The Zainabiyoun Brigade, an Iran-backed militant outfit that sent young Pakistanis to fight in Syria, remains a threat to the South Asian nation’s security, experts say, despite a recent crackdown on the group’s activity.

The US Treasury placed the Zainabiyoun Brigade on its financial blacklist in January 2019, in what it said was a “pressure campaign to shut down the illicit networks the (Iranian) regime uses to export terrorism and unrest across the globe.”

The group’s fighters — many of them minors — were recruited in Pakistan and among Pakistani refugees by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Basij militia, and trained for operations in the Syrian civil war, which broke out in 2011.

Some of the recruits have returned to Pakistan, especially during COVID-19 closures, prompting authorities to step up its crackdown on their activity.

Since last year, Pakistani counterterrorism police have arrested a number of Iran-trained militants connected to a series of assassinations, mainly in the seaside megapolis of Karachi in Sindh province. Police said they were Zainabiyoun Brigade members.

In late July, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the Senate that the Zainabiyoun were among the militants “found actively involved in terrorist activities” in the country from 2019 to 2021.

“They were involved in sectarian targeted killing as well as recruitment,” Abdul Basit Khan, a research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who researches violent extremism, told Arab News.

“Following law enforcement crackdowns resulting in arrests of Zainabiyoun fighters, their activities have declined considerably … However, that does not mean that Zainabiyoun’s threat has vanished and subsided. So, the law enforcement agencies need to closely monitor its fighters without lowering their guard.”

While counterterrorism authorities in Sindh did not respond to requests for comment on their surveillance of the group, multiple sources at Pakistani intelligence agencies told Arab News that Zainabiyoun militants and their families have continued to receive financial support from Iran — an issue that could pose a problem in relation to their allegiance back home.

“The real question which makes this entity problematic for Pakistan is that of loyalty, as the members of this militant organization have fought a foreign power’s war for ideological reasons and thus this ideological affiliation trumps their association with the land of their birth,” Umar Karim, a University of Birmingham researcher focusing on the conflict in Syria, told Arab News.

The militants should be seen as foreign fighters who were not only deployed as “cannon fodder” to Iran’s regional wars, but who are likely to act as a “fifth column” in their own countries, he said.

“These people should be treated just like those who remain (on) the payroll of any other external organization or state entity and a potential challenge to national security, especially in case of a crisis in Pakistan-Iran ties.”

Source » arabnews