How Iraq’s Top ISIS Scholar Became a Target for Shiite Militias

Husham al-Hashimi helped the Iraqi government understand and hunt down ISIS terrorists. But his last work was on Shiite militias, and they assassinated him for it

How Iraq’s Top ISIS Scholar Became a Target for Shiite Militias
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines.

Husham al-Hashimi was worried. For weeks, Iraq’s foremost scholar on the Islamic State had been receiving death threats. Only these were not coming from the Sunni extremists he had spent years anatomizing. They were coming from Shiite radicals.

On July 6, Husham was killed by gunmen outside his home in Baghdad. Footage of the killing shows assassins on three motorbikes lurking outside his home, waiting for him to arrive. As his car pulls in, a gunman walks over and shoots him dead.

The Iraqi government has yet to name the culprits, but sources familiar with Baghdad’s investigation told New Lines that two Shiite militias, both backed by Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were involved, and the perpetrators fled the country. The militias — Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah — targeted Husham because he had become increasingly vocal about their activities and likely because of a study he had started working on shortly after anti-government protests broke out this time last year. Several close friends of Husham spoke about the threats he had received from Shiite militias, including from the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

I spoke to Husham two hours before his killing. In his last audio message on WhatsApp, he explained the legal process for how Iraqis stranded in refugee camps set up for displaced families associated with ISIS could be permitted to return to their homes. His message was part of revisions for an article he’d written for the Center for Global Policy about the security implications for keeping some 300,000 Iraqis in squalid conditions across the country. Husham relied on official government data, firsthand conversations with high-level officials, and field research — the kind of work for which he was known, particularly since the rise of ISIS in 2014.

Three hours before his death, and just before that last audio message, Husham had shared details of a research project different from the kind he was known for producing. It was this project that likely led to his death. It had nothing to do with ISIS.

In late June, he first spoke to me about a secret project he had been working on for six months to map the consortium of Shiite militias known as Hashd al-Shaabi — the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — which were mobilized after the rise of ISIS in 2014 and have since entrenched themselves in the Iraqi state as part of the armed forces, the parliament, and other government institutions.

Even though he was focused on ISIS in his public work, he was secretly studying the Shiite Islamists and feeding journalists and researchers insider details about their operations. When he spoke to me about his project in June, he said, “I know these groups as I know my children.”

Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines.

June was also when he became more vocal about the different types of militias operating under the PMF. He distinguished between those loyal to Iraqi clergy and others loyal to Iran, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah — the two allegedly responsible for killing him. He also called for the government to consider applying Iraq’s 2005 Counterterrorism Law 4, typically reserved for Sunnis, on those militias involved in conducting attacks on foreign missions in Baghdad. That bold statement may have been one of the reasons he was targeted.

His extensive study on the Shiite militias, obtained by the Center in full after his death, tells the story of how a new regime is being formed in Iraq. The gradual state capture by the militias, premised on reconstruction and reconciliation after a civil war, is one part sectarian warfare, one part expropriation and organized crime, and all parts Iranian hegemony. Iraq, Husham persuasively demonstrates, has turned into another Lebanon, a failing state in thrall to a deep state, outwardly amenable to Western and American interests but inexorably run by agents of Tehran. The upshot is that instead of just one Hezbollah, Iraq now has dozens. These Hezbollahs are not mere puppets to Iran. They are more than that. They are self-sufficient enough to be doing what they are supposed to do, from Iran’s perspective.

After his killing, multiple Arabic outlets quoted friends of Husham saying that the mysterious study was likely the cause of his death because it revealed names and activities about powerful militias with links to Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah (not to be confused with Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah). One of the details involved a Lebanese Hezbollah leader operating in Iraq, the designated political coordinator between his group and the Iraqi Shiite factions working with Iran.

Muhammad Kawtharani’s mission in Iraq included playing a large role in implementing reconciliations between Sunni and Shiite political forces. But officials in Washington suspect Kawtharani has carried out terrorist acts and has participated with armed groups in suppressing the Iraqi protests last year. The militias using snipers on rooftops were involved in the deadliest crackdowns on protesters. Husham wrote that Kawtharani may have recently filled the gap left after the U.S. killing of the former leader of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani. The United States was offering a $10 million reward for information about Kawtharani.

Robert Calzada / Center for Global Policy / New Lines.

Husham’s friends said his study was also meant to help Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi draw up a plan to crack down on the militias that Husham labelled “walaiya” — those loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as opposed to those loyal to the Iraqi clerical establishment.

