Persian Files ISSN 2975-0598 Volume 20 Issue 3
Author: Silvia Boltuc
Two explosions on January 3rd, 2023, at Kerman’s Martyrs’ Cemetery in Iran during a ceremony commemorating Qasem Soleimani’s death resulted in 84 casualties. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. The attack’s significance lies in targeting a symbolic event associated with Iran’s fight against terrorism.
- The Islamic State orchestrated the attack at Kerman’s Martyrs’ Cemetery in Iran, targeting what the terrorist group referred to as ‘polytheists’ and their revered leader.
- The event is a significant strike against Iran and has the potential to incite sectarian tensions in the Middle East.
- Soleimani’s previous assertions about U.S. and Israeli involvement with ISIS resurfaced during the funeral of Kerman’s victims, highlighting Iran’s perception of ISIS as a proxy of its adversaries.
The explosions occurred during a ceremony at Kerman’s Martyrs’ Cemetery, southeast of Tehran, marking the death anniversary of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020. The Islamic State claimed responsibility, inferring religious motives for targeting ‘polytheists.’
The Islamic State media wing Al-Furqan issued a statement titled “And Kill Them Wherever You Find Them” naming the two fighters who wore the explosive vests, Omar al-Mowahid and Sayefulla al-Mujahid.
The attacks occurred a day following the drone strike, killing Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’ deputy leader in Beirut, leading to speculation implicating Israel and the U.S. in Kerman’s explosions. However, the attack’s methods differed from Tel Aviv’s previous targeting of Iranian scientists and industrial sites.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised a forceful response. President Ebrahim Raisi echoed Khamenei’s stance, stating that Iranian forces would determine the timing and location of their action. Raisi’s remarks followed authorities’ announcement of the arrest of 11 suspects linked to the explosions.
Carrying out an attack on the anniversary of Soleimani’s death holds significant importance. Soleimani, known as the ‘anti-terrorism commander’ within Iran, had a pivotal role in the region. Two crucial events are noteworthy in this context: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which inadvertently led to the formation of a Shiite Muslim bloc in the Middle East, and the rise of ISIS, which facilitated the institutionalisation of Iraq’s Shia groups and marked substantial Iranian involvement in Syria.
Before the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, Tehran’s involvement in Syria was limited to dispatching military advisors for training Syrian forces. However, as the Islamic State’s influence grew, Iran escalated its military presence in the Middle Eastern country, legitimising its involvement through counterterrorism efforts.
After the terrorist group lost control over numerous Middle Eastern territories, seen by Iran as a triumph for the resistance movements in Iraq and Syria against ‘Takfiri terrorism,’ symbolised by the lowering of Islamic State’s flag at Abu Kamal – the group’s final stronghold – General Soleimani conveyed a significant message to Ayatollah Khamenei.
In his letter, Major General Soleimani declared the end of the Islamic State’s control over Muslim territories. Consequently, the Kerman’s attack, the deadliest on Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, orchestrated during a ceremony commemorating Soleimani’s death, holds significant symbolism.
The Islamic State remains active not just in the Middle East but also in the Sahel African region.
The resurgence of this terrorist group notably troubled Tehran in Afghanistan, specifically the Islamic State Khorasan Vilayat (ISKP), able to recruit among Iranian Sunnis. This Afghan-linked group has launched multiple attacks on Iran and continues to pose a persistent threat to the country.
In addition, in his letter dated 2017, Soleimani emphasised what he viewed as the forces backing the Islamic State, specifically pointing to the United States and Israel. Presently, during the funeral for the Kerman attack victims, attendees chanted slogans against Washington and Tel Aviv. This underscores the ongoing belief within the Islamic Republic that considers the Islamic State as a proxy entity affiliated with its adversaries.
Another significant aspect to consider is Iran’s approach towards the Islamic State.
Although the Western world perceives the terrorist group as primarily targeting them, their main objective lies in targeting Shia Muslims. Iran, from the outset of its counterterrorism efforts, worked to prevent the crisis from turning into a sectarian conflict, at least in the regional narrative, aiming to garner support from Arab countries and populations in tackling this challenge.
However, the bombing in Kerman specifically targeted the Iranian Shia population at the cemetery where Iranian martyrs of the fight against terrorism are laid to rest. The Islamic State has repeatedly expressed its willingness to destroy Shiite holy sites globally, including the Shrine of Qasem Soleimani, revered as a national hero by many Iranians.
The attack on Soleimani’s commemoration event indicates heightened risks for Iran. The Islamic State’s persistent threat, particularly in Afghanistan and Syria, poses regional instability. The sectarian nature of the attack raises concerns for Shia populations and holy sites, signifying potential escalations in sectarian conflicts.
- Continued Terrorist Threat: The Islamic State persists in targeting symbolic events, increasing regional instability and posing risks to Shia communities and holy sites.
- Regional Escalation: Iran’s retaliation against terrorist groups may heighten tensions regionally and increase Iranian presence in neighbouring countries, affecting Middle Eastern dynamics.
- Increased International Involvement: Heightened attacks may prompt international collaboration against the Islamic State, affecting the broader global security landscape.
In conclusion, the fall of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate in Raqqa marked a significant blow to the physical presence of the Islamic State in the region. However, the group’s ideological underpinning remains robust, allowing it to perpetrate attacks on civilian populations in Syria and Iraq.
Significant number of foreign fighters did not return home and are held in camps such as al-Hol in Syria, acting as hotspots for radicalisation and financial activities, with reports estimating around 100 million dollars moved through internal hawalas (money transfer system).
Moreover, the Islamic State originated from the disorder of the Syrian War and the prevailing lawlessness in Syria and Iraq, circumstances that have yet to be fully stabilised.
The Islamic State specifically targets what it considers apostate Muslims, including Shiites. This clarifies why the terrorist organisation chose to attack during the commemoration of Soleimani’s death: not only due to the large gathering but also because General Soleimani had established a network of Shiite militias in the Shia crescent to counter the terrorist organisation and directed the strategies against it.
Iran confronts an escalating threat along its borders, with active Islamic State branches in Syria and Afghanistan, alongside persistent efforts to regroup in Iraq. Despite robust antiterrorism measures by Iranian special forces, attacks on cities and sacred sites continue unabated.
While this resurgence of terrorism may divert Iran’s attention and resources from other regional engagements, a positive outcome for Western opponents, it poses a shared concern for the global community. Although the Middle East might seem geographically distant, Europe is confronted with the threat of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda loyalists entering through migrant routes originating from the Sahel region.
Collaborative efforts against terrorism provide already an avenue for cooperation between Iraq and NATO. Vigilance and coordinated action against the resurgence of terrorist organisations are imperative to prevent further destabilisation. Monitoring and addressing this persistent threat demand sustained international attention and concerted action.
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