Earlier today ISIL conducted two attacks in Iran with a third being thwarted. The first was at the Iranian majlis or parliament. The second was a suicide bombing at the shrine to Ayatullah Uzma Khomeini. The BBC has the details:
Twin attacks on the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum in the capital, Tehran, have killed at least 12 people and injured many more.
The assault on the parliament appears to be over, after hours of intermittent gunfire there. A suicide bomber detonated a device at the mausoleum.
Iranian officials say they managed to foil a third attack.
The Islamic State (IS) group has claimed it carried out the attacks, which would be a first in Iran.
Unlike the attacks we’ve seen throughout Europe, ISIL quickly claimed responsibility.
BREAKING: Islamic State group claims attacks on Iranian parliament, Khomeini shrine.
— The Associated Press (@AP) June 7, 2017
This is significant as it indicates a directly coordinated attack, rather than actions taken by self radicalized actors on behalf of/in the name of the Islamic State. The New York Times‘ Rukmini Callimachi, who has done a magnificent job in her reporting on ISIL, breaks this down on her twitter feed:
4. What is significant here is unlike recent attacks in Europe, ISIS has released a video allegedly showing attackers going room by room: pic.twitter.com/vb7oNwFGvE
— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) June 7, 2017
6. Again if video is proved legit, it shows the attackers had a direct line to ISIS. We saw this during the Bangladesh cafe siege last year
— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) June 7, 2017
This is a very significant point that Callimachi is making:
— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) June 7, 2017
Brisard’s and Callimachi’s reasoning is further supported by this piece of analysis from yesterday at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has recently expanded its campaign to recruit Iranians and disseminate its message to Persian speakers.
In late March, IS published a rare video in Persian in which it called on Iran’s Sunni minority to rise up against the Shi’a-dominated Iranian establishment. The video was dismissed by Iran’s state broadcaster as “nonsense” and an attempt by the group to cover up mounting losses in Iraq.
Since then, IS has published four issues of its online propaganda publication Rumiyah in Persian. Rumiyah, whose title means Rome in Arabic in an allusion to prophecies that Muslims would conquer the West, is already published in several languages, including English, Russian, French, and Indonesian.
Iran has deployed senior military advisers and thousands of “volunteers” in the past six years to help regional ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad battle an armed insurrection that includes IS and other Islamist fighters as well as groups supported by Turkey and the United States.
IS advocates a radical Salafi version of Sunni Islam and regards Shi’a as heretics, and controls parts of Iraq and Syria under what it describes as a “caliphate.”
This attack is significant for several reasons. The first is that even as ISIL is being squeezed on the ground, with the long delayed start of the operation to clear ISIL from Raqqa finally seeming to be under way and operations to finish driving ISIL from Mosul coming to a completion and other parts of northern Iraq well under way, we are seeing an increase of ISIL related attacks well outside of the self proclaimed caliphate. This makes a certain logical sense. It allows ISIL, or those that objectively (have formally joined/under direct ISIL control) or subjectively (consider themselves to be in solidarity with, but haven’t formally joined/not under direct ISIL control) ISIL, to demonstrate that they are still relevant and have significant operational capability even as they lose more and more ground in Iraq and Syria. To a great extent this was always going to be part of the potential negative effects of the US’s strategy of degrading and reducing ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The more successful Operation Inherent Resolve is, the more ISIL inspired and/or directed terrorist activity would be seen well away from the actual declared caliphate in the Levant.
This is part and parcel of ISIL’s goal of destroying the greyzone. As I wrote back in January 2016 in the wake of an ISIL attack in Jakarta:
The Islamic State attack in Jakarta earlier today is part of the same campaign as the Paris attack last November. While the Jakarta attack was no where near as successful in terms of casualties, including those killed, the objectives of the attack was the same as of last November’s in Paris. Islamic State has two objectives for their attacks – both related. The first is to attack the Gray Zone; the social and civil space** that Muslims live in. It is an attempt to force Muslims, whether in the US or Britain or France or Indonesia or Jordan or anywhere else, to chose sides. To define themselves not only as Muslims, but as Muslim in such a way that sets them apart from their fellow citizens. It is both a figurative and literal attempt to collapse the public realm/sphere into the private one. The Islamic State hopes that by doing so they can then achieve their objectives of recruiting Muslims to relocate to the Caliphate – the only place where actual Islam is being practiced or to stay in place and use their local knowledge to attack targets that further weaken the Gray Zone. So the first objective is to set the conditions for recruiting by attacking the Gray Zone.
