Iran has arrested its most wanted fugitive, a Sunni rebel leader linked to a number of high-profile attacks and alleged to have Western backing, in what Tehran on Tuesday called “a great defeat for the US and UK.”
Abdolmalek Rigi, militant leader of the Jundallah (Soldiers of God) which had claimed a series of attacks against civilians and soldiers in Iran’s southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province from bases in Pakistan, was shown by Iranian state TV being led off a small plane by masked police.
Iran’s Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi claimed that Rigi had been on a US military base in Afghanistan less than 24 hours before the plane he was traveling on was forced to land in Iran during a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan.
“Our anonymous soldiers were able to manage his whereabouts and they followed him everywhere he went, and through this he was arrested,” Mr. Moslehi said in Tehran. He showed a photograph of Rigi – with his usual beard shaved off – which he claimed was taken at a US base.
Moslehi also alleged that Americans had provided Rigi with an Afghan passport, that the Sunni militant had visited Europe, and that he had met with a senior NATO military official in Afghanistan in April 2008.
“We have clear documents proving that Rigi was in cooperation with American, Israeli, and British intelligence services,” Moslehi said, according to Iran’s state-run English-language PressTV. Iranian media further quoted him saying: “Dubai has a smeared hand in this scandal that shows the Zionist regime wants to turn the region into a safe haven for terrorists with the help of America and Europe."
One US official dismissed the claim that Rigi had been on a US military base in Afghanistan as a “totally bogus accusation,” reported Agence France-Presse. Iran in the past has also claimed that Jundallah was linked with Al Qaeda. Iranian officials on Tuesday stated that Rigi's "right-hand man" was also arrested in the apparent covert operation.
Rigi’s capture is a coup for authorities in Tehran, who have accused the US and the West of backing rebellious minority factions such as Rigi’s Jundallah – which has called for greater rights for Sunni ethnic Baluchis in majority Shiite Iran – the Kurdish PJAK operating from Iraq in northwest Iran, and Arabs in the south.
Such groups and alleged US, British, and other intelligence and military support for them have been the subject of speculation for years, as Washington spoke openly about conducting “regime change” in Iran during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Several news reports have described CIA and other backing for Jundallah, which often operated from Pakistan. ABC News reported in April 2007 that Jundallah “has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005,” based on US and Pakistani intelligence sources.
“US officials say the US relationship with Jundallah is arranged so that the US provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order,” according to ABC. It quoted “tribal sources” saying that “money for Jundallah is funneled to its youthful leader [Rigi] through Iranian exiles who have connections with European and Gulf states.”
Rigi’s brother, Abdolhamid Rigi, already in Iranian custody and facing execution, was interviewed by Al Jazeera-English late last year: “In 2004, an American general came to meet Malek in Islamabad. The American general told him to expand the operations beyond the Sistan-Baluchistan border, even to Tehran. Then Malek told the general, 'if you give me enough money and equipment, then we can do these operations.' ”
Months earlier, in August, the brother was put before the media. “The United States created and supported Jundallah, and we received orders from them,” Abdolhamid Rigi said.
Jundallah has claimed a number of high-profile attacks, including a suicide bombing in October 2009 that killed 42 people, among them seven senior officers of the Revolutionary Guards and top tribal leaders gathering for a meeting in the east of the country.
An attack on a mosque in the town of Zahedan on the border with Afghanistan in May 2009 – just a month before presidential elections in Iran – left more than 20 dead. A February 2007 attack killed 11 Revolutionary Guard soldiers riding a bus near Zahedan. In March 2006, militants posing as police killed 22, many of them government employees.
In each case, Iranian officials blamed foreign hands but produced little evidence; Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari demanded after the October attack that Pakistan hand over Rigi, saying that Iran had “proof” of support from Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency.
“The arrest has returned complete security to the region, and this province will follow the path of progress rapidly,” said the provincial governor of Sistan-Baluchistan, Mohammad Azad, according to the official IRNA news agency.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday that Iran would “cut off the hands” of any nation that attacked it. “No power can harm Iran,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech in the eastern town of Birjand. “The Iranian nation will chop off the hands from the arm of any attacker from any part of the world.”