IRGC-led Afghan, Pakistani militias criticize US terror designation, stop short of direct threats

US Treasury on January 24 designated the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division and the Pakistani Zeynabiyoun Brigade, which are led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), pursuant to counter-terrorism and human-rights-abuses designations. Treasury also designated a commercial airline that ferries weapons to Syria. Criticizing the US, the Shiite-Islamist militias emphasized that they are part of the IRGC-led transnational militant network, pledged to keep fighting, but stopped short of directly threatening the US.

On January 26, IRGC-linked news agencies circulated the reaction of the Fatemiyoun Division, followed by the Zeynabiyoun Brigade four days later. Rejecting the terrorism charge, the Fatemiyoun accused the US of supporting “terrorist” groups including the Islamic State, and vowed to continue its fight until uprooting “terrorism” and the “destruction” of Israel. The Zeynabiyoun promised that the terror designation would “strengthen the unity of the Islamic front.”

The Fatemiyoun Division statement said that “the children of Fatemiyoun…decided to migrate to save humanity, sacrificed their lives, property and family, left to another geography to uproot terrorism, and have sealed great achievements.”

“Today, America has no path other than taking revenge against the Resistance movement [state and non-state actors led by Tehran] after the disastrous defeat of the DAESH [Islamic State] terrorist group and other takfiri movements in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and other regional countries,” the militia stated.

“America’s sanctions show how angry Washington is about the fight against DAESH and other terrorist groups,” the Fatemiyoun statement declared, “America’s sanctions will make the Fatemiyoun more determined in the path of fighting terrorism and takfir.”

“America’s sanctions mark another golden page and point of pride in the history of the Fatemiyoun, and once again showed the righteousness of the Afghan sons of [Islamic Republic founder Ruhollah] Khomeini the Great in fighting terrorism, agents of Global Arrogance [West],” the statement read, “the fight will continue until destruction of Quds-occupying regime [Israel] and uprooting takfir and terrorism … under the command of the jurisconsult [referring to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei] of the time and without attention to geography.”

The Zeynabiyoun Brigade calls its militiamen “inheritors of the red school of Hossein,” referring to the third Shiite Imam Hossein, and “Shiite Pakistani youth” who “obey the guardianship of the jurisconsult, and are inspired by Imam Khomeini’s great spirit, and martyr Arif Hosseini’s allegiance to the jurisconsult.” Husayni was a follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who preached Khomeini’s brand of Islamic revolution in Pakistan, and was assassinated in 1988. The statement also praised the “steadfastness” of Pakistan’s founder Mohamad-Ali Jinnah and the “mysticism” of poet Mohamad Iqbal.

Addressing the US, the militia said, “you have certainly heard the method of combat and good fighting of the Zeynabiyun Division in defending the shrines of the Household of the Prophet, so know that fear and threat have no meaning in the combatant culture of Islam.” The Zeynabiyun vowed that “America’s mischievous decisions” will “strengthen the unity of the Islamic front, and will make the sacrificing soldiers of Imam Khamenei (may his long shadow remain) more ready to defend Islam and Islamic values.”

The IRGC has also recruited and deployed Indians to combat, according to IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami in 2017.  Due to the fact that a distinct unit has not yet been formally announced, this may indicate a small number of active fighters.

The Fatemiyoun Division and Zeynabiyoun Brigade statements did not directly threaten the US. In 2017, when the US was mulling the designation of the IRGC in its entirety for terrorism, senior IRGC commanders threatened US presence in the region. As far as we know from an open source, the US and the IRGC have not fought each other, though the US has exerted significant economic pressure on the Islamic Republic. The US has taken a series of financial actions against the IRGC, including Qods Force counterfeit cash operation and currency exchange network, and a network supporting the IRGC Organization for the Mobilization of the Oppressed, also known as the Basij paramilitary. Further US actions against the Afghan and Pakistani militias remain to be seen.  

The Fatemiyoun Division and Zeynabiyoun Brigade trace their roots to earlier Iranian-backed networks. Formally announcing formations in 2013 and 2014, the groups directly tie their legitimacy to defending Shiite shrines in Syria. Most militia members are from the Afghan and Pakistani diasporas in Iran. Recruitment is a mix of coercion, offers of cash, promises of Iranian residency for families, and ideological and religious beliefs. Commanders have been handpicked from the militias, and Iranians have directly led the units as well. Many of the founding members of the Fatemiyoun Division have been veterans of IRGC contingents of the Abuzar Brigade during the Iran-Iraq War and the Mohammad Corps during the Soviet Afghan War in the 1980’s. The latter fought against the Taliban in the 1990’s, and fled to Iran following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Less active in the public sphere, the Zeynabiyoun Brigade credits Aref Husayni as its “spiritual father.” A militia member has acknowledged ties with the Qods Force dating to around 2001.

After the IRGC declared “victory” against the Islamic State in November 2017, both groups vowed to fight anywhere the IRGC ordered them to. The Fatemiyoun Division also said it would shift its focus to “cultural” activities, which have included martyr-commemoration ceremonies and “education” camps. The militia continues to publicize the presence of its forces in Syria including training camps and religious activities.

A Fatemiyoun Division infographic criticizing the “absurd” US terror designation.
A Fatemiyoun Division infographic vowing to “turn the White House into a Hoseyniyeh,” a Shiite mourning hall, though the photo in the background is the US Capitol building.
Zeynabiyoun Brigade statement in reaction to the US terror designation.

Amir Toumaj is a independent analyst and contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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