The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) today that its ground forces have killed the ringleader of a Sunni militant group in Iran’s restive province of Sistan and Baluchestan. According to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, forces from the I.R.G.C.’s Quds Base killed Jalil Qanbarzehi, the head of the Ansar al-Furqan group, and several other militants after several days of armed clashes with the group in Qasr-e Qand heights in the southeastern province. The I.R.G.C. Quds Base is separate from the Quds Force, which is responsible for external operations. The report adds that Qanbarzehi was pursued by the Iranian authorities for 25 years related to “extensive crimes” in border regions in the southeast – including attacks against places of worship and law enforcement personnel. The state-run outlet also alleged that Qanbarzehi “received financial assistance from Arab countries and had a lot of meetings with American forces in Afghanistan to inflict damage on Iran.”
Comment: The latest clashes in Sistan and Baluchestan were part of the I.R.G.C.’s counterterrorism operations across the country after the Islamic State staged deadly attacks in Tehran earlier this month.
According to the Iranian media, Qanbarzehi – also known as Salahuddin – created Ansar al-Furqan in 1996 by recruiting young Sunni Iranians in Sistan and Baluchestan and with the help of the Afghan Taliban. Mullah Rasool, the Taliban governor of Nimroz, a southwestern Afghan province bordering Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan Province, reportedly provided monetary assistance and weapons to the group. Members of al-Furqan is said to have trained in Nimroz under the supervision of Akram Allah, a Taliban commander who had worked with Hezb-e Islami of Gulbudin Hekmatyar. After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, al-Fruqan continued to operate in the region and found new sources of revenue through illicit drugs trade and ransom money from kidnappings in Pakistan.
Iran’s southeastern region – home to a sizable yet largely marginalized Sunni population – has long suffered low-intensity insurgency. The region can particularly be a breeding ground for local militant and separatist movements as well as regional and international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Sunni Baluchs, who constitute a plurality of the population in the province, have long suffered state-sanctioned discrimination, economic marginalization, cultural repression, disproportionate executions, torture, detention without trials and extra-judicial killings. Sistan and Baluchestan also borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Islamic State has gained a foothold recently.