The number of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq has since increased, though with much less lethal weapons than the Ashtar rockets. The attacks, however, have been assessed by the United States to be dangerous enough that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to shutter the American Embassy in Baghdad if the Iraqi government fails to stop them.
Kata’ib Hizballah has arguably become the most dangerous Iranian proxy in Iraq. It has engaged in myriad activities to protect and expand Iran’s influence in Iraq and the wider region. It has helped suppress an anti-Iran nationalist Iraqi protest movement. It has used Iraqi territory to conduct attacks on a neighboring country and has openly intimidated and threatened the Iraqi prime minister, the commander in chief.
The group’s influence has expanded enormously in recent years, and the militia has become the most reliable proxy for Iran to further its ambitions in Iraq. In Lebanon, Hizballah plays this role. In Yemen, it is the Houthi Ansar Allah that helps Iran expand its influence. In Iraq, Kata’ib Hizballah is emerging as the main group that implements Iran’s plans.
Kata’ib Hizballah is suspected to be behind most of these rocket attacks. There are several Iran-backed militias that have a habit of disobeying the orders of the prime minister, but Kata’ib Hizballah has been the most brazen, eroding the Iraqi state’s authority. On the same day that Kadhimi’s interview was published, Abu Ali al-Askari, head of Kata’ib Hizballah’s security division, posted a message on his Telegram channel threatening the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia: “Kata’ib Hizballah and its allies … will fight all of you, everywhere.” Despite nominally falling under the office of the commander in chief as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the group fiercely criticizes the prime minister and his policies.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Sha’bi in Arabic) is an umbrella paramilitary organization that consists of dozens of militias, many of which are affiliated with Iran. The Popular Mobilization Commission Law of 2016 defines the Popular Mobilization Forces as “an independent military formation and part of the Iraqi armed forces, subordinate to the commander in chief of the armed forces.” In reality, the Popular Mobilization Forces commission has been dominated by pro-Iran figures who have disobeyed orders from the commander in chief on numerous occasions, particularly when they deem the orders to be against Iran’s interests in Iraq. Both the commission and also several pro-Iran units inside the Popular Mobilization Forces, such as Kata’ib Hizballah, have a tendency to follow the Islamic Republic’s policies, rather than those of the Iraqi government. Just a few days after Kadhimi’s July 19–22 visit to the United States, Kata’ib Hizballah’s political office issued a statement fiercely criticizing his trip and threatening him for trying to expand political and economic ties with the United States and Saudi Arabia: “anyone who colludes with the occupiers and conspirators will be held accountable.”
The Secretive Legion
In 2007, at the height of the Islamic Republic’s campaign against U.S. forces in Iraq, Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, came to the conclusion that a more agile militia was needed in order to inflict maximum damage on U.S. troops. Soleimani judged two of the main Iran-affiliated militias — the Badr Organization and Jaysh al-Mahdi, along with their splinter groups -- to be unwieldy. The Quds Force decided that it needed a new elite group that was better trained and equipped, and under its control, to escalate against the U.S. military. Soleimani, with the help of a few Iraqi and Lebanese militia leaders (including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the top commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces who was assassinated alongside Soleimani by a U.S. strike in January), brought together five smaller militias to form Kata’ib Hizballah. Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, Kata’ib Karbala, Kata’ib Zaid ibn Ali, Kata’ib Ali al-Akbar, and Kata’ib al-Sajjad joined under one banner and received sophisticated Iranian weapons and extensive training from Lebanese Hizballah.
Since its inception, Kata’ib Hizballah has maintained close ties with Lebanese Hizballah. Decades ago, Muhandis established his relationship with the Lebanese Hizballah and worked with its operatives to carry out, in his words, “jihadi activities.” This relationship came to Muhandis’ help years later. Imad Mughniyeh, Lebanese Hizballah’s chief of staff, was an instrumental figure in establishing Kata’ib Hizballah in its early stages. Mughniyeh was on a list of foreigners whom Israel wanted to kill or apprehend. After he was assassinated in a car bomb attack in February 2008 in Damascus, Kata’ib Hizballah claimed that it had attacked five U.S. bases in Iraq with rockets as revenge.
Since then, Kata’ib Hizballah has grown from a small, elite group of a few hundred fighters to one of the most capable Iraqi militias. Estimates suggest that the militant group currently has a total of 10,000 fighters, mainly in Iraq but also in Syria. Kata’ib Hizballah’s activities are not limited to military and security operations. The militant group also runs media outlets, staffs cultural centers, has established research centers to promote political Shia Islam, and more. Kata’ib Hizballah is now a very influential member of the Popular Mobilization Forces. Exploiting Muhandis’ position as the deputy chief and chief of staff of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the group received special treatment from the organization. After the death of Muhandis, the group insisted that his position be filled by another Kata’ib Hizballah commander. Despite opposition from various groups inside the Popular Mobilization Forces, in February Kata’ib Hizballah imposed one of its top commanders, Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, as the acting chief of staff for the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Kata’ib Hizballah also controls important directorates inside the Popular Mobilization Forces. The group runs the security directorate, which is developing rapidly into a powerful internal affairs force with intelligence and special forces capabilities. The directorate supports the power consolidation of Kata’ib Hizballah. The group also controls the missiles directorate. This is particularly important, as Iran has sent ballistic missiles to Kata’ib Hizballah and is working on transferring missile technology to the group, a privilege not granted to other pro-Iran militias. This shows the Quds Force places Kata’ib Hizballah among the most trusted militias. To further its plans with no scrutiny from the government, Kata’ib Hizballah has also transformed a strategic district south of Baghdad called Jurf al-Sakhar into a no-go zone. Until 2014, the area was populated by Sunni Arab citizens. After the area was liberated from ISIL, Kata’ib Hizballah prevented the residents from going back. Popular Mobilization Forces sources told me that the group has been granted a lease by the government to vast swathes of agricultural lands, effectively turning the area into a private zone. Iraqi sources have confirmed this piece of information to other researchers. No other Iraqi force is allowed to enter the zone. Jurf al-Sakhar is now a sanctuary for Kata’ib Hizballah’s activities, including developing missiles. No other Iran-backed militia has gone this far in violating the state’s sovereignty.
Kata’ib Hizballah has adopted a unique hierarchy to ensure maximum secrecy around its activities. Ex-members of Kata’ib Hizballah told me that the militant group divides its fighters into two major categories. Members of the first category are called Ajsam, or “the bodies.” These are fighters who have been tried and tested, and have gained the trust of their leaders. Members of the second category, which consists of the majority of fighters, are called Arqam, or “the numbers.” “The numbers” have little information about Kata’ib Hizballah’s activities and chain of command, to the point that sometimes they don’t even know the real names of their direct commanders, calling them instead by their aliases.
The ‘Bodies’ and the ‘Numbers’
Kata’ib Hizballah has also created a special system of mentorship for its members. The “bodies” have their own mentors, called Moa’lim, or “teacher.” The mentors are not simply military commanders. Through their jihadi activities, they are assumed to have acquired a unique wisdom that they in turn bestow upon their mentees. When Kata’ib Hizballah fighters quote a sentence from their mentors, they usually finish it with “my Moa’lim is a man who never lies.” Hussein Abu Khomeini, a Kata’ib Hizballah fighter, tweeted June 17: “didn’t I tell you that my Moa’lim possesses the talisman of the mankind and the jinn.” Jinn are “shape-shifting spirits made of fire and air with origins in pre-Islamic Arabia.” (Abu Khomeini’s Twitter account was later suspended.)
The other pseudonymous position in the hierarchy of Kata’ib Hizballah is al-Khaal, or “maternal uncle.” Some Popular Mobilization Forces sources told me that this pseudonym is designated to a few high-ranking commanders. Others have said that the only person who enjoys this name is Abu Fadak. Searching social media pages affiliated with Kata’ib Hizballah proves that Abu Fadak is indeed called al-Khaal. Muhandis himself is al-Shayeb, or “the senior.”
This mentorship system, and its associated aliases, has significant cultural connotations for Iraqi youth. Combined with military hierarchy, it generates a strong sense of belonging and deep loyalty among the members. It also constructs a mystic environment that elevates the leaders to semi-superhuman status, rendering commanders such as Muhandis mythical. Kata’ib Hizballah has been able to exploit this system in a way that signifies power and control, too. When in late December 2019 Kata’ib Hizballah members protested in front of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, one photo in particular among those circulating on social media caught the eyes of Iraqis: a photo of graffiti on the embassy wall reading “al-Khaal passed through here.” This use of language signifies that for a top Kata’ib Hizballah commander to exert significant influence, he needs only to pass by a place. The protest in front of the embassy, in which protesters threw stones and tried to break in and set fire to parts of the wall, was an unprecedented incident. Kata’ib Hizballah presented this event as a humiliation to the United States. The graffiti emphasized al-Khaal’s passing through, rather than taking part in or leading the protest, signifying his enormous power: For a high-ranking Kata’ib Hizballah commander to humiliate the Americans, he needs merely to pass through a place where they are present. This combination of hierarchy, secrecy, mysticism, and power is a perfect blend for recruiting young soldiers and building an obedient force ready to undertake any mission.
Attracting young people to its cause is Kata’ib Hizballah’s priority. Not only have they established the Imam Hussein Scouts Association to undertake various sociopolitical activities and to recruit future loyal and trustworthy “bodies,” but they enlist young people to spy on U.S. forces. Sabreen News, a news channel on the Telegram platform affiliated with Kata’ib Hizballah, asked Iraqis to join Kata’ib Hizballah’s “shadow cell.” The message, which was posted on Aug. 21 and since then has been removed, said: “Be a resistance [fighter] from where you are and join the shadow cell to send images, videos, or information of every move of the American enemy.” Pro-Iran groups are part of the Iran-led “axis of resistance,” which “resists” America’s policies in the Middle East, as well as Israel and their allies in the region. Until its deletion in early September, Sabreen News’ message was seen 14,400 times. It was clearly aimed mainly at young Iraqi men. This is a call to join the ranks of the group from their towns, and it is a recruitment channel for future fighters.
The Ideological Battle: In Search of a Faqih
Kata’ib Hizballah works hard to shape the public opinion in its favor. To achieve this goal, it has established a variety of news outlets. It has satellite TV channels, radios, newspapers, news agencies, and social media channels and accounts. Additionally, Kata’ib Hizballah’s media center produces sleek propaganda videos to project an image of power and invincibility. The militant group has also established several cultural centers, mainly in Baghdad, but also in Shia-majority cities in the south, for women, university students, academics, and families of Kata’ib Hizballah’s fighters who lost their lives in battle.
Propagating the idea of Wilayat al-Faqih, or “guardianship of the Islamic jurist,” is one of the main areas that institutions linked to Kata’ib Hizballah are focusing on. This ideology is the foundation for Iran’s Shia theocracy. Wilayat al-Faqih gives political leadership to the faqih, or jurist in Islamic law, paving the way for a Shia theocracy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini popularized this ideology and put it into practice after the Iranian revolution of 1979, becoming the first Wali al-Faqih in post-revolutionary Iran. According to Wilayat al-Faqih, only a Shia jurist with specific characteristics is eligible to lead the political system. According to Iran’s Constitution, a council of senior clerics called the Council of Experts chooses a qualified Shia jurist as the supreme leader, who enjoys absolute and exclusive authority over the state’s affairs.
The problem for Kata’ib Hizballah and the like is that key Iraqi Shia clerics in Najaf, where one of the most influential Shia seminaries is located, do not believe in this doctrine. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia authority in Iraq, has clearly expressed his opposition to a political system ruled by the clergy. For Sistani, the major role of the clergy is to provide religious guidance for their followers’ personal lives. Beyond that, it is the task of the state to regulate its citizens’ lives. Sistani and other major Najaf clerics believe that they can only comment occasionally on political matters and that it is for their followers to act on their recommendations or not. This doctrine is rooted in conservative Shia theology that has been developing for hundreds of years in Najaf.
Kata’ib Hizballah and similar Iran-backed groups have recognized this as a major problem for advancing Iran’s plans in Iraq and beyond. Therefore, their institutions are working on disseminating the Wilayat al-Faqih ideology. One of Kata’ib Hizballah’s affiliated institutes working toward spreading this ideology is the al-Hadaf Research Center. Among its various activities, the research center holds workshops for cadres who work with or for various organizations affiliated with Kata’ib Hizballah. As members of the “axis of resistance” believe in the global nature of their movement, the workshops promise to help the attendees “reach their important place in the global movement.” An important segment of the workshop is dedicated to Wilayat al-Faqih.
One of the major differences between the Wilayat al-Faqih ideology and the Najaf school is that the former has global ambitions. While after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 the pro-Iran Iraqi militias, including Kata’ib Hizballah, rushed to defend the Assad regime under the command of the Quds Force, Sistani opposed sending fighters to Syria to fight alongside the Assad regime. In order to sustain its future in Iraq and to expand its influence in the region, Kata’ib Hizballah and similar groups need to propagate Wilayat al-Faqih to secure religious legitimacy for their ambitions. Sources affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces told me that Kata’ib Hizballah has established religious schools where Wilayat al-Faqih-oriented religious lessons are taught together with other regular lessons. The Shia Najaf seminary is a conservative institution, and not compatible with Islamist ideals. Wilayat al-Faqih, on the other hand, is a revolutionary ideology that has established a transnational Islamist movement with followers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, among other countries. It is key for Kata’ib Hizballah and the like to try to replace the Najaf ideology with Wilayat al-Faqih in Iraq.
Anticipating the Twelfth Imam’s Return
Not only is Kata’ib Hizballah’s ideology global, but it is also apocalyptic: both in the sense that it assumes a role for itself in paving the way for the apocalyptic reign of the “mahdi,” and in the sense that it sees the world through the lens of this coming apocalypse. The main branch of Shia Islam is called the Twelver. The reason behind this appellation is that followers of this branch of Shiism, which is prevalent in Iraq and Iran, believe that only 12 of the Islamic prophet Mohammed’s descendants are his true successors. They call them the infallible imams. The Twelvers believe that the first imam was assassinated by a rebel group. The next 10 of these imams were killed by the rulers of the time, and when plots were made to kill the 12th imam, known as the mahdi, by God’s will he went to occultation (i.e., hidden existence). The Twelvers believe that the mahdi will emerge during the apocalypse to create a just world. Many Iran-backed militias, including Kata’ib Hizballah, have integrated this ideology into their doctrine. In the “About Kata’ib Hizballah” section of its website the group introduces itself as “an Islamic jihadi resistance group … which tries to establish the rule of Islam … which will be concluded by the establishment of the divine just government under the leadership of mahdi.” It continues to say that establishing mahdi’s government needs hard work to pave the way for it and that Kata’ib Hizballah believes that Wilayat al-Faqih is the best way to prepare for the just world to come.
According to some Shia texts, holy lands in the Levant, including Palestine, and Arabia will witness the rise of evil characters, which will result in the emergence of the 12th imam. Pro-Iran groups that see the current rulers of Israel and Saudi Arabia as evil interpret these apocalyptic beliefs as proof that the Islamic Republic, which considers itself the prelude to the mahdi’s global government, will eventually defeat Israel and Saudi Arabia. For Kata’ib Hizballah, Iran plays the main role in the mahdi’s arrival. Jassim al-Jazairi, an influential Kata’ib Hizballah cleric, uses various religious sources to “prove” that the Iranians are leading the way to the mahdi’s government. That is why for Kata’ib Hizballah, Iraqis have to be followers of Iran. That also explains why the Academic Elites Institute — a Kata’ib Hizballah-affiliated institution recruiting students and academics for the group’s cause — is so diligent in teaching Farsi to its members.
The apocalyptic ideology allows Kata’ib Hizballah to justify violating the Iraqi state’s authority as a legitimate act. If the purpose of the group is to help prepare for the establishment of the apocalyptic, just world, who is the Iraqi government to demand Kata’ib Hizballah’s disarmament? When in June the government, various political factions, political activists, and security analysts talked about the importance of bringing arms under the state’s control, Kata’ib Hizballah’s general secretary (suspected to be Abu Fadak) said, “The resistance’s arms … will not be handed over to anyone but Mahdi.” Kata’ib Hizballah’s apocalyptic beliefs also label Saudi Arabia, Israel, and by extension the United States as the eternal enemies of the Shia.
Control the Narrative, Control the World
Kata’ib Hizballah has big ambitions. Its leaders have created an increasingly secretive organization that is founded on a compelling ideology, enjoys a strict hierarchy, and is equipped with quality arms and training for a paramilitary group. It is gradually taking control of the narrative of the “resistance” in Iraq. Kata’ib Hizballah is trying to place itself above other Iran-backed groups. It feels at liberty to criticize them for not being genuine or brave enough in their “resistance” mission. In April, when the majority of Iraqi parliamentary blocs, including those representing major “resistance” militias, agreed to nominate Kadhimi for premiership, Kata’ib Hizballah accused them of “betraying the history of Iraq.” For pro-Iran Shia groups, the main characteristics of Iraqi history are fighting and resisting oppressors, which includes the Iraqi revolt of 1920 against the British Empire. The United States is for them the epitome of oppression. Selecting a prime minister like Kadhimi, perceived by them to be pro-America, is thus a betrayal of the history of Iraq. Kata’ib Hizballah is progressively setting the bar higher for “genuine resistance” groups, and any militia not meeting Kata’ib Hizballah’s standards can be attacked and labeled as a traitor. This can make any future compromise by these groups more costly for them. Also, by taking a more radical approach and adhering to “higher standards,” Kata’ib Hizballah is introducing itself as the role model for “resistance” groups.
In addition to its presence in Syria, Kata’ib Hizballah has shown willingness to undertake a greater role in Iran’s regional adventures. The group is suspected to be behind the May 14, 2019, attack on Saudi Aramco oil infrastructures, and its leaders openly advocate terrorist attacks inside the kingdom. Abu Ali al-Askari wrote in a May 27 Telegram message: “You won’t be safe from House of Saloul’s treachery and hypocrisy … unless Jihadi operations are transferred to Saudi Arabia. What the Mujahedeen did in the Gulf by attacking Aramco several times is a testament to their ability to transfer the battle inside [the Kingdom].” “House of Saloul” is a derogatory term used to describe the House of Saud by enemies of the Saudi rulers, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Most pro-Iran groups in Iraq avoid adopting such a strategy. Take the Badr Organization, for example. It is hard for a group with a heavy presence in the political process to risk its interests by advocating attacks on foreign countries. Instead a group such as Kata’ib Hizballah has the capacity to act as an outlawed radical militia, a status that can be exploited by Iran when under pressure.
Kata’ib Hizballah has shown its utter disregard for the Iraqi government’s authority and a tendency to go to extremes to intimidate Iraqi politicians. When in late June the Iraqi counter-terrorism service arrested 14 Kata’ib Hizballah members on suspicion of planning to fire rockets into the international zone, the group mobilized around 150 fighters and drove to the prime minister’s residence, forcing him to release the detainees. No other Iran-backed militias have the power to influence the prime minister’s decisions to this extent. This is not to say that in the future the Iraqi prime minister will not take any actions Kata’ib Hizballah opposes, but rather to emphasize that the militant force is increasingly confident in impacting the political class, whether through putting pressure on other militias who are part of the political process or directly through threatening high-ranking officials. By acting in this manner, Kata’ib Hizballah offers Iran incredible leverage over the political class, a gift no other pro-Iran group in Iraq can offer.
