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Afghans Tricked by Qom Seminary into Spying for Iran

July 1, 2021
6 min read
Shia Muslims from all over the world flock to Iran's Qom seminary every year for pilgrimages and training
Shia Muslims from all over the world flock to Iran's Qom seminary every year for pilgrimages and training
But some Afghan nationals have been lured to Qom under false pretences, and subjected to recruitment attempts by Iran's intelligence agencies
But some Afghan nationals have been lured to Qom under false pretences, and subjected to recruitment attempts by Iran's intelligence agencies

Qom seminary’s practice of recruiting students from other countries and indoctrinating them in Iran has been common knowledge for years. Every year, scores of young people from countries all over the world, from Europe to Latin America, come to Iran’s holy city and to complete their Shiite theological training.

Less frequently-covered is the fact that some of those invited to Qom are instead subjected to recruitment attempts by the Islamic Republic’s spy agencies. This is the story of Hamidolah, an Afghan citizen who was sent to Qom seminary and has first-hand experience of this practice, as he recounted to IranWire’s citizen journalist.


Four years ago, Hamidolah was a scholar of religion at a Kabul seminary when he was invited to go to Iran to complete his studies. He made his way to Tehran and prepared to begin classes in Iran’s holy city of Qom, where thousands of Shiite pilgrims flock every year to visit the Fatima Masoumeh Shrine. He was unaware that there was no scholarship waiting for him, and there never had been.

Hamidolah is a pseudonym, which our subject has chosen out of concern for his safety given what he experienced in Iran. As a child, he was sent to a mosque near the family home to study the Quran and its teachings. He was a bright pupil, and the encouragement of a local clergyman prompted him to keep studying. Finally he traveled to a Kabul seminary for high-level training and was welcomed with open arms.

Promising Shiite scholars enjoyed all the available amenities at the Kabul seminary. Hamidolah was given a place to sleep, his living expenses were covered – up to a monthly allowance of 6,000 afghanis (US$75) – and he received three meals a day free of charge. “This money came from Iran,” he says, “and was distributed among the students every month.”

Hamidolah was told that some of the Kabul seminary’s lecturers had previously lived and studied in Iran. From time to time, Iranian clerics would also visit them in the Afghan capital and distribute large numbers of books and gifts. They also promised scholarships to the best and brightest to complete their studies in Iran. Eventually this came to include Hamidolah.

A Short Stop-Off – Then a Barrage of Recruitment Attempts

Initially Hamidolah was told to make his way to Tehran, rather than Qom, and to wait there for a short time. “We were told we would be there for a while because the seminary classes had not started yet, and that we would be transferred to Qom at the beginning of the school year.

“We were told that if we had relatives in Tehran we could live with them. So I went to my uncle's house. They told me they’d let me know whenever I was needed."

One month passed, and Hamidolah received no indication of a date for the start of term. He was given about $400 in living expenses to see him through – and in the meantime, he says, two members of Iran’s intelligence services visited him more than seven times.

The pair asked Hamidolah repeatedly about the overall situation of Shiites in Afghanistan. He was promised, mysteriously, that he would be able to work in Afghanistan after graduating from Qom seminary. At the third meeting, a third person also attended carrying a binder full of Hamidolah’s personal information.

“I wondered where all of this came from,” he said. “They knew the name of our village and the name of the clergyman I had studied with. They knew who all the influential people in our area were. It was as if they were my childhood friends, or my own family members. They read all this back to me and I simply nodded in shock.”

During this meeting, Hamidolah says, he was also given an impromptu lecture about fighting the “enemies of Islam”. "They encouraged me to study the religious sciences so as to carry out the task of propagating and strengthening Islam and the Shiite religion, as well as standing up to the enemies of Islam.

“I was told that in the Islamic world, Iran was the only powerful Shiite country, and the one that had done the most for the Shiites. They went on to say they wanted the Shiites of Afghanistan to ‘gain power’, and for the number of seminaries to grow. They even said they wanted Afghan religious ceremonies of Afghanistan to be held in Iran.”

The men were never clear on what they wanted from him. But on that date, they told him that after returning to Afghanistan, he should work under their supervision “to further the goals of the Islamic Republic”. For his part, Hamidolah decided not to tell them which political party he was a member of in Afghanistan.

A mere two days later, however, the two intelligence agents called Hamidolah at home and demanded to know why he had concealed his party membership. “They asked why I hadn’t mentioned this in my resume. I told them it was because I was only a member, and not active, because of my studies.”

Thrown Out of Iran for Afghan Party Membership

Hamidolah’s would-be handlers were not convinced. Eventually, after questioning him at length about the party’s views on the Islamic Republic, they told him they could not “employ” him. Up until that moment, Hamidolah was still under the impression he was going to study religion in Qom. When he asked why they were trying to hire him instead, the pair went silent.

Shortly after that, Hamidolah received yet another call and a summons to the agents’ office in Tehran. They handed him an envelope containing another $400 and told him it was for his return ticket to Afghanistan. His visa would not be extended, and he had 15 days to leave.

Bitterly disappointed, Hamidolah called one of his companions and discussed the matter at length. His fellow Afghan scholar had the same story to tell – they had been instructed to “cooperate” with the Islamic Republic and help implement its goals on returning to Kabul. The nature of this work had not been divulged to them either.

"I stayed at my cousin's house for a week and then returned to Afghanistan,” Hamidolah said. “When I got back, I realized that all along they had been planning to train me as a spy.”

Today, Hamidolah is settled in his country of birth and works for an Afghan government agency, having abandoned his religious studies. He has little else to say on the matter, except this: “The Islamic Republic has never been a good neighbor to Afghanistan.”

This article was written by a citizen journalist in Tehran under a pseudonym.

Related coverage:

Iran Buys Out Afghan Media and Entices Journalists to Spy on Officials

Fact Check: Do Afghan Children Enjoy Free Education in Iran?

An Afghan Child’s Tale of Beatings and Humiliation in Iran

Prominent Shia Afghan Accuses Iran of Exploiting His Countrymen

An Afghan’s Reward for Fighting for Iran in Syria: Unemployment and a Life in Secrecy



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