Pakistan formally classified the Zainebiyoun Brigade, a Shiite militant group purportedly backed by Iran, as a terrorist organization.

The move marks a significant step by Pakistani authorities to address concerns about extremist activities within its borders.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior Affairs published a public notification on April 11 stating that “the Zainebiyoun Brigade is involved in activities that are deemed detrimental to the peace and security of the country,” according to a copy of the notification seen by The Media Line.

This revelation underscores the seriousness of the threat posed by the group and strengthens the rationale behind Pakistani federal authorities’ decision to designate the Zainebiyoun Brigade as a terrorist organization.

The notification further specified that the Federal Ministry has taken this action under the powers conferred by the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, by including the name of the Zainebiyoun Brigade in Schedule One, which lists banned organizations under the same law.

In January 2019, the US Treasury Department added the group to its financial blacklist, stating that it is composed of Pakistani nationals and provides “materiel support” to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The Zainebiyoun Brigade, composed primarily of the Pakistani Shiite community, has been mainly operating in Syria, where it has provided support to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and actively engaged in a war against ISIS.

The group’s activities have drawn scrutiny from international observers, who have raised alarms about its potential to fuel sectarian tensions and instability in the region.

According to the Iranian news website Iran International, the Zainebiyoun Brigade was “formed by the IRGC after the Syrian civil war began,” and has since “mobilized Pakistani Shiite militants who were then sent to fight forces opposite to Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran and Russia.”

The media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces had confirmed in the past that law enforcement agencies successfully captured several militants belonging to the Zainebiyoun Brigade. When asked by The Media Line for further comment, they declined to answer due to the sensitive matter.

However, an anonymous senior official familiar with the issue confirmed that “in the context of ongoing terror incidents in the country, Islamabad believes that the potential return of these fighters might exacerbate religious civil unrest in certain restive regions of the country. Given this concern, they advocate for measures to restrict the activities of this group.”

This official continued: “Pakistani and American intelligence agencies have collaborated closely to address this threat, aiming to uphold peace and security in the region.”

“The decision to label the Zainebiyoun Brigade as a terrorist organization underscores Pakistan’s commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms,” he added.
Brigade’s formal purpose was to defend sacred sites in Syria

The name ‘Zainebiyoun’ is derived from Syeda Zainab who is the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Zainab is well-regarded by Shia Muslims, and the name ‘Zainebiyoun’ signifies an association with her.

The Zainebiyoun Brigade’s formal purpose was to defend the shrine of Syeda Zainab and other Shia sacred sites in Syria.

Since 2013, Pakistani Shiites have been actively involved in the conflict in Syria.

Among the fighters are individuals from diverse backgrounds, including marginalized Hazara and Baloch communities, as well as Pashtuns from Parachinar in the Kurram District and Baltis from Gilgit-Baltistan.

Similar to other Shiite foreign brigades operating in Syria, the Zainebiyoun Brigade is financed, trained, and supervised by the IRGC.

According to unconfirmed reports, more than 500 brigade fighters have been killed so far as a result of Israeli airstrikes and the war with ISIS.

The majority of the deceased youth hailed from Kurram and Gilgit-Baltistan, two Shiite-majority regions in Pakistan.

The dead have been buried in the Iranian holy city of Qum, where a gathering is also organized in their memory every year.
Pakistani fighters are one dimension in Syrian war

Iran’s recruitment of Pakistani fighters adds yet another international dimension to Syria’s civil war. It has deepened sectarian divisions across the Muslim world and drawn in most regional and global powers.

It was recently reported that some members of Pakistani origin were apprehended in international waters. In January 2024, the US Central Command Naval forces, including the Navy SEALs, intercepted an un-flagged ship in the Gulf of Aden.

While searching the vessel, US forces seized Iranian-made advanced conventional weaponry, including critical parts for medium-range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles, a warhead, and propulsion and guidance components. The crew members are now under trial in the US.

Recently, IRGC published an obituary about a person named Haider, who was identified through a DNA test.

He was the main recruiter for the brigade from the Parachinar area of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Parachinar and the larger Kurram District have emerged as significant recruitment hubs for mercenaries affiliated with the Zainebiyoun Brigade.

These districts have a predominantly Shia population, which shares religious and sectarian affiliations with the Zainebiyoun Brigade.

Both districts are situated near the border with Afghanistan, providing easy access for recruiters to tap into the pool of potential fighters. The region’s proximity to conflict zones in Afghanistan facilitates the recruitment process and the movement of individuals willing to join militant groups.
Uncertain estimate says 5,000 participants

Law enforcement agencies in Pakistan lack precise official figures regarding the participation of the Pakistani Shiite community in the Zainebiyoun Brigade activities in Syria.

However, an uncertain estimate suggests that the number of participants could be around 5,000.

Syed Qandil Abbas, an Islamabad-based political analyst and professor at the School of Political and International Relations (SPIR) at Quaid-i-Azam University, told The Media Line: “The Zainebiyoun Brigade remained on the watch list of Pakistani security agencies during the last decade.”

“This group has never been found involved in any anti-state activity in Pakistan, but as per a recent notification, it is engaged in certain activities which are prejudicial to the peace and security of the country,” he claimed.

Abbas explained to The Media Line that “the recent decision to ban the Zainebiyoun Brigade can be attributed to two main factors, considering its ideological orientation. Firstly, the brigade’s primary responsibility was to safeguard the Shrine of Syeda Zainab in Syria. With the defeat of ISIS in Syria, the threats to this shrine have significantly diminished. Consequently, Pakistani security agencies are concerned about the potential return of Zainebiyoun fighters.”

“Secondly, the Zainebiyoun Brigade is part of the Iran-backed ‘Axis of Resistance,’ which includes groups like Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Fatemiyoun of Afghanistan, the Haideriyon of Iraq, and the Hussainiyoun of Azerbaijan, among others,” he added.

According to Abbas, “These groups share an anti-Israeli stance, aligning with Iran’s regional objectives. By increasing tension between Iran and Israel it is expected that these groups, including the Zainebiyoun Brigade, can emerge as an active threat to Israel and pro-Israel countries, including the United States.”

“Moreover,” he continued, “imposing a ban on the Zainebiyoun Brigade can be in line with US regional interests, as the Zainebiyoun Brigade along with Fatimiyon was already put under US sanctions in 2019.”

Abbas also claimed that Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority has currently added four additional groups to its watch list. “However, the emergence of several splinter groups from declared terrorist organizations, such as the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, also poses significant threats to the peace and security of Pakistan and the wider region.”

Adeeb Uz Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based senior defense and strategic analyst, retired Pakistani Navy captain, and a graduate of the US Naval War College, told The Media Line that “mostly non-state actors are involved in recruiting, funding, and operating organizations such as the Zainebiyoun Brigade.”

According to Safvi, “Pakistan’s Foreign Office needs to work closely with intelligence agencies and other state organs to keep the relations on an even level. For the sake of regional stability, long-lasting peace, and mainly for our interest, we cannot afford to have strained relations with Iran.”

Safvi noted that “Pakistan’s hostile intelligence agencies are looking forward to creating misunderstanding at the first opportunity.”

He urged the Foreign Office of Pakistan to collaborate closely with intelligence agencies and other state organs to ensure balanced relations with Iran. “Maintaining stable and amicable ties with Iran is imperative for regional stability, enduring peace, and, fundamentally, for Pakistan’s interests.”

Source » jpost