Why did the Islamic State attack the Islamic Republic? | Explained

The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s bomb attacks at a memorial event in Kerman for Qassem Soleimani.

January 05, 2024 02:54 pm | Updated January 06, 2024 11:17 am IST

Destroyed cars and emergency services near the site where two explosions in quick succession struck a crowd marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of Guards general Qasem Soleimani, near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque in the southern Iranian city of Kerman.

Destroyed cars and emergency services near the site where two explosions in quick succession struck a crowd marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of Guards general Qasem Soleimani, near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque in the southern Iranian city of Kerman. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: The Islamic State (IS) terror group claimed responsibility for the January 3 bomb attacks at a memorial event in Kerman for Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian General who was killed by the U.S. in January 2020. Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, an elite wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was a sworn enemy of the Islamic State when he was alive. The Kerman bombing, in which at least 84 people were killed and over 200 injured, was the third major attack claimed by the Islamic State in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which shows the growing threat of terrorism Tehran is facing. The attack comes at a time when fears of a regional war, involving Israel and Iran, are on the rise in West Asia.

Why does the IS target Iran?

The IS, which is a Sunni Salafi-Jihadist outfit, sees Iran, a Shia theocracy, both as an ideological rival and a battlefield enemy. The IS is notorious for its sectarian violence against the Shias, who they call the Rafidha (rejectionists — a derogatory term used by the Sunni extremists to refer to the Shias. They say the Shia community has rejected the first three [Sunni] Caliphs of Islam, Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman). For the IS, Shias are not real Muslims — they are apostates who follow shirk (idolatry). In the IS-controlled territories of Iraq and Syria (from 2014 to 2018), Shias faced systemic persecution and violence. Even after the IS lost the territories and shifted the focus of their operations to the lawless lands of eastern Afghanistan, they continued to attack Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia minority.

The IS also sees Iran as a formidable rival in the battlefield as Iran-backed militias played a key role in defeating the jihadists in parts of Syria and predominantly in Iraq. In March 2017, the Wilayat Diyala, the Iraq-based unit of the IS, had released its first propaganda video in Farsi, titled ‘Persia between yesterday and today’, urging Iranian Sunnis to declare allegiance to the ‘Caliphate’ and rise against and topple the Iranian regime. Since then, the IS has carried out high-decibel propaganda in Persian. The IS wanted to expand their sphere of operations from Afghanistan to “other nearby lands”, primarily Iran. In three months after the video was released, the IS carried out a coordinated attack on Iran’s Parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, killing at least 17 people. It was a declaration of war by the Islamic State on the Islamic Republic. 

How does Iran look at the IS?

Iran sees in the IS a bid to revive the deadly conflict of the early years of Islam between the Sunnis and the Shias. With their anti-Shia propaganda and violence, the IS wants to whip up sectarian passions among hardline Sunnis and trigger a wider war, targeting both Shia communities in Sunni majority countries as well as Iran. It also saw the IS as an immediate security threat. Unsurprisingly, Iran was the first country that rushed aid to Baghdad when the IS started gaining territories in Iraq. In June 2014, immediately after the IS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and surrounding areas, Iran dispatched IRGC units to protect Baghdad and the holy Shia cities of Najaf and Karbala. By December 2014, well before the Western-backed counterattack against the IS began, Iran had started carrying out air strikes on IS areas in Iraq. Iran’s state organs frequently called the IS a “terrorist organisation” or Taqfiris (those who excommunicate fellow Mulims and mostly use violence against them).    

Editorial | Terror in Iran: On the blasts in Iran’s Kerman and the impact 

In the medium term, Iran formed a strategy of fighting the IS through Shia mobilisation units. It recruited, trained and dispatched militias to Syria where the regime of Bashar al-Assad was fighting a civil war against a host of rebels and jihadists, including al-Qaeda and the IS. In Iraq, the Shia militias fought alongside the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga militias, under American air cover, against the IS. They played a critical role in defeating the IS’s physical structures and liberating Iraqi cities from the clutches of the jihadists. And the man behind these anti-IS operations was Maj Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Who was Qassem Soleimani?

Soleimani, who was a soldier during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, became the commander of the Quds Force, the foreign operational wing of the IRGC, in 1998. Always a defender of the Islamic Revolution, Soleimani was instrumental in shaping Iran’s forward defence doctrine, which sought to build regional strength through a network of Shia militia groups across West Asia. Iran helped create Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia movement, in the 1980s and it continued to nurture good ties with Iraqi Shia organisations throughout the regime of Saddam Hussein. In recent years, Iran built stronger ties with Yemen’s Shia rebels Houthis, as well as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, Palestinian Sunni militant groups that are fighting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. 

Soleimani, as the head of the IRGC’s foreign operations wing, left a deep imprint on Iran’s ties with these groups over the years. This relationship came handy for him to stitch together an anti-IS coalition when Iraq and Syria fell into chaos in the 2010s. The U.S. helped the Shia coalition fight the IS in Iraq, but it also accused Soleimani of supporting terrorism, given his close ties with foreign Shia militias. Inside Iran, he enjoyed cult status. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran as well as the commander of Iran’s armed forces, once called him “the living martyr of revolution’. On 3 January 2020, a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, ordered by President Donald Trump, assassinated Soleimani, the number 1 enemy of the IS. And on the fourth anniversary of his assassination, the IS attacked a memorial event that took place near his qabar in Kerman.

What does the attack mean for Iran?

The Islamic Republic has had no dearth of external security challenges. But internally, Iran had remained a fortress for years, barring some separatist challenges. The Kerman bombings, the worst terror attack in the republic’s history, point to Iran’s growing security vulnerabilities as well as the IS’s expanding capabilities. The attack also comes at a time when Iran was under increasing regional pressure with the Israel-Gaza war widening beyond Gaza’s borders. While all Arab countries restrained themselves to diplomacy to address Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, which has killed at least 22,000 people in 90 days, Iran-backed groups have attacked Israel and the U.S. positions in solidarity with Palestinians. Hezbollah has been engaging Israeli troops on Lebanon’s southern border in a limited way, while Shia militias in Iraq have repeatedly targeted U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Syria. Yemen’s Houthis have attacked at least 25 commercial vessels in and around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait turning the Red Sea into a battlefield. Israel and the US have retaliated to these attacks—an IRGC adviser was killed in Syria on December 25 and a top Hamas leader was killed in Lebanon on January 2, both believed to be by Israel. On January 4, the U.S. carried out an airstrike in Baghdad to kill a Shia militia commander. As the crisis was widening across the region, mounting pressure on Iran, the IS found an opportunity to strike its old enemy. For Iran, the challenge is to tackle both the traditional external security threats and a relatively new yet growing internal security threat at the same time. 

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