Central Asian Jihadi Perspectives on Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’

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Central Asian Jihadi Perspectives on Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’

Tehran’s “axis of resistance” ostensibly tries to cut through the Shia-Sunni divide, but Central and South Asian Jihadi groups aren’t buying it.

Central Asian Jihadi Perspectives on Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’

Sistan and Baluchestan’s Jaish al-Adl militants.

Credit: Provided by author

While Iran has effectively mobilized its “Axis of Resistance” throughout the Middle East by sponsoring proxy Shia militant groups, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as the Sunni Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), to challenge U.S. and Israeli forces and reduce their influence in the region, Tehran faces a threat of its own from the domestic Sunni Deobandi-Jihadi group, Jaish al-Adl. 

The enduring historical and intra-religious contradictions between Sunnis and Shias, which have frequently ignited bloody conflicts and overt confrontations in the past, persist vividly in the historical memory of jihadi groups across the Middle East and Central Asia. While Iran may back some Sunni groups, such as PIJ, when convenient to its larger destructive ambition to stoke opposition in the Global South against U.S. hegemony, Tehran nevertheless faces challenges from other Sunni groups like Jaish al-Adl.

The Iranian regime attributes the enduring internal ethnic and religious challenges within the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan from groups like Jaish al-Adl to “the mysterious hand of the West.” In its customary fashion, the regime has once again ascribed Jaish al-Adl attacks to “external enemies of the Iranian Islamic revolution,” ostensibly seeking to exacerbate tensions between the Sunni minority and Shia majority within the country. 

Jaish al-Adl Threatens Iran’s Ambitions

On December 15, Jaish al-Adl, an Iranian Sunni militant group, claimed responsibility for an assault on a police station in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan. During the attack, the ethnic Baloch separatist battalion killed 11 security personnel and inflicted injuries upon several others, as reported in a concise statement on its Telegram channel.

The distinctiveness of the recent attack lay in its occurrence amid the renewed Israel-Hamas conflict and Iran’s active undercover guerrilla, diplomatic, and financial efforts to establish a broad “Axis of Resistance.” This envisioned alliance was intended not only to encompass Iran’s network of Shia proxies but also to incorporate Sunni non-state armed and jihadi groups in the Middle East. 

The Jaish al-Adl’s attack underscores the failure of Iran’s attempt to leverage the Israel-Hamas conflict to position itself as the Islamic world’s leader in defending Palestine and as the vanguard of “the anti-American Resistance” for domestic objectives. Evidently, in alignment with the united “Axis of Resistance” against mutual “American-Zionist enemies,” Tehran aimed to alleviate anti-Shia animosity within the Sunni minority in its Sistan and Baluchestan province and suppress the restive separatist tendencies of Jaish al-Adl. 

While Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi has accused Western intelligence of supporting Jaish al-Adl terrorists in their attacks in Sistan and Baluchestan province, the group perceives itself as a defender of the rights of Iranian Sunnis, who they claim are facing severe repression under the Ayatollah’s regime.

Furthermore, Jaish al-Adl vehemently disagreed with the statement issued by Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the U.N. secretary general, in which the United Nations strongly condemned the recent Jaish al-Adl attack and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. In a statement released on its Telegram channel, Jaish al-Adl expressed profound regret regarding the United Nations’ apparent lack of awareness concerning the intricate circumstances faced by the Baloch Sunnis in Iran. The group contends that its assault was a compelled reaction to the regime’s criminal crackdown on innocent Baloch people.

Jaish al-Adl detailed a lengthy catalog of crimes committed by the Iranian government, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), over the past 44 years. These crimes encompass the killing of thousands of innocent Baloch in Zahedan, the rape of peacefully protesting women, the destruction of Sunni religious shrines, the execution of dozens of public and religious leaders, and the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from their homes due to a lack of birth certificates. The group deemed the U.N. statement reckless and in direct contradiction to the U.N. Charter, which explicitly acknowledges peoples’ right to self-determination and self-defense. In the conclusion of its statement, Jaish al-Adl emphatically called on the U.N. to align itself with the protection of the oppressed Baloch Sunnis, rather than siding with the Iranian regime.

