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Kata'ib Hezbollah

Formed2007
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackFebruary 19, 2008: KH launched an improvised rocket-assisted mortar (IRAM) at a U.S. base southeast of Baghdad, killing one American civilian (1 killed, unknown wounded). [1]
Last AttackMay 2016: KH and other Shiite militias affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) participated in the Iraqi army’s capture of Fallujah from IS. KH was among the Shiite militias accused of beating and executing dozens of Sunni civilians in the re-captured city (unknown casualties). [2]
UpdatedAugust 25, 2016

Narrative Summary

Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), or the Hezbollah Brigades, is an Iranian-backed, Iraqi Shiite paramilitary founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in 2007. [3] [4] Prior to founding KH, Muhandis was a member of the Badr Organization, in which capacity he worked closely with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah during the Iran-Iraq War and throughout the 1990s.  When Muhandis founded KH in 2007, he retained close ties with both organizations; in fact, many analysts believe that the IRGC was directly involved in KH’s formation and continues to bankroll the organization today. [5] [6] [7] Hezbollah instructors were also instrumental in training early KH recruits in guerilla warfare tactics and the use of explosives and various other weapons. KH was also believed to run smuggling networks between Iran and Iraq in concert with the IRGC during the Iraq War in order to supply the Iraqi Shiite militias with Iranian weapons. [8] [9] 

From 2007 to 2011, KH focused the majority of its resources on fighting the U.S. coalition in Iraq. According to U.S. diplomat Ali Khedery, KH was responsible for “some of the most lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces throughout the [U.S.-led war in Iraq].” [10] The group was particularly known for its use of deadly roadside bombs and improvised rocket-assisted mortars (IRAMs) against coalition forces.  [11] [12] Although initially KH did not target the fledgling Iraqi army or government, following the Iraqi government’s approval of a U.S.-Iraq Security Partnership in November 2008, KH threatened reprisals against the Iraqi government and its forces. [13]

Following the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, KH refused to heed the Iraqi government’s calls for all militant groups in the country to demilitarize.  The group cited continued instability in Iraq as its justification for its refusal to lay down its arms. [14] [15]

Following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, KH was among the first Iraqi Shiite organizations to send troops to Syria to fight alongside the forces of the Assad Government.  It is unclear when the first KH troops arrived in Syria as the group did not officially announce its presence in the country until March 2013.  KH’s early participation in the Syrian Civil War is also somewhat unclear because of the participation of KH fighters in other front groups operating in Syria. [16] [17] For instance, in 2013, KH and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), another major Iraqi Shiite paramilitary, formed Harakat al-Nujaba (HN) as a front group through which to route their fighters to Syria. . [18] [19] Both AAH and KH also sent troops to fight within the ranks of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), a Shiite militia operating in Syria but primarily comprised of Iraqi fighters. [20] However, both HN and LAFA have since begun to recruit their own fighters and now act autonomously of AAH and KH.  KH and AAH now send their fighters to Syria under their own banners rather than in association with another group. [21] In 2015, KH claimed to have sent over 1,000 fighters to Aleppo but to have lost only 40 in the fighting in Syria.  According to the group’s spokesman, many of KH’s troops in Syria fight under the direct command of IRGC Commander Qasem Soleimani. [22] [23] In addition to fighting alongside IRGC and Assad regime troops, KH also cooperates with Hezbollah and other Iraqi and Syrian Shiite militias in Syria against the Islamic State (IS) and other Syrian opposition forces. [24]

KH has also been active fighting against IS and other Sunni militant organizations in Iraq since 2013. [25] The group is a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of Iraqi Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State (IS) under the ostensible control of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. [26] In April 2014, KH also announced the creation of Saraya al-Difa al-Shabi (KH-SDS), a sub group of the organization dedicated to fighting exclusively in Iraq. [27] Subsequently, in the summer of 2014, KH, AAH and other PMF-associated militias broke the IS siege of Amerli with the aid of U.S. airpower and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. [28] Despite such instances of tacit cooperation with American forces in the fight against IS, KH’s rhetoric has remained virulently anti-American, and statements released by the group throughout 2014 and 2015 reaffirm its refusal to cooperate with American forces. The group has also been accused by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch of conducting “indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas” and targeting Sunni civilians in Iraq. [29] 

