Covert Killing Game

12.29.14 10:55 AM ET

The Dangerous Drug-Funded Secret War Between Iran and Pakistan

In the largely forgotten deserts of Baluchistan that straddle the Iran-Pakistan border, covert wars are underway that could have far reaching consequences.

TURBAT, Pakistan—Something fell out of the sky near Arif Saleem’s home at 5:20 a.m. on Nov. 25, 2013. He scrambled outside to find a 25-foot-wide crater just beyond the mud wall surrounding his family compound. The strike was one of three, in quick succession, that morning in the village of Kulahu, in Pakistani Baluchistan, 45 miles east of the Iran border. One of the blasts damaged the local mosque. Pages from the Quran fluttered in the air before landing gently on the rubble.  

The next day, Saleem made the 30-mile trip east to Turbat, the administrative center of his small district in southwestern Pakistan. “They refused to register a case, saying the matter is out of their hands,” he told me.

With few legitimate industries or development assistance from the central government, Turbat is a derelict city prickling with militants. Most of the area’s inhabitants grind out a living as subsistence farmers or cross-border smugglers, shuttling everything from cement and diesel to Afghan opium between Pakistan and Iran. There are few paved roads, and at the airport, soldiers outnumber travelers. 

It is also the epicenter of a war being waged by the Shiite regime in Iran against a shadowy group of Sunni Baluch jihadis. 

Already involved in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and neighboring Iraq, Iran is now increasingly worried about the threat from Sunni militants on its eastern border with Pakistan, who get backing, it claims, from the United States and Saudi Arabia. Although rarely mentioned in public, persuading Iran to budge on issues like its nuclear program may well depend on addressing what it now sees as a multi-faceted, global attack on it by Sunni jihadis.

On Sept. 9, those jihadists detonated a massive car bomb at an Iranian military base near the border, clearing a path for 70 fighters to stream in. According to a statement from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, reinforcements had to be helicoptered to the scene to end a three-and-a-half-hour gun battle, and the fighters fled across the border into Pakistan. A few weeks later, the militants carried out a series of raids on border posts, killing five Iranian policemen. The attacks were the latest in a long campaign of roadside explosions, suicide bombings at mosques, and gun attacks on security posts that have killed more than 600 Iranians, mostly civilians, since 2005. 

Across the entrance to the only functioning hotel in Turbat, the proprietor has strung a thick rope to slow down gunmen who may want to attack his patrons. The carpeting is worn, the furniture is falling apart, and the electricity is out for most of the day. Here, in a dilapidated room, Saleem recounts the November blast. “Some buildings collapsed. Luckily, none of the kids were inside those.”

Clean-shaven and balding, Saleem is in his forties and walks with a limp. He speaks in a whisper, flanked by the two locals who set up the meeting. They eye the door anxiously, convinced that at any moment, a Pakistani or Iranian intelligence officer will come barging in.

“The blast was so strong,” he said, “we thought the world was ending.” Saleem believes that the strike came from a nearby airbase across the Iranian border. Others, he recalls, heard the buzzing of Iranian drones.

He hesitates when I ask him about the target of the other missiles. “I don’t even want to name him, he's not even from our area—but the missiles hit his homes.”

The man whose name Saleem is reluctant to utter is “Mullah Omar” (not to be confused with the Afghan Taliban leader of the same name). A senior Iranian official in Pakistan later confirmed the strike took place, declining to elaborate.

An ethnic Baluch from Iran, this Mullah Omar helps lead a shadowy outfit called Jaish ul Adl, or the Army of Justice, whose fighters number fewer than 500. He wasn’t on the premises when the strike hit, but it killed his 3-year-old grandniece, and injured other family members. Just a month earlier, Mullah Omar’s fighters had crossed into Iran and killed 16 Iranian soldiers.

The Kulahu strike was part of a widening covert war being waged by Iran inside Pakistan. In the weeks following the Sept. 9, car bombing at the Iranian base, Iran raided a village in the Pakistani district of Chagai. According to Pakistani officials, Iranian soldiers, sometimes in helicopters and convoys, have chased militants deep into Pakistan on an almost weekly basis over the last year, sparking firefights and occasionally killing Pakistani soldiers.

Iran says the jihadis enjoy support not only from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, but also from the Inter-Services Intelligence branch of the Pakistani military.

Pakistani officials say they are overwhelmed by internal security problems, and securing the border with Iran is not a top priority. 

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Perhaps most importantly, the Sunni jihadists attacking Iran have deep ties with politically connected opium smugglers, men flush with billions of dollars who despise the Iranians for their own reasons.

Before it was split between Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Baluchistan spread over an area slightly larger than California. The 650-mile Iran-Pakistan border drawn by the British in 1871 starts at the Arabian Sea, cutting through rugged mountains and dry riverbeds, into open desert at a point where the frontiers of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan touch.