Jaish al-Adl: Focusing on Local Jihad Initiatives

It is noteworthy that Jaish al-Adl has established an effective propaganda apparatus and engages in active media activities, successfully penetrating Tehran’s ideological isolation. Each operation against local authorities is accompanied by videos, audio recordings, and statements that meticulously articulate the goals and objectives of such attacks. The primary targets of Jaish al-Adl’s assaults include key pillars of the Ayatollah’s power: the IRGC, police, judges, local government officials, border guards, and the military.

The group operates in the mountainous southeastern areas of Iranian’s Sistan and Baluchestan province, which is home to more than 2 million Sunnis who live in difficult socioeconomic conditions. Despite being strategically located at the confluence of South and Central Asia and on the Iran-Pakistan-Afghan transit isthmus, the province is one of the most underdeveloped and impoverished regions of the country.

In its propaganda narratives, Jaish al-Adl positions itself as a resistance group with a radical Salafi and national liberation ideology, designed to protect the socioeconomic, religious, and political rights of the Sunni Baloch from the bloody repressions of Tehran. The group’s strategic goal is to separate the region inhabited by ethnic Baloch people from the yoke of the Iranian regime and create an independent state with Shariah rule, fueled also by the separatist sentiments of neighboring Pakistani Balochistan’s tribesmen. 

Therefore, the establishment of Jaish al-Adl in 2012, arising from the foundations of Jundallah, a previous Salafi-Jihadi group, can be seen as a natural response rooted in Baloch nationalism and Sunni radicalism. This reaction was, and continues to be, driven by perceived economic, political, and ethno-sectarian discrimination and repression under Shia Ayatollah power.

It’s worth noting, Jaish al-Adl’s predecessor, Jundallah, experienced a decline and dissolution after the capture and execution of its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, by Iranian intelligence in 2010. The detention of the Jundallah leader triggered a diplomatic spat between Iran and Kyrgyzstan. On February 23, 2010, an Iranian fighter jet intercepted a Kyrgyz plane plane carrying Abdolmalek Rigi from Dubai to Bishkek over the Persian Gulf, forcing a landing at Bandar Abbas International Airport. Consequently, Abdolmalek Rigi was arrested and later hanged in Evin Prison, Tehran, on June 20, 2010.

In recent years, Jaish al-Adl has significantly escalated its violent attacks on Iranian security forces, often resorting to suicide bombings. Notably, on February 13, 2019, a devastating suicide bombing targeted a bus carrying IRGC personnel in Iran, resulting in the loss of 27 lives.

The Iranian government classifies Jaish al-Adl as a terrorist group, alleging unproven associations with the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States. In contrast, the U.S. Department of State has twice redesignated Jaish al-Adl as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), reflecting its transition from Jundallah to Jaish al-Adl.

Jaish al-Adl and Central Asian Jihadism: Commonalities and Distinctions

Jundallah in Iran shared a name with another militant group based out of Pakistan, both engaged in the same wider insurgency. The Pakistani Baloch Jundallah had substantial connections with Central Asian jihadi groups, notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), while taking refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas following the U.S.-led alliance’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Abdul Aziz Domla, the current emir of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), collaborated closely with Jundallah’s Pakistani wing and Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) while serving as the IJU deputy leader in Pakistan. For a brief period, Jundallah even functioned as a wing of the IMU until it fled North Waziristan after the Pakistani military offensive in June 2014. Consequently, Jundallah gained recognition as a terrorist group in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

After the collapse of Jundallah, the new leaders of Jaish al-Adl, Salahuddin Farooqui and Mullah Omar, have redirected the group’s activities toward local goals within Iran, now primarily operating in Sistan and Baluchestan province. As noted by Hossein Baloch, a spokesperson for Jaish al-Adl, they do not accept foreign fighters into their ranks and cooperate solely with local forces in fighting the Iranian regime.

