A US military map of Iran’s operations inside southern Iraq, from 2007. This map formed the basis of the LWJ report, The Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq. Click to view full size.
Another Shia terror commander who takes orders from Iran has recently returned to Iraq, heightening fears that violence in the quiet Iraqi south may spike.
Iran has sent Abu Mustafa al Sheibani, the commander of the notorious Sheibani Network, back to Iraq to reorganize his fighters, US military and intelligence officials told The Long War Journal. The exact date of Sheibani’s return is not known, but he is believed to have returned to Iraq sometime in the late summer.
US Forces – Iraq would neither confirm nor deny the reports of Sheibani’s return to Iraq. “This is a highly sensitive topic,” a USF-I public affairs official told The Long War Journal.
But US Forces – Iraq did state that the Sheibani Network has continued to carry out attacks in Iraq.
“We have no indications the Sheibani Network was ever inactivated,” Major Rob Philips, the Chief of the Media Operations Center in Baghdad told The Long War Journal. “The threat this group poses to the Iraqi people remains consistent.”
Sheibani is believed to have been sheltering in Iran since early 2008, when the Iraqi government, backed by the US military, launched offensives against Iran’s networks based in central in southern Iraq. In 2008, the US Treasury Department claimed that Sheibani was based out of Tehran, Iran.
Sheibani is known to have planned and executed attacks against US, British, and Iraqi forces, as well as Iraqi political and civic leaders, as early as 2005. At that time, Sheibani was thought to have 280 members in his network, which was divided into 17 cells. His fighters were known to carry out attacks with the deadly, armor-piercing explosively-formed projectiles, or EFPs, as well with mortars, Katyusha and other rockets, and small-arms assaults.
in 2005, Sheibani was one of the only Shia terror leaders to be placed on the Iraqi government’s most-wanted list. Sheibani was number 24 of 41 most-wanted terrorists, and the Iraqi government offered a $200,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
Sheibani was also placed on the US Treasury Department’s list that targets individuals and entities aiding the Iraqi insurgency. Sheibani was added along with Ahmad Foruzandeh, the Commanding Officer of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force Ramazan Corps, and Abu Dura, the violent leader of a faction of the Mahdi Army. Qods Force’s Ramazan Corps is responsible for Iran’s covert operations in Iraq. [For more information on Qods Force activities in Iraq, see Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq.]
“Al Sheibani’s Iran-sponsored network was created to affect the Iraqi political process in Iran’s favor,” Treasury stated. “The network’s first objective is to fight US forces, attacking convoys and killing soldiers. Its second objective is to eliminate Iraqi politicians opposed to Iran’s influence.”
Sheibani’s network was “ordered by IRGC headquarters to create disorder,” Treasury stated.
Qods Force sent Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah military leader, to Iraq to train Sheibani and Qais Qazali, another Shia terror leader. Daqduq was tasked by Qods Force to organize Sheibani and Qazali’s networks in ways that mirrored how Hezbollah was organized in Lebanon. The US military captured Daqduq in the winter of 2007.
Second known terror leader sent back to Iraq
Sheibani is the second dangerous Shia terror commander known to have returned to Iraq since last summer. Ismail Hafiz al Lami, who is also known as Abu Dura and the “Shiite Zarqawi” for his brutality towards Iraqis, was also sent back to Iraq by Qods Force’s Ramazan Corps sometime last summer. Abu Dura is a commander in the notorious Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous, a Mahdi Army splinter group that is also backed by Iran’s Qods Force.
The return of Sheibani and Abu Dura to Iraq signals that Iran is preparing to increase the pressure on the dwindling number of US forces operating in the south and Baghdad, while attempting to exert influence over Iraqi affairs, US officials said.
“Let’s be clear, Sheibani, Abu Dura, and others promoted by Qods [Force] serve a purpose: to kill people and sow chaos,” a US military intelligence officer told The Long War Journal.
Last summer, US military officers began to sound the alarm on Iran’s move to reignite the Shia insurgency.
“The Iranians… continue to fund, train and provide weapons and ammunition to Shiite extremist groups,” General Ray Odierno, then the commander of US Forces Iraq, said in a press conference on July 21. “It’s very difficult to say if the extremist groups are directly connected to the Iranian government. But we do know that many of them live in Iran, many of them get trained in Iran, and many of them get weapons from Iran.”
