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Tens of Thousands of Shiites Worldwide Join Iran’s Foreign Legion

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Earlier this month, the Asia Times reported that “the [Indian] organisation Anjuman-e-Haideri, led by Shi’ite cleric Maulana Kalbe Jawad, has launched a campaign to recruit volunteers willing to travel to Iraq to defend the Shi’ite shrines in Karbala and Najaf.”

Up to 25,000 Indian Shi’ites have already answered the call. Their leader, Kalbe Jawad, a radical cleric notorious for his anti-Western activities, is described in a leaked American embassy cable from 2006 as a “principal agent” of the Iranian regime, which allegedly pays him “approximately $4,000 per month” for his services.

By contrast to this veritable Shi’ite army, Indian authorities are aware of just 18 of their citizens fighting alongside Iraq’s Sunni jihadists. Intelligence sources told the Times of India that, unlike their Shi’ite counterparts, these Indian Sunnis “didn’t come from any extremist group … but were individually radicalised.”

This follows the precedent set in Syria, where, Aaron Y. Zelin of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation observes, “the Sunni jihadists are coming in through informal networks,” whereas Shi’ite jihadists “are directed through Iran’s state-sponsored apparatuses.”

India is not the only country for whom this is a problem. On May 22, the Wall Street Journal revealed that “Iran has been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria,” while intelligence agencies have noted the presence of Shi’ite jihadists from as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia and the Ivory Coast. On the Syrian battlefield, they supplement the ranks of a predominantly Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian-Lebanese force led by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.

Meanwhile in Britain, a Shi’ite Londoner told the Guardian, “there are a lot of youth talking about [going out to Iraq] … A lot of people [in the UK] are willing to defend Karbala. And to be honest with you, if my son was of a much older age and he turned around to me and said, ‘Look, I want to go and fight,’ I’d send him on his way.” As sectarian conflict metastasises from Syria to Iraq – where many of the most sacred Shi’ite shrines are located – the phenomenon of Shi’ites leaving their native lands to take up arms in those countries may well spread from the Asian and African continents to the Western world.

A great deal has been written in recent months – and particularly in the past few weeks – about the diverse ethnic composition of the Sunni jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the national security threat posed by its foreign fighters as they return to their respective countries of origin. Although that threat is serious – as the May 24 terrorist attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium clearly demonstrates – the Iranian regime’s equally diverse de facto foreign legion arguably constitutes an even greater danger, by virtue of its superior organisation and centralised leadership.

“In our assessment,” writes the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, “the involvement of Shi’ite foreign fighters in Syria … is liable to create for the Iranians … ready-made networks of trained, battle-experienced fighters that can be leveraged by Iran for its terrorism and subversive activities.” Indeed, many of these war-hardened militants are already being redeployed to Iraq, thereby exhibiting Tehran’s ability to mobilise its foreign legion whenever and wherever its interests are jeopardised.

If the “lone wolf” terrorism of veteran ISIS fighters is cause for alarm, consider the regional – if not global – reach of Iran’s state-sponsored multinational guerrilla force. Victory for the Iranian regime in Iraq and Syria would free up its foreign legion for a protracted anti-Western offensive against which the Sunni jihad would pale in comparison. As if to underline that point, a June 23 editorial in Iran’s regime-controlled Kayhan newspaper boasted that “Iran is the main threat to Israel, not al-Qaeda. Unlike al-Qaeda, Iran is a stable power and a threat to Israel’s existence.”

Tehran, therefore, must not be allowed to prevail in Iraq or Syria, not least because the regime perceives these conflicts as an extension of its perennial war with the West. “Today’s war in Syria,” explains the Revolutionary Guards’ Colonel Mohammad Eskandari, “is really our war with America.” If the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad survive and suppress the popular uprisings against them, Iran’s anti-Western crusade will only press onward to new fronts – and its burgeoning foreign legion is likely to follow.

For more information see our factsheet on Iranian Regional Hegemony.

Jacob Campbell is a senior fellow of the Humanitarian Intervention Centre, head of research at Stand for Peace, and co-chairman of the Ashraf Campaign (ASHCAM)

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David Harris

David Harris is the editor in chief of Clarion Project.