The Baluch in Iran do not speak Farsi but Baluchi, just like the Baluch in Pakistan, and in Iran they are a Sunni minority. Instead of the Western-style men’s apparel popular in Tehran, the Baluch in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province dress in shalwar kameez like their counterparts in Pakistan. Many still have family on both sides of the border, and culture is not the only thing they have in common: The Baluch in Iran and Pakistan share a troubled, often violent, relationship with their rulers.

Pakistan’s province of Baluchistan, which accounts for nearly half of the country by area, is its poorest, least educated, and least developed region. Sistan-Baluchistan, where most of Iran’s Baluch live, lags behind the rest of Iran in almost every measure. Around half the Baluch in the province are unemployed, a result, say rights groups, of longstanding marginalization by Tehran. 

Under the shah, Iranian Baluch children were banned from wearing shalwar kameez to school, and Baluchi language publications were blacklisted. After the Iranian Revolution, discrimination took on a sectarian flavor. Riots broke out in 1994, after Iranian authorities replaced a Sunni mosque in Mashad with a development project. Within a few years, Iran had jailed or driven from the country more than 60 Sunni clerics. Many of those clerics were welcomed into Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where some now regularly appear on Arabic television networks, blasting the Shiite regime in Tehran. By the late 1990s, some Iranian Baluch had turned to militancy, couching their insurgency in a narrative of Sunnis fighting religious and ethnic discrimination at the hands of a Shiite theocracy.  

In the midst of this religious and political turmoil, drug trafficking thrives. More than 70 percent of the world’s opium flows across the same border the jihadis do, and from the start, the traffickers and Baluch jihadis targeting Iran have cultivated a cozy relationship.

The Iranian strike in Kulahu in November 2013, which is one of the best documented in this secretive war, was partly aimed at a compound in the village that has hosted jihadis since the 1990s, when an Iranian banker named Maula Bux Darakhshan formed Sipah-e-Rasul (or the Army of the Prophet). Maula Bux (as he is called) mixed with the Afghan Taliban, and financed most of his work by trafficking poppy, according to a Salafi cleric who knew him personally. Local journalists recall watching his fighters parade blindfolded Iranian soldiers through the streets of Kulahu in the back of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks. 

Mullah Omar, the Jaish ul Adl leader, got his start with Sipah-e-Rasul, where he and other fighters doubled as muscle for the trafficker, breaking associates out of Turbat’s fortress-like prison. 

Maula Bux himself was killed in 2006, after being lured across the border by Iranian forces on the pretext of a drug deal. But another, more powerful jihadi group already was emerging in Iran.

On Dec. 14, 2005, gunmen ambushed the lead car in a motorcade carrying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a tour of Sistan-Baluchistan, killing the driver and a bodyguard. Ahmadinejad escaped alive, but Tehran was rattled.

The attack was orchestrated by Abdelmalek Rigi, then age 22. Rigi’s boyish, grinning face became the defining image of Baluch jihad in Iran. As a teenager, the Iranian-born Rigi had come across one of Iran’s notorious public executions—eight young Baluch men strung up by cranes in public view—and he dated his militancy, in part, from that moment. In 2007, he told Western media (PDF) that his group aimed not to topple the Iranian regime, but to increase autonomy for Sistan-Baluchistan and shield minorities from Tehran’s “despotic religious rule like Fascism, [or] like Nazism.” Within six months of the attempt on Ahmadinejad, Rigi’s group, Jundullah, pulled off several more brazen attacks on highways near the border, killing dozens of non-Baluch and taking Iranian Republican Guard officers hostage.

By the end of 2009, Jundullah suicide bombings had killed scores of Shiite worshippers at mosques in southeastern Iran and 42 people in Pishin, including the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard ground forces. Fuming Iranian officials blamed the United States and United Kingdom for backing the militants, and Pakistan for inaction. A dozen Revolutionary Guards were caught deep inside Pakistan, tracking Rigi. In public, Pakistan denied Rigi was on its soil, but in private, authorities quickly moved to help the Iranians find him, focusing on the border near Turbat.

A 2008 Pakistani raid near Turbat turned up Abdolhamid Rigi, the brother of Abdelmalek Rigi. “Whatever used to happen in Iran, they would say it was because of Pakistan. But we did a lot, and the proof of that is that we handed over Abdolhamid Rigi,” said the then-Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik. During two years in Iranian custody, Abdolhamid provided crucial details of how Jundullah operated. On Feb. 23, 2010, when Abdelmalek Rigi boarded a Kyrgyzstani passenger plane from Dubai to Bishkek, Iran had the flight diverted to Sharjah’s airport, where the head of Jundullah was arrested.

