Implications of Syria-returning Zainabiyoun militants on Pakistan's internal security
The decisive shift of the Syrian civil war in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime and Daesh’s defeat has decreased the utility of Iran-trained militias in the Syrian conflict. These Iran-backed militias played a pivotal role in the survival of the al-Assad regime and reversal of Daesh’s territorial footprint in Syria. These battle-hardened and ideologically devout militias give Tehran tremendous leeway to pursue its geopolitical and ideological interests more aggressively in South Asia, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As the Syrian civil war is winding down, some Pakistani militants belonging to the Zainabiyoun Brigade have been quietly returning to different areas in Pakistan. In Karachi alone, Pakistani law enforcement agencies have arrested around 250 to 300 militants belonging to the Zainabiyoun Brigade. Though the militants' exact figure in the Syrian conflict is hard to ascertain, it varies between 5,000 to 8,000.
The recent arrest of a high-profile Zainabiyoun militant, Abbas Jafri, is part of the ongoing law enforcement crackdown against the brigade. Similarly, in January this year, Punjab's counter-terrorism department detained seven militants from Sargodha for plotting attacks. Likewise, in December last year, two members of the Zainabiyoun brigade's Agha Hassan Group were apprehended in connection with the murder of Deobandi cleric, Maulana Dr. Adil.
Though Pakistani militants have been going to Syria since 2012, they were formally organized into a paramilitary unit, the Zainabiyoun Brigade, in 2013 following Daesh’s missile attack on the Syyeda Zainab shrine in central Damascus. The attack destroyed the outer wall of the shrine. According to Iranian media reports, Syed Abbas Mousavi is believed to be the Zainabiyoun Brigade’s commander-in-charge. While the Zainabiyoun Brigade's primary mandate was to protect Shia sacred places in Syria, it participated in the al-Assad regime's operations in Latakia, Aleppo, and Damascus.
Zainab, Imam Hussain's sister and Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, is a revered and central figure of Islam. Iran exploited Zainab's emotive appeal among the Shia community to recruit and mobilize Pakistani Shia youth. Most of the Pakistani recruits into the Zainabiyoun Brigade are drawn from Karachi, Kurram district of the ex-FATA region, Quetta and a handful from the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Besides, some Pakistani students enrolled in different Iranian educational institutes, notably the Al-Mustafa International University in Qom, have also joined the Zainabiyoun Brigade. Furthermore, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) lured some Hazara Shia community members into the Zainabiyoun Brigade by offering them Iranian citizenship and jobs with lucrative monthly salaries.
The incumbent IRGC-QF chief Esmail Qaani, who took over command after his predecessor General Qasem Soleimani's assassination, oversaw the organization's operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Qaani not only knows the region but has a well-entrenched network as well.
The Zainabiyoun Brigade, an independent unit with a lot of fighting potential, can potentially undermine Pakistan's fragile internal security and violence-prone Sunni-Shia conflict.
Abdul Basit Khan
The US Treasury blacklisted the Zainabiyoun brigade in January 2019. Though the group has not been proscribed in Pakistan, the Interior Ministry banned two Parachinar-based Shia outfits, Ansar-ul-Hussain and its offshoot, Khatam-ul-Anbia under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 in December 2016 and August 2002, respectively. Both were involved in recruiting and sending militants to partake in the Syrian civil war.
The Zainabiyoun Brigade, an independent unit with a lot of fighting potential, can potentially undermine Pakistan's fragile internal security and violence-prone Sunni-Shia conflict. In the Syrian conflict, the Pakistani militants honed their asymmetric combat skills, developed conventional capabilities on sophisticated weapons, created links and networks with their Middle Eastern counterparts. Several Zainabiyoun militants have vowed to continue their resistance as "the (Iranian) Supreme leader's right-hand in the world."
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Syrian civil war is the second most consequential development with a transformative impact on Pakistan's Sunni-Shia conflict. So far, Shia militancy in Pakistan has been defensive and retaliatory, mostly in response to attacks on the Shia community. The exposure to active combat in the Syrian civil war enables these militants to shift their longstanding modus operandi from defensive to offensive if they wish.
The Zainabiyoun Brigade also provides Iran a new bargain chip in its dealings with Pakistan and protecting and advancing its interests. Tehran could leverage the Zainabiyoun Brigade to push back against Balochistan-based anti-Iran, ethno-sectarian group, Jaish ul-Adl. The group has been involved in the kidnapping and targeted assassinations of Iranian border guards in the Iran-Pakistan border areas and has remained a source of constant friction between the two countries.
The IRGC-QF trained the Zainabiyoun Brigade along the Hezbollah model. Hence, it is imperative to keep in view Hezbollah's organizational evolution. Hezbollah transformed from the 1980s' inchoate group into a formidable militant network in the 2000s.
The return of Pakistani Shia militants could also result in the spillover of IS-Zainabiyoun Brigade rivalry from the Syrian conflict into Pakistan. This rivalry may continue to play out in the form of tit-for-tat killings and reprisal attacks. A case in point is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami's December 2015 bomb blast in the downtown Parachinar which claimed 23 Shia lives.
In his credit-claim, the group's spokesperson termed the attack a retaliation for Kurram's Shia youth's participation in the Syrian civil war. More recently, Daesh’s audio message, following the ruthless beheadings of 11 Hazara Shia coalminers in Maach, Balochistan, mentioned the same reason.
At the diplomatic level, Pakistan needs to engage Iran to address the issue of Pakistani Shia militants returning from Syria. At the operational level, continued vigilance is required to ensure that Daesh and the Zainabiyoun Brigade do not turn Pakistan into a proxy battleground of their sectarian rivalry. At the policy level, new legal and counter-terrorism frameworks are needed to tackle the evolving militant threat.
– The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.