A Look At Extremist Group Jundallah

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Michele Norris speaks with C. Christine Fair, professor of security studies at Georgetown University, about the group that took responsibility for a suicide bombing in southeast Iran this weekend. The attack killed 31 people, including several top commanders in Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. The group is called Jundallah, which Iran says is supported by Pakistan, Great Britain and the U.S.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

An extremist group with strong ties to Pakistan is claiming responsibility for a deadly terror attack on Sunday in southeast Iran. More than 30 people were killed in the explosion - that includes several top commanders from Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard.

The group claiming responsibility for Sunday's attack calls itself Jundallah, a word that translates to Soldiers of God. Iran claims the group is affiliated with al-Qaida. But in a strange twist, Iran says the group also has ties to the U.S., and claims the U.S. secretly encouraged Jundallah to help destabilize Iran.

To learn more about the group, we turn to Christine Fair. She's a professor of security studies with Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. And she spent time in the area where this weekend's attack occurred. Welcome to the program.

Professor CHRISTINE FAIR (Security Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Do us a favor as we start here.

Prof. FAIR: Sure.

NORRIS: Help our listeners place this on a map. This attack happened in southeast Iran, but this group is actually based in Pakistan.

Prof. FAIR: Yeah. So the geography is kind of interesting. The region, called Balochistan, actually spans three states. It spans Afghanistan, as well as Iran. And right across the border is the Pakistani province of Balochistan. So, in the Pakistani side, they're predominantly Sunni Muslims, as are the Baloch on the Iranian side of the border.

So, in the case of Iran, Jundallah is interesting because it does two things. It alleges to advance the ethno-nationalist aspirations of the Baloch, but it's also vehemently anti-Shia. And, of course, Iran is a Shia state.

NORRIS: What does Jundallah want? What are their objectives?

Prof. FAIR: Well, I mean, I think the objectives are really twofold. They're really espousing the concerns of these largely Sunni Baloch. The Baloch, in this part of Iran, it's not good to be Baloch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Whether you're in Pakistan or in Iran, they're ethnically distinct minorities in both Iran and in Pakistan. But in the case of Iran, they're also sectarian minorities because they're not Shia. So, I think this is sort of three issues. One is this sort of generic lack of access to the Iranian states, sort of general sense of deprivation based upon their ethnicity, as well as their sectarian identity.

NORRIS: Thread this needle for me. There have been charges in the press and statements made by Pakistani officials that the U.S. is somehow tied to Jundallah, supporting them, in some cases, with money, with arms; in other cases, what's described as arm's length support. What are those allegations based on? And is there any truth to these charges?

Prof. FAIR: Well, I have no ability to assess whether or not there's truth to these charges. Particularly under the Bush administration - this is when these charges were most commonplace - the Americans, we have a presence in Balochistan. Now, this is the Pakistani side of Balochistan, of course, not the Iranian Balochistan - Balochistan houses and military bases, where we launch predator attacks.

So, this is where the suspicion enters. The allegation is that the Americans would like to poke at Iran in the way in which it has poked at us in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan. And we are in close proximity because we do have special operators present in Balochistan. So, there is an ability and there is certainly a motive. Whether or not there's evidence is another story.

NORRIS: Now, that's quite a hot allegation, though, the idea that the U.S. would have ties to an extremist group based in Pakistan that has close ties to al-Qaida.

Prof. FAIR: Yeah, I mean, and I think that's a strong argument for why we wouldn't be doing it. But let's think about these ties to al-Qaida. Iran makes this claim for a number of reasons. Iran has been accused of harboring al-Qaida leadership, Taliban leadership. So it has a strong incentive to characterize these as al-Qaida that, in other words, as a terrorist organization. And they would like this group to be declared a foreign terrorist organization. So, one of the interesting things that we should be looking for is whether or not this administration is going to declare them as such.

There is an antecedent for this claim. There was another organization, an Iranian terrorist organization, the Mujahideen al-Khalq, and they were based in Iraq. And the news reports - and I believe it to be true - we were actually training them. We didn't want to ban them. And so, the concession to Iran, you know, we were willing to back down supporting the Mujahideen al-Khalq.

So, Iran certainly has seen the United States using groups that are not necessarily in our interest strategically, but basically doing what they do, right, which is supporting their enemies tactically even though strategically they are enemies. But the other claim that should be perhaps interrogated is how close is Jundallah to al-Qaida. So little is known about this group, I really can't assess that.

NORRIS: Christine Fair, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Prof. FAIR: Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Christine Fair is an assistant professor of security studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

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