In 2015, KH and many of the other Iraqi Shiite paramilitary groups denounced efforts by the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to pass the National Guard law, which was intended to increase Iraqi Sunni participation in the security forces.  Tensions between the government and KH increased after KH fighters clashed with Iraqi security forces in Baghdad on September 2015. [30] However, the group is still a leading presence in the PMF and fought alongside the Iraqi army in its efforts to recapture Fallujah in spring 2016.  KH has been among the Shiite militias accused of sectarian motivated violence against Sunni civilians in the campaign against IS.  Most recently, KH fighters were implicated in the torture and execution of Sunni men in Fallujah after the fall of the city to government forces in spring 2016. [31]

Leadership


  1. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (2007 to Present): Muhandis was a member of the Iraqi Shiite Dawah party in the 1970s and 1980s, and has been implicated in that group’s 1983 bombings of the American and French Embassies in Kuwait. He was also the commander of the Badr Organization, which was the militant wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), in the 1980s and early 1990s, in which capacity he fought for Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. He is believed to hold Iranian citizenship. After forming KH in 2007, Muhandis also helped to found a second Iraqi Shiite militia, Kata’ib Imam Ali (KIA), in 2014. He briefly served as an MP in the Iraqi Parliament under the name of Jamal al-Ibrahim, and is currently Iraq’s deputy national security advisor and the commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). [32]

Ideology & Goals

KH is a Shiite organization that believes in velayat-e faqih, or the Guardianship of the Jurists, which recognizes the Supreme Leader of Iran as the leader of the Shiite Ummah.  As such, all members of KH swear an oath of loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who they accept as their spiritual leader.  In line with its allegiance to Iran and the principles of the Iranian Revolution, KH seeks to institute a Shi’a Islamic government in Iraq with ties to Iran. [33] [34] [35]

Name Changes

KH has not changed its name.

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

July 2, 2009: The U.S. Treasury Department designated KH as a foreign terrorist organization and Muhandis as a foreign terrorist. [39]

November 2014: The United Arab Emirates designated KH as a foreign terrorist organization. [40]

Resources

External Influences

KH maintains a close relationship with Iran.  It is largely funded and trained by Iran’s IRGC and identifies Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, as its spiritual leader. The group also has close relations with Lebanese Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy organization, which is believed to have provided both training and funding to KH. [41] [42]

KH is currently fighting alongside the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. [43] [44] However, some reports claim that KH’s relationship with Assad predates the current conflict and that KH fighters used Syria as a smuggling route to and from Iraq during the Iraq war with the full knowledge of the Syrian government. [45]

Geographical Locations

While KH is believed to be headquartered in the Shiite areas of Baghdad, the group likely recruits from across the Shiite regions of southern Iraq. [46] Since the emergence of IS in 2013, the group has fought IS and its allies across central, western and northern Iraq, including in Samarra, Anbar, and Tikrit.  KH is also currently operating in Syria, where its forces are fighting alongside those of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. [47] [48] Although it remains unclear when the first KH fighters arrived in Syria, it is generally believed that the group has been sending troops to aid the Assad regime since 2012 or early 2013. [49] [50]

Targets & Tactics

From its creation in 2007 until the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, KH primarily targeted U.S.-coalition forces.  Although it claimed that it was careful not to target Iraqi forces, coalition forces indicate that KH targeted anyone working with the U.S. backed Iraqi government, civilian and soldier alike. [51] [52] [53] Since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, the group has fought with the Iraqi government and other Shiite militias against the Islamic State and its allies in Iraq. [54] Since 2012 or 2013, KH has also been active in Syria fighting alongside the Assad Regime and its allies against Syrian opposition and Islamist groups. [55] [56] Particularly in Iraq, KH has been accused on several occasions of using indiscriminate force in the fight against IS and even intentionally targeting Sunni civilians.  This is not the first time KH has been accused of stoking sectarian violence; it was also accused of such attacks during the Iraq war. [57]

During the Iraq War, KH was known for its use of roadside bombs and rockets, especially Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions (IRAMs), in its attacks against coalition forces. [58] [59] Since sending fighters to Syria in 2012 or 2013, KH has enlisted the help of Hezbollah to train its members in the urban street fighting tactics often used in Syria. [60]

In December 2009, KH conducted a sophisticated cyber attack, hacking into U.S. Predator drone feeds in Iraq in order to monitor and evade U.S. military operations. This has led many to speculate that the organization has a relatively sophisticated cyber unit or specialist working under its command. [61] The group has also utilized Iran-backed TV channels to solicit donations and increase its recruitment in Iraq. [62]

 Some reports dating from the time of the Iraq War suggested that KH fighters were paid between $300-$500 dollars a month and that fighters were broken into highly segregated cells within a rigid organizational structure. It is unclear if these reports remain true today. [63]

Political Activities

Although Muhandis briefly served as an MP in the Iraqi Parliament under the name of Jamal al-Ibrahim, KH itself has not undertaken any form of formal participation in the Iraqi political system. [64] However, it has released statements challenging some of Prime Minister Abadi’s policies, such as the creation of a National Guard.  KH and other Shiite militants have also sought to pressure the government into scuttling proposed reforms by ramping up levels of violence on the streets of Baghdad or by threatening to remove their fighters from the front lines against IS. [65]

Major Attacks


  1. February 19, 2008: KH launched an improvised rocket-assisted mortar (IRAM) at a U.S. base southeast of Baghdad, killing one American civilian (1 killed, unknown wounded).[66]
  2. June 4, 2008: KH conducted an attack meant to target coalition forces but that instead killed 18 civilians and destroyed 19 homes (18 killed, 29 injured).[67]
  3. November 29, 2008: A KH rocket attack killed 2 UN contractors (2 killed, 15 wounded).[68]
  4. February 2013: KH was implicated in an attack on a camp in Iraq that was hosting Iranian dissidents (unknown casualties).[69]
  5. June 2014: KH fought alongside the Iraqi security forces in the Anbar province, particularly around the city of Fallujah, in the summer of 2014 (unknown casualties).[70]
  6. August 2014: KH, AAH and other militias affiliated with the PMF participated in the Battle of Amerli against IS forces. KH and their allies were assisted by U.S. air strikes and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters (unknown casualties).[71]
  7. April 2015: KH was accused of killing Sunni civilians and looting their homes in Tikrit, after helping to liberating the city from IS (unknown casualties).[72]
  8. September 3, 2015: KH clashed with Iraqi security forces in Baghdad. The incident is believed to have been intended to pressure the Iraqi parliament to reject the National Guard bill that it was considering at the time (unknown casualties).[73]
  9. May 2016: KH and other Shiite militias affiliated with the PMF participated in the Iraqi army’s capture of Fallujah from IS. KH was among the Shiite militias accused of beating and executing dozens of Sunni civilians in the re-captured city (unknown casualties).[74]

Relationships with Other Groups

KH has maintained close relations with Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian IRGC since its formation in 2007.  These ties were most likely facilitated by KH founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who fought with the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq war and holds Iranian citizenship. [75]  Many sources speculate that the IRGC had a direct role in the foundation of KH. Additionally, both the IRGC and Hezbollah established camps in Iraq  train and equip KH fighters and have facilitated the transportation of KH members to Iran and Lebanon to undergo further training. [76] [77] In the case of Hezbollah, KH has maintained particularly close ties with Unit 3800, the Hezbollah sub-group dedicated to training Iraqi Shiite militias.  Unit 380 is believed to have been instrumental in re-training KH fighters for the specific conditions of the Syria Civil War before KH deployed there in 2012 or 2013.  Since entering Syria, KH has not only fought alongside the IRGC and Hezbollah, but also with many of the other Iraqi Shiite militias which have deployed there, including AAH, the Badr Organization, Harakat al-Nujaba (HN) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS). [78] [79] [80] 

KH’s relationship with the Badr Organization stems from Muhandis’ long affiliation with the group that predates the foundation of KH.  Muhandis purportedly joined the Badr Organization’s predecessor group, the Badr Brigades or Badr Corps, in 1985 and served as the group’s commander for a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  While commander of the Badr Brigades, Muhandis’ chief of staff was Haider al-Ameri, the current head of the Badr Organization, with whom Muhandis has reportedly retained close ties.  Muhandis is also believed to have maintained ties to his successor at the Badr Brigrades, Mustapha al-Sheibani. [81] [82] [83] After commanding the Badr Brigades through the 1990s, Sheibani went on to run the infamous Sheibani Network, a smuggling network that transported IRGC funding and munitions from Iran to Iraqi Shiite militias such as AAH and KH during the Iraq War. [84] Following the war’s conclusion, Sheibani went on to command Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), an Iraqi Shiite militia founded in 2013 by KH and the Badr Organization.  KH and KSS retain close ties and have reportedly been fighting together on the front lines in both Iraq and Syria. [85] [86]

KH is also believed to have ties to Kata’ib Imam Ali (KIA), a Shiite Iraqi militant group founded in July 2014.  Although little evidence exists of concrete coordination between the two organizations, Muhandis is believed be a senior figure in KIA as well as the commander of KH, leading many experts to speculate about the groups’ relationship to one another. [87]

KH and AAH also have a long history of coordination.  The groups purportedly cooperated with one another against coalition forces in Iraq during the Iraq War and occasionally staged joint attacks.  Since the end of the Iraq War, the two groups have fought together both in Iraq against the Islamic State (IS) and in Syria alongside pro-Assad forces. [88] In June 2013, AAH and KH purportedly co-founded Harakat al-Nujaba (HN), an Iraqi Shiite militia currently fighting in both Iraq and Syria.  Both groups are believed to have maintained close ties with HN. [89]

In addition to its role in the formation of KSS and HN, KH has also helped to found several other Shiite militias that are currently operating in the region.  For example, in 2012, KH, AAH, Badr and other existing Iraqi Shiite militias helped to establish Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) in Syria.  It is believed that KH and the other Iraqi based Shiite groups originally used LAFA as a front group, sending their members to fight alongside the Assad regime under its banner. [90] Since 2013, KH, AAH and the Badr Organization have begun sending their fighters under their own banners to fight in Syria and LAFA is thus believed to have begun to act autonomously of its founders.  However, KH and the other Iraqi Shiite Militias are believed to have maintained close ties to the group, and LAFA has since started its own sub group in Iraq, LAFA-Iraq, which is dedicated to combating IS. [91]

In April 2014, KH also announced the formation of Saraya al-Difa al-Shabi (KH-SDS), a fighting force dedicated specifically to fighting in Iraq.  KH-SDS is not believed to be an autonomous organization, but rather a sub-group within the KH chain of command. [92]

KH is a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of Iraqi Shiite militias fighting against IS in Iraq and nominally under the control of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.  Muhandis is the current commander of the PMF.  Other organizations in the PMF include AAH, the Badr Organization, KSS, KIA, HN, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades (formerly known as the Mahdi Army). [93]

KH’s primary enemy in Iraq is IS, against which it has fought on many occasions, most recently during the Iraqi army’s campaign to recapture Fallujah from IS in spring 2016. [94] [95] However, KH also lists other Iraqi militant groups, such as the Sufi-Baathist Jaysh al-Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) and the Sunni 1920s Revolution Brigades (1920s RB), among its enemies.  In Syria the group has fought against the secular opposition and Islamist organizations fighting against the Assad regime. [96]

Community Relationships

There is not much information on KH’s relationship with the Shiite communities in Iraq.  However, the group has been accused on several occasions both during the U.S. War in Iraq and during the fight against IS of instigating sectarian violence and sectarian cleansing.  Most recently KH was accused of executing tens of Sunni civilians after helping to retake Fallujah from IS. [97] [98]


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