Husham’s study — more than 100 pages of information and analysis — is by far the most detailed and authoritative intelligence ever produced on Iraq’s Shiite militias. The study details the militias’ checkpoints along highways and entryways across Iraq, including the capital and the Kurdish and Sunni areas in central and northern Iraq, complete with maps and charts. It also details the various — and sometimes comical — ways these militias make money and how they came to dominate every aspect of Iraq’s public and private life.

Husham’s project covers various provinces, but Ninewa is the most extensively documented. And for a good reason.

In Ninewa, these militias are most active outside their Shiite strongholds because of the fight to liberate Mosul from ISIS. It is one of the largest areas in Iraq where militants found fertile ground because of a security and power vacuum resulting from the defeat of ISIS and the state collapse that preceded it. The militias used this vacuum to penetrate the public and private daily lives of the natives, including extortion of restaurants and demographic re-engineering (taking over Christian parts of the region, much as ISIS did). This is also where the militiamen from the Shiite center and south were given official domicile and were able to own land, appropriate businesses, and prevent displaced families from returning in order to make way for Shiite settlements in historically Sunni-majority territories.

Ninewa is one of Iraq’s most ethnically and religiously diverse provinces, and the militia control has thus involved demographic re-engineering — the second large-scale instance since Baghdad suffered sectarian cleansing at the hands of some of the same militias during the civil war in 2006-2007.

The details in the report show the pervasive control of these militias and the absurdity of life under it. In one instance from the University of Mosul, a militia linked to the Iran-backed Badr Organization demanded that one employee be given a more central role at the university, but the dean found that the person was involved in corrupt deals and had suspected ties to ISIS during the organization’s control of the city. Husham found several instances of people accused of links to ISIS working with the militias, their putative enemies. The most concentrated ISIS activities, he noted, occurred in some of the same areas where the militias were most active, and some militia attacks against restaurants or civilians were falsely attributed to ISIS.

These parachuted-in officials rewarded their militia patrons with pilfered state resources such as real estate, whose ownership was illegally transferred to third parties, allowing militias to access the most economically important portions of the liberated areas, therefore subsidizing their operations through public funds. Corrupt officials even handed over former presidential palaces from the Saddam Hussein era to the militias to use as headquarters, providing barracks for fighters from other provinces. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former de facto head of the PMF, appears repeatedly in Husham’s study as the man behind the employment and sacking of many officials in key positions across the federal and local governments. (Muhandis, born of an Iraqi father and an Iranian mother, and who has been implicated in terrorist attacks against U.S. and French embassies in 1983, was assassinated by the United States in January in the same raid that took out Soleimani.)

Robert Calzada / Center for Global Policy / New Lines.

The University of Mosul affair is not an isolated incident. Husham highlights a number of ways in which the militias have wrested pervasive control over much of the Iraqi economy: from airport customs, construction projects, oilfields, sewage, water, highways, colleges, public and private property, tourism sites, presidential palaces; and the extortion of restaurants, cafes, cargo trucks, fishermen, farmers, displaced families. A small sample of these activities:

  • One official received an envelope with a bullet and a letter asking him to abandon his government position. The pending trial of another official was canceled because of his relations with the PMF and the National Security Council.
  • A PMF-linked official was put in charge of the fund that receives international grants to rebuild the hospitals, bridges, roads, and schools, and no deal is finalized without his signature.
  • The militias make more than $100,000 every day from a single checkpoint connecting Baghdad and the southern provinces, through extortion, according to an officer in the federal police intelligence. The militias control other checkpoints connecting Baghdad to different provinces, with similar amounts of money collected at each one.
  • Asaib Ahl al-Haq has collected $30,000 daily from a checkpoint located between north Baghdad and south Salah al-Din since 2016. Sunni citizens cannot cross into Baghdad unless they pay $10 per person and $100 per truck.
  • Following the liberation of Mosul and the rest of Ninewa province from ISIS, agricultural lands in the Ninewa Plain area – about 75 acres – were distributed among the militias. These villages on the outskirts of Mosul were predominantly Christian. ISIS seized them in 2014. After security forces retook the villages, PMF factions seized the lands in Bartella, Hamdaniya, and other areas, preventing many Christians from returning.
  • The Shiite religious endowments incorporated 17 religious sites and shrines in the old city in Mosul. When such moves were contested, Shiite militias would send a show of force to local authorities to establish ownership of Sunni sites and endowments.
  • The militias took control of more than 72 oil fields in the Qayyarah area south of Mosul that ISIS had previously controlled, and the factions pilfer around 100 tanker trucks of crude oil daily.
  • The PMF imposes protection money of $1,000 to $3,000 monthly on larger restaurants. Owners who fail to pay could have their restaurants blown up, and the explosion would be falsely attributed to ISIS, including by the Iraqi army.
  • Fighters who came from central and southern Iraq have registered as residents of Ninewa Plain and Mosul in order to legitimize the seizure of this property. This occurred as a result of pressure from top militia leaders Hadi al-Amiri and Muhandis, before the latter was killed.
  • The PMF factions in Mosul are working with the help of directors in some of the land registry offices to seize large tracts of land in Ninewa, particularly in Mosul. The director of the municipal office of Mosul distributed plots of lands belonging to the ethnic minority of Shabak to the militias.
  • A person loyal to the militias was put in charge of the Ninewa Martyrs Directorate, which registers and tracks the names of Iraqis presumably killed in the war against ISIS, with direct support by Muhandis and the PMF leadership.
  • After UNESCO classified the ruins around Samarra as world heritage sites, the PMF began calling the palaces and facilities from the Abbasid empire “the Prison of the Imam Ali al-Hadi,” a sectarian move, while stirring up Shiite victimhood.
Robert Calzada / Center for Global Policy / New Lines.

