Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq

FormedJuly 2006
DisbandedJanuary 2012
First AttackJanuary 20, 2007: Asaib Ahl al-Haq attacked US forces in Karbala, killing five American soldiers (5 killed). [1] [2]
Last AttackFebruary 8, 2010: Members of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Baghdad fired a Katyusha rocket targeting the International Green Zone (0 killed, 0 wounded). [3]
UpdatedAugust 29, 2014

Narrative Summary

In 2006, Qais al-Khazali created Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which translates as “the League of the Righteous,”[4] out of a military unit within the Mahdi Army with substantial support from the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Al-Khazali was a former pupil of Moqtada al-Sadr’s father and had worked with al-Sadr in the Mahdi Army; however, under al-Khazali’s leadership, the AAH challenged the Mahdi Army’s influence in Iraq and exhibited strong theological ties to Iranian leaders, such as the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. [5] The IRGC supported al-Khazali and the AAH because of these ideological ties as well as al-Khazali’s outspoken opposition to the Mahdi Army’s ceasefire agreements with coalition forces. [6]

AAH’s military section is likely patterned after Hezbollah, with a Jihad Council providing leadership and dictating operational policy. Immediately following the invasion of 2003, while AAH was still simply a military unit within the Mahdi Army, the group was restructured into battalions, each of which was assigned to a geographic region (likely Najaf, Baghdad, Samarra, and Maysan); this new structure was retained by al-Khazali when he made the AAH into an independent organization. Iranian military officials closely advise both the logistics and organization of the military. [7] Nevertheless, AAH has more operational latitude in planning operations than any of the other Iraqi groups supported by the IRGC. [8].  In its first military action, AAH supported Hezbollah’s Operation True Promise, a raid into Israel on July 12, 2006, during which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured – this operation resulted in a war between Israel and Hezbollah. [9]

On March 20, 2007, British forces raided AAH offices in Basra and captured al-Khazali and several other major AAH leaders. However, on May 29, 2007, AAH kidnapped a British computer consultant and his bodyguards at the Ministry of Finance in Baghdad and used these hostages to negotiate the release of al-Khazali and hundreds of other AAH members captured by coalition forces. While coalition forces believed during this period that AAH would reconcile with the al-Maliki government, the release of al-Khazali led to a breakdown in negotiations. [10]

Following the departure of coalition forces from Iraq, AAH attempted to rebrand itself as an Iraqi nationalist organization in order to gain more legitimate influence by participating indirectly in the 2013 elections, and as a political party in the 2014 elections. Despite this pivot, the group did not lose its desire to expand Iranian influence in Iraq and promote its vision of Shiite governance based on Iran’s theocracy. [11]

Furthermore, in a shift of strategy to focus on legitimization through political engagement, the AAH established a political section in addition to its already well-established military wing. Based in Baghdad, the political branch also established offices in many of Iraq’s provinces. The political section attempts to gain public support for AAH by coordinating the group’s provision of social services and running political events. [12] 

Leadership

  1. Hassan Salem (Unknown to Unknown): Salem is a leader of AAH’s militia, known as “al-qayadi al-jihadi,” or “jihadist leader.” [13]
  2. Qais al-Khazali (Unknown to Present): Qais al-Khazali is the secretary general of the AAH, and a rival of al-Sadr. He opposed the cease-fire agreements with the U.S. and Iraqi militaries after the offensive during the spring and summer of 2008. On March 20, 2007, coalition forces captured al-Khazali in Basra. On January 5, 2010, he was released from Iraqi custody in exchange for kidnapped Briton Peter Moore. [14]
  3. Grand Ayatollah Kazem Husseini Haeri (Unknown to Present): Kazim al-Haeri is reported to be the spiritual leader of AHH. Al-Haeri is a "Khomeinist scholar of Iraqi origin who resides in Iran, and is followed by some but not all mainline Sadrists." [15]
  4. Akram al-Kabi (January 1, 2008 to Present): Al-Kabi, a former Sadr loyalist, is the current commander of AAH.[16]

Ideology & Goals

AAH is a Shiite, Khomeinist militia group. The establishment of absolute, Shiite governance in preparation for the Imam Mahdi’s return is the broadest goal of AAH. While AAH retains ideological ties to the tradition of Shiite political and religious activism established by Sadr and his father, AAH has consistently maintained an anti-Sadrist policy, which is largely a result of its close relationship with Iran. Thus, one of the group’s fundamental goals has been, and continues to be, wresting control of Iraq’s Shiite population from al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army. [17] Nevertheless, AHH’s goals have changed with the political developments in Iraq. During the occupation, AHH’s goal was to antagonize coalition troops in order to motivate their withdrawal and to conduct covert operations in order to augment Iranian influence in Iraq. [18] Following the withdrawal of the coalition, AAH continued to target foreign influences inside Iraq and support Iranian interests in Iraq; in addition, AAH expanded its goals to include the creation and maintenance of a Shiite-dominated Iraq. [19]

Concurrent with the expanded operations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it appears that AAH has also begun operating in Syria to support the Assad Regime. [20] While AAH has stated that its sole purpose for operating in Syria is to protect important Shiite shrines, such as the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus, it is clear that AAH has vested interests in protecting the Assad Regime. [21] AAH also increased its political activism in Iraq in an attempt to gain power at the polls during the 2014 elections,[22] in which AAH’s political party, the al-Sadiqun Bloc won as a small part of al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition. [23] [24] [25]

 

Size Estimates

Resources

AAH receives weapons, training, and financial support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, as well as from Lebanese Hezbollah. [30] Iraqi intelligence estimates that AAH takes in around 1.5 – 2 million USD from its Iranian contacts each month. [31][32] Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, the head of the Sheibani smuggling network, also supplied the group with considerable resources. Further financial and weapons support came from a smuggling network run by Ahmad Sajad al-Gharawi, the leader of a terrorist network in Southern Iraq. [33]

 Prior to the arrival of coalition troops, the IRGC could transport large quantities of armaments, expert personnel and other materiel across the Iraq-Iran border at several points of entry. Thus, from the 1980s to 2003, Iran was able to arm its Iraq proxies, such as the Badr Organization, without great difficulty. Following the invasion in 2003, coalition forces did provide equipment to facilitate border security – however, pervasive corruption and persistent border weaknesses allowed Iranian forces and arms to continue crossing into Iraq in limited numbers. The technical and material support provided by Iran has been pivotal in AAH’s success and staying power. [34]

 

External Influences

The largest influence on the activities and capabilities of AAH is from the Quds Force, which is largely responsible for providing weapons and funds. [35]. Links with Hezbollah are largely logistical and financial. [36]

Geographical Locations

AAH operates primarily in Baghdad and has two political offices in the city; however, AAH also has a large presence throughout Iraq, with offices in al-Khalis, Basra, Najaf, Tal Afar, Hillah, and Najaf. Following the release of key AAH members in exchange for a British hostage in 2010, al-Khazali and the majority of the AAH leadership relocated to Iran briefly, dictating operations from abroad. In December 2011, the AAH leadership returned to Baghdad. [37]

Targets & Tactics

The tactics utilized by AAH are similar to other nationalist militant groups in the region. AAH targeted coalition forces and Iraqi police, using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), indirect rocket or mortar fire, and snipers. [38].  The organization claimed more than 6,000 attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces between 2006 and 2011, relying on sophisticated roadside IEDs, kidnappings, and mortar attacks that were mostly directed against stationary coalition targets, such as the US embassy in Baghdad. [39]

Political Activities

In 2007, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, originally a military unit within the Mahdi Army split from the Sadrists after a disagreement over Sadr's cease-fire agreement with the U.S. and Iraqi security forces. Since then, the Sadrists have been consistently opposed to AAH and its entry into politics. [40] In 2009, American officials attempted to bring AAH into Iraq's government on the condition that the group disarm. The group's leader, Qais al-Khazali, was released from detention in exchange for a British hostage held by AAH and with the understanding that he would immediately call for the end of violent operations. However, al-Khazali fled to Iran and continued organizing and directing attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces. [41]

AAH’s political ventures started in earnest during mid-December, 2011, when al-Khazali announced the end of AAH’s armed resistance to coalition forces. [42] In 2013, AAH substantially increased its political activities, reallocating much of its resources and time to bolstering its popular base through social programs, such as its madrasa network and aid to orphans and widows. It also appeared that AAH intended to exploit its close working relationship with al-Maliki. [43]

