The United States has designated Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. The IRGC is a wing of the military and is currently the most powerful security organization in Iran.
“Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft,” US President Donald Trump said in a statement. “The IRGC is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign.”
The U.S. action includes the IRGC’s elite secretive Quds Force. Quds force has been subject to sanctions prior to this, including being designated as a terrorist entity under the U.S. Treasury Department, in October 2018. In a treasury announcement, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, composed of Afghan fighters recruited by IRGC, has been described as a terrorist support group.
Birth of Quds Force
Following an order by the Islamic Republic founding father Ayatollah Khomeini, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (سپاه پاسداران انقلاب اسلامی, Sepâh-e Pâsdârân-e Enghelâb-e Eslâmi) was created 40 years ago as the guardian of the Islamic Revolution.
Although the main role of the IRGC is providing national security, it has expanded its activities in the last four decades since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
The IRGC is now a major military and economic power inside Iran. Dozens of organizations, entities and companies are active under the control of the IRGC. One of the most controversial entities is the Quds Force (سپاه قدس, sepāh-e qods).
The Quds Force was established during the Iran-Iraq war (1980s) to carry out secret operations inside Iraq. It is now considered as one of the most powerful security entities in the Middle East, being accused of terrorist attacks through proxies and militia groups in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America and North America.
The Quds Force controls and/or supports several militia groups outside Iran, including Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) in Iraq, Ansar Allah (Houthi forces in Yemen), Difaa al-Watani (National Defense Forces) in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami (Islamic Jihadi Movement) in Palestine. It has also founded two other militia groups that fight in Syria: Liwa Fatemiyoun, an army of Afghan fighters, and Liwa Zainabiyoun, a militia of Pakistani fighters.
Who are Fatemiyoun?
The Fatemiyoun Brigade primarily consists of Shia ethnic Hazara residents in Iran. The Hazaras are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, who suffered severe oppression by the predominantly ethnic Pashtun and Sunni Taliban. Fatemiyoun was founded in the early 1980s.
“The history goes back a long time. It starts from the very first days of the revolution in Iran, when the IRGC office liberation organization started. They were recruiting Afghans into the Abuzar Brigade. Also know as Abuzar Division, these Afghans fought for Iranian side in Iran – Iraq war and then later were sent back to Afghanistan to fight the socialist government and the associated Soviet occupation”, Nader Uskowi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic council told Zamaneh. “These were the same Abuzar who fought in the Iran- Iraq war on the side of the Iranians,” Uskowi added.
Fatemiyoun fought in the Iran-Iraq war and the Afghan civil war and in recent years, they have become part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary force in Syria.
Recruitment, Training and Salary
In 1979, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Afghan refugees started to flee into neighboring countries. This has continued for the next four decades of conflict and resulted in a massive displacement of Afghans into the region, including 3 million refugees in Iran. Fatemiyoun fighters were recruited from this group, with differing accounts of their factual numbers.
It has been estimated that up to 20,000 Afghan fighters have been recruited, but more realistic numbers are closer to 14,000 fighters, as Uskowi explains:
“At the height of the Fatemiyoun involvement in the civil war in Syria, the Quds Force recruited some 14,000 Fatemiyoun. Following their recruitment, they were trained by the Quds force in 9 different camps inside Iran. The elite were selected within the boot camps to go to advance training and receive monthly salary.”
After joining, Afghan recruits typically received between two and four weeks of basic training in the camps which are reportedly located in Tehran, Shiraz and Yazd.
In January 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that the fighters were paid a monthly salary of $450-$800.
Fatemiyoun in Syria
The Quds Force deployed the Fatemiyoun Brigade to Syria to fight alongside pro-Assad forces against the Sunni opposition in 2014. They participated in heavy combats in Aleppo, Daraa, and Palmyra.
“This is a real fighting brigade, that have fought major battles inside Syria. They have lost approximately 2000 people during the Syrian civil war,” Nader Uskowi tells Zamaneh.
“They fought in major battles in Syria including Aleppo which was the biggest where Fatemiyoun were involved in Syria,” according to Uskowi.
The senior fellow at the Atlantic council believes that Fatemiyoun have been a very effective fighting force in Syria. He quotes Iranian Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Falaki, who led Fatemiyoun forces in Syria. According to Falaki, Fatemiyoun had a leading role in some of the toughest battles in Syria:
“We in Iran have sometimes looked at [Afghans] as drug-dealing criminals, trouble-makers, or construction workers. … Their blood has proven to us that there are 2.5 million Afghans in [Iran] and we must have a positive view towards them.”
As Uskowi explains, “these 14,000 Fatemiyoun are very committed to the cause of the Shia revival. They are not going to let go. They are not going to go back home. This represents that major leverage that Iran has over the future political and military situation inside Afghanistan.”
He also believes that keeping the Fatemiyoun Brigade in existence is a strategic move by the IRGC and by its Quds Force (effectively the extraterritorial branch of IRGC).
“The Fatemiyoun see themselves as a part of so-called Shia liberation army under the leadership of the Quds Force”, Uskowi says.
Future for Fatemiyoun
Iran has cultural, religious, political and economic influence in its neighboring Afghanistan. This is especially the case for Afghanistan’s Western regions.
Iran has always sought soft power in Afghanistan. Tehran has a complicated but stable relationship with Kabul, while Kabul itself is backed by Washington.
The Afghan government has outlawed the Fatemiyoun, but some reports suggest that some of the fighters have returned to Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, a senior official in Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry told Associated Press that “roughly 10,000” fighters of Fatemiyoun have returned to the country:
“I am not saying that Iran is going to start a major push inside Afghanistan through the Fatemiyoun in the short term. This is unlikely whilst the US troops are there. However as soon as the US troops leave Afghanistan, I think that the plan will be to take the Fatemiyoun into Afghanistan where they will become another PMF. PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) is the Iraqi version of the Fatemiyoun.”
Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) is an Iraqi umbrella organization composed of several militia groups. Most of these militia are Shia, but it also includes Sunni, Christian and Yazidi fighters. The Shia fighters are divided into three groups along different religious alliances; alliances that are with: Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader; Grand Ayatollah Sistani, an Iraqi influential Shia leader; and Muqtada Sadr, a young Iraqi cleric and militia leader from Sadr city of Najaf.
Hashd al-Shaabi was formed in 2014 and since then it has played a prominent role in the political climate and security of Iraq.
For Fatemiyoun fighters, the situation is somewhat more complicated, since on their return home they face threats from several sides. They might be arrested by the Afghan government or they might be a target of retaliation from Sunni rivals and even Islamic State militias.
IRGC could potentially mobilize the Fatemiyoun fighters inside Afghanistan in the future. But what could be other possible plans for these fighters?
According to Nader Uskowi,there are three potential pathways in front of the fighters: remaining in Syria, returning to Afghanistan, or living in Iran.
“Those who remain in Syria are being given citizenship by the Syrian government. This means that they will be considered as a part of the Syrian armed forces and part of the Syrian militia, the NDF (national defense force)”
He further explained that those remaining in Syria usually bring their wives and children from Iran to live there as permanent residents and Syrian citizens:
“Those will be a part of the Iranian force in Syria and their main immediate goal is to keep the direct line between Iran and Syria open. This has been called the ‘land bridge’ and it provides leverage for Iran in the development of Syria conflict after the conflict is over.”
Some of the Fatemiyoun will return to Afghanistan.
“Among them are likely to be the agents of Iran who would then infiltrate in different parts of the government. They are doing a great job of developing the soft power of Iran in Afghanistan”, Uskowi said.
Soft power refers to non-coercive tactics and strategies of influence in other countries, especially through economic, cultural and political means. Iran and Afghanistan share many common points in terms of culture.
But not all of the Fatemiyoun fighters will be returning home, Uskowi believes, and some will stay in Iran: “Some Fatemiyoun will remain in Iran in the camps where they are undergoing readiness training to be prepared for the next battle that could occur inside Afghanistan.”