Category Archives: Afghans Abroad

Who speaks for the Fatemiyoun?

BBC Persian made a splash when it reported last week that about 2,000 Afghans had died in Syria fighting on behalf of Assad as part of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a proxy militia organized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The number, an outdated figure whose accuracy we might discuss in a different blog post, was attributed to a Fatemiyoun “cultural official,” a man named Sayed Zuhair Mujahed.

Who is this Mujahed? Is he really a Fatemiyoun “official”?

The short answer is that he appears to be too outspoken to hold a formal post with the tightly run Fatemiyoun ship, though he has served with the outfit in Syria and still maintains an association with it, which allows him to speak informally for the group and its fighters.

In Fatemiyoun parlance, “cultural” activities include three broad functions:

  • Public relations for the group: Includes public statements, producing propaganda films and songs, documenting the war in photos and video, etc.;
  • Services for active-duty fighters: Includes organizing religious events at regional bases in Syria, organizing tours for singers of religious songs to the frontline, managing commemoration ceremonies of Shiite imams, etc.; and
  • Services for dead and out-of-commission fighters: Includes managing burial ceremonies for fighters, holding anniversaries for dead commanders and events for fighters’ families.

The current cultural deputy for Fatemiyoun is an Iranian cleric called Hojjat Ganabadinezhad, a cleric who is a key member of Astan-e Qods-e Razavi, the powerful charitable trust headed by Ibrahim Raisi, the hardline cleric and politician who is a member of the Assembly of Experts and ran against Rouhani in the 2017 elections. The trust manages the Imam Reza shrine, Iran’s most revered Shia holy site.

Sayed Zuhair Mujahed, on the other hand, is a 34-year-old Iran-born junior cleric of Afghan heritage who served in the Fatemiyoun in Syria, most likely in a cultural role. Although he was born, raised and educated in Iran, the Iranian media still refers to him as an Afghan. And Mujahed has embraced this role, carving his niche as a pro-Afghan, pro-Fatemiyoun spokesperson and advocate in Iranian media.

Sayed Zuhair Mujahed's selfie in Tehran

Sayed Zuhair Mujahed takes a selfie in Tehran

Mujahed refers to himself as a “preacher” and is still a student at a seminary in Mashhad, where he also speaks to the media on Fatemiyoun and Afghan issues.

Mujahed has complained about the mistreatment of Afghans in Iran and how Fatemiyoun veterans and their families are sometimes not given their due. In December 2017, he appeared on a live show alongside Nader Talebzadeh, a TV personality and conservative activist, to criticize Iranian conservatives and conservative media for not doing enough to recognize the sacrifices of Fatemiyoun fighters. In a Facebook post, he recalls the producer reprimanding him for his remarks.

In another social media post, he criticizes Iran’s censorship of books after seeing differences between Afghan and Iranian translations of Zalmay Khalilzad’s book, The Envoy:

I’m reading a PDF translation of the book by [Afghan journalist] Harun Najafizada. Today, I went to a bookstall in Mashhad to buy the book [in hard copy] and only found the translation by Mustafa Ahmadi, which had been corrected. I felt very sorry after reading the two translations. In today’s open world, why are some [quarters] hesitant even about quoting a writer?

There are numerous other instances where his interviews and social media posts indicate a lack of message discipline, deviating from the standard IRGC/Fatemiyoun line. This indicates that although he may still maintain an association with the Fatemiyoun after his Syria tour, he probably does not hold an official post.

However, some outlets, such as conservative-leaning Tasnim News, have identified him as “the designated successor to Fatemiyoun’s cultural deputy.” But Tasnim has also referred to him simply as “an Afghan cleric.” Most recently, Tasnim published his statement disavowing any formal association with the Fatemiyoun after BBC Persian identified him as a Fatemiyoun official.

It is possible that his tour with the Fatemiyoun in Syria and his continued association with Fatemiyoun families have blurred the lines about his actual role, causing some confusion in the media. After all, he can be seen at a lot of Fatemiyoun cultural events in Iran, including at burials, commemorations and events for Fatemiyoun families. These appearances fit within his role as a cleric because clerics are expected to officiate, perform rituals and lead prayers.

But the Fatemiyoun runs a tightly PR coordinated operation. Authorized messages echo across various social and traditional media outlets. Statements often appear verbatim in various media outlets to ensure accuracy. As a lifelong resident of Iran and a cleric, Mujahed probably enjoys some leeway in speaking his mind, but his free-wheeling style hardly squares with Fatemiyoun’s highly scripted approach to PR.

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Russia trains Iran-sponsored Shia militias in Syria

Iran’s intervention on behalf of Assad has brought a slew of Shia militia forces from around the world to Syria. While the Lebanese Hezabollah fighters receive the most attention, there are an estimated tens of thousands of Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan. And now evidence is emerging that they may be training in Russia.

The Afghan militia, known as the Fatemiyoun Brigade, are mostly Shia refugees and immigrations living in Iran. Iran’s Qods Force — the foreign military operations wing of the Revolutionary Guards — uses a mix of monetary incentives, promises of residency and coercion to recruit. This has led to human rights violations, including recruitment of children as young as 14.

The Fatimyoun Brigade was upgraded from a regiment of approximately 2,000-5,000 fighters to a brigade, consisting of roughly 10,000-20,000 fighters. But as their numbers have grown over the years, so has their military training.

