Thousands of Shiite Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan are being recruited by Iran to fight with President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria, lured by promises of housing, a monthly salary of up to USD 600 and the possibility of employment in Iran when they return, say counterterrorism officials and analysts.
These fighters, who have received public praise from Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even have their own brigades, but counterterrorism officials in both countries worry about the mayhem they might cause when they return home to countries already wrestling with a major militant problem.
Amir Toumaj, Iran research analyst at the US-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the number of fighters is fluid but as many as 6,000 Afghans are fighting for Assad, while the number of Pakistanis, who fight under the banner of the Zainabayoun Brigade, is in the hundreds.
In Afghanistan, stepped-up attacks on minority Shiites claimed by the upstart Islamic State group affiliate known as Islamic State in the Khorasan Province could be payback against Afghan Shiites in Syria fighting under the banner of the Fatimayoun Brigade, Toumaj said. Khorasan is an ancient name for an area that included parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
"People were expecting blowback," said Toumaj. IS "itself has its own strategy to inflame sectarian strife."
Shiites in Afghanistan are frightened. Worshippers at a recent Friday prayer service said Shiite mosques in the Afghan capital, including the largest, Ibrahim Khalil mosque, were barely a third full. Previously on Fridays, the Islamic holy day, the faithful were so many that the overflow often spilled out on the street outside the mosque.
Mohammed Naim, a Shiite restaurant owner in Kabul issued a plea to Iran: "Please don't send the poor Afghan Shia refugees to fight in Syria because then Daesh attacks directly on Shias," he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Pakistan has also been targeted by the IS in Khorasan province. IS has claimed several brutal attacks on the country's Shiite community, sending suicide bombers to shrines they frequent, killing scores of devotees.
In Pakistan, sectarian rivalries routinely erupt in violence. The usual targets are the country's minority Shiites, making them willing recruits, said Toumaj. The most fertile recruitment ground for Iran has been Parachinar, the regional capital of the Khurram tribal region, that borders Afghanistan, he said. There, Shiites have been targeted by suicide bombings carried out by Sunni militants, who revile Shiites as heretics.
In June, two suicide bombings in rapid succession killed nearly 70 people prompting nationwide demonstrations, with protesters carrying banners shouting: "Stop the genocide of Shiites.
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