Iraq’s leading expert on paramilitary groups assassinated in Baghdad

Hisham al-HashimiA leading Iraqi expert on paramilitary groups has been shot dead outside his home in Baghdad, raising concerns that the Iraqi government is unable to curtail the activities of militias in the country. Hisham al-Hashimi, 47, was a Baghdad University-educated historian, who rose to prominence in post-Ba’athist Iraq as an expert on paramilitary groups in the country. He was seen as a leading local authority on the Islamic State and advised the United States-led coalition on the group’s inner workings.

Starting in 2018, al-Hashimi focused his research on the rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of over 150,000 armed members of around 40 different Shi’a militias, who helped the Iraqi government defeat the Islamic State in 2017. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in reclaiming territory taken by ISIS. However, it has since refused to acknowledge the authority of the central government in Baghdad and retains its weaponry and power.

In recent years, Al-Hashimi emerged as a vocal critic of the PMF and made regular appearances on Iraqi television to discuss the group, its tactics and goals. He taught courses on counterterrorism and advised the Iraqi government, as well as several foreign diplomats and journalists. In recent months, al-Hashimi had reportedly told relatives and friends that he believed the Shi’a militias were “out to get him”, and expressed fears for his life. He had contemplated leaving Baghdad and moving to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

According to news reports, al-Hashimi was shot dead by two gunmen on a motorcycle, as he was leaving his home in north Baghdad. According to eye-witnesses, the gunmen shot al-Hashimi five times before leaving the scene of the crime. The terrorism expert was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead two hours later.

In a statement, Iraq’s newly installed Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said his administration wound be launching a nationwide manhunt to find al-Hashimi’s killers. However, Monday’s assassination is widely seen as yet another sign that the Iraqi government is unable to control the PMF, and especially its most powerful wing, the Kita’ib Hezbollah (KH). Many were surprised late last month, when Iraqi counterterrorism forces moved to arrest 14 KH members for the first time since the group’s founding. However, all but one of those arrested were released in less than a week, with many accusing al-Kadhimi’s government of backing down out of fear or suffering repercussions by the militias.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 July 2020 | Permalink

Hundreds of ISIS fighters returning to Iraq to wage low-level insurgency

Islamic State ISISAbout 1,000 Islamic State fighters have returned to Iraq in recent months and are waging a low-level insurgency that threatens to destabilize rural areas and may be the forerunner of a new sectarian war, an expert has warned. Thousands of fighters belonging to the Islamic State —known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— crossed into Syria in late 2017. In December of that year, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in the war against the militant Sunni group. Since then, however, many of these fighters have been slipping back into Iraq from Syria and are now picking up arms again against the Iraqi state, which they see as being dominated by Iran-allied Shiites.

In an article published on Sunday, The Washington Post cites Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security advisor to the government in Baghdad, as well as several foreign aid groups, who warns that ISIS is regrouping in Iraq. Al-Hashimi told The Post that approximately 1,000 ISIS fighters are believed to have crossed into Iraq from Syria since December of 2018. Most of them are Iraqi nationals who are essentially returning to the Sunni-majority areas of the country that were considered ISIS strongholds before 2018. Upon their return, the fighters join small ISIS cells that operate mostly in rural areas in central and northern Iraq. They move at night and are intimately familiar with the local terrain, which allows them to utilize effectively a variety of hiding places. These cells can now be found in locations ranging from the city of Kirkuk in the north to the province of Diyala, east of Baghdad. They are responsible for scores of kidnappings, roadside bombings and sniper attacks that target local officials and security personnel. Local observers stress that the re-emerging ISIS cells are too weak to threaten the territorial control of the country by the Iraqi government. However, they are rapidly destabilizing rural areas in the country and appear to be preparing for a protracted insurgency that could potentially lead to another major sectarian war.

The Washington Post report comes a month after a group of researchers with the Institute for the Study of War warned that the Islamic State is capable of making a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain. In a 76-page paper entitled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, the researchers said that the militant group had managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce stability and safety in areas previously under ISIS domination. Not only were government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both Iraq and Syria, the report warned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 July 2019 | Permalink

Joint US-Iraqi intelligence operation used cell phone app to trap senior ISIS figures

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAn joint operation conducted by American and Iraqi intelligence officers employed a popular messaging app on the phone of a captured Islamic State commander to apprehend four very senior figures in the organization, according to reports. The Reuters news agency said on Thursday that the ambitious intelligence operation began in February, when Turkish authorities captured a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Hisham al-Hashimi, security advisor to the government of Iraq, the ISIS aide was Ismail al-Eithawi, also known by his alias, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi. Iraqi officials claim that al-Eithawi was appointed by al-Baghdadi to handle the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.

It appears that al-Eithawi had managed to escape to Turkey when the United States-led coalition shattered ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But he was captured by Turkish counterterrorism forces and handed over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad then shared the contents of al-Eithawi’s cell phone with US intelligence officers. The latter were able to help their Iraqi counterparts utilize the popular messaging app WhatsApp, a version of which was installed on al-Eithawi’s cell phone. According to al-Hashimi, the Iraqis and Americans made it seem like al-Eithawi was calling an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area. But when these Syria-based commanders crossed into Iraq to meet in secret, they were captured by Iraqi and American forces.

According to al-Hashimi, those captured include a Syrian and two Iraqi ISIS field commanders. More importantly, they include Saddam Jamal, a notorious ISIS fighter who rose through the ranks to become the organization’s governor of the Euphrates’ region, located on Syria’s east. Al-Hashimi told reporters on Thursday that Jamal and al-Eithawi were the most senior ISIS figures to have ever been captured alive by US-led coalition forces. The Iraqi government advisor also said that al-Eithawi’s captors were able to uncover a treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS, as well as several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2018 | Permalink