Iran kills Jaish al-Adl leader in cross-border raid, escalating tensions with Pakistan

Iran kills Jaish al-Adl leader

New Delhi: Iranian military forces have announced the death of Ismail Shahbakhsh, a top commander of the Sunni extremist group Jaish al-Adl, and several of his associates, in a cross-border operation inside Pakistan. The raid, which took place on Saturday, was the latest in a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the two neighboring countries over the presence of militant groups along their shared border.

Jaish al-Adl, which means “Army of Justice” in Arabic, is a splinter faction of the Baloch nationalist group Jundallah, which has been waging a low-intensity insurgency against the Iranian government for decades. The group, which Iran considers a terrorist organization, operates mainly in the restive province of Sistan-Baluchestan, home to a large ethnic Baloch minority that faces discrimination and marginalization from the Shiite-dominated regime in Tehran.

The group has claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks on Iranian security forces and civilians in recent years, including a suicide bombing that killed 27 members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 2019. In December 2023, the group attacked a police station in the provincial capital of Zahedan, killing at least 11 officers and injuring several others.

Iran has accused Pakistan of harboring and supporting Jaish al-Adl and other Baloch militant groups and has repeatedly demanded that Islamabad take action against them. Pakistan, on the other hand, has denied any involvement and has called for dialogue and cooperation to resolve the border issues.

However, the situation escalated in January 2024, when Iran launched missile and drone strikes on two alleged bases of Jaish al-Adl in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, near the border town of Panjgur. Iran claimed that the strikes were in retaliation for the group’s attacks on its soil and that it had killed dozens of militants and destroyed their weapons and ammunition. Pakistan condemned the strikes as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity and said that two children were killed and four civilians were injured in the attack.

Iran kills Jaish al-Adl leader

Two days later, Pakistan responded by conducting its airstrikes on suspected hideouts of Baloch separatist insurgents in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, near the border town of Saravan. Pakistan said that the operation, codenamed “Marg Bar Sarmachar” (Death to Guerrillas), was aimed at eliminating the threat posed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), two groups that have been fighting for an independent Baloch state and have carried out attacks on Pakistani security forces and infrastructure. Iran denounced the airstrikes as an act of aggression and said that nine foreign nationals, including three women and four children, were killed in the attack.

The exchange of fire marked a new and dangerous phase in the long-standing conflict between Iran and Pakistan over the Balochistan region, which spans across their borders and is rich in natural resources but plagued by poverty and violence. The two countries, which have historically maintained cordial relations and have cooperated on various regional issues, now face the risk of a full-blown war that could destabilize the already volatile Middle East and South Asia.