US adds Iranian-backed Shia militia and its leader to list of global terrorists

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Akram al Kaabi (left) with Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani

The US Department of State added Harakat al Nujaba (HAN), or Movement of the Noble, an Iranian-supported Shiite militia which operates in both Iraq and Syria, and its leader, Akram ‘Abbas al Kaabi (or Kabi) to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists today. In the recent past, Kaabi has said he takes orders from Iran’s Supreme Leader and would overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered to do so.

Harakat al Nujaba was formed by Kaabi in 2013 as an offshoot of two other Iranian-backed militias — Asaib Ahl al Haq and Hezbollah Brigades — to fight in the Syrian Civil War along with other Iranian-supported Iraqi militias. HAN participated in key battles against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

“HAN has openly pledged its loyalties to Iran and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei,” States’ designation notes. Kaabi “has publicly claimed that he would follow any order, including overthrowing the Iraqi government or fighting alongside the Houthis in Yemen, if Ayatollah Khamenei declared it to be a religious duty.”

FDD’s Long War Journal reported in Nov. 2015 that Kaabi and HAN pledged to Khameni and said he would overthrow the Iraqi government if asked.

Kaabi has said that “Iran supports HAN both militarily and logistically, and stressed HAN’s close ties with IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Soleimani and Hezballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, both SDGTs,” State notes.

At the height of Syria’s civil war, Kaabi was frequently photographed alongside Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Qods Force. Soleimani reports directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Qods Force is the expeditionary arm of the IRGC that is tasked with spreading Iran’s Islamic revolution.

Kaabi has also met with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and was photographed holding his hand. Kaabi and his followers revere Hezbollah. The spokesman for HAN said in 2016 that his group and Hezbollah, Iran’s premiere proxy in the Middle East, are “the twins of resistance that cannot ever be loosened or separated.”

Kabi-Nasrallah

Akram Abbas al Kabi, the Secretary General of the Harakat Nujaba, holds hands with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Image from the League of the Righteous’s website.

Kaabi also has a close relationship with Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a specially designated global terrorist who directs Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF. Muhandis is described by the US government as “an advisor to Qassem Soleimani.” The PMF is now formally recognized as an official military organization that reports directly to Iraq’s Prime Minister, just as the IRGC reports directly to Iran’s Supreme leader.

The US government has a decade plus-long history with Kaabi, which started when he was a commander in Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Kaabi was deeply involved with the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that battled US forces from 2003 to 2011. Qayis Khazali, a Mahdi Army commander who also led the Iranian-directed “Special Groups,” described Kaabi as “a good friend.” Kaabi replaced Khazali as the leader of Asaib al Haq when the latter was captured by US troops in 2008 (Khazali was freed in 2011). Their friendship appears to have endured. Kaabi and Khazali were photographed laughing together while discussing operations in Hawija, Iraq in 2017.

In 2008, the US government listed Kaabi as an individual who threatens the security of Iraq under Executive Order 13438. Also listed along with Kaabi was Abdul Reza Shahlai, a Qods Force commander.

The US government said that Kaabi was behind multiple mortar and rocket attacks against the International Zone, or Green Zone, in Baghdad in early 2007. He also financed roadside bomb attacks and recruitment for the Mahdi Army.

Kaabi, like many other Shiite militia commanders who have openly or quietly accepted support from Iran, have thrived in the new Iraqi political landscape. HAN and other Shiite militias are an integral part of the Popular Mobilization Force. The militias have also entered into Iraqi politics, and their coalition party won the second most seats in parliament.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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