Over the summer, Odierno singled out the League of the Righteous, Hezbollah Brigades, and the Promise Day Brigade as being the three main Shia terror groups receiving backing from Iran. These groups have been carrying out attacks on US forces in the south, and have been releasing videos of the attacks on the Internet.
Iran ramps up and the US draws down
As Iran has been rebuilding its network in Iraq, the US has been attempting to promote reconciliation with the League of the Righteous, the largest and most dangerous Shia terror group. The US acceded to the group’s demands and last year began releasing its top leaders and hundreds of fighters from US custody.
In July 2009, the US freed Laith Qazali, a senior commander; more than 100 other members of the League; and five Iranian Qods Force officers, including Mahmud Farhadi, the leader of the Zafr Command, one of three units subordinate to the Qods Force’s Ramazan Corps, in an attempt to appease the terror group.
Laith is the brother of Qais Qazali, the founder of the League of the Righteous. Qais was Muqtada al Sadr’s top aide and spokesman. Qais was behind the kidnapping and murder of five US soldiers in Karbala in January 2007 and numerous other acts of terrorism before he was captured by US forces in March 2007.
Qais was then released in late December 2009, purportedly as part of a reconciliation process. But his release came at the same time that a British contractor, who had been captured by the League of the Righteous in May of 2007, was turned over to the British. The Shia terror group previously executed four other British contractors who had also been held hostage.
The release of Qais, Laith, Farhadi, and other members of the League of the Righteous and Qods Force infuriated US military officers and intelligence officials who follow the Iranian-backed terror groups. Officials told The Long War Journal that reconciliation was a farce used to carry out a “prisoner swap.”
The skepticism quickly proved to be well placed. The League of the Righteous backtracked on reconciliation, and suspended talks with the Iraqi government in early January 2010, just weeks after Qais’ release. And in mid-January, the League of the Righteous kidnapped Issa T. Salomi, a US Defense Department contractor, in Baghdad.
“We’ve been had,” a senior military officer told The Long War Journal in January 2010. “Anyone who closely followed the League of the Righteous should have known this was inevitable.”
Salomi was freed in late March, purportedly as part of yet another prisoner swap. The US military denied that such a swap had been made, however.
The League of the Righteous still holds one US citizen hostage: Sergeant Ahmed Altaie, who was kidnapped in Baghdad in 2006. Altaie’s status is unknown, but it is thought that he died in captivity. The League of the Righteous claimed it recovered Altaie’s remains from another insurgent group. A group called the Ahel al Beit Brigades claimed to have kidnapped Altaie in 2007. The US military would not officially comment on inquiries on Altaie or the Ahel al Beit Brigades. But a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that the Ahel al Beit Brigades is part of the League of the Righteous.
For more information on Iran’s support of Shia terror groups in Iraq, see Iranian-backed Shia terror group remains a threat in Iraq: General Odierno and Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq.
• ‘Shiite Zarqawi’ returns to Baghdad from Iran: report, The Long War Journal
• Iraqi Government releases ’41 Most Wanted’ list, US Forces Iraq press release
• Treasury Designates Individuals, Entity Fueling Iraqi Insurgency, US Treasury press release
• US sanctions Iranian general for aiding Iraqi terror groups, The Long War Journal
• Iran, Hezbollah train Iraqi Shia “Secret Cells”, The Long War Journal
• Iranian-backed Shia terror group kidnaps US civilian in Baghdad, The Long War Journal
• Iran continues to train Shia terror groups for attacks in Iraq, The Long War Journal
• Iranian-backed Shia terror group remains a threat in Iraq: General Odierno, The Long War Journal
• Iran backs three Shia terror groups in Iraq: General Odierno, The Long War Journal
• US releases Iraqi Shia terror group leader, The Long War Journal
• US released senior Iranian Qods Force commander, The Long War Journal
• US releases ‘dangerous’ Iranian proxy behind the murder of US troops, The Long War Journal
• Iraqi terror group frees US hostage, The Long War Journal