The Islamic State Attacks the Islamic Republic of Iran

7 Jun

The Iranian Parliament in Tehran; June 7, 2017. Image, courtesy of Radio Free Europe

An analysis of the Islamic State’s Attack on Iran, by David Firester, founder and CEO of TRAC Intelligence, a premier threat analysis firm.

It seems the chickens have come home to roost. The world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism has just been terrorized by the world’s leading terrorist organization in twin assaults on Iran’s parliament and the shrine of its revolution’s beloved leader. The irony is profound. This is not, however, an occasion for celebration, as terrorism must always be condemned and never condoned. Nonetheless, it is a time for some reflection. The following is a snapshot of terrorism sponsored by Iran and carried out against it. The data is drawn from two sources. The first comes from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), based at the University of Maryland, which produces the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The second source is derived from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST)[1], based at the University of Chicago, which produces the Suicide Attack Database (SAD). Although the data is far from perfect, it does allow one some perspective on terrorism with respect to Iran.[2]

Terrorism in Iran

Iran is no stranger to terrorism on its own soil. Although the country brought suicide bombing to the world stage in 1983[3], and had used suicidal attacks as a military tactic against Iraq in the 1980s, it has rarely experienced this type of attack itself. In fact, there have been only 8 such attacks inside Iran since 1985 (excluding the combined attacks on June 7, 2017). Most of the attacks were carried out by Jundullah, a Sunni Balochi separatist group,[4] which resulted in the deaths of approximately 114 to 160 people and between 405 to 565 wounded. Terrorist attacks inside Iran, including the 8 already noted, have numbered around 667. The death toll has been approximately 1626, whereas the number of wounded has been about 4057.

Terrorism from Iran

Although Iran has supported various terrorist groups such as Hamas, a Sunni Arab terrorist organization, it is difficult for terrorism researchers to account for its role as a state sponsor of terrorism. In fact, the leading databases don’t even categorize the Islamic Republic of Iran as a terrorist entity, since its status as a state precludes this. So, how does one measure the full extent of Iran’s support for terrorism globally?[5] It’s a difficult task, but since it has created, funded and directed Hezbollah, some measurement is possible.

Since Hezbollah’s emergence as a terrorist organization in Lebanon in 1983 through 2015, they have carried out approximately 400 attacks, resulting in 1216 deaths and 1797 wounded (GTD data). In terms of suicide bombing, the databases differ a bit, but the number of attacks range from 10 to 14[6], resulting in a death range of 140 to 519, as well as wounded ranging from 531 to 772.

Iran’s Place in the World

Iran is a regional powerhouse, which seeks to dominate its portion of the globe. Since the revolution of 1979, it has sought to expand its power (through Syria, Lebanon, and more recently Iraq) as the leading Shi’a counterbalance to Sunni Arab hegemony. To this end, it has fomented Shi’a revolts on the Arabian peninsula (not captured by either terrorism databases), supported local dictators (the Assad family in Syria), sent its proxies to attack Jews (and others) around the world (Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.), and sought to wield localized power by harassing other states in international waters. More dangerously, however, Iran has tried to enhance its power projection capabilities through the development of long-range missiles and advancing toward a nuclear capacity.

Conclusion: Taking the Long View

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria may be losing its physical ground as a number of opponents (including both Iran and the U.S., among others) continue to wrest control of territory through military action. However, it has demonstrated that it can carry out complex attacks in a multitude of locations, on various continents and against a broad range of targets. Iran is merely the latest victim of the Islamic State’s terrorism. Yet it is difficult to imagine a time when the goals of either the Islamic State, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, will simply fade into the annals of history. Each entity seeks some form of domination, which one would be naïve to assume will simply vanish when territory is lost.

[1] Formerly known as the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (still called CPOST).

[2] Neither database goes back further than 1970 and neither captures state-sponsored violence. Both databases have failed to allow for a distinction between Shi’a Islamist terrorism and other forms of terrorism (Islamic or otherwise). Indeed, one should be careful about the types of data they find in either of the databases, which I have warned about elsewhere on more than one occasion.

[3] The first recorded use of suicide bombing was carried out in Lebanon in 1981 and claimed jointly by the Iraqi Liberation Army and Al-Da’wah Party. The former claimant likely never existed, whereas the latter was clearly a Shi’a group.

[4] The organization has used other terrorism tactics inside Iran and Pakistan, in which they have carried out approximately 32 attacks. The other terrorist group that has been largely responsible for attacks inside Iran is the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK (attack totals are approximately 112 of which all attacks since 1980 have been directed at the government of Iran).

[5] The GTD does record 24 attacks by Iranians, but classifies them in various ways. The net result of their terrorist attacks was 11 killed and 8 wounded.

[6] SAD doesn’t attribute the attacks against the U.S. Marine Barracks and embassy in 1983 and 1984, respectively, to Hezbollah itself. Rather, they attribute it to a campaign involving the terrorist organization. The GTD, however, does name Hezbollah as the perpetrating party.

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