The second of the Islamic State’s objective with the Jakarta attack, just as it was with the Paris attack last November, is to get the US, its allies and its partners to provide the ways and means that the Islamic State does not have to achieve IS’s ends. This is terrorism as Psychological Operations (PSYOPS).
In regard to today’s attacks in Iran in specific, the targeting is highly symbolic in regard to ISIL’s doctrine/theology of extreme radical tawheed*.
Tawheed, or the unitary nature of the Deity, was the core of the doctrinal teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab. At the time that he developed his doctrine of the unity of the Deity it was quite radical. Basically, it asserts that the Deity is completely one; that any form of intercessory prayer is therefore a denial of such unity and apostasy; that any form of adornment or adoration of great men/saints is a denial of unity and apostasy (hence the destruction of tombs and heritage sites); and living among apostates is forbidden requiring the devout believer to relocate to where tawheed is practiced and enforced.
Abdul Wahhab’s doctrine also included an extreme opposition to and distrust of Jews, Christians, Shi’a and Sufi Muslims, as well as all Sunni Muslims that did not accept tawheed. It was the combination of an inflexible understanding of apostasy, opposition to non Muwaheedun (unitarian) Muslims, as well as non-Muslims; and forced indoctrination of the tribes of the Najd (the Ikhwan – not the same as the Muslim Brothers) that led to the violence of the conquests of Ibn Saud.
I want to focus in for a moment on two parts of the brief description above from a post I did back in September 2015:
- Abdul Wahhab’s doctrine also included an extreme opposition to and distrust of Jews, Christians, Shi’a and Sufi Muslims
- any form of adornment or adoration of great men/saints is a denial of unity and apostasy (hence the destruction of tombs and heritage sites)
Abdul Wahhab’s doctrine of tawheed, which forms the basis of the practice of Islam within Saudi Arabia as well as the more extreme and radical offshoots at the heart of bin Laden’s doctrine for al Qaeda and ISIL’s doctrine, is genocidal towards the Shi’a. Wahhab taught that the Shi’a were to be wiped out wherever they were found. And while the Saudi authorities have not allowed the Saudi religious authorities to do so in regard to the Saudi Shi’a minority, ISIL has not shied away from attacking Shi’a as irredeemable apostates. So bringing the fight directly to Iran should not be surprising. Especially the targeting of the shrine to Ayatullah Uzma Khomeini. By attempting to destroy this shrine ISIL seeks to both destroy a source of apostasy (destroying a shrine where intercessory prayers/requests to the Deity might be made by invoking Ayatullah Uzma Khomeini) and to wipe out a prominent memorial to the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran – the only majority (Twelver) Shi’a government in existence. The attack on the majlis itself also fits into this targeting reasoning – attacking/destroying the seat of Iran’s government, or at least the publicly elected portion of it.
These attacks are both an escalation of ISIL’s war on Islam and a provocation to further draw Iran into the conflict. Right now the US, its Coalition partners, and the Syrian rebel forces they is backing are in an ongoing, low grade fight with Iranian backed forces over the Tanf garrison. The Tanf garrison is where the US and its Coalition allies are training a number of the Syrian rebel groups for the assault on Raqqa. Iran has tried several times to take the garrison, and the crossroads it is adjacent to, to secure its Ground Lines of Communication and Commerce (GLOCC) through Syria in order to better target ISIL and support the Assad government in the Syrian Civil War. This attack in Tehran will increase the pressure on Iran and its proxies to try to actually take Tanf and consolidate their position on the ground in Syria near Raqqa. This would serve ISIL’s purposes should Iran try to do so as it would serve as a distraction for the US, its Coalition partners, and the Syrian rebels as they begin to retake Raqqa and clear ISIL from it. ISIL is hoping that one of the effects of today’s attacks in Tehran will lead to this happening and buy them time to further entrench themselves in Raqqa to withstand the coming assault. What remains to be seen is how Iran and its proxies responds and what those responses have on the ongoing fight against ISIL, as well as the other ongoing conflicts in the Levant and the Arab gulf states.
* For a full treatment of tawheed, especially its development as radical concept within Wahhabi theology in Saudi Arabia, I highly recommend David Commins The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia.