By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Pakistan’s colossal human and financial sacrifices to uproot terrorism are undoubtedly appreciated globally. Pakistan’s security forces have carried out intensive counterterrorism campaigns across the country, including at least 12 operations to clear the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The law and order situation has subsequently improved, although some militant outfits still operate across the Kurram and Waziristan agencies. I traveled, with Pakistan’s army, to some of the country’s tribal areas last year and was informed of the great work that has been done to uproot terrorism and radicalism there.
Troublingly, this Ashura brought to the fore religion-based fanaticism and sectarianism in Pakistan. A TV channel had its licensed suspended after it aired a hyper-sectarian speaker using abusive and insulting language against the companions of Prophet Muhammad. Instantly, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with outrage and complaints and Pakistan’s media regulator acted quickly.
The elements of religious fanaticism and sectarianism remaining in Pakistan have a direct link to Iran’s revolution. Just a few weeks after the 1979 revolution, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqah Jafferia was established in the Pakistani city of Bhakkar. Meanwhile, the Turi tribe, as well as some Bangash clans, celebrated the Iranian revolution in Parachinar, in the Kurram Agency. Arif Al-Hussaini, a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini, spearheaded the effort to import Iranian expansionist ideology into Pakistan. He traveled to Pakistan to organize pro-Iranian elements, remove their internal differences and create networks.
Al-Hussaini’s networks laid the foundations to quickly mobilize and create the Zeinabiyoun Brigade in Pakistan and the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Afghanistan. In 2012, both were sent to Syria to fight against rebelling Syrians alongside Hezbollah and other similar mercenaries. Now that Bashar Assad has regained control over much of Syria after using chemical weapons, barrel bombs and other deadly weaponry, pro-Iranian fighters belonging to the Zeinabiyoun Brigade have been returning to Pakistan.
The Zeinabiyoun fighters were recruited from different parts of Pakistan. Some of the returning fighters have been arrested by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, but a large number seem to have sneaked back into the country while the border crossings between Pakistan and Iran were eased prior to the coronavirus disease-enforced lockdowns. These seasoned fighters have returned to their native cities to act as influencers and recruiters of other impressionable young Pakistanis.
Islamabad neither banned the organizations involved in recruiting young Pakistanis to the Zeinabiyoun Brigade nor developed a clear-cut policy about the Syrian uprising. Even when the Iranian military displayed the Zeinabiyoun flag alongside its other militias after Qassem Soleimani’s killing in Iraq early this year, Pakistan did not lodge its protest through official diplomatic channels.
The Zeinabiyoun Brigade has rarely been criticized or discussed in the Pakistani media, which has a sharp leaning toward Iran and the ideological left. Though it often chooses to criticize Pakistan’s vital national institutions and regional allies, it rarely highlights or exposes the nefarious activities of non-state actors aligned with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If Pakistanis are being recruited to fight for a foreign country, doesn’t the media have a responsibility to investigate and highlight this matter? There has been virtually no coverage of the individuals involved in the recruitment, training and transfer of fighters to join the Zeinabiyoun Brigade in Syria. How many Pakistanis have received military training in Iran and Iraq? How many have gone to fight in Syria? How many have died and how are their families being supported, if at all? These fundamental questions remain unanswered by Pakistan’s otherwise vocal media houses.
Although the Afghan peace deal between the Taliban and the US continues to hold despite the many challenges facing it, the threat to its survival from Iran and its proxies, such as the Fatemiyoun Brigade, cannot be ignored or underestimated. Unlike Islamabad, Kabul has protested against Afghan refugees and residents being recruited to fight a foreign war. Also, it is important to note that the Zeinabiyoun and Fatemiyoun Brigades cannot exist or survive without the vast, multilayered pro-Iran networks involved in the brainwashing, recruitment, training and financing of fighters and their families.
As robust, deep-rooted sectarian networks continue to exist in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a dark cloud hangs over the future of both countries. Pakistan rightfully deserves foreign investment worth billions of dollars to revitalize its ailing economy, while Afghanistan requires much-needed foreign assistance to rehabilitate refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as to reconstruct its war-ravaged economy and society. By both countries overlooking, if not allowing, the existence of non-state militant actors, international support and finance will diminish over time.
The fanaticism and sectarianism expressed during Ashura can serve as a wake-up call for Pakistan before the hard-earned peace and harmony across the country comes to an abrupt end. If this is the reality on the ground now, what will happen when all the Zeinabiyoun fighters come back to Pakistan?
(Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami)