Federal counterterrorism authorities in Pakistan have banned a local charity that is suspected of luring recruits to battle alongside Iranian-backed fighters supporting government forces in Syria’s civil war.
The ban on Ansar ul-Hussain, reported by Pakistani media last week, took effect on December 30, according to the website of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), which monitors terrorist organizations in the country. The ban makes it illegal for the group to operate in Pakistan.
Abdul Qayyum, chairman of the Senate Defense Committee and leading member of the ruling Muslim League party, told VOA that following the ban, Pakistan is further pursuing whether “any other network is involved in recruiting people for Syria within Pakistan.”
Little publicized in Pakistan, Ansar ul-Hussain, which bills itself as a Shi'ite humanitarian organization, has quietly been luring and sending Shi’ite youths from several northwestern areas in Pakistan to Iran, where they are trained to fight and then sent to Syria, according to media reports and local intelligence officials.
Ansar ul-Hussain has been skilled at avoiding surveillance, but Pakistani authorities say they were able to detect its recruiting activities.
“We have a very effective system of tracing and eliminating terrorism within the country,” said Qayyum, a retired lieutenant general. “That’s the reason we were able to catch and ban Ansar-ul-Hussain.”
Islamabad's counterterrorism measures have been widely criticized by many Pakistani politicians and U.S. lawmakers for being largely ineffective. As militant groups continue to flourish in Pakistan, the government faces threats of increasing diplomatic isolation from some U.S. lawmakers over its inability to curb homegrown militancy and the threat it poses to its neighbors.
Pakistani media reported last year that more than 1,000 Pakistanis are fighting in Syria alongside Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The recruited Pakistanis are reported deployed in the Zaynabiyoun Brigade in Syria, comprising Pakistani fighters recruited from inside and outside Pakistan, including Pakistani students in Iran, analysts told VOA.
“There are a number of Pakistani Shi’a who are in Iran,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who focuses on Iran’s role in the Syrian war. “At times, they are there for religious learning, and these types are more easily recruited due to the Islamic Republic's mixing of ideology and religion.”
Tehran says its forces are in Syria to protect the Zeinab Shrine in Damascus, a Shi'ite holy site. But since 2011, Iran has been a major backer of the Syrian regime in its war with rebel groups across the country, at first sending advisers, then forces from the IRGC -- expanding far beyond the shrine area.
The Pakistani fighters’ presence is known inside Syria, according to watchdog groups. Pakistani fighters have been spotted with pro-Iranian militias, including Iran’s proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah.
“The primary role of the Pakistani militia is to fight in areas around Damascus,” Ahmed Khaddour, a media activist from eastern Damascus, told VOA, talking of where pro-Iranian forces are prevalent.
Pakistani recruits for the Syria fight are often lured to Iran by social media, Smyth said.
“This has been done on Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “It often involves posting phone numbers where potential recruits could call in and state their abilities and see if they were applicable to be recruited.”
Pakistani recruits are promised financial incentives and Iranian citizenship, analysts say. The IRGC organized a rally in Tehran last summer to honor fallen Pakistani fighters in Syria.
“We have thousands of fighters in the brigade … fighting on the frontlines,” Abu Talib Musawi, a Pakistani fighter in Syria, told the Tehran-based conservative Panjera magazine. VOA could not independently verify his account.
A Facebook page bearing Ansar ul-Hussain name lambasted the Pakistani government’s decision to ban the organization. The page pledges allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“We are proud that you are our leader,” the Facebook post reads.
Noor Zahid and Madeeha Anwar wrote this for VOA. Mehdi Jedinia and Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report from Washington.