No wonder, then, that Qais al-Khazaali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, once described the rise of ISIS and the paralysis of the Iraqi security forces in the face of it as “a blessing in disguise.” The decision by key Iraqi and foreign players to respond to the 2014 ISIS threat with large-scale militia mobilization made Iraq’s current crisis inevitable. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the militarization or mobilization of so many men of military age, many of them under Iranian auspices, would not create lasting and powerful interest groups and relations that undermine the Iraqi state or upend citizens’ everyday lives.

Each prime minister attempted to rein in the militias in a different way, with little success: Nouri al-Maliki targeted some of the groups, designated some of their leaders as terrorists, and formed isnad — auxiliary forces — as a way to weaken large formations. After him, Haider al-Abadi proposed integrating the militias into the government as a path to moderation, so he legalized them in 2016. Adil Abd al-Mahdi tried to share power with them and accept them as a reality. Mustafa Kadhimi, an independent politician with little backing from powerful political parties, tried to use “a smart power” approach of sticks and carrots, as Husham put it. The latter prime minister believes that only a strong state, and the gradual work toward building one, would weaken the militias, but they only seem to have entrenched themselves further as the nascent state was recovering after the collapse of ISIS, and as Sunnis were crushed and the Kurds significantly weakened.

Husham was best positioned to understand the terrorist group that seized a third of his country and half of neighboring Syria to declare a caliphate one century after the Ottoman Empire was dismantled. In his youth, Husham converted from Shiism to Sunnism, and later adopted hardline Sunni views after he studied under Iraq’s influential Salafist cleric, Sheikh Subhi al-Samarrai. He was jailed by Saddam Hussein’s regime for his Islamist activism in the late 1990s and was released in a general amnesty for political prisoners six months before the 2003 invasion.

After the war, Husham joined the anti-U.S. insurgency as a cleric for one of the country’s largest organizations, the Mujahideen Army. He had reportedly also connected with Ansar al-Islam, the Kurdish-led jihadist organization against Saddam that predated the war, which would explain his ability to retain sources among veterans of that group operating in Iraq and Syria in recent years. The sources he had within ISIS included ones from Samarra, relatives of both his former Salafist sheikh al-Samarrai and the former leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, both of the same tribe. As part of the anti-U.S. insurgency, he operated mostly in the Abu Ghraib area of Baghdad, where he was once jailed in the now-notorious prison.

Even though he joined the insurgency as a Salafist mentor, both his friends and critics agree he was at odds with al Qaeda from the start. ISIS sympathizers online claimed that Husham tried to join the insurgents in Fallujah, one of the earliest hotbeds of the anti-U.S. resistance, but he clashed with associates of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner to ISIS.

After Husham’s assassination, one of the founders of al-Qaeda in Syria also reached out to me via social media to share his thoughts about the man he had known when they both were part of the insurgency. The longtime Iraqi jihadist, widely known as Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, did not hide his dislike for Husham, whom he called muntakis, or the lapsed one.

