- Iranian media have reported the execution of alleged members of a Salafist insurgent group called Tawhid and Jihad.
- The group's alleged leader, Kaveh Sharifi, gave a televised confession which he said was forced.
- Sunni extremism in Iran's border regions is said to have originated either from foreign Islamic fighters who crossed Iran to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979, or from the presence of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who sought refuge in Iran in 2001 or 2002, and went on to found Al Qaeda in Iraq.
On Tuesday, August 2, Iranian media carried reports that Iran had executed at least 10 Sunni insurgents the day before. One news agency put the number at “dozens.” On August 3, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry implicitly confirmed the news through a statement that listed the prisoners’ crimes and terrorist acts. But it stopped short of naming the people executed. According to the statements, the prisoners were members of the militant Salafist group Tawhid and Jihad, which was formed in 2008 in Sanandaj, the capital of the Iranian province of Kurdistan. “Tawhid” refers to the principle of monotheism in Islam, while “jihad” refers to holy war. Salafism is an ultra-conservative Sunni Islamic movement with both militant and non-militant strains. Tawhid and Jihad became known as the Abu-Bakr Group after the nom de guerre of one of its leaders, Kaveh Sharifi, who is assumed to be one of the men executed.
Among other charges, Iran accused Sharifi of assassinating Mamosta Burhan Ali, a Sunni Friday Prayers leader in Sanandaj. Burhan Ali was killed in 2009 after repeatedly condemning radical Islamic groups and Salafists.
In 2013, via a voice recording (in Persian) from prison, Sharifi denied the charges against him, including the killing of Burhan Ali. He had been forced to confess. In the recording, he said that six other prisoners had already been executed on the same charges and that the Iranian government planned to execute others, including someone named Jamshid Dehghani, for participating in the assassination. He added that by the time of his recording, the Iranian government had killed or executed 21 people.
The Iranian Intelligence Ministry announced in early 2011 that it had succeeded in destroying Tawhid and Jihad. It also said that 102 members of the group had been identified and that some of those had been killed in armed clashes, while the rest had been sentenced to prison or death. On April 23, 2011, Iraj Hasan-Zadeh, deputy to Iranian Kurdistan’s governor, reported that the group had planned to plant bombs at a site to be visited by then-President Ahmadinejad.
In its statement, the Intelligence Ministry claimed that the accused were “deceived” by Salafist beliefs coming from “west of Iran,” meaning Iraq. The name “Tawhid and Jihad” was first associated with a group founded in Iraq in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group later morphed into Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of the present day Islamic State, or ISIS. After al-Zarqawi was killed by a US airstrike on June 7, 2006, the name disappeared from the news.
A “Zionist Plot” and Televised Confessions
On June 24, 2014, the Iranian Basij News Agency, the mouthpiece of the Basij paramilitary group, quoted an Algerian newspaper that claimed that Tawhid and Jihad was the brainchild of the “Zionist spy” Bernard-Henri Lévy. Lévy is a prominent French philosopher who has criticized what he regards as the demonization of Israel by other intellectuals.
The Intelligence Ministry’s statement comes close to painting Tawhid and Jihad as Iran’s ISIS. Iranian security agencies have also put together a video (in Persian) in which members of the group talk about how they had been inspired by ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, a group fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In their confessions broadcast on Iranian TV, the arrested members of the group said that a five-man council ran Tawhid and Jihad. According to a report by Radio Zamaneh published on January 12, 2014, the group has its roots in Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni Kurdish insurgent group in Iraq, which was founded in 2001 and based on the Salafist ideology. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, some moved to Iran and continued their activities in Iranian Kurdistan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi himself spent time in Iran in late 2001 or early 2002 and received medical treatment there after he was wounded defending the Taliban regime. Zarqawi stayed in Iran for around nine months, during which he is said to have met Kurdish Salafists. At the time, the Islamic Republic was hoping to make an ally of Ansar al-Islam, which was fighting American-led forces. It seems the group’s Salafist ideology this did not happen.
According to some analysts, it was the pan-Islamic fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 that opened the way for Salafists to infiltrate Iranian Kurdistan. The Islamic Republic allowed the Salafist groups to cross Iran to fight in Afghanistan, and some of them returned to Iran after the war.
According to Radio Zamaneh’s report, Iranian security agencies were aware of their presence but left them alone. Iran even allowed them to organize mass prayer sessions in important cities of Iranian Kurdistan like Sanandaj, Marivan and Bukan. From 2003 to 2005, the Salafists’ main targets were the officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Iran did not find that contrary to its own interests. Eventually, however, Iranian officials in Kurdistan convinced the central government to get rid of the Salafist groups. Some of the Salafists left for Afghanistan, while others were imprisoned.
Events since 2001 show that Iranian security agencies often try to use extremist and militant groups as tools to serve their own interests. But more often than not, these groups refuse to work as puppets and turn against their would-be masters.