Country Risk

Increased sectarian violence in Pakistan's Balochistan province likely to raise risk of wider Sunni-Shia conflict

08 April 2014
Police officers stand guard in Quetta on 5 May 2013. In the past year, sectarian violence has become a more serious issue than the ongoing nationalist insurgency in Balochistan. Photo: PA

Key Points

  • Balochistan is set to become a battleground for Sunni-Shia violence.
  • In the past year, sectarian violence has become a more serious issue than the ongoing nationalist insurgency in Balochistan, with Sunni militant groups increasingly active in the province and targeting Shias, particularly the local Hazara community.
  • The increase in sectarian violence in Balochistan indicates an escalating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is being fought by proxies in Pakistan.


Pakistani media reported on 7 April that four Iranian border guards kidnapped by Sunni extremist group Jaish-al-Adl in February and reportedly kept in Pakistani Balochistan had been freed and returned to Iran.

The kidnapping of Iranian border guards by Sunni extremist group Jaish-al-Adl in February severely strained relations between Pakistan and Iran, and was an indicator of the increasing boldness of Sunni extremist groups operating in Balochistan province, which borders Iran. Since the beginning of 2013, sectarian violence has dramatically increased in the province. Sunni militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-e-Shuhada-e-Balochistan have repeatedly targeted the Shia Hazara community, which is based mostly in the provincial capital, Quetta, in a campaign of suicide bombings. Several convoys of Hazaras travelling to Iran for pilgrimage have been attacked. On 22 January 2014, 22 pilgrims were killed when the bus carrying them to Taftan, Iran, hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in Mastung district; the attack was claimed by LeJ. The Hazara community in Quetta had traditionally dominated the city's markets and small businesses, and the Hazaras claim to have lost 800 members to the violence in the past few years. They have been forced to barricade themselves in an enclave of the city, increasing the feeling of prejudice among the community and anger at the failure of successive governments to provide it with protection. Hazara leaders increasingly claim that the government is biased against the community and is not doing enough to protect them.

IHS's monitoring of jihadist social media has recorded an increase in anti-Shia and anti-Iran rhetoric among jihadist groups. The increasing anti-Shia focus in Balochistan has been driven by two factors: the mushrooming of radical madrassahs in the province that openly condemn Shias as apostates, which Iran and members of the Shia community in Pakistan claim are being funded by Saudi Arabia; and the transition over to the sectarian conflict of battle-hardened militants who were engaged in the largely secular insurgency mounted by nationalist groups against the state. Indeed, the past year has seen the Baloch nationalist insurgency being overshadowed by the sectarian conflict in the province. IHS sources in Balochistan claim that many of these professional militants have been lured to the cause of Sunni groups not necessarily for ideological reasons, but for money, with the Sunni groups apparently well-funded. Sunni groups are increasingly being led by ethnic Baloch figures, who were traditionally non-sectarian. These two factors have led to an expansion of the violence from Quetta to rural districts such as Kalat, Khuzdar, Lasbela, Mastung, Panjgur, and Turbat, which do not traditionally have a history of sectarian conflict.

Saudi funding?

The sudden financial health of Sunni extremist groups in the province has been attributed by media sources to increased funding by Saudi sources, both official and unofficial. Saudi Arabia increasingly views Pakistan as a key strategic asset and a country within its sphere of influence. The election of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister in Pakistan's 2013 general election has increased Pakistani-Saudi co-operation significantly. Sharif spent years in exile in Saudi Arabia during the tenure of former president general Pervez Musharraf, and enjoys excellent relations with the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia has taken several steps to assist Sharif's government, including giving Pakistan USD1.5 billion to shore up foreign-currency reserves in March 2014. Saudi companies are also likely to be prominent in acquiring Pakistani state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that will be privatised later in 2014. In addition to close relations with the government, IHS sources claim that Saudi Arabia has also expanded its contacts with Sunni groups in the country. Saudi funding for such groups was prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, when the rise of Sunni extremism was seen as a bulwark against Shia influence in Pakistan. However, following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, the Saudis reduced their contact with such groups, due to their associations with global jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda. However, fresh fears of Iranian influence in Pakistan are likely to have prompted a rejuvenation of these ties. A key indicator of this is the healthy finances of Sunni groups, and their ability to pay militants and establish more madrassahs in Balochistan.

Iran's response

Iran has traditionally championed the cause of the Shia community in Pakistan, which accounts for about 20% of the population. Historically, Iran has maintained ties not only with Shia political parties, but also with Shia militant groups. Pakistani security officials claim that militants belonging to Sipah-e-Mohammed Pakistan (SMP), the main Shia militant group, regularly receive financial support and training from Iran. The inability of the federal and provincial governments to improve the situation in Balochistan, as well as the Sharif government's lukewarm attempts to start the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, have raised fears that the Pakistani establishment, which was always perceived as being more pro-Saudi, has now decisively shifted its balance away from Iran.


Although the Shia community has so far been on the receiving end of the conflict in Balochistan, the increasing boldness of attacks such as the kidnapping of the Iranian border guards is likely to result in an escalation by Iran-backed groups as well. In response to Sunni attacks, Iran is in turn likely to back Baloch militants and criminal gangs to launch attacks against Sunni groups and state assets in Balochistan. Shia militants will also probably escalate a campaign of assassinations of Sunni leaders throughout the country. Already in 2014, prominent Sunni leaders have been killed in Karachi and Islamabad. Should the proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia intensify further, Shia militants are likely to target Saudi diplomats and nationals, as well as potentially Saudi companies in Pakistan.

(1008 words)
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