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Iran silently recruiting Pakistani Shiites to fight in Syria: Reports

Iran recruits Pakistani ‘volunteers’ for its Zainebiyoun Brigade. (Photo courtesy Zainabiyoun division Twitter account)
ISLAMABAD: Three months ago, the Pakistani city of Parachinar experienced its third deadly attack so far this year by Daesh-linked militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami (LeJ), which said the assault was in response to support for Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
“This is propaganda,” Ali Afzal, a journalist and resident of Parachinar, told Arab News. “There’s no (Shiite) recruitment happening. That’s all in Iran, not here. This place has a strong army presence, with security surveillance around the clock. We border Afghanistan, and it’s unlikely that a recruiter would walk in and take people from here to Iran. Do you know how many checkpoints he’d need to cross?”
But a suicide bomber did enter the city, killing more than 70 people. Fourteen suspects were arrested by Pakistani security forces, while the mastermind is still at large.
LeJ warned the local Shiite community of “dire consequences” if it did not stop tainting its hands with the blood of Daesh fighters in Syria. This led to widespread reports that agents of Iran are discreetly recruiting Pakistani Shiites.
It is hard to ascertain the authenticity of these reports, since Pakistani officials are silent over the issue.
“Iran is recruiting from wherever it can,” said Maj. Ashfaq Hussain Bukhari, a retired army officer who is in charge of Markazi Imambargha (the Shiite Congregation Center) in Islamabad.
“It targets impoverished or fanatic Shiites, preying on their sentiments and offering martyrdom in defense of Shiite holy sites.”
Bukhari said the Pakistani areas of Iranian interest to draft men are the southern parts of Punjab province, the port city of Karachi, the tribal belt and Baluchistan province.
Numerous social media platforms list Pakistani Shiite fighters in Syria, including their name, photo, hometown and father’s name, as a way to eulogize their devotion.
Pakistan’s Shiites comprise 5-20 percent of the country’s total population of 207 million, but the minority says it constitutes around 40 percent.
According to media reports citing unnamed Pakistani officials, Pakistani recruits — referred to as “volunteers” — are inducted into the Zainebiyoun Brigade.
They are offered up to $1,000 per month by emissaries operating undercover to avoid detection by the country’s spy and security agencies.
Since the brigade’s alleged inception in 2014, the number of Pakistani Shiites killed in Syria has spiked.
Last year, 39 Shiite fighters disguised as pilgrims were apprehended by security forces at the Taftan crossing on the Pakistan-Iran border, including some from Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province, said a Pakistani defense official. They were suspected of having links to the Zainebiyoun Brigade.
In February, a Pakistani coastal patrol arrested 13 suspects, including three Iranians, in boats illegally trying to enter Pakistani waters near Baluchistan, said Interior Ministry official Muhammad Abdullah Khalid.
Interrogation revealed that they were tasked with transporting fresh recruits from Pakistan to Syria.
Police arrested “two Shiite fighters recruited via Zainebiyoun” in March 2016 after their return to Quetta from Syria, Khalid added.
Adding to the mystery surrounding Islamabad’s silence, Defense Ministry sources told Arab News: “If this information (that Pakistanis are being recruited) is of public interest, we’ll give a response.”
The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), a federal agency that coordinates between all security departments, declined to comment.
An Interior Ministry source told Arab News that he is unawareness of Iranian-backed militias recruiting Pakistanis, saying: “It’s the first time I’ve heard of this.”
But security officials told Arab News that the lack of comment is due to the highly sensitive nature of the matter, which they fear could fan sectarian violence. There is only private acknowledgement.

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