How to Reduce the Group’s Influence
It seems that the reason the Iraqi prime minister has not yet taken decisive actions against Kata’ib Hizballah is fear of further destabilizing the country. But at this pace and with the trajectory that Kata’ib Hizballah is following, the country will be headed toward chaos anyway. Many Iraqi Shia politicians believe that if the government fails to bring paramilitary groups under the control of the Iraqi state, the country will witness yet another civil war, this time among Shias themselves. In order to avoid this grim scenario, the government needs to start to reduce Kata’ib Hizballah’s influence in the Popular Mobilization Forces. Pro-Sistani units within the organization have clearly expressed their discontent with Iran’s dominance inside the Popular Mobilization Forces, and that dominance is facilitated mainly by Kata’ib Hizballah. They have announced their defection from the Popular Mobilization Forces and their readiness to facilitate more defections. This is what pro-Iran militias dread the most. Qais al-Khazali, head of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, another radical pro-Iran militia, stated in an interview in June that the defection, if completed, will end the Popular Mobilization Forces. The prime minister needs to leverage the threat of increasing defections to diversify the Popular Mobilization Forces’ chain of command by appointing more patriotic commanders.
Kadhimi should also limit Kata’ib Hizballah’s economic activities. The militant group is increasing and diversifying its sources of revenue by penetrating various economic sectors, such as construction, agriculture, and oil, and by engaging in illegal cross-border trade with Syria, extortion, and exploiting the notorious central bank currency auction. Kadhimi has taken some steps to limit corruption at the border points to deny groups such as Kata’ib Hizballah their illegal revenues. But the move has not achieved much yet.
Denying Kata’ib Hizballah its sanctuary zones is also key to reducing the group’s grip over the country. Kata’ib Hizballah is keen to deny access to areas in Baghdad, Jurf al-Sakhar, and the Iraqi-Syrian border to the Iraqi government. This should end, otherwise Kata’ib Hizballah will be able to use these areas to continue building a parallel force that can greatly challenge the Iraqi security forces and drag Iraq even further into destructive regional conflicts.
It is highly likely that Kata’ib Hizballah will resist these moves and resort to violence in order to protect its interests. But if they are done carefully, discussing the matter with all the major players, the harm can be mitigated. Kadhimi needs to consult not only Sunni and Kurdish partners in the political process and the global coalition against the Islamic State, but more importantly Shia factions, including the pro-Sistani forces. It is likely that a range of Shia political and paramilitary forces will back the government in its efforts to exert its authority, especially if carried out step by step, trying peaceful means first.
Kata’ib Hizballah and other Iran-backed militias are suffering from a lack of unifying leadership after the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis, but by building upon what has already been established, Kata’ib Hizballah is emerging as the most potent militia that can influence the security sphere in favor of Iran more than any other Shia militant group. It’s true that Kata’ib Hizballah is not engaged directly in politics, but it has shown its willingness and capability to eclipse Iraq’s fragile political process. Enjoying the help of top Quds Force and Lebanese Hizballah advisers, the group is also working diligently on building a high-quality paramilitary force with a powerful missile capability.
In 2012, talking about Kata’ib Hizballah, Ahmad al-Khafaji, a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Interior, said: “What is the nature of this group? I cannot see any sign of them on the ground, [I see] only statements … If they really have the power to implement their agenda, let them take to the streets and we’ll face them.” Surely, after Kata’ib Hizballah marched to Kadhimi’s residence, the group has answered the question.
Kata’ib Hizballah is ready to expand its regional reach more than any other Iran-aligned force. Just a few years ago, the maximum capacity of Kata’ib Hizballah was to engage in guerrilla warfare with U.S. forces in Iraq’s Shia-majority areas. At that time the Badr Organization was a much more advanced group in terms of the number of fighters and experience. Now Kata’ib Hizballah controls a strategic axis on the Iraqi-Syrian border and plays an integral role in Iran’s efforts to build the so-called Iranian land corridor to the Mediterranean — which could give Iran freedom of movement to send military supplies and mobilize forces in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and to reach Israeli borders more easily. Also, the group has already engaged in attacks on Saudi Arabia and helped train Bahraini operatives to conduct attacks inside Bahrain on the order of the Quds Force. No other Iraqi militia has gained enough credits to be given these missions. Kata’ib Hizballah is Iran’s preferred militia and it is evolving as the main force belonging to the resistance in Iraq.
Unlike Lebanon or Yemen, where one major militia facilitates Iran’s expansionist policies, several smaller militias function as the Islamic Republic’s proxies in Iraq. But one militant group more than others has the potential to dominate the scene, and that is Kata’ib Hizballah.
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