Asaib Ahl al-Haq
Established By: Qais al-Khazali;
Also Known As: Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Ahl al-Kahf ,Al-Sadiqun, Khazali Faction, Khazali Network, League of Righteousness, League of the Righteous, Bands of the Righteous;
Country Of Origin: Iraq;
Leaders: Qais al-Khazali;
Key Members: Qais al-Khazali, Naeem al-Aboudi, Jawad al-Talabawi;
Operational Area: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon;
Number Of Members: 8,000-10,000;
Involved In: Beheadings, Kidnapping, Armed Attacks, Suicide Bomb Attacks, Assassinations;
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Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, also known as the Khazali Network, is an Iraqi Shi’a paramilitary group active in the Iraqi insurgency and Syrian Civil War. During the Iraq War it was known as Iraq‘s largest “Special Group” (the Americans’ term for Iran-backed Shia paramilitaries in Iraq), and is now part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a group of Shi’ite militias that are close to Iran.
AAH was funded and trained by Iran‘s Quds Force. Members of AAH, as part of PMF, receive Iraqi government salaries after the PMF units were officially integrated into Iraqi security forces in 2018.
AAH has claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on American and Coalition forces. The PMF is currently fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In 2017, AAH created a party with the same name.
On 3 January 2020, the United States Department of State announced its intent to designate AAH a terrorist organization along with two of its leaders, Qais al-Khazali and his brother Laith al-Khazali, who were designated Specially Designated Global Terrorists.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq split from the Sadrist Movement in 2004. Qais al-Khazali split from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army after the Shi’a uprising in 2004 to create his own Khazali network. When the Mahdi Army signed a cease-fire with the government and the Americans and the fighting stopped, Khazali continued fighting, and during the battle Khazali was already issuing his own orders to militiamen without Muqtada al-Sadr’s approval.
The group’s leadership (which includes Khazali, Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji (a politician in Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadr Movement) and Akram al-Kaabi), however, reconciled with al-Sadr in mid-2005. In July 2006, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq was founded and became one of the Special Groups which operated more independently from the rest of the Mahdi Army. It became a completely independent organisation after the Mahdi Army’s disbanding after the 2008 Shi’a uprising. In July 2006, A part of AAH fought alongside Hezbollah in 2006 Lebanon War against Israel. In November 2008 when Sadr created the Promised Day Brigade to succeed the Mahdi Army, he asked AAH (and other Special Groups) to join, but they declined.
AAH has claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks in Iraq including the October 10, 2006 attack on Camp Falcon, the assassination of the American military commander in Najaf, the May 6, 2006 downing of a British Lynx helicopter and the October 3, 2007 attack on the Polish ambassador. Their most known attack, however, is the January 20, 2007 Karbala provincial headquarters raid where they infiltrated the U.S. Army’s offices at Karbala, killed one soldier, then abducted and killed four more American soldiers.
After the raid, the U.S. military launched a crackdown on AAH and the raid’s mastermind Azhar al-Dulaimi was killed in Baghdad, while much of the group’s leadership including the brothers Qais and Laith al-Khazali and Lebanese Hezbollah member Ali Musa Daqduq who was Khazali’s advisor was in charge of their relations with Hezbollah. After these arrests in 2007, Akram al-Kaabi, who had been the military commander of the Mahdi Army until May 2007, led the organisation. In May 2007, AAH kidnapped British IT expert Peter Moore and his four bodyguards.
They demanded the release of all their fighters being imprisoned by the Iraqi authorities and US military in return for his release. His four bodyguards were killed, but Moore himself was released when AAH’s leader Qais al-Khazali was released in January 2010. Prior to Qazali’s release, security forces had already released over 100 of the group’s members including Laith al-Khazali. In 2008 many of the groups fighters and leaders fled to Iran after the Iraqi Army was allowed to re-take control of Sadr City and the Mahdi Army was disbanded. Here most fighters were re-trained in new tactics. It resulted in a major lull in the group’s activity from May to July 2008.
In February 2010, AAH kidnapped DoD civilian Issa T. Salomi, a naturalized American from Iraq. This was the first high-profile kidnapping of a foreigner in Iraq since the kidnapping of Peter Moore (which was also done by AAH). Salomi was released in March 2010 in return for the release of four AAH fighters being held in Iraqi custody. In total 450 members of AAH have been handed over from US to Iraqi custody since the kidnapping of Peter Moore, over 250 of which have been released by the Iraqi authorities.
On July 21, 2010 General Ray Odierno said Iran was supporting three Shiite extremist groups in Iraq that had been attempting to attack US bases. One of the groups was AAH and the other two were the Promised Day Brigade and Ketaib Hezbollah.
In December 2010 it was reported that notorious Shi’a militia commanders such as Abu Deraa and Mustafa al-Sheibani were returning from Iran to work with AAH. Iranian Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri was identified as the group’s spiritual leader.
In August and September 2012, AAH started a poster campaign in which they distributed over 20,000 posters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei throughout Iraq. A senior official in Baghdad’s local government said municipal workers were afraid to take the posters down in fear of retribution by AAH militiamen.
Iraq protests (2018–present):
In late 2018, protests in Basra, Iraq saw several Iran-related organizations being targeted. Among the damage caused by protesters were several AAH offices which were set on fire.
In July 2019, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, Joan Polaschik, stated “rogue” Iranian-backed militias were planning operations that could kill Americans, coalition partners and Iraqis and U.S. diplomatic facilities and continue to conduct indirect fire attacks. The U.S. removed non-emergency staff from its embassy in Baghdad and closed its consulate in Basra. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, Michael Mulroy, said that Iran’s “cynical interference” undermines Iraqi interests by supporting to non-compliant militias, more loyal to Tehran than Baghdad, undermining the Iraqi prime minister’s authority, preying on ordinary Iraqis by crime and destabilizing the fragile communities liberated from ISIS.
In October 2019, AAH militia opened fire on protesters trying to set fire to the group’s office in Nasiriya, killing at least nine protesters.
On 3 January 2020, the United States Department of State announced its intent to designate AAH a terrorist organization along with two of its leaders. Qais al-Khazali and his brother Laith al-Khazali were designated Specially Designated Global Terrorists.
Syrian Civil War:
AAH’s Syrian branch is called the Haidar al-Karar Brigades, and led by Akram al-Kaabi, AAH’s military leader stationed in Aleppo. Al-Kaabi is also the founder and leader of the militant group Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.
The group initially fought under the banner of al-Abbas Brigade (a mixed Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia organization), but split in 2014 following a dispute with al-Abbas’s native Syrian fighters. Like other Iraqi Shia paramilitaries in Syria, they fight in defense of the Sayyidah Zainab shrine.
AAH took part in the 2014 Iraqi parliamentary election as part of the Al-Sadiqoun Bloc. An electoral meeting of estimated 100,000 supporters of Al-Sadiqoun was marred by violence as a series of bombs exploded at the campaign rally held at the Industrial Stadium in eastern Baghdad killing at least 37 people and wounding scores others, according to Iraqi police. The group organizers had planned to announce at the rally the names of its candidates for the parliamentary election.
At the election, the Al-Sadiquun Bloc won just one seat out of 328 seats in the Iraqi Parliament. AAH took part in the 2018 Iraqi parliamentary election as part of the Fatah Alliance.
AAH’s strength was estimated at about 3,000 fighters in March 2007. In July 2011, however, officials estimated there were less than 1,000 AAH militiamen left in Iraq. The group is alleged to receive some $5 million worth of cash and weapons every month from Iran. In January 2012, following the American withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, Qais al-Khazali declared the United States was defeated and that now the group was prepared to disarm and join the political process.
Since the beginning of the Iraqi war against ISIL, AAH has grown to around 10,000 members and been described as one of if not the most powerful members of the Popular Mobilization Forces. It has recruited hundreds of Sunni fighters to fight against ISIS.
The group alleged receives training and weapons from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force as well as Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. By March 2007, Iran was providing the network between $750,000 and $3 million in arms and financial support each month.
AAH receives arms primarily from Iran and Russia, according to findings by Amnesty International. In January 2017, Amnesty International outlined various human rights abuses documented by AAH and other extremist Shiite militias in Iraq, and called upon foreign states to cease their “irresponsible arms transfers” to the extremist groups.
Amnesty International noted that AAH stands accused of egregious human rights violations and possible war crimes, including a wave of enforced disappearances, abductions, killings, and torture of Sunni boys and men. The group also stands accused of employing child soldiers, potentially as young as 11 years old.
AAH has recruited thousands of fighters, including child soldiers, according to findings by Human Rights Watch. Fifteen-year-old Muthanna Qasim al-Kibali, for example, was killed in October 2015 while fighting alongside AAH.
AAH recruitment focuses on two strategies: traditional propaganda efforts to raise the group’s profile, and a comprehensive religious system aimed to indoctrinate and recruit members. AAH has also emulated groups like ISIS by using social media to expand recruitment throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and the West. The group also owns and operates Iraqi TV channel al-Aahd.
One of the main ways AAH draws recruits is by advertising itself as a protector of the Shiite community within Iraq and abroad. AAH uses posters and issues calls for recruits on Iraqi television stations, often emphasizing its connection with Iran and Hezbollah. One AAH member said that he was drawn to AAH because it was “protecting the Shiite community inside Iraq and abroad as well.” In the past, the most important galvanizing point for Iraqis to join AAH and go to Syria to fight alongside Assad forces was the defense of the Sayeda Zenab shrine, a Shiite holy site in a Damascus suburb.
AAH has seized homes and offices in Baghdad in order to establish recruiting centers where would-be volunteers could go to join other Shiites fighting in Syria. In southern Iraq, posters urge men to join the fight in Syria with other Iraqi Shiites and provide a hotline number to call. In August 2012, AAH distributed over 20,000 posters with AAH’s logo; a photograph of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and a photograph of the late Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. The posters were plastered on buildings and billboards and also used in street demonstrations.
AAH has expanded its reach through a network of religious schools known as the “Seal of the Apostles.” These schools, spread throughout Iraq, serve as propaganda and recruitment facilities for the group. As with its military and political structures, AAH also appears to be emulating Hezbollah by launching social services programs for widows and orphans. In March 2017, AAH leader Qais al-Khazali gave a speech calling for PMF influence in the Iraqi university system, and specifically calling for a “PM[F] University.” Analysts have noted with concern that the call appears to mimic Iranian-style “cultural revolution” tactics from the 1970s. AAH’s recruitment efforts are funded in large part by Iran.
Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, a former Badr Brigades member who ran an important smuggling network known as the Sheibani Network played a key role in supplying the group. The group was also supplied by a smuggling network headed by Ahmad Sajad al-Gharawi a former Mahdi Army commander, mostly active in Maysan Governorate.
As of 2006 AAH had at least four major operational branches:
– The Imam al-Ali Brigade – Responsible for Southern Iraq (Iraq’s 9 Shi’a governorates: Babil, al-Basrah, Dhi Qar, al-Karbala, Maysan, al-Muthanna, an Najaf, al-Qadisiyyah and Wasit Governorates)
– The Imam al-Kazem Brigade – Responsible for West-Baghdad (mainly the Shi’a Kadhimiya and Al Rashid districts but also some minor activity in the mixed Karkh district and the mainly Sunni Mansour district)
– The Imam al-Hadi Brigade – Responsible for East-Baghdad (mainly the Shi’a Thawra, Nissan and Karrada districts but with some minor activity in the mixed Rusafa district and the mainly Sunni Adhamiyah district)
– The Iman al-Askari Brigade – Responsible for Central Iraq (mainly active the Shi’a areas in Southern Diyala, Samarra City (in Salah ad-Din Governorate) and some Shi’a enclaves in Nineveh and Kirkuk Governorates)
– The Haidar al-Karar Brigades – Responsible for Syria, mainly Southern Damascus and West Aleppo.
– 41st Brigade
– 42nd Brigade Quwat Liwa al-Shaheed al-Qa’id Abu Mousa al-Amiri
– 43rd Brigade