Qahtani had known Husham when the latter was a member of the Mujahideen Army and a close associate of its prominent insurgent leader Abu Saeed Mohammed al-Hardan. Qahtani acknowledged that Husham had acquired much-coveted theological training under one of Iraq’s most respected Sunni clerics, specializing in the oral traditions of Prophet Mohammed. Those credentials won Husham the nickname “Abu Hurayra,” named after the most prolific narrator of the Prophet’s sayings, and enabled him to mentor Iraq’s main Islamist organization.

During his time with the insurgency, Husham fell into trouble with al Qaeda, according to Qahtani. The group had killed some of his relatives, and he wanted to get justice through shariah courts established in Sunni areas. His attempts failed as al Qaeda refused to enter a legal dispute with him. He eventually fled to Syria.

Husham’s life took a turn in 2009 when he returned to Iraq after a deal with the Iraqi government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He took advantage of an amnesty for former insurgents and became an informal national security adviser to the Iraqi government. With time, he became an indispensable source for Baghdad and Washington in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq (and later ISIS) and a go-to source for international journalists working on Iraq and extremism.

Despite its relevance to his work, Husham rarely spoke about his experience in the 1990s against Saddam and the early 2000s in the insurgency. Friends who spoke to him about it say he didn’t want to publicize it in Baghdad for fear of being labeled as a closet Sunni extremist.

Husham’s final piece of scholarship is his magnum opus, one befitting the legacy of a complex man who inhabited several identities throughout his life, each one informing his intellectual and moral framework for understanding his no-less complex country. In a field increasingly dominated by charlatans, Husham was a true expert who lived his subject matter — and likely died for it.

He had started working on the militias project after a youth-led uprising broke out in October of last year. The protesters were largely from the very Shiite demographics these militias claim to represent. The mass protests were unprecedented in scope and nature because they occurred in Shiite-majority cities against the Shiite-dominated political class, only a year after those militias were widely hailed as heroes because of their vital role in defeating ISIS. The protests also followed what scholars described as the first non-sectarian election after 2003.

The protests rocked the political establishment and defied various attempts at appeasement or repression. Even though they focused on government corruption, the militias emerged as the protesters’ most violent repressors. The uprising alarmed Iran, especially as its proxy in Lebanon faced similarly unprecedented demonstrations in the same month. Pro-Iranian militias saw the youth movement as an American conspiracy that also threatened their interests. With time, the dynamics would lead to a series of tit-for-tat attacks between these militias and the United States. This smoldering sideshow conflict became a conflagration, or risked becoming one, when one militia killed an American contractor in December and stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The Trump administration retaliated by assassinating Soleimani, Iran’s most effective operative, along with Muhandis, his local aide, at Baghdad International Airport.

Husham’s study vindicates the grievances driving the protests. It shows how the militias operate primarily as criminal rather than religious syndicates, draining the lifeblood of Iraqi economy and undermining public institutions. Widespread public and private institutions are thoroughly infiltrated, dominated, co-opted, or otherwise compromised by the militias. Their encroachment on and exploitation of various spheres of life in Iraq are not limited to the institutions but extend to the day-to-day well-being of ordinary Iraqis, be they Sunni or Shiite or Christian.

The central government lacks the capability to tackle this problem through force, and the PMF elements are too aware of their own strength to make concessions. It is unclear how this malady can be cured without killing the patient. Part of the problem is that Iraq’s new political class of opportunists are complicit and invested in the militarized criminality organically woven into the tissue of the Iraqi state.

After the October protests, Husham started to publicly criticize these new elites. He knew the risks of speaking up because he had previously been threatened by one of the leaders of these militias, Khazaali of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which the Iraqi government has linked to his killing. Khazaali’s message to Husham in 2016 was simple: Keep focusing on ISIS, and stay away from Shiite militias. Despite the tension, Khazaali and Husham remained friendly and in touch. The two were jailed around the same time by the Saddam regime, in the late 1990s until 2002, in Abu Ghraib; Khazaali, too, for his Islamist activism, albeit as a follower of the prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Mohammed al-Sadr who was killed in 1999 probably by the former regime.

The story of Husham and his final analysis captures the tragedy and heartbreak of Iraq. A man of enormous intellectual talent and principle is slain in cold blood by the new terrorist-gangsters of Baghdad, men who have been celebrated, including by Western diplomats and observers, as the vanquishers of a prior reign of terrorist-gangsters. America intervened in 2003 to end one brutal dictatorship; it has now inadvertently catalyzed the creation of a sectarian mafia determined to keep the country at a perpetual state of war with itself, and Iraqis like Husham either silent, exiled, or below ground.

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