In contrast to Jaish al-Adl, Central Asian jihadi groups such as KTJ, IJU, Katibat al-Guraba (KG), and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) harbor regional aspirations. They lack a foothold within Central Asian countries and instead operate in Afghanistan and Syria under the auspices of al-Qaida, the Islamic State, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Despite differences in goals and objectives, Jaish al-Adl and the various Central Asian jihadi groups share common ideological ground. Based on propaganda materials and public statements, they both espouse a similar anti-Shia ideology and intra-religious animosity toward the Iranian regime, aligning with the Salafi movement. Central Asian hardline groups harbor intense hostility toward Iran and its Shia militant proxies, considering them polytheists and heretics, and pejoratively referring to them as Rafidha (rejectionists). 

Sunni Extremist Responses to Iran’s Anti-U.S. Hegemony Stance

The animosity of Sunni militant groups from South and Central Asia becomes evident today as Iran endeavors to position itself as the leader of a broad “Axis of Resistance” against Israel, the U.S., and the EU. Nearly all Central Asian Sunni extremist groups have voiced their stances on the Palestinian issue. Jaish al-Adl also has released an official statement expressing support for Palestinian Muslims while accusing Iran of using the tragedy and bloodshed of Palestinians for its own political gain. 

Pro-KTJ jihadi media outlets have vehemently criticized Iran regarding the Palestinian issue. Farukh Shami (real name Farukh Fayzimatov), a Tajik jihadi media propagandist designated by the U.S. Treasury as an al-Qaida financial facilitator, conveyed in his Telegram channel that Iran and Hezbollah’s expressions of support for the Palestinian resistance in Gaza do not absolve them of their crimes against Sunnis in Syria. He contended that they are not deserving of sympathy from the Muslim Ummah, deeming them enemies of Islam.

Ahluddin Navqotiy, a prominent ideologist for KTJ, asserted that the Muslim Ummah lost Bayt al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) and the famed al-Aqsa Mosque due to the betrayal of the Shias. He concluded that Palestine cannot achieve freedom as long as rejectionists engaged in mere chatter without taking decisive military action. He accused them of only playing with tasbih (prayer beads).

The Uzbek wing of ISKP demonstrates hostility not only toward Iran and its Shiite proxies but also toward Hamas leaders due to their association with the former. In the aftermath of a drone strike in Beirut on January 2, for example, which claimed the life of Hamas deputy political leader Saleh al-Arouri, ISKP referred to him as a Shiite “puppy.” ISKP has disseminated a video in its Telegram featuring Saleh al-Arouri, where he refers to
Shiites as “our brothers.” Consequently, the Sunni group strongly urges Central Asian fighters to refrain from venerating al-Arouri as a “hero.”

Central Asian jihadi media also notably provided propaganda support for Jaish al-Adl’s latest attack in Zahedan, indicating a shared ideological coordination in their anti-Shia and anti-Iran media operations.

Shia Coreligionists as Allies: Iran’s Exclusive Dependence

In conclusion, it is imperative to emphasize that due to the intra-religious animosity toward Iran and its proxy Shia militant groups in the Middle East, Sunni extremist groups from South and Central Asia actively try to counter Tehran’s efforts to fortify its “Axis of Resistance.” This dynamic is a result of the intrinsic inertia within intra-sectarian confrontation rather than external influence from the United States or prominent Sunni countries. 

The Shia-Sunni sectarian competition and the struggle for leadership in the Islamic world have significantly influenced leading Sunni countries, notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, prompting them to disregard Iran’s “Axis of Resistance.” While vehemently condemning Israel for its “collective punishment” via military operations in Gaza, these nations have maintained unbroken formal or covert ties with Israel and sustained a strategic partnership with their key ally, the United States. Consequently, Iran is compelled to exclusively rely on its Shia coreligionist forces, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Yemeni Houthi movement, as well as aligning when convenient with Sunni groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to bolster the subversive “Axis of Resistance.”