigi was not in Pakistan and Jundallah operated in ‘triangle region’ between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran making it harder to act against the group. The 1,000 km stretch between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan is a rough terrain making patrolling extremely difficult. Extradition of Abdolmalek Rigi’s brother Abdolhamid Rigi by Pakistani authorities to Iran in June 2008 was the highlight of cooperation between the two countries on the contentious issue of Jundallah. National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza, during her recent trip to Tehran, had disclosed at a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki that a number of Jundallah militants were arrested in Pakistan and extradited to Iran. Iran had always alleged that Jundallah was financed by the US government to destabilise their country. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed in another report in July 2008 that US Congressional leaders had secretly agreed to former President Bush’s $400 million funding request, which gave the US a free hand in arming and funding Iranian terrorist groups such as Jundallah militants.”

5.General Noor Ali Shooshtari, the national Deputy Commander of the ground force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards (RG), the Guards' chief provincial commander, Rajab Ali Mohammadzadeh, and four other senior officers of the RG were among 31 persons killed in a suicide attack in the Pishin region of Iranian Balochistan known as Sistan-Balochistan on October 18, 2009. The RG officers had gone to the area on a routine inspection tour during which they were having a discussion with representatives of the local Baloch community when a suicide bomber struck. Some reports spoke of two suicide bombers. One reportedly managed to get into the venue of the meeting. The other blew himself up at a vehicle carrying some Revolutionary Guards outside the venue.

6.Earlier, 30 persons were killed and over 180 injured on May 28, 2009, in a suspected suicide bomb blast at the Amir-al Momenin Shia mosque in Zahidan, the capital of Iranian Balochistan. It is the second largest Shia mosque in Zahidan. Mainly Shia Government servants and members of the security forces pray there. Three persons were injured on May 29, 2009, when unidentified gunmen attacked the election office of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Zahidan. On May 31, 2009, there was an exchange of fire between groups of Shias and Sunnis in different parts of Zahidan following an unsuccessful attempt by unidentified persons to kill Mulla Abdol Hamid, a senior Sunni leader. While he survived the attack, many of his body guards were reportedly injured.

7. Following these incidents, the Iranian authorities announced the execution of three Balochs on a charge of involvement in the explosion of May 28. Baloch sources, however, maintained that these persons were already in police custody and had been arrested before the explosion. Hence, they contended, these persons could not have participated in the explosion as alleged by the Iranian authorities.

8. The province of Sistan-Balochistan has around 3.5 million Balochs, the majority of them Sunnis. The province has been the scene of frequent incidents of violence unconnected with the liberation struggle being waged by the Balochs in Pakistan's Balochistan province for over three years now. There are close ethnic and religious links between the two Baloch communities on both sides of the Pakistan-Iran border. Iranian Balochistan also has a common border with Afghanistan.

9.The responsibility for the violent incidents in Iranian Balochistan in the past as well as for the latest one on October 18, 2009, were claimed by the Jundallah which projects itself as the People's Resistance Movement of Iran and not as the People's Resistance Movement of Sistan-Balochistan. It has no links with any of the Baloch nationalist organisations in the Balochistan province of Pakistan. In the past, there were reports of its having links with the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi of Pakistan. In the 1990s, there were reports that a major explosion in the province was organised by Ramzi Yousef, who is now undergoing imprisonment in the US for his involvement in the attempt to blow up the World Trade Centre in New York in February, 1993. The Jundullah seems to be more a Sunni extremist than a Baloch nationalist organisation.

10. A statement attributed to Jundallah after the May 28 attack said: " The authorities have blamed the US for hiring terrorists who carried out the suicide bombing. Jundallah categorically rejects this claim. It does not have any kind of relationship or any kind of support from the US or any other country. This action was in response to systematic and regular insults to the beliefs of Sunni Muslims in Iran and wide discrimination against the Baloch people. We reject the Government’s claim that we are a terrorist organization. We are a defensive organization and act according to international law of self-defence by the same strategy and equipments the Iranian governments are using against us. Several religious leaders and hundreds of Baloch youth have been killed or hanged by the Islamic Republic of Iran just for their beliefs after severe and long torture. The Islamic Republic of Iran has destroyed several Sunni mosques and has hanged several top religious leaders of Sunni people in Iran."

7. A statement of July 23, 2009 by the Jundallah said: "The Islamic regime hanged 13 young Baluch political activists on 14 July to create a sense of fear among the public. The Baluch people have been in the vanguard of the political campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran that conducted the biggest fraud in election in the history of Iran and the world. The resistance of Baluch people became a great source of inspiration for other people of Iran to express their discontent about the fraudulent elections and other injustices in the form of demonstrations and huge marches......At the same time, the Government of Pakistan extradited one Baluch who was in prison for some time to the Iranian regime, knowing that he will be tortured and executed. The Pakistan Government under Musharraf extradited a group of Baluch opposition to the Government of Iran and all of them were tortured and executed later. The Baluch people are Sunnis and they have been subjected to discriminatory policies. Baluchistan has the highest poverty rate and according to all international and United Nations research, is the poorest province of Iran. According to official figures, poverty rate in Baluchistan is over 76 per cent. The Baluch students are not admitted into universities on an equal basis and on merit. While the Islamic Republic of Iran has given more than a million scholarships to Iranian students to study abroad or in the top Iranian universities, only three Baluch students have been awarded scholarships. The Baluch people are under daily threat and a security environment has been imposed in Baluchistan. Everybody is a suspect and the security guards shoot the Baluch people with total impunity. Although hundreds of Baluch people have been killed in the streets of Iran, not even one single agent has been tried in the court. Baluchistan is in the vanguard of the freedom seeking people of Iran and will never stop its campaigning until a democratic regime is established in Iran."

8. In an earlier statement of July 14,2009, the Jundallah said: "The young Baluchs (executed on July 14) have been forced to accept that they have been agents of CIA. They were campaigning for the legitimate rights of the Baluch people who are Sunnis in a majority Shia country. The Baluch people have been systematically oppressed since the beginning of the revolution for seeking equality of rights and opportunities with other Iranians. According to the constitution of the Islamic Republic and other laws that have been passed by Iranian parliament, the Sunnis are prohibited from becoming supreme leader, president, minister, deputy minister, army general, ambassador, or any other high official. The official religion of the state has been declared Shiism which is a radical opponent of the Sunni people."

9. The Iranian authorities have been projecting the Jundallah as a surrogate of the US intelligence operating from sanctuaries in Pakistani territory. They have been alleging that the periodic terrorist strikes in Iranian Balochistan are being mounted from Pakistani territory. While they accuse the Pakistani authorities of inaction against the anti-Iranian Sunni elements operating from Pakistani territory, they have never accused the Baloch nationalist organisations of Pakistani Balochistan of backing the Jundallah. They have been suspecting the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), the anti-Shia organisation of Pakistan which is allied with Al Qaeda, to be training the suicide bombers of the Jundallah.

10.Some of the statements attributed to the Jundallah are disseminated from London. This has created some suspicion in the minds of the Iranian authorities that the UK is also probably backing the Jundallah in its anti-Teheran activities.

11. The capture of the Amir of the Jundallah is a major blow to this organisation. With the two brothers who were the moving spirit of this organisation now in the custody of the Iranian authorities, the organisation has definitely suffered a set-back at least temporarily. But the anti-Shia and anti-Tehran anger in Sunni Sistan-Balochistan is so intense and so widespread that it is only a question of time before a new leadership emerges. Ant-Shia organisations of Pakistan such as the LEJ would also see that the anti-Shia movement in the Sunni majority frontier areas of Iran is kept alive.

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )