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

Tension in Iraq as government arrests members of powerful Shi’a militias

Popular Mobilization ForcesThere was growing tension in Iraq over the weekend, as the government in Baghdad announced it had arrested over a dozen members of a powerful Shi’a militia backed by Iran. The arrests marked the first time that the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government moved to curtail the growing power of these heavily armed groups, which some say are threatening the cohesion of the country’s fragile state institutions.

Most of Iraq’s paramilitary groups are members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 different Shiite militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters, who helped the Iraqi government defeat the Islamic State in 2017. The militias began to form in the summer of 2014, after Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, issued a fatwa (religious degree) that called or the destruction of the Islamic State. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members have called for the end of American military and diplomatic presence in Iraq.

In January of this year, many of these groups declared war on the United States, after Washington launched a drone strike that killed the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Kita’ib Hezbollah (KH). KH is one of the most powerful Shia militias in Iraq, and controls much territory around the country. In a surprise move on Thursday, Iraqi counterterrorism forces announced they had arrested 14 members of KH, after receiving an intelligence tip. According to the government, the KH members were planning to launch large-scale attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone, a heavily fortified area of the Iraqi capital that houses the headquarters of most ministries, as well as several embassies.

The arrests were reportedly ordered by Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, former director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, who assumed his new duties on May 7. His appointment ended a prolonged political impasse, as the country had struggled to replace the government of his predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned in 2019 following a wave of popular protests. Al-Kadhimi is known to have good relations with Washington, while also being in good standing with Tehran. However, he vouched last month that he would “crush” the paramilitaries, who he views as enemies of Iraqi democracy.

In response to al-Kadhimi’s pronouncements, Shi’a militias have been launching constant small-rocket attacks targeting the Green Zone in recent weeks. Observers warned on Saturday that arrests of KH members have never been known to take place before, so this may be the opening shots of an open war between al-Kadhimi and Iraq’s Shi’a paramilitaries.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2020 | Permalink

News you may have missed #905

Twitter IAFrench forces kill al-Qaeda head and capture ISIS leader in Mali. In the past few days, the French military successfully conducted two key operations in the Sahel, killing the emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), Abdelmalek Droukdal, and capturing Mohamed el Mrabat, a leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) group. The US military assisted the French special operations forces by providing intelligence that helped locate the target.

Isis operations increase in Iraq as coalition withdraws. The Islamic State staged at least 566 attacks in Iraq in the first three months of the year and 1,669 during 2019, a 13 per cent increase from the previous year, according to security analysts who track the group’s activities. The jihadists have exploited a partial drawdown of the international anti-Isis coalition, analysts said, while tensions between the US and Iran, disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and political paralysis in Baghdad, have also combined to provide an opportunity for the insurgents to regroup.

Twitter removes more than 170,000 pro-China accounts. Twitter has removed more than 170,000 accounts it says were tied to an operation to spread pro-China messages. Some of those posts were about the coronavirus outbreak, the social media platform has announced. The firm said the Chinese network, which was based in the People’s Republic of China, had links to an earlier state-backed operation it broke up alongside Facebook and YouTube last year.

Islamic State’s new leader issues video vowing ‘not a single day without bloodshed’

ISIS SyriaIn a recent video message, the new head of the Islamic State calls COVID-19 a “great torment” from God against unbelievers, and vows that “not a single day will pass without bloodshed” due to attacks by his forces. The 39-minute video is entitled “The Crusaders Will Know Who Will Win in the End”, and began to circulate on the popular messaging application Telegram last Thursday.

The message in the video is delivered by Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who last year succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the leadership of the Islamic State. The Sunni militant group announced al-Qurashi’s ascension to the leadership on October 31, 2019, lust days after its founder and spiritual leader was killed by American troops in Syria. The United States is offering up to $5 million reward for information leading to al-Qurashi’s capture or death.

The video is the third message issued by the Islamic State’s new leader, and the second one this year. In it, al-Qurashi refers to the coronavirus pandemic, recent political changes in Iraq, and the ongoing negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The video also admonishes al-Qaeda’s branches in Africa, several of which are engaged in an increasingly bloody battle with forces allied to the Islamic State.

The majority of the video focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, which al-Qurashi describes as “a great torment” sent by God to non-Muslims, and says that he and his leadership “rejoice” in seeing the virus’ effects on the West. He adds that the enemies of the Islamic State will continue to be “struck down” by the pandemic like Egypt’s pharaohs were struck by the 10 plagues described in the Bible.

But al-Qurashi also focuses on Iraq, speaking with visible satisfaction about the apparent withdrawal of US troops from the country in recent months. Since the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by the US in January, American troops have withdrawn from at least six military bases throughout Iraq, which are now under the control of the Shi’a-dominated Iraq Security Forces. They include critical installations in the outskirts of Baghdad, in Kirkuk near the country’s Kurdish-dominated northern region, in Mosul, in western Iraq, and along the Syrian border. Additionally, Iraq now has a new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has vowed to crush the remnants of the Islamic State throughout his country.

Without substantial military presence by the US, the Islamic State does not see the Iraq Security Forces as capable of defending those regions —after all it has defeated them before. It therefore views the US military’s withdrawal as an unexpected opportunity to reignite its insurgency and even take back the lands that it controlled until a few years ago. In the latest video, al-Qurashi directly addresses the Iraqi government, which it describes as the “government of infidels in Iraq” and as “the American government”. He warns that “not a single day will pass without bloodshed”, as “jihadists will start to increase their attacks against the crusaders”. These attacks he says, will be “only the start of bigger attacks in Iraq and Syria”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 June 2020 | Permalink

COVID-struck Iraq sees ‘biggest ISIS resurgence’ since group’s defeat in 2017

ISIS IraqIraq is currently witnessing the largest resurgence of the Islamic State since December of 2017, when the Iraqi government declared it had defeated the group, according to local and international observers. The Sunni militant group, which became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is exploiting a moment of opportunity, as Iraqi security forces, Shia militias and American troops are essentially sheltering in place to avoid the effects of COVID-19.

Iraq has been on involuntary lockdown since March 22 in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s security forces are busy providing humanitarian relief to communities under lockdown. Additionally, large numbers of soldiers and police officers are either sick or sheltering in place with their families and are not turning up for work. Furthermore, United States forces have significantly scaled back their presence in the country following the assassination of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in January of this year, in an effort to avoid armed confrontations with Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias.

These conditions are allowing Islamic State fighters to emerge from hiding and conduct operations in nearly every province of Iraq. Last week the militant group launched a series of coordinated attacks in nearly 30 different locations across Iraq, which left dozens of Iraqi security forces and Shia militia members dead. Additionally, Islamic State saboteurs destroyed several power lines across northeastern Iraq, disrupting electricity supply to tens of thousands of homes in the region.

On Tuesday, Iraqi security forces teamed up with the Popular Mobilization Forces —a mostly Shia paramilitary group— to launch several operations against the Islamic State. The operations aimed to neutralize known Islamic State enclaves in mostly Sunni regions of northern and western Iraq. They also aimed to capture Islamic State regional commanders, most of whom operate along Iraq’s borders with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria.

But nobody knows how this campaign will end up in light of the coronavirus. The pandemic is causing major disruption on the Iraqi economy, while the historic drop in oil prices is dramatically reducing the nation’s primary source of income. The Islamic State thrives in conditions of instability, which is precisely what many fear, as the effects of the pandemic are continuing to manifest in the Middle East.

► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2020 | Permalink

ISIS is tenacious, well-funded and quickly reasserting itself, new UN report warns

Islamic State ISISThe Islamic State remains committed to its goals and continues to utilize ample funding sources, according to a new report by the United Nations. The report warns that the militant Sunni group, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is quickly reasserting itself in the Middle East.

The report (.pdf) was authored by a committee of the UN’s Security Council that monitors the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions designed to weaken the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and groups aligned with them. It was completed on January 20 and submitted to the UN Security Council last week. Its authors state that the information used to compile it came from intelligence shared with the UN by its member states.

The report recognizes that the Islamic State has suffered significant defeats in the field of battle, which have shattered its once formidable military and logistical power. Despite these setbacks, however, the militant group remains “tenacious and well-funded”, with much of its financial income stemming from sound investing practices in business opportunities throughout the Middle East, says the report. Meanwhile, its armed units in Syria continue to sell protection and carry out extortion, now even during daylight hours, it adds. The group’s steady funding even allows it to continue to provide monthly pensions to close family members of its dead fighters.

Additionally, says the report, the Islamic State has learned to take advantage of the deficiencies of Syrian and Iraqi security forces, and is now carrying out progressively brazen armed attacks against a variety of military and civilian targets. Although it is operationally weak, it continues to aspire to launch attacks in Europe in the future. Additionally, its leaders continue to seek ways of freeing thousands of the group’s supporters from detention camps in Syria and Iraq.

The report concludes that the death of the group’s leader, Abu Bark al-Baghdadi, and his replacement by Amir al-Salbi (also known as Abdullah Qardash) is not expected to signal drastic changes in the Islamic State’s strategic direction. However, Qardash is not an Arab and may not stay at the group’s helm for long, as an Arab Emir would be more likely to be met with acceptance by the group’s wilayats, or provinces, the report adds.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 February 2020 | Permalink

Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post

Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq. Read more of this post

ISIS forces now patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, says intelligence official

ISIS IraqThe Islamic State has regrouped, rearmed and refinanced itself, and its forces are now actively patrolling nearly all of northern Iraq, according to a senior intelligence official in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The Islamic State, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), used to control territory in the Levant that equaled the size of Germany. But its forces were pushed back by an international coalition of state armies and militias, a development that prompted several heads of governments, including United States President Donald Trump, to announce that ISIS had been defeated.

However, senior military and intelligence officials been warning in recent years that ISIS is far from defeated. In an new article published on Sunday, the BBC reports that Kurdish intelligence officials see ISIS as a resurgent organization. The report relies heavily on the views of Lahur Talabany, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Information Protection Agency, which serves as the primary security and counterterrorism organization of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.

Talabany told the BBC that ISIS is today “like al-Qaeda on steroids”. The group has “better techniques, better tactics and a lot more money at their disposal” than the al-Qaeda of old, he said. The abundance of financial resources allows ISIS to “buy vehicles, weapons, food supplies and equipment”, said Talabany, adding that he is not sure about the precise source of the funds.

In addition to utilizing its strong finances, ISIS has exploited an ongoing dispute between the Kurds of northern Iraq and the central government in Baghdad, which has left large regions of north-central Iraq without an effective government presence. The militant group’s forces are therefore able to carry out daily patrols over “a huge territory, from Diyala to Mosul, which encompasses nearly all of northern Iraq”, said Talabany.

A large portion of ISIS’s forces appear to be based in Iraq’s Hamrin Mountains, which are riddled with deep caves and ravines. But the group maintains nearly 10,000 fighters all over Iraq, said Talabany, of which 5,000 operate as members of sleeper cells and another 5,000 are armed and active members of ISIS.

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

Iraqi spy chief warns of impeding ‘catastrophe’ as ISIS rebuilds Middle East network

Saad Mozher Al-AllaqIn a rare interview, the head of Iraq’s military intelligence has warned of an impending “catastrophe” as the Islamic State continues to edge ever-closer to rebuilding its networks of fighters and supporters in the Middle East. Lieutenant General Saad Mozher Al-Allaq, head of Iraq’s Military Intelligence Directorate, gave a rare interview to the American news network CNN, which was aired on Monday.

In his interview, General Al-Allaq claimed that his agency was able to intercept recent communications from senior operatives of the Islamic State —also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The communications allegedly refer to “Operation BREAK DOWN THE FENCES”, which he said is a plan by ISIS to storm numerous prisoner of war camps that are located across northwestern Iraq and Kurdish- or Turkish-controlled northern Syria. These camps hold as many as 10,000 men, many of whom are believed to be ISIS fighters. Other camps hold nearly 100,000 women and children who are connected to male ISIS fighters. According to General Al-Allaq, ISIS seeks to rebuild its powerbase in the region by freeing and re-arming these prisoners.

In addition to guarding against the possibility of a mass exodus of alleged ISIS prisoners and their families, the Iraqi spy chief said that his force has been working with Turkish authorities to neutralize networks of ISIS operatives in Turkey. Several senior ISIS “emirs” —senior members of the organization, with significant political influence and funding power— were able to bribe smugglers to take them to Turkey, where they are currently reorganizing the militant group’s illicit networks. The Iraqi government recently notified Ankara of the whereabouts of nine such ISIS “emirs”, said Al-Allaq.

The Iraqi spy chief concluded his interview by warning of an impending “catastrophe”, should ISIS be able to implement Operation BREAK DOWN THE FENCES and rebuild its support base in the region. Representatives of the Turkish government told CNN that Ankara was looking into the Iraqis’ allegations of ISIS “emirs” operating inside Turkey.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 November 2019 | Permalink

Iranians may have used female spy to ‘honey-trap’ dissident living in France

Ruhollah ZamThe Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure a leading Iranian dissident from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. Iranian authorities announced the arrest of Ruhollah Zam on October 15. On that day, Iranian state television aired a video showing a blindfolded Zam surrounded by officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Zam, 46, was a prominent online voice of dissent during the 2009 Green Movement, an Iranian youth-based reform campaign whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. He joined other young Iranians in launching AmadNews, a website whose stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran. Soon after its emergence, AmadNews became the online voice of the Green Movement. Following a brief period of detention in 2009, Zam fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People).

Earlier this month, the Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured in a “complicated intelligence operation” that used “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. But it did not provide further information about the method that was used to convince Zam to travel to Iraq, whose government is closely aligned with Iran’s. A few days ago, however, the London-based newspaper The Times claimed that the IRGC used a woman to gain Zam’s trust and lure him to Iraq.

Citing exiled Iranian activists that work closely with Zam, the British newspaper said that the woman entered his life nearly two years ago, thus pointing to a lengthy intelligence operation by the IRGC. Over time, she won his trust and eventually convinced him to travel to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. The reason for his trip was that, allegedly, the woman convinced him that Ali al-Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq, had agreed to fund Zam’s online activities. However, the cleric needed to confer with the exiled dissident in person before agreeing to fund his work, according to the woman. It is not known whether Zam and the unnamed woman were romantically involved.

The Times also alleged that Zam’s abduction and arrest was met with “at least tacit approval” by the French intelligence services. The latter now expect that two French academics, who have remained imprisoned in Iran for alleged espionage activities for over a year, will be released as part of a swap with Zam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran abducts France-based dissident in ‘complex intelligence operation’

Ruhollah ZamIranian authorities have announced the capture of a Paris-based Iranian dissident, who was reportedly lured out of France and then abducted by Iranian agents in a third country. The kidnapped dissident is Ruhollah Zam, 46, son of  Mohammad-Ali Zam, a well-known reformist cleric who served in top Iranian government posts after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But in 2009 the younger Zam distanced himself from this father and sided with the so-called Green Movement, whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. Around that time, Zam was part of a group of Internet-savvy Iranians who launched AmadNews. The website’s stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran, and it soon became the online voice of the Green Movement.

Zam was promptly arrested and jailed for urging Iranian protesters to topple the government. He was eventually released thanks to his father’s status and reputation. He quickly fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People). The Iranian government accuses Zam of inciting violence against the state and claim that his online agitation is funded by the intelligence services of countries like France, Israel and the United States.

On October 15, Iran’s state-owned media network aired a video showing a bound and blindfolded Zam surrounded by armed officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured following a “complicated intelligence operation” using “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. It eventually emerged that Zam had flown from France to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. He appeared to be under the impression that he would travel to the Iraqi city of Najaf in order to meet Ali al-Sistani, arguably the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq.

In the same video, Zam is shown sitting in an armchair next to an Iranian flag, making a statement. He calmly looks at the camera and says that he “fully regrets” his actions directed against Iran. He then says that he made the mistake of entrusting his security to the intelligence services of France. Finally, he warns other dissidents who are involved in agitation against the Iranian state to not trust foreign governments. He names the latter as “the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey”. Iranian officials have not responded to questions about Zam’s current status and fate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 October 2019 | Permalink

Shia militia blames US and Israel for mystery explosions throughout Iraq

Popular Mobilization ForcesIraq’s largest Shia militia, which controls parts of Iraq’s territory that were aptured from the Islamic State, has accused the United States and Israel for a series of mystery explosions at its arms depots around the country. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 Shia militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces because they view them as American-supported.

In the past month, however, there have been at least three mystery explosions at arms depots controlled by the PMF throughout Iraq. On July 19, Arab media reported that a blast killed two Iranian military engineers at a PMF facility. Then on August 12 a massive explosion destroyed part of the al-Saqr military base in Baghdad, killing at least one person and injuring 30. The base reportedly housed an arms depot that was shared by the Shia-dominated Iraqi federal police and the PMF (the two are often indistinguishable in post-ISIS Iraq). On August 20 two more explosions were reported at a PMF arms depot located about 55 miles north of Baghdad. It is not known if anyone was killed or injured in the latest attack. Prior to the August 20 explosions, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi had banned all unauthorized flights over Iraq in an attempt to prevent further attacks on arms depots. But the move did not prevent yet another mystery attack.

In recent days, Iraq has been rife with rumors and conspiracy theories about who could be behind the attacks. Many are accusing the United States and Israel, while some are blaming ISIS or Iraqi militias who are competing against the PMF for control. A leaked Iraqi government report into the incidents claimed that they were caused by drone strikes. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the PMF said that the attacks had been carried out by Israeli drones with American intelligence support in order to weaken Shia influence in Iraq. When asked about the mystery explosions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Iran has no immunity anywhere […]. We will act and are currently acting against Iran wherever necessary”. Meanwhile, the PMF pledged to use “all means at its disposal to deter and prevent [future] attacks” on its facilities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Tension grows between Iraqi state and Shiite militias that helped fight ISIS

Popular Mobilization ForcesA powerful alliance of about 50 Shiite militias, who helped Iraq defeat the Islamic State, is resisting calls by the Iraqi government to surrender its weapons and join civilian life, according to observers on the ground. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 different Shiite militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The militias began to form in the summer of 2014, after Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, issued a fatwa (religious degree) that called or the destruction of ISIS. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces, because of the latter’s proximity to the United States.

According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, northern Iraqi cities like Mosul, Bashiqa and Nineveh are largely under the command of the PMF today, a full 18 months after they were recaptured from ISIS. All political and economic activity in the region is controlled by PMF fighters operating under the command of the 30th Brigade, which is one of the most hardline pro-Iranian militias in the PMF. It is alleged that the militias receive economic kickbacks from Shiite-owned Iraqi firms who are awarded multi-million dollar contracts to rebuild the city. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post and other news media have reported, PMF militia members are beginning to exhibit “mafia-like” behavior, establishing protection rackets and kidnapping motorists at night in order to release them for a fee paid by their families. There are also allegations, made by Deutsche Welle and other Western media, that the PMF has conducted mass executions of Iraqi Sunnis as part of its goal to rid Iraq of Sunni Islam.

Last month, Iraqi Armed Forces tried to dismantle PMF-controlled checkpoints into Mosul, but was confronted by armed PMF forces who refused to cede contro. Following the failed attempt to recapture the checkpoints, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi warned the PMF that it had until July 31 to disband. Its members were called to join a newly established gendarmerie under the command of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Failure to do so would mean that the militias would be considered outlaws and would be treated as such by the Iraqi Armed Forces, the prime minister warned. But the PMF has requested more time to lay down its weapons, as some of its more moderate commanders are trying to convince the Iran-aligned militias to declare allegiance to a state army that they consider to be pro-American. The future will show how likely that is to happen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2019 | 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