Before executing Rigi in June 2010, Iranian television aired his “confession,” detailing how the West and Pakistan had supported Jundullah. In his statement, Rigi named Naser Boledi as a main mediator between him and representatives of NATO. Rigi said he met American handlers at bases in Afghanistan on trips arranged by Boledi and Yasin Ahwazi, an Iranian-Arab who lives in Europe. Both Boledi and Ahwazi have been prominent critics of Tehran for decades. Boledi, who lives in Sweden, laughs heartily when I call him to ask about his connections to Jundullah. He denies any link.

Outside of Iran, Rigi's “confession” seemed like another in the long tradition of statements extracted from prisoners there. There was, however, some evidence the American intelligence community had sources inside Rigi’s group, and some knew of Jundullah’s intention to carry out attacks in Iran.

Part of a $400 million budget request for the CIA in 2007 included a recommendation to build ties with armed anti-Tehran groups like Jundullah. Some in the intelligence community seem to have followed through on that plan. According to an investigation by The New York Times, Thomas McHale, a detective with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, cultivated extensive contacts with Jundullah, starting in 2007. McHale was assigned to the Newark, New Jersey, Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes several state and federal agencies and is supervised by the FBI. McHale passed his intelligence on to the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon, and his reports suggested he had known of Jundullah’s intention to carry out attacks in Iran in advance, but it is unclear if he knew the details. When the CIA began to suspect he was too close to Jundullah, it cut ties with McHale, but the FBI, and later the Pentagon, still sponsored half a dozen trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan where he met Jundullah members. The relationship continued until late 2013, long after Jundullah was declared a terrorist organization by the State Department in 2010.

Shrubs and small trees dot a parched landscape along the road from Turbat to the border. Dust devils as tall as skyscrapers appear in the distance. Occasionally, green orchards of date palms emerge from the bleak horizon, a reminder of the region’s once famous export.

Rugged, unmarked roads branch off, leading northwest through the Zamuran Hills to the Iranian frontier district of Sarawan, where Jaish ul Adl attacked the army base in September 2014. Nestled in the hills are small market towns like Buleda, dominated by Baluch who make a living smuggling diesel and drugs. Three years ago, Republican Guard soldiers came into the hills and killed a cleric accused of hosting Jundullah fighters.

“Iranian forces have long-term grievances with the people in the Pakistani border areas,” said Zahoor Buledi, a former provincial minister. “They are always blaming us for abetting Jundullah, because Jundullah usually does its operations near these areas... Bombing and shelling are routine matters.”

Hundreds of families have left Zamuran because of the shelling, settling in places like Turbat, only to have the war follow them there too.

“Iran knows who lives in each and every house here,” one man in a Turbat mosque tells me. “They could come here, even to Turbat city, and take any of us and our government wouldn’t do anything.”

In a one-room home on the outskirts of town, a man named Abdullah speaks in a hushed voice as he recounts the disappearance of his 26-year-old son, Tanveer, in a Pakistani border town. On Jan. 11, 2013, four plainclothes soldiers in two Iranian trucks posed as diesel merchants and lured the young man into one of their vehicles. “When Tanveer realized what was happening, he jumped out of the truck, but the Iranians shot him,” Abdullah says. “We got the body two weeks later. They said they had the wrong Tanveer.”

At the Iranian consulate in Quetta, ringed by multiple layers of giant sand bags to deter would-be suicide bombers, Syed Hasan Yehyavi offers tea, Turkish delight, and diplomatic words. “We have full confidence in the goodwill of Pakistan, our brothers and neighbors,” said the consul general, “but we expect more help from Pakistani officials.” He follows up with the now official line from Tehran, that Jaish ul Adl is being backed by the CIA, Saudi Arabia and “regional” powers—a nod to the ISI.

Mosques and madrassas run by Salafi Baluch, some of whom are financed and have studied in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, have sprung up in the region surrounding Turbat in the last decade, leading some to believe funding might be channeled through them to groups like Jaish ul Adl. 

Pakistani security officials offer a more nuanced explanation. Khan Wasey, the spokesman for the Frontier Corps, a Pakistani paramilitary force tasked with securing the border, claims there are no real Jaish ul Adl bases in Baluchistan. He says his troops work to stop smugglers and jihadists, “but there are other forces at play.”

Indeed, more than 55,000 Pakistani troops are in Baluchistan waging a war of their own. For the last nine years, they have battled secular Baluch nationalists who would like to see an independent Baluchistan.  The Baluch militants blame a Punjabi-dominated military for profiting from the extensive natural gas, gold, and copper deposits that should have made the province the wealthiest in the country. The fighting goes on along the same dusty back roads used by Jaish ul Adl militants moving into Iran, but it’s apparent that they’re not the main enemy for those Pakistani government troops, and they exploit the disorder for their own ends. 

