Thousands of Shia Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan are being recruited by Iran to fight with President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria, lured by promises of housing, a monthly salary of up to $600 and the possibility of employment in Iran when they return, say counterterrorism officials and analysts, reports the Associated Press.
These fighters, who have received public praise from Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even have their own brigades, but counterterrorism officials in both countries worry about the mayhem they might cause when they return home to countries already wrestling with a major militant problem.
Amir Toumaj, Iran research analyst at the US-based Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, said the number of fighters is fluid but as many as 6,000 Afghans are fighting for Assad, while the number of Pakistanis, who fight under the banner of the Zainabayoun Brigade, is in the hundreds.
In Afghanistan, stepped-up attacks on minority Shias claimed by the upstart Islamic State group affiliate known as Islamic State in the Khorasan Province could be payback against Afghan Shias in Syria fighting under the banner of the Fatimayoun Brigade, Toumaj said. Khorasan is an ancient name for an area that included parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
Shias in Afghanistan are frightened. Worshippers at a recent Friday prayer service said Shia mosques in the Afghan capital, including the largest, Ibrahim Khalil mosque, were barely a third full. Previously on Fridays, the Islamic holy day. the faithful were so many that the overflow often spilled out on the street outside the mosque.
Pakistan has also been targeted by the Islamic State in Khorasan province. IS has claimed several brutal attacks on the country's Shia community, sending suicide bombers to shrines they frequent, killing scores of devotees.
In Pakistan, sectarian rivalries routinely erupt in violence. The usual targets are the country's minority Shias, making them willing recruits, said Toumaj. The most fertile recruitment ground for Iran has been Parachinar, the regional capital of the Khurram tribal region, that borders Afghanistan, he said. There, Shias have been targeted by suicide bombings carried out by Sunni militants, who revile Shias as heretics.
In June, two suicide bombings in rapid succession killed nearly 70 people prompting nationwide demonstrations, with protesters carrying banners shouting: "Stop the genocide of Shias."
A Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media, said recruits are also coming from northern Gilgit and Baltistan. Recruiters are often Shia clerics with ties to Iran, some of whom have studied in seminaries in Iran's Qom and Mashhad cities, said a second Pakistani official, who also spoke on condition he not be identified because he still operates in the area and exposing his identity would endanger him.
Some are inspired to go to Syria to protect sites considered holy to Shia Muslims, like the shrine honouring Sayyida Zainab, the granddaughter of Islam's Prophet Muhammed. Located in the Syrian capital of Damascus, the shrine was attacked by Syrian rebels in 2013. Others sign up for the monthly stipend and the promise of a house. For those recruited from among the more than 1 million Afghan refugees still living in Iran it's often the promise of permanent residence in Iran. For Shias in Pakistan's Parachinar it is outrage at the relentless attacks by Sunni militants that drives them to sign up for battle in Syria, said Toumaj.
Ehsan Ghani, chief of Pakistan's Counterterrorism Authority, said that his organisation is sifting through hundreds of documents, including immigration files, to put a figure on the numbers of Pakistanis fighting on both sides of the many Middle East conflicts, including Syria. But it's a cumbersome process.
Pakistan has an uneasy relationship with Iran. On occasion the anti-Iranian Jandullah militant group has launched attacks against Iranian border guards from Baluchistan province. In June, Pakistan shot down an Iranian drone deep inside its territory.