The Salafist and Jihadi ideology contains a strongly anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian approach. Thus, the State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh from the very beginning of its appearance in Iraq and Syria should be opposed to Iran. According to ISIL, with their radical and extreme views of Sunni Islam, Shia Iranians are apostates and enemies of Islam and therefore it is permissible to kill them. ISIL had the same attitude towards the Shiites of Iraq and Syria, and now it has the same approach towards the Shiites of Afghanistan. Therefore, it was not surprising that Iran faced this extremist group in Iraq and Syria, which was a direct threat to Iran in terms of national security and religiously, a threat to the holy shrines of the Shia in Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Damascus. In this regard, The Iranian government has been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for over three years with both military advisers and direct troops fighting the group’s militants in both Iraq and Syria. But after the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force played an important role, ISIL, along with the transfer of troops and recruitment in Afghanistan and Pakistan, changed its threats and terrorist operations to the interior of Iran.
The first terrorist attacks occurred on 7 June 2017 that were carried out by five terrorists belonging to ISIL that were a series of two simultaneous terrorist against the Iranian Parliament building and the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, both in Tehran, leaving 17 civilians dead and 43 wounded. Government officials later stated that they had foiled a third attack that day. Iranian security services stated on 8 June, 2017 that “they had identified the five militants responsible for the twin events, disclosing the men’s first names, and detailed that they were of Kurdish Iranian background and had returned to Iran in August 2016. They were of Kurdish Iranian background and had returned to Iran in August 2016. The terrorists reportedly served in a clandestine cell linked to Wahhabi-related networks”.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for the attacks. This is the group’s first attack in Iran. The Amaq News Agency, related to ISIL, released a 24-second video showing a lifeless body of a man, while a voice says in Arabic: “Do you think we will leave? We will remain, God willing”. This attack showed that ISIL has recruited adherents from the Sunni Kurds of Iran in the western provinces of Iran. This development was very important, because Shiite or Sunni Kurds opposing the Iranian government were joining armed groups with a secular and ethnic approach, including include the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), Komala, and the Kurdistan Freedom Party”. Therefore, it was the first time that Iranian Kurds joined such Salafi, Jihadi and Wahhabi groups that which was considered a new and serious threat to Iran’s national security. In response to the terrorist attacks in Tehran, on 18 June 2017, the IRGC announced that a series of medium-range ground-to-ground missiles were launched at ISIL group headquarters in the Syrian city of Dayr al-Zawr, the missiles being fired from Iran’s western provinces of Kermanshah and Kurdistan.
The second terrorist attack occurred on 22 September 2018. A military parade was attacked by armed gunmen in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, in Khuzestan province. The shooters killed 25 people, including soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and civilian bystanders. The parade was part of an annual commemoration known as the Sacred Defence Week commemorating the start of the Iran–Iraq War in 1980. The Islamic State (ISIL) accepted the responsibility for the attack and released purported photos of the attackers. Iran blamed “militants in Syria. On 1 October 2018, in retaliation for the attacks, Iranian Revolutionary Guards fired missiles and carried out drone attacks in Abu Kamal of Syria targeting “militants in Syria. Although several news about the possible role of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), an Arab separatist militant group, was also published. ASMLA then decided to deny responsibility for the attack. However, on 6 May 2023, Habib Farajollah Chaab, known as Habib Asiod, a founder and leader of ASMLA, was executed in Iran by hanging after being accused of masterminding the attack.
The third terrorist attack occurred on 26 October 2022 at Shah Cheragh Shrine, a Shia pilgrimage site in Shiraz in southern Iran, in which at least 13 people were killed and 43 people injured. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. In early November, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry confirmed that security agents have arrested 26 Takfiri terrorists involved in the fatal shooting in Shah Cheragh holy shrine, and added that the militants are non-Iranians from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. Finally, two Afghan citizens, Mohammad Ramez Rashidi and Naeem Hashem Ghotali, were executed on July 8, 2023.
