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December 11, 2013

The other jihad

National

December 11, 2013

By Sajid Hussain

At 5:30 in the morning on November 25, people in the otherwise tranquil village of Kulahu in Balochistan’s Kech district woke up to three massive explosions, one followed by another. The blasts had been caused by three missiles fired from across the Iranian border. The target was a compound in possession of a man little known outside the village: Mullah Omar.
Mullah Omar was not present at the time of the strike, but his two-year-old grandniece, Abida, died. His seven-year-old son, Younus, was injured along with four other members of his family.
Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Malik Baloch condemned the Irani missile strike in passing during a press conference in Quetta, saying he had raised the issue with the country’s interior minister. However, the federal government is yet to issue a statement in this regard.
Although US drone strikes in Fata and recently inside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province against Taliban militants have stirred an uproar in Pakistan’s political and media circles, this missile attack went almost unnoticed. No one raised the ‘violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity’ cliché and no one wondered who this Mullah Omar, the namesake of the Taliban leader in Afghanistan, could be.
Mullah Omar, a clean-shaven man in his early 40s, is an Iranian national of Baloch ethnicity. He is one of the key commanders of the newly formed anti-Iran Jaish-ul-Adal militant group, and runs one of the group’s many camps located in Balochistan, inside Pakistani territory. He’s a wanted man in Iran.
The Sunni Baloch minority in Iran has long complained of discrimination on religious grounds. For years, Baloch rebels from Iran have regarded Baloch land on the Pakistani side of the border as a safe haven to launch attacks against Tehran.
“He’s not the typical mullah. He is hardly a mullah. He’s just angry with Iran”, said a local who had been quite close to Omar.
Omar himself corroborated this

view. “I don’t call myself a mullah. I have some religious education, but I don’t understand why people call me a mullah”, Omar told this scribe during a telephonic interview three days after the missile strike on his house.
He doesn’t evoke religious phrases in his conversation and has the ‘Baloch national anthem’ as his ringtone. “It’s just that Iran is suppressing us because we are Sunnis and we are Baloch. We are fighting for our religious and national rights,” he added.
The story of Omar and the Kulahu jihadi camp began in the 1990s, when Maula Bux Darakhshan alias Mauluk had been waging a war against Iran. An Iranian national, Mauluk had married and lived in Kulahu, but would sneak into Iran to attack the Iranian security forces. He would even bring the captured soldiers back to the Pakistani side of the border and parade them, blindfolded and handcuffed, in the towns of Balochistan’s Kech district.
Supported by Pakistani anti-Shia groups, Mauluk called his fight against Iran a ‘jihad’ and founded the Sipah-e-Rasoolallah. It was he who built the Kulahu compound which was the target of the November 25 missile attack.
Omar had joined Mauluk’s group to avenge the death of his brother who had been executed by Iran. After Mauluk was killed by the Iranian forces in 2006, Omar took charge of the Sipah-e-Rasoollalah group and the compound.
In the same year, a young anti-Iran Sunni rebel of Baloch ethnicity had become the most wanted man in Iran. His Jundullah had released a number of videos of its fighters beheading and shooting Iranian soldiers. Tehran claimed Abdolmalik Rigi was a US agent hiding in Pakistan ‘under the ISI’s protection’.
Mullah Omar’s flagging Sipah-e-Rasoolallah found a new lifeline as it took shelter under the Jundullah umbrella. Rigi had himself begun militancy as a teenager under Mauluk’s command.
As Rigi’s bloody campaign against Iran intensified – with the October 18, 2009 suicide bombing being the deadliest in which several top commanders of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were killed – Iran stepped up pressure on Pakistan to deny a safe haven to its Sunni rebels.
On June 14, 2008, the Pakistan government handed over two men to Iran after arresting them a few months earlier from Kech district’s Buleda area. They were Rigi’s brother, Abdolhamid, and Omar’s brother, Hassan. They were later hanged by Iran.
Yet, Iranian officials complained that Pakistan was reluctant to act against the top rebels, using them as a ‘strategic asset’ in the context of Iran’s tense relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Soon, Iran managed to capture the top rebel on its own. On February 23, 2010, Iran forced the landing of a passenger plane travelling from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan on its airspace. Abdolmalek Rigi was on board. He was arrested and eventually hanged in June, 2010.
After their leader’s hanging, Jundullah fighters found themselves in a state of chaos and the group remained virtually incapable of launching any major attacks against Iran until recently. In mid-2012, the group renamed itself as Jaish-ul-Adl under the command of Salahuddin Farooqui. Mullah Omar became an important commander of the group.
“Yes, I’m now with Abdolmalek Rigi’s group. It’s now called Jaish-ul-Adl,” Omar confirmed to this scribe.
On October 25 this year, the Jaish-ul-Adl executed its first major attack against Iran near the Pakistani border, killing 16 Iranian border guards. Iran retaliated by hanging 16 ethnic Baloch, suspected of links with militants, the very next day.
The Kulahu missile strikes show Tehran’s determination to crush the new group before it organises itself into another monster for Iran. It was not the first such attempt by Iran.
In August 2012, Iranian ground forces entered 60 kilometres into Pakistani territory and fired mortars on a vehicle carrying Omar’s men near Kulahu. A local peshimam, Balach, was killed and Omar’s brother-in-law was injured. On November 25 in 2012, Iranian forces fired around a dozen rockets in the mountainous Chaghai district of Balochistan. No casualties were reported.
Amidst Iran’s recent claim to have developed ‘the biggest missile-equipped drone’ and the ever-growing talk of US drone strikes in Pakistan, the latest missile attack in Balochistan has led many locals, including Omar, to believe it was a drone strike by Iran. “It was a drone attack. I’m sure about it,” Omar responded when asked about the rumours.
It’s highly unlikely it was a drone attack, but it didn’t violate Pakistan’s sovereignty any less than the drone attack that killed Hakeemullah Mehsud early in November. Therefore, Pakistan’s complete silence over these missile strikes can only be called curious.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @sajidbaluch