Former Fatemiyoun fighters told this blog that they were offered a hasty three-week training inside Iran before deployment in Syria. That made sense given the canon-fodder status of the Fatemiyoun fighters who take on the toughest ground engagements against ISIS to save Assad’s army the worst of the grinding battle. If they were disposable fighters, their training could just be basic.

But it appears that Gen. Qasim Soleimani, who spends time on the frontlines with Fatemiyoun fighters and visits the families of the dead, has been busy upgrading their training program.

Earlier this year, we learned that Hezbollah fighters had started training Fatemiyoun snipers in Hama province:

This skills-transfer from a militia outfit with decades of experience to a nascent one was perhaps unsurprising. There is always an osmosis of skills and tactics between likeminded jihadist and militant groups in the region.

But now, Fatemiyoun fighters — who post to social media from their phones like soldiers elsewhere — are talking about their training courses outside Syria. In this case, the fighter is updating his followers in a public Facebook post about a training course on BMP amphibious infantry carriers in Russia prior to deployment to fight in Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria.

Iran's Afghan proxy fighters in Syria have been training in Russia

Iran’s Afghan proxy fighters in Syria have been training in Russia

The post, made in late September, came when the various Iran-backed Shia outfits like the Fatemiyoun, Zeinabiyoun and Hezbollah (along with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces) were engaged in intense battles against ISIS in Deir Ezzor. Those battles have largely ended after most of Deir Ezzor was retaken from ISIS. But this post remains significant because it unveils a new aspect of Russian involvement in Syria.

We already knew that Russia offered air support to Fatemiyoun fighters in important battles such as the retaking of Paylmira. But offering technical training to Iran-sponsored, pro-Assad Shia militia from Afghanistan in Russia indicates a deeper level of Russian synergy with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s proxy project.

(Fatemiyoun propaganda video shows Afghan ground troops supported by Russian air power in Palmyra)

The true scale of the Russian training operation is not known, but for Putin to train another nation’s Islamist proxy forces on his own soil shows his comfort in the military cooperation with the Qods Force.

The revelation also indicates that Iran was investing in advanced capacity development for the Fatemiyoun perhaps partly because it wanted to make the Afghan militia units more independent of the Qods, whose personnel not only manage Fatemiyoun strategy but also operate the more sophisticated weaponry — like the BMPs, tanks and ballistics. In the process, the Qods forces also took increasing casualties, which remain unpopular in Iran because the Syria involvement is seen as an unnecessary and costly military adventure.

But on November 21, Iran declared victory against ISIS in Syria and proclaimed that the group no longer posed a threat to Shia holy Shrines in Syria, which was the original raison d’être for the Fatemiyoun. That Iran and Russia were investing in sophisticated training for the Fatemiyoun even as victory was imminent raises questions about Iran’s future plans for the Fatemiyoun: where will the battle-hardened, highly trained  Shia militia force go next?

Has Iran been sending Afghan children to fight in Syria?

The fact that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) has been sending thousands of Afghans to fight on behalf of Bashar al Assad is well documented. These hastily trained Afghan refugees and migrants are sometimes coerced into joining the fight and are used as first-wave attack forces.

These fighters have participated in most major battles in Syria, including the latest siege of Aleppo in which, if you judge by semi-official Iranian social media propaganda, they played key offensive roles.

There has been some limited reporting from the BBC and Human Rights Watch about the ages of these fighters. We’ve seen former fighters describe themselves as 16- and 17-year-olds. But now, we have virtually verifiable evidence from the Iranian media about a 16-year-old Afghan who was deployed to fight in Syria in 2014.

Rohullah Bakhtiari, an Afghan who was deployed to fight in Syria at the age of 16.

Rohullah Bakhtiari, an Afghan who was deployed to fight in Syria at the age of 16. (Photo: Quds Online)

Rohullah Bakhtiari (pictured) was given a 45-day training course and deployed as part of the Afghans-only Fatemiyoun Brigade. The Tehran-based Farsi-language Quds newspaper published a puff piece cum interview with Bakhtiari this morning glorifying his feat. Bakhtiari describes his parents’ initial resistance and how he received official permission from authorities despite his age:

The deployment of the sixth cohort was fast approaching and I couldn’t resist it anymore. Amid shock and surprise from my parents, I asked their permission to join the protectors of the Shrine, but it was met with opposition from my father and, more intensely, my mother.

After 45 days of training, we entered Syria on an (armored) personnel carrier and, after participating in minor operations, made it to the major operation. And [it was like this] that permission was issued for a 16-year-old to participate [in the fight].

The article goes on to describe how he was injured and rescued by his fellow Afghan fighters.

It is difficult to estimate the number of underage Afghans fighting in Syria, but former fighters have described the number of Afghan combatants as being in the thousands.

Iranian authorities deny they are sending Afghans to fight in Syria in any official capacity. The Afghan foreign ministry promised last year to probe reports of Iran recruiting Afghan refugees, but it has not said anything since. However, former fighters have told the media and human rights organizations that IRGC trained and deployed them. Stories on the social media accounts of some of these fighters speak of battlefield visits they received from Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, which is responsible for international military operations. Iranian officials are also frequently seen attending funerals of Afghan fighters killed in Syria.