Fatemiyoun: Iran’s ‘Good Taliban’

Now, Iran’s agenda for Afghanistan might exceed soft power to include the use of the Fatemiyoun force, writes Kanishka Nawabi.

Iran is a significant player in Afghan internal affairs, presenting a sustained and long-term threat to its national security. The ability of Afghan institutions to identify and counter these threats needs to be improved. In particular, Afghan agencies need to significantly improve their strategic information capabilities. The Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANDSF) should continue to learn about Iranian operational and strategic objectives implemented through proxy groups such as the Fatemiyoun Brigade.

What is the Fatemiyoun?

The Fatemiyoun Division, also known as the Fatemiyoun Brigade, or Liwa-e-Fatemiyoun, is an Iran-backed Afghan shi’a militia group that has been active in Syria since 2013/14. The Fatemiyoun Division is primarily composed of second-generation Afghan refugees living in Iran. An estimated 20,000-strong force at the peak of the Syrian conflict, the Fatemiyoun had an estimated 50,000 members in total across the nine-year conflict.

Estimates indicate that over five thousand Fatemiyoun fighters were either killed or went missing in action in Syria since 2013, with an additional four thousand injured. These fighters are often referred to as “cannon fodder,” because they are deployed as an expendable force. There are confirmed reports of “child soldiers” among them as well. The Fatemiyoun has the highest casuality rate among all proxy groups in Syria, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada and the Pakistani Zanibyoun. Fatemiyoun fighters are the largest force of non-Arab foreign fighters for an Iranian cause in the Middle East.

The reason why Afghan refugees in Iran join the Fatemiyoun is to increase their social status. The refugees, mostly shi’a, whose presence in Iran as a sizable community goes back almost four decades, suffer from marginalization, economic and social deprivation, and systemic racism. The Fatemiyoun provides an opportunity to gain social status and financial and legal rewards. After joining the Fatemiyoun, these Afghans receive a barga taraddod (transit slip), which allows them to move around Iran freely between deployments. They also receive an iqama (residency permit), which is valid for one year and is renewable annually for up to ten years. The families of fallen fighters continue to receive monthly pay and the annually-renewable iqama. Those Fatemiyoun members killed in Syria are buried in high-profile graveyards in Qom, a holy city in shi’a Islam, and senior Iranian religious figures–including the Supreme Leader–visit their graves, recieve their families and honor their ‘sacrifice.’ While the Iranian state helps the soldiers and their families in different ways, some also receive ‘hadya’ (gifts) in the form of houses, scholarships and similar rewards.

Iran’s Strategic Goal

Iran is perhaps the most influential state involved in Middle Eastern conflicts in modern times. Iran’s influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen has become a “new normal” in the Middle East, something unthinkable two decades ago. Iran led the formation of the “axis of resistance,” which united Iran and its regional allies, notably the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamist groups. The “axis” also includes Hamas, Islamic Jihad, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.

The ‘axis of resistance’ is not necessarily based on a shared ideology or religious identity but based on a shared hostility toward the West and Israel, who for decades have meddled in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries. Its primary function is to provide the Iranian regime political capital and an asymmetric military capablity to use as a deterrent. Non-state actors in the shape of proxy groups in this alliance provide that deterrence and benefit from funds and weapons supplied primarily by Iran. Iran has achieved significant gains in terms of its geopolitical objectives. By using a transnational network of Shi’a non-state actors, Iran confronts its adversaries across a variety of separate battlefields, accumulating political power along a similarly varied number of strategic military fronts.

The Fatemiyoun’s Leadership and Operational Capabilities

The Fatemiyoun was formed by Ali Reza Tavassoli, also known as Abu Hamed, an Afghan refugee living in Iran since the 1980s. The group’s overarching messaging is based on its mission of ‘defending the shrines of the Prophet’s granddaughters in Damascus,’ which are one of the holy sites in shi’a Islam. In February 2015, two years after the formation of the Fatemiyoun, Tavassoli was killed in the battle of Daraa. Almost all key Fatemiyoun leaders, including Sayyed Hakim, Hossein Fedaei, Reza Khavari and Sayyed Ibrahim, were killed between 2015 and 2016. Since then, the group’s hierarchy has been in constant change, a process that appears to be somewhat complex compared to other security establishments in the region. For example, after three Fatemiyoun leaders were killed in quick succession in Syria, Iranians changed the group’s leadership structure. Today Fatimiyoun has a vertical structure: instead of one leader, they have seven.

After Ali Reza Tavassoli’s death and the continued targeting of the Fatemiyoun leadership, the Iranian government decided to recruit people with obscure identities. Since many Afghans are born in Iran, people chosen for the leadership of Fatemiyoun cannot be confirmed to be Afghans, although Iran is claiming that they are. Increasingly, Iran is trying to appoint low-profile leaders for the Fatemiyoun because they are afraid they may lose control of the group. When Tavassoli was killed, the morale in Fatemiyoun ranks plummeted and serious disciplinary issues grew. Iran sought to quickly appoint more leaders who were lower-profile, disposable and more easily-controlled, to prevent dissent within the Fatemiyoun ranks

Currently, Abdul Baqir Alawi, “coordinates” Fatemiyoun’s operations across the region, and is aided by six additional leaders, each equally powerful, in leading the brigade in different areas of operation. Lacking an understanding of the strategic overview of the Fatemiyoun, many agencies in the region do not understand how to counteract or respond to long-term challenges presented by these groups. They might know about the Fatemiyoun’s overall objectives, but they do not understand the continually evolving operational and structural leadership of the group. Like Pakistanis, Iranians are increasingly recognizing the importance of using violent proxies in Afghanistan, and are constantly adapting and evolving their techniques in the country using proxies.

The Iranian government’s involvement in Afghanistan is mainly characterized by their pro-shi’a agenda, which is accomplished mainly through the use of soft power. Through their sustained investments in the educational and cultural institutions in Afghanistan, they continue to implement and expand their agenda. As a result, they deflect unwanted attention away from their activity in Afghanistan. Unlike Pakistanis, Iranians have yet to overtly pursue a policy of mass Afghan militant recruitment for their military objectives in Afghanistan. Even if they use Afghan proxies for their strategic goals, they are not using the Fatemiyoun Brigade overtly and aggressively to implement their strategic military goals inside Afghanistan. As a result, this soft power does not “rock the boat” with Afghans, or cause the ANDSF to react.

Education and cultural outreach is a significant Iranian strategic long-term intervention in Afghanistan. This is a long-term agenda to keep some elements in Afghan society ready and prepared for any future aggressive plans by the Iranians. Through this soft power play, Iranians’ strategic message is: “Hazaras and shi’as are persecuted in Afghanistan; therefore, we are here to help.” The Afghan government and non-governmental organizations have failed to counter these messages. While there is no concrete proof to show Iranians are in full swing recruiting Fatemiyoun members from Afghanistan, they continue to recruit mainly shi’a preachers and mullahs from rural Afghanistan. These individuals are involved in preaching disinformation and promoting Iranian interests in Afghanistan.

The Fatemiyoun Brigade structure completely mirrors that of an Iranian Artash (Army) Division. It is a duplicate copy of a regular army division’s organizational and leadership structure. This makes the Fatemiyoun Brigade an auxiliary division to the Iranian Artash, and perfectly synced with their future military and strategic goals in the region, particularly in the Middle East. As an arm of the Iranian Artash, any future expansion of the Fatemiyoun Brigade will expand the Iranian Artash’s military capability in Afghanistan and the region. Quds Force, one of the five branches of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), leads intelligence operations of all shi’a proxy groups in the region. Quds Force is also responsible for unconventional warfare and the collection of military intelligence.

In the Syrian war, while the Quds Force is involved in intelligence and logistical support, the Iranian Artash, including the Basij forces, is believed to lead the Fatemiyoun, Hezbollah, Zainabeyoun, al-Hashd ah-Shabi and different militant shi’a groups. Other Iranian units supporting these groups also include the Aerospace Forces of IRGC, which provide air combat and missile capabilities, supporting these units with medium-range ballistic missiles.

The Fatemiyoun in Syria operates as a mobile force. It is often used as a shock force when any conflict intensifies. Their bases are also frequently moved around Syria to maintain the group’s agility. Their headquarters are located less than a kilometer from the Damascus International Airport in Beit Al Zajaja (the Glass House, or Maqar-e-Shieshe’i in Persian/ Dari). This secretive headquarters is also used by the IRGC, from which the Quds Force runs its Syrian militia network. The building is strategically positioned and close to the airstrip codenamed ‘Muhammad Ali’, making it easy for Iranian military and militia to receive troops, cash, and equipment and to provide an escape route if Damascus should fall. There are up to 1,000 personnel working at this base, and they all must undergo an intensive security screening. This building has been targeted several times by Israeli airstrikes.

Fatemiyoun and the Russians

Iranians provide advanced weapons training to the Fatemiyoun. The training includes using the Man-Portable Air-Defence System (MANPADS) used in many battlegrounds, including targeting ANDSF helicopters in Afghanistan. It is not only the Iranians who are involved in Fatemiyoun training. The best of the brigade are also trained and supported by the Russian Military. Fatemiyoun fighters have been observed operating a wide array of Soviet-era heavy weapons, including field artillery, armored personnel carriers, tanks and anti-tank missiles. Most notably, the Fatemiyoun at multiple times have been observed operating Russian-made sophisticated T-90 model tanks. The T-90 is one of the most advanced Main Battle Tanks (MBT) operating in the Syrian theater.

Since 2016, rifts have developed between Iranians and Russians in the Syrian conflict. A primary cause was Abdullah Salahi, an Afghan commander of Hadrat Faisal Al-Abbas, a unit of approximately 500 Fatemiyoun fighters based in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. Salahi accepted an offer of enhanced training and support from the Russians. It represents one of Russia’s first documented successful cases of drawing a contingent of IRGC-backed forces into its orbit.

Like the Iranians, Russians have their own strategic calculations for the region and will continue to use proxies such as the Fatemiyoun to counter threats posed by a rogue Taliban, or the IS-K, if it continues to re-group as a military and terrorist threat. Russians do not have a base in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (but are present in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Therefore, they look after their immediate neighbourhood through proxies such as the Fatemiyoun and others. The Fatemiyoun is a very cost-effective force. Members only undergo a short training (up to four weeks) before deployment. There are approximately ten training centers in Iran where Fatemiyoun fighters are trained, including four in Tehran, four in Mashhad and two in Isfahan. Some of these training centers, like Ansar-e-Sepah in Mashhad and Fatima-Tu-Zahra training center in Isfahan, are also used by the Iranians for their regular army training.

Russians also provide the brigade with weapons technology, training and logistical support. Russians, in the bigger scheme of things, keep and support the Fatemiyoun. It is a paramilitary force that they would like to have on their payroll for the long-term, in a similar way to other Russian-supported paramilitary forces including the Wagner mercenary (CHVK Vagner) units operating in Syria and elsewhere. Russia was exposed to the Fatemiyoun Brigade during the nation’s direct military engagement in Syria. They were impressed by the group’s tenacity and became interested in fighting alongside them.

Another major player in the Syrian conflict is Israel. Israel has been targeting Iranian forces and their proxies, including the Fatemiyoun, non-stop. Iranians have moved Fatemiyoun forces to different arenas to target Israel, including the Golan Heights. The Fatemiyoun, along with the Syrian Army and the Artash, was using Golan Heights to conduct operations, including rocket attacks, into northern Israel. Israel is very concerned about the Fatemiyoun because it is part of Iran’s agenda is to target Israel as well. On average, Israel conducts two to three weekly airstrikes targeting the Fatemiyoun and other shi’a militants in Syria because it considers them a significant threat. In early 2019 Israel stepped up its operations against the Iranian assets in Syria, which led to growing Iranian casualties, especially in military bases occupied by the Iranians. For example, a strategic border crossing between Iraq and Syria hosts the Iranian-controlled Imam Ali military base, located in the border town of Al-Bukamal, and it was targeted in 2019. Another major target was the Brigade 313, which was established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in the southern city of Izra and consists mostly of shi’a Syrians. Israel rarely confirms details of its operations in Syria but blames Iran and its proxies for shipping missiles operating near its borders.