The fourth terrorist attack occurred on 13 August 2023 and Shah Cheragh Shrine, in Iran’s southern city of Shiraz has come under a second deadly attack in less than a year with another gunman breaking into its grounds and opening fire. A lone gunman, identified as Rahmatollah Nowruzof from Tajikistan, entered the Shah Cherag Shrine and opened fire on pilgrims and staff, killing one and injuring several others. Iran blamed the ISIL (ISIS) armed group and the governor of the province of Fars that Shiraz is its capital, said “The motivation of this Daesh [ISIL-affiliated] individual was to take revenge for the executions of the two terrorists of the previous incident,” Indeed, Ramezan Sharif, the spokesperson of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said: “The goals of Daesh [ISIL] and other terrorists against the national interests and people of Iran are intertwined,” and vowed that “we will give a decisive response to the terrorists”.
But the fifth terrorist attack, which was the bloodiest and deadliest ISIL attack inside Iran, occurred on January 3, 2024. Two suicide bombings in Kerman province, southeastern Iran, were carried out during a memorial for slain commander Qassem Soleimani, killed in a US drone attack on January 3, 2020. The attacks were carried out using two briefcase bombs killed at least 94 people including 23 students14 Afghan nationals, and injured 284 others. It was the deadliest such incident in the country since the Cinema Rex attack of 1978, in Abadan, Khuzestan province in southwest Iran, was set ablaze, killing between 377. On the following day, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on Telegram. It later released images on its news outlet Amaq showing two masked individuals whom it claimed were brothers who carried out the attack as suicide bombers. Based on U.S. intelligence assessments, the attack was executed by the branch of the Islamic State, Khorasan Province (ISIS–K), that is a regional branch of the Islamic State terrorist group active in South-Central Asia, primarily Afghanistan. On 11 January 2024, the Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence said the main suspect who planned the bombings was a Tajik national known by his alias Abdollah Tajiki. He had entered Iran in mid-December by crossing the southeast border, and left two days before the attack, after making the bombs. Two days after the attack, Iran’s Ministry of Interior ordered walls to be built on its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan and on 15 and 16 January 2024, Iran launched missile attacks at Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, describing them as retaliatory attacks in response to the bombing on the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s death.
But what are the results of the analysis of five ISIL terrorist operations in Iran from June 2017 to January 2024? In response, the following important results can be mentioned:
- These attacks show that the threat of ISIL has not ended with the loss of territory and government in Iraq and Syria. This Salafi and terrorist group intends to prove that it is still alive and dynamic by carrying out operations in Afghanistan and Iran.
- The transfer of ISIL commanders and forces from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan has caused significant activation of the Khorasan Province (ISIS–K) that were directly involved in terrorist operations in Shiraz and Kerman. The joining of disaffected Taliban members to ISIL and the cooperation of ISIL with al-Qaeda has further strengthened the Khorasan branch.
- The role of Tajik citizens in the terrorist operations of ISIL inside Iran shows that an important part of the members of the Khorasan branch are citizens of Central Asia. However, because of the Persian language spoken by the Tajik and Afghan citizens, which is slightly different from the dialect of the Iranian people, ISIL prefers to use the citizens of these two countries for terrorist operations inside Iran.
- The participation of Sunni Kurdish Iranian citizens in the first ISIL terrorist operation in June 2017 shows that this Salafist and terrorist group has opened a special account for recruiting members from ethnic and religious minority groups inside Iran, especially Kurds and Arabs in the west and Baluchis in the east of Iran.
- The massive illegal migration of Afghans into Iran started after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Red Army in 1980, it has experienced a new trend after the Taliban regained power in August 2020. Poverty, unemployment, low level of knowledge, shallow perceptions of Islamic teachings and feelings of discrimination and oppression have created a suitable ground for some of these immigrants to join groups like ISIL. In these circumstances, Iran will have to adopt a more serious security policy in the southeastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, which includes a wide range of border wall construction in some places to strengthen and increase border checkpoints. Moreover, mass deportation of unauthorized Afghan and Pakistani immigrants in eastern Iran, especially in Sistan and Baluchistan and Kerman provinces, is very likely. Indeed, stricter restrictions will be imposed on Afghan and Pakistani immigrants in the field of residence, employment and possible connection with the Baloch opposition terrorist groups in Pakistan, especially Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice), as well as ISIL and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
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About the author:
Vali KALEJI, Ph. D. in Regional Studies, Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Tehran and as a senior expert in Eurasian studies, he has published numerous articles on Eurasian issues with the National Interest, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, the Middle East Institute in the United States, Oxford Analytica in the UK, and the Valdai Club in the Russian Federation.