Islamabad fears that the Syria-returned Shia fighters may join local insurgencies and pose a new security threat in the country.
KARACHI — Wajid Ali, a 16-year-old resident of Pakistan’s Kurram district, was among several dozen young members of the Pakistani Shia community who have been killed in combat in Syria. Most of them were supporters of the regime of Bashar al Assad, a close ally of Iran.
A recently published booklet “Hum Teray Abbas Ya Zainab [O Zainab, we are your children]” eulogizing the slain Pakistani Shia young men in Syria, had a detailed profile of Ali, who was reportedly killed in the fight with Daesh in Albu Kamal, a Syrian district bordering with Iraq, in November 2017.
In the booklet, translated from Persian to Urdu and reviewed by TRT World, Ali’s father said that his son was a madrassa student in Parachinar, a Shia-majority town of Kurram. After learning about the Daesh’s attacks close to the holiest Shia shrines in Damascus, Ali abandoned his education and joined Syria's battlefields. He was driven by the idea of protecting the shrine of Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter Zainab, a saintly figure in Islam.
“Ali’s mother did not stop him from going to fight in Syria because she considered it a religious obligation. Other men from the town were also going to fight in Syria,” Ali’s father was quoted in the book as saying.
The booklet is full of emotionally charged passages praising over two dozen Pakistani Shia youth who were killed in the Syrian insurgency. They fought under the banner of Zainabiyoun Brigade.
Most of the slain youth were from Kurram and Gilgit Baltistan, two Shai majority regions in Pakistan, and many of them have been buried in Iran.
Aftab Hussain, alias Hakeemullah, was part of the Zainabiyoun Brigade. He was killed in a gunbattle in Syria in 2018. Prior to joining the insurgent ranks, he was a trained engineer. He had also participated in the 2005 violent protests in Pakistan over a disputed Islamic curriculum in school textbooks.
Backed by Iran
Although a sizable number of Pakistani Shia youth have fought in Syria since 2013 as part of the Zainabiyoun armed militia, which was supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), for the ostensible purpose of protecting Shia holy sites.
Most of their recruits were in their twenties and thirties, motivated by religious sentiment and a sense of youthful military adventurism.
A Shia religious scholar in Karachi admitted that a significant number of young members from Pakistan's Shia community have gone to fight in the Syrian insurgency.
“Daesh believe shrines are heretical and they bomb them everywhere whether it is in Syria, Pakistan, or Afghanistan,” the Shia scholar, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, told TRT World.
“A number of Shia youth from the community believe it is their religious duty to protect [their sect's] holy sites from Daesh’s attacks, ignoring that they are Pakistanis and it is not their job to be involved in the affairs of other countries”.
From neighbouring Afghanistan, a similar militia was formed and named the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Its recruits came from the country's minority Shia population.
Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a Singapore-based security think tank, said that Iran exploited Zainab's spiritual standing in Islam and coined emotive messages linked to her personality to recruit and mobilize Pakistani Shia youth.
Law enforcement agencies in Pakistan do not have any official statistics about the number of Pakistani Shia youth who have participated in the Syrian conflict but they believe the number varies between 3,000 and 5,000.
Ihsan Ghani, former head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority, a Pakistani government's counterterrorism body, said that most of the Pakistani Shia youth have gone to Syria from Iran and Iraq where they go on religious pilgrimages.
“Many recruits were lured to participate in the Syrian conflict by the promise of better pay as a fighter and a chance to secure a place for burial in Iran's holy lands, such as Qum,” Ghani told TRT World.
As the Syrian civil war is winding down particularly after the defeat of Daesh in eastern Syria, Pakistani Shia fighters have been quietly returning to their country.
Security experts said that it is not the first time that the Pakistani youth has become part of an insurgency on foreign soil. In the past, a large number of Pakistani Sunni youth have joined insurgency in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir.
Contrary to Pakistani insurgents in Afghanistan and Kashmir, Pakistani Shia fighters have returned to the country from Syria within a span of two to three years. “Unfortunately, Pakistani authorities do not have any mechanism to monitor the Syria-returned militants,” Ghani said.
A security official who is familiar with Pakistani militant outfits said that in the past, a large number of returnees from insurgencies in Afghanistan and Kashmir had posed a security risk to the country due to their continued affiliation with the Taliban, and Al Qaida and even organized their network in Pakistan.
“After returning from insurgencies, most of the battle-hardened and ideologically dedicated youth want to participate in local conflicts in Pakistan,” the official, who is not authorized to speak to the media, told TRT World.
Spillover of the Syrian insurgency
Security experts fear that spillover of the Syrian insurgency may affect the security situation in Pakistan and reignite the violence-prone Sunni-Shia conflict.
Recently, the Daesh-Khorasan, a local chapter of the so-called Islamic State for Pakistan and Afghanistan, claimed responsibility for the January 11 killing of eleven Shia Hazara mineworkers in Balochistan. “The attack was in retaliation for the joining of Pakistani Shias in the militias of Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun in Syria,” the group said in an audio message.
In 2017, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami, a sectarian outfit, claimed the credit for attacking a vegetable market in Parachinar, a Shia town, killing at least 25 people and injuring others. The group stated that it was in response “to teach a lesson to Shias for their support for Al-Assad.”
On the other side, Zainabiyoun Brigade with a fighting potential can also retaliate and undermine Pakistan's fragile internal security, experts believe.
“In the Syrian conflict, the Pakistani militants honed their asymmetric combat skills, developed conventional capabilities on sophisticated weapons, created links and networks with their Middle Eastern counterparts,” said Basit.
Within a span of two months, the Sindh counterterrorism police claimed to have arrested four Zainabiyoun militants in different raids in Karachi.
On February 2, the Sindh counterterrorism police and a federal intelligence agency arrested Syed Zakir Raza alias Nadeem, a militant linked with Zainabiyoun Brigade, from Karachi. He is allegedly the close associate of another Zainabiyoun Brigade-linked militant, Abbas Jafri, who was arrested a week earlier.
Earlier in December, Sindh counterterrorism police said it had arrested two members of the Zainabiyoun Brigade from Karachi in connection with a string of killings over the last six years.
Suddaf Chaudry, a journalist covering conflicts in the Middle-east and Pakistan, said that Pakistani law enforcement agencies were reluctant in the past to discuss the influx of Pakistani men joining the Zainabiyoun Brigade.
“There has been a significant crackdown by law enforcement agencies suddenly when the number of recruits for Syrian insurgency has steadily declined,” Chaudry told TRT World. She said that the recent arrests have fueled concerns that there is a real threat to sectarian violence.
The US Treasury in 2019 announced sanctions on Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun militias.
Though the Zainabiyoun has not been banned in Pakistan, the government had banned two Parachinar-based little-known Shia outfits, Ansar-ul-Hussain and its offshoot, Khatam-ul-Anbia under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 in 2016 and 2020, for their links with Syrian war recruiting.
In Karachi alone, Shia groups complain that the over 200 Shia youth have allegedly been picked by Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies on their return from Syria, Iran, and Iraq and their whereabouts are unknown.
Families said that they have been told the men are suspected of links to Zainabiyoun Brigade. They demand the authorities produce them in court if there is any charge against them.