Fatemiyoun: The Afghan Hezbollah

Fatemiyoun has the potential to become the new Hezbollah in the region. While Fatemiyoun members were around 20,000 during their height in 2016, after the sanctions and Covid-19 impact on the Iranian economy their number has dwindled to 12,000. Active-duty Fatemiyoun is thought to be between 7,000 to 8,000. It is estimated that, at present, the Fatemiyoun has six active brigades in Syria. Each brigade has four battalions, and each battalion consists of 200 to 250 personnel – similar to the Iranian Artash structure. In addition to these six brigades, the Fatimyoun has a reserve military base/ brigade called “18,000,” led by an IRGC commander, Haji Ismail, who also manages the brigade, provides discipline and addresses any weak areas.

The Fatemiyoun members that are gradually withdrawn from Syria are replaced by the regular Syrian Army. Meanwhile, to cover their costs, Iranians also hand over Fatemiyoun members as conscripts to the Syrian Army. They are being issued Syrian passports and have been given accommodation with their families in Syria. In recent years, many thousands of Afghan Shi’a families of the Fatemiyoun have been transferred and strategically positioned in Syria, mainly with the members becoming military conscripts. There are reports that the Iranians have also sent the Fatemiyoun to Yemen and Libya as mercenaries. They were making money from their services, receiving over $1,400 USD per month per Fatemiyoun member but paying each fighter $400 to $500 per month.

In the long run, if Iranians want to expand their influence further, especially if there is an attack on Iran by the US and the Israelis, they will use the Fatemiyoun against the Gulf States as well. It is estimated that a total number of up to 30,000 ex-Fatemiyoun members have returned to Afghanistan so far and could be systematically mobilized when and where needed. Since Afghanistan is regionally aligned with the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, if a portion of the Shi’a population in the form of Fatemiyoun takes an opposing position, it will present a major political and security challenge to the Afghan society. It is also expected that the Fatemiyoun numbers are likely to swell as the situation grows more volatile in the Middle East.

Iran’s Dealings with its Proxies in Afghanistan

Iran, even during the Shah’s regime, used their proxies in Afghanistan. Assadullah Alam, a close confidant of the Shah of Iran, in his memoir ‘Shah and I’, writes about Iran’s unique relationship with General Abdul Wali, King Zahir Shah’s brother-in-law. Fast forward over decades of conflict, and the number of Iranian proxies has grown exponentially among all Afghan ethnic groups. In return, the Iranians compensate their proxies through conventional means—such as cash and supplies, but they also compensate with non-conventional means. For example, the Iranians gave their proxies Iranian allocation of 50 to 60 visas per month. Each Iranian visa is then sold for $500-600 USD in the Afghan black market. The visa trade as a commodity is one of the ways Iranians buy other Afghan politicians as well. These individuals enjoy many other privileges. For example, with or without visas, these individuals have full and free access to Iran, with their convoys, across the Iran-Afghan border.

Another commodity that Iranians use for political and strategic leverage is Iranian oil. Oil in Iran is sold through the National Iranian Oil Company. This organization, along with the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum, sets the oil prices every month, with variable pricing based on which region of the world the oil is supplied to. For example, prices for Afghanistan and Central Asia are different than the price that China or others receive. There are also different organizations within the Iranian regime that receive their allocated share of Iranian oil. This, as a commodity, is used to promote the Iranian interests and buy favors both domestically and internationally.

One of the prominent groups allocated a large share of this Iranian oil is the “Astan Dar” (governors) of the Iranian provinces. For example, the governor of Mashhad has an allocation of 100,000 to 200,000 (metric) tons of ‘Gaz-Oil’ (diesel). (Iran has a limited supply of Petrol). Iranians also have propane and methane gas. The Iranian regime tells their governors: “This is your allocation, whatever price you put or whomever you distribute this oil too, is your prerogative.” Since Mashhad is close to Herat, its governor always has a close relationship with Herat and Afghanistan. For example, if the oil price is set at a certain market rate, the governor sells it at a much lower rate to their proxies in Afghanistan. These people bring and sell oil at a market price reaping a lot of profit. Similarly, Sepah has its allocation of oil with its prerogative.

Another means of Iranian “dumping” is through Iranian-made cooking oil. It is a good quality and highly sought-after commodity both in Iran and the region. Although Iranian cooking oil cannot meet the local Iranian market demands, they still “dump” the cooking oil to their proxies in Afghanistan. The same dumping is used for medicine and other sought-after commodities. By doing this they bypass the sanctions, sell their products and exert a phenomenal influence over the Afghans.

Fatemiyoun’s Future in the Region and Internationally

The Fatemiyoun is not an immediate security threat to Afghanistan. However, they are a long-term threat to Afghanistan, the region and internationally. When suicide terrorism emerged as a shi’a and Iranian phenomena back in the 1980s, potential Fatemiyoun suicide bombers became a high threat in the region, Europe and the US.

One should also consider Iran’s role–and its proxies, including the Fatemiyoun–in light of the latest developments in the region, specifically regarding the Sunni Arab states getting closer to Israel and a regional coalition building up against Iran. Palestine is a significant issue for the Muslim world, and has been a top priority for the Arab countries for the last seventy years. Now that the “old guard”– the Saudis—have “started to give way to Israel” over the Palestinian cause, Iran has become the Muslim World’s moral superpower. Iran now enjoys a unique status, in terms of holding the moral high ground among Muslims. Palestine, including the PLO, may become strategically closer to Iran.

The Iranian cultural/educational strategic goal in Afghanistan will ultimately merge with Fatemiyoun/military objectives.

Afghanistan has around 100 universities, and the best are either Iranian-sponsored or have an Iranian-based faculty and curriculum. There are some universities in Afghanistan where an exact model of Iranian religious and modern teaching is offered to the students. Their message to the Afghans is that “since Sunnis have failed to protect the Islamic World, we, on the other hand, are the force to protect you.” They also say: “We kicked the Americans out of Iraq. We are protecting Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, and we are fighting in Yemen; therefore, we are well-positioned to protect the whole Islamic World.”

In the long-term, Iran can combine its soft power—influence—with a military objective, through proxies like the Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan. Iran continues to choose a path similar to Pakistan’s Strategic Depth Policy in Afghanistan. Like Pakistan, Iran also continues to add the use of violence to its arsenal of strategic intervention tools in Afghanistan. The alleged Iranian bounties for killing US servicemen in Afghanistan is one example. The question is: how come Iran has not more activefully implemented such violent tactics? The answer may be that Iran is afraid of the US presence in Afghanistan, or because of Afghanistan’s ethnic dynamics. As a result, they have not aggressively tried to merge Fatemiyoun/militancy with their soft power in Afghanistan. The US has continued to warn Iran not to use Afghanistan soil for a proxy war against the US, as Iran does in Iraq.

Meanwhile, there are shi’a “old guards” in Afghanistan, which protect both personal and Afghan interests over the Iranians. These figures, despite their shared interest with Iran, still protect Afghan national interests. These “old guards” also understand and are concerned with the Fatemiyoun. This is because they understand that the Fatemiyoun, along with being a threat to Afghanistan’s sovereignty, will make them militarily disposable in Afghanistan, especially among the Hazara and larger Afghan shi’a communities. Despite this, some of these figures have been accused of sending men to join the Fatemiyoun, but mainly as a financial transaction and not to form a strategic partnership. These old guards are wary of types like Alipur and other militant shi’a emerging leaders, who are closely associated with the Fatemiyoun and the IRGC. Since Iran understands these dynamics, it currently does not want to “rock the boat” in Afghanistan. However, the Fatemiyoun and its members are not as aristocratic as these “old guards” and they do not care about Afghanistan’s interests. Therefore, the Fatemiyoun is a significant threat to the future of Afghanistan and a force against its national interests.