The Jaish ul Adl compound in Kulahu sits on a route where three Baluch separatist groups and at least one alleged government-backed death-squad have set up their own checkpoints; bribes ease the flow of diesel and opium here, even though Iran has constructed hundreds of kilometers of walls and trenches along the border.

Local police officials like Bashir Brohi, Turbat’s soft-spoken, well-manicured police chief, think Jaish ul Adl is probably able to fund its activities through drug smuggling and conceded “the government’s writ basically ends at the city lines” of Turbat.

His latest target has been Hajji Hassan, a Baluch drug lord who fled Iran and settled in Turbat in 2000.  Hajji Hassan is legendary here. Back in Iran, he once got word that the Iranians were going to raid a village where his men were stationed. “When the soldiers entered a valley, Hajji Hassan’s men opened fire, killing more than 50 of them,” one of the kingpin’s neighbors tells me. “After that, he had to leave Iran.”

Hajji Hassan lives in Turbat’s Overseas Colony, a hamlet for the city’s elite whose imposing mansions covered in glazed tiles strike a jarring contrast with the traditional mud-walled homes in the city. Many of the bosses living here, who dominate a multibillion-dollar-a-year drug trafficking industry along the border, are Iranian Baluch in exile, and thought to finance groups like Jaish ul Adl. Locals close to Hajji Hassan say he has hosted Jundullah’s leadership, including Abdelmalek Rigi, in the past, and may be hosting Mullah Omar’s fighters as well. 

That sort of reputation seems to have tipped the Iranians to ask Police Chief Brohi and the Frontier Corps to search in the Overseas Colony for five soldiers Jaish ul Adl kidnapped in February 2013 in the Overseas Colony. A series of raids  this year turned up dozens of Tanzanians, Nigerians, and Yemenis, and Iranians, too, kept as human collateral in global drug deals, but no soldiers. Four of the five soldiers Jaish ul Adl kidnapped were eventually found in Iran, near the Zamuran hills, and released after the mediation of an Iranian Baluch cleric.

Pakistani officials point to that exchange as proof Jaish ul Adl has no presence in their country, but some are still convinced the ISI is grooming the militants indirectly, by supporting the drug kingpins who finance them.

For officials like Brohi, pursuing the drug traffickers in Turbat would mean crossing a political minefield. One of the drug world’s most notorious traffickers also hails from Turbat, and enjoys the support of the ruling provincial party. Imam Bheel, as locals call him, was added to a list of worldwide traffickers subject to U.S. sanctions in 2009. His son, Yaqoob Bizenjo, served as a member of the National Assembly until 2013. 

With all the internal security problems plaguing this corner of Baluchistan, it seems unlikely Pakistan will crack down on groups like Jaish ul Adl, or the drug kingpins funding them, any time soon.

Rigi used to couch Jundullah’s aims in terms of an ethnic minority fighting for autonomy within a federalized Iranian state. Mullah Omar and his other successors, by contrast, have relied on the kind of polemical Shiite-Sunni rhetoric used by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq.

When Jaish ul Adl took five Iranian border guards hostage in February 2013, its demand in exchange for their release included the freeing of 300 Sunni prisoners, some of whom it claimed were being held in Syria. An attack last year that killed 16 Iranian soldiers was publicized as a “response to crimes of the Revolutionary Guards in Syria.”

The group puts out most of its statements—on its Twitter feed, or its numerous websites—in Arabic, as opposed to Baluchi or Farsi. The outlets giving these pronouncements the most airtime are Arabic news stations in the Gulf.  The group also has admirers in Pakistan.

“In Iran, Sunnis are not allowed to build mosques; their mosques are destroyed, their rights are taken away,” says Ramzan Mengal, provincial head of the Ahle Sunnah Wa Al Jamah party, which has been accused of targeting Shiites in Pakistan for decades. Two policemen guard the door to his rundown madrassa on the outskirts of Quetta, protection provided to him, he says, because “Iranian agents” have gunned down eleven Sunni clerics in the city. Jundullah and Jaish ul Adl sprang up “in reaction to that kind of oppression,” he said.  “They started as small groups that are big thorns in Iran's side now.”

“The Syrian war is having its effects here as well,” said Yehyavi, the Iranian consul general in Quetta.  “People want to paint this as a [global] sectarian war.”  Yehyavi and other Iranian officials worry Jaish ul Adl might become a globally-connected group, drawing support from the same forces backing the Islamic State in Syria.

Rights activists like Boledi, the Iranian Baluch dissident living in Sweden, harbor some of the same concerns.  As a well-known advocate for Baluch rights in Iran, young Iranians reach out to him for advice.  “I've had the same cellphone number for 15 years, so occasionally I do get calls from these militants,” he said.  “I tell them, we are Muslims, but we are not looking for some new Islamic government.  I tell them you are not what the Baluch want.”