State designates Iran-backed League of the Righteous as Foreign Terrorist Organization

Qais Khazali (center), the leader of the League of the Righteous, and Akram al Kaabi (center-right), the commander of Harakat al Nujaba, meet outside of Hawija to discuss operations to retake the town.

The U.S. Department of State has added Asaib Ahl al Haq, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia terror group also known as “League of the Righteous,” to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Additionally, the group’s leader, Qais al Khazali, and his brother, Laith al Khazali, have been listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

Both Qais and Laith were in U.S. custody for two years between 2007 and 2009.

The League of the Righteous “and its leaders are violent proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in the press release that announced the designations. “Acting on behalf of their masters in Tehran, they use violence and terror to further the Iranian regime’s efforts to undermine Iraqi sovereignty.”

State’s designation acknowledged the League of the Righteous “is extensively funded and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force.” Qods Force is the expeditionary arm, the special operations branch of the IRGC tasked with spreading Iran’s Islamic Revolution throughout the world.

According to State, the League of the Righteous “has claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. and Coalitions forces since its creation in 2006. AAH has carried out highly sophisticated operations, including mortar attacks on an American base, the downing of a British helicopter, and an attack on the Karbala Provincial