AAH’s political branch, established after the withdrawal of coalition forces, is based in Baghdad and has offices across Iraq. The locations of AAH offices in Iraq’s provinces were chosen specifically to challenge the Sadrists and their main bases of support; for example, an office was established in Kadhimiya because of its proximity to two Shiite shrines, and it has traditionally been a stronghold of the Mahdi Army. The political section even has an office in Beirut so that it can communicate more easily with Hezbollah. It appears that the main task assigned the political section is to gain widespread support for AAH by coordinating the group’s religious and social services networks; AAH’s political wing also plans and runs political meetings, press statements, and religious events for both AAH leadership and its political officials. [44] AAH’s political section, also sometimes referred to as “al-Sadiqun,” or “The Holy Ones,” fielded a small number of candidates in the April 2014 Iraqi parliamentary elections with al-Maliki’s coalition. [45][46] [47] [48]

Major Attacks

  1. January 20, 2007: AAH undertook the kidnapping and killing of five U.S. soldiers. (5 U.S. Soliders killed).[49]
  2. April 6, 2009: Claimed responsibility for a roadside improvised explosive devicein the 'Azamiyah district of Baghdad, Iraq.The explosion wounded Iraqi civilians and caused an unknown amount of property damage. (4 wounded).[50]
  3. June 15, 2009: Claimed responsibility for an improvised explosive device in an attack in Al Khalis, Diyala, Iraq, wounding Iraqi civilians. (2 wounded).[51]
  4. September 16, 2009: Following the conclusion of a meeting between United States Vice President Joe Biden andIraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,AAH members in the Al Karkh district of Baghdad, Iraq, fired two rockets at the International (Green) Zone. The rockets landed in Abu Nawas Street with no damage or motive reported. (no casualties).[52]
  5. October 28, 2009: Fired four morter rounds at the United States Consulate in Al Hillah, Babil, Iraq. (no casualties).[53]
  6. November 12, 2009: Fired a Katyusha rocket at the United States Consulate in Al Hillah, Babil, Iraq. (no casualties).[54]

Relationships with Other Groups

AAH’s main rival is the Mahdi Army, now known as the Peace Brigades. While AAH’s leader al-Khazali once had a very close relationship with the Sadr family, AAH maintains close ties to Iran, which the Mahdi Army opposes. As al-Sadr continues shifting the Mahdi Army and the National Alliance Party to a nationalist ideology, his political opposition to AAH has only increased, leading to armed conflict between the AAH and the Mahdi Army, particularly in Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. [55]

AAH maintains a close relationship with the Lebanese group Hezbollah; connected via Iran, the two groups have exchanged political and military expertise and even cooperated in their operations. With the start of the 2003 invasion, cooperation expanded as Hezbollah leadership, including Ali Mussa Daqduq, became increasingly involved in supporting AAH against the coalition’s efforts. AAH communications with Hezbollah are conducted largely via the AAH Representative Office in Beirut. [56]

AAH and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have come into armed conflict with each other, particularly in Jurf al-Sakhr, a small city outside of Baghdad. As ISIS gained territory in Iraq, it naturally posed a significant threat to AAH interests. [57] Reports now state that AAH has unofficially changed its focus to combatting ISIS and mitigating sectarian divisions. Despite government denials, it also appears that large numbers of AAH members are joining the ranks of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to combat ISIS under a legitimate guise, unintentionally bringing a Shiite dimension to the ISF; the majority of the ISF’s AAH members are deployed to Baghdad and Diyala. Al-Maliki’s decision to use AAH members in this way has drawn the ire of several competing political groups in Iraq, especially the Sadrists. [58] 

Community Relationships

A network of madrasas across Iraq, called the “School of the Apostles,” acts as an anchor for AAH’s religious activism. The School of the Apostles also links with and supports AAH’s political and charitable works, streamlining the group’s different strategies for indoctrinating the general population into AAH theology and political ideology. Furthermore, the AAH uses carefully written sermons at the Sabatayn Mosque in al-Aamel in Baghdad and the Abdullah al-Radiya Mosque in Diyala to disseminate its ideas to the masses. Financial support for local social service programs is another integral aspect of AAH’s public relations campaign. [59] In order to attract as many recruits as possible, AAH has continually expanded the scope of its issues, from the nationalistic to sectarian and economic, despite its core theological nature. [60] 


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