Public reporting and information provided to the Clarion Project by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group, shows that the Iranian regime is exploiting the Afghans it mistreats by recruiting them to fight in Syria.
Around 3 million Afghans live in Iran as second-class citizens, refugees from their war-town homeland who have not been accepted into their new country. One recruit for the war in Syria explained that the regime denies residency and identity documents to Afghans, making it nearly impossible to find jobs or go to school. They can be arrested and/or deported at any moment. They can’t even get SIM cards or bank accounts in their own names.
A rare protest happened last month after a six-year old Afghan girl who went out for ice cream in a suburb of Tehran was murdered. In true Islamist fashion, one regime outlet said the root cause of the attack was online pornography, using the atrocity to justify its theocratic rule and attribute it to sins for which it blames the West.
In a Human Rights Watch poll of 100 Afghans, about one-third said they have been physically abused in Iran.
The situation is so bad for the Afghans in Iran that some cross back into Afghanistan, preferring a battlefield to the Islamic Republic’s tyranny. One woman left Iran in 2003, well-aware of the robust Taliban insurgency that is especially harsh to women. She said it was worth the risk.
The recruitment and deploying of Afghans from Iran to the war in Syria started in 2012 when the Syrian regime was suffering a manpower shortage, a potentially fatal problem if it weren’t for Iran (and later, Russia) stepping in. The Iranian regime’s security personnel, however, are preoccupied fighting proxy wars in places like Iraq and Yemen and preventing the Iranian people from acting upon their dissatisfaction. Iraqi Shiites, Pakistani Shiites and desperate Afghan-Iranians filled the gap.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which is responsible for exposing secret nuclear sites in Iran and has a network of sources inside the country, tells the Clarion Project that the recruiting drive is centered in the Khorasan Province in northeastern Iran, specifically in the city of Mashhad, a location that is known to be frequented by terrorists in transit to battlefields.
Mosques and other centers in or near Afghan neighborhoods are used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to identify potential recruits and offer them legal residency and a salary of 75 million rials per month (equivalent to about $2,500) in exchange for fighting in Syria for two to three months. Some agree for as little as $500 per month. The top targets are Afghan youth without jobs who are not well-known throughout the community.
The Revolutionary Guards provide financial incentives and even a car and home. In addition to bribing Afghans, the regime also arrests Afghans in the country illegally near the border and offers to release them and provide compensation if they agree to go to Syria.
One recruit, who now lives in Germany, says he was recruited at a mosque by Afghans with links to the Revolutionary Guards. He was encouraged to go protect Shiite holy sites in Syria and was told he would “have an easy life afterwards” (that he’d be treated as an equal citizen in Iran). The Guards, he said, have an Afghan-only unit named the Fatemioun Brigade that he joined. The training was inadequate and secret.
According to the NCRI, training was moved in late 2015 to Salehabad in the city of Torbat-e Jam County and the city of Taybad in Taybad County, both in Khorasan Province. It is overseen by the Revolutionary Guard’s 5th Nasr Division under the guise of training for border security. Instruction also takes place in the city of Varamin in Varamin County, Tehran Province.
The Afghans are deployed to the bloodiest areas of Syria, which essentially means they are being used as cannon fodder. They are often inadequately trained for the harsh warfare they are thrown into. The BBC reports that up to 10,000 Afghans may have been recruited for the war in Syria by the Revolutionary Guards.
The NCRI source told Clarion that Afghans are currently fighting for the Iranian and Syrian regimes in Aleppo and Tadmir. The regime also hires some to serve in the security forces that oversee the Afghan-populated areas.
On May 8, it was reported that 15 Afghans were killed in fighting in Halab, Syria.
An important question is whether most of these Afghans were already Islamist and just needed some incentive to act upon their beliefs. The involvement in the radical Shiite jihad is likely to aggravate these feelings and radicalize some of those who went purely for the chance of a better life in Iran.
The convergence of Sunni jihadists in Syria gets a lot of attention, with analysts drawing parallels to what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But there is also a convergence of Shiite jihadists in Syria.
We know what has resulted from the Sunni jihadist convergences. What will happen with the Shiite jihadist convergence?
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.