Despite crackdown, experts say Iran-backed Zainabiyoun Brigade remains threat in Pakistan

Special Despite crackdown, experts say Iran-backed Zainabiyoun Brigade remains threat in Pakistan
The undated photo shows a Zainabiyoun Brigade fighter holding a banner that reads Zainabiyoun. [Photo courtesy: Screengrab taken from a video posted by a Zainabiyoun supporters’ social media account]
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Updated 27 December 2022

Despite crackdown, experts say Iran-backed Zainabiyoun Brigade remains threat in Pakistan

Despite crackdown, experts say Iran-backed Zainabiyoun Brigade remains threat in Pakistan
  • Between 2019-2021, Pakistan said Brigade was among groups “found actively involved in terrorist activities” in the country
  • Several members of the Brigade were arrested between 2020-21, money laundering network linked to group also being probed

MARDAN: The Iran-backed Zainabiyoun Brigade remains a threat to Pakistan despite key arrests since 2020, experts said, urging authorities not to “lower their guard” against the militant group that was placed on the US Treasury’s financial blacklist in 2019 and is believed to have sent members of the Pakistani Shiite community to fight in Syria.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is believed to have formed the Zainabiyoun Brigade, and based on material posted online and reviewed by Pakistani intelligence agencies, the group could have up to 1,000 fighters.

Between 2019-2021, the Pakistan government said the Brigade was among outfits “found actively involved in terrorist activities” in the country.

Police in the Pakistani city of Karachi arrested several members of the Brigade between December 2020 and January 2021 and authorities this year also launched a probe into a money laundering network linked to the group.

Speaking to media in February 2021, then head of the Pakistan army’s media wing, Major General Babar Iftikhar, confirmed that law enforcement agencies had captured several militants belonging to the Zainabiyoun Brigade but said Pakistan did not consider the militant outfit a “major threat.”

“They were involved in sectarian targeted killing as well as recruitment,” Abdul Basit Khan, a scholar who studies violent extremism, said about the Brigade.

“Following law enforcement crackdowns resulting in arrests of Zainabiyoun fighters, their activities have declined considerably ... However, that does not mean that Zainabiyoun’s threat has vanished and subsided. So, the law enforcement agencies need to closely monitor its fighters without lowering their guard.”

Counterterrorism authorities in Sindh did not respond to requests for comment on their surveillance of the group. However, a number of Pakistani intelligence officials told Arab News Zainabiyoun militants and their families continued to receive financial support from Iran.

“The real question which makes this entity problematic for Pakistan is that of loyalty, as the members of this militant organization have fought a foreign power’s war for ideological reasons and thus this ideological affiliation trumps their association with the land of their birth,” Umar Karim, a University of Birmingham researcher focusing on the conflict in Syria, told Arab News.

The militants should be seen as foreign fighters who were not only deployed as “cannon fodder” in Iran’s regional wars, but who are likely to act as a “fifth column” in their own countries, he said.

Indeed, with the Syrian civil war winding down, particularly after the defeat of Daesh in eastern Syria, many Pakistani Shia fighters have been quietly returning home, posing a new security challenge for Pakistan.

An intelligence official who declined to be named said there were fears that many of the battle-hardened youth returning to Pakistan would get involved in local conflicts.

“These people should be treated just like those who remain at the payroll of any other external organization or state entity,” Karim added, “and a potential challenge to national security, especially in case of a crisis in Pakistan-Iran ties.”

The Brigade is not on a list of banned terror outfits of the National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA), but two lesser-known Shia outfits, Ansar-ul-Hussain and its offshoot, Khatam-ul-Anbia, were proscribed under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 in 2016 and 2020 respectively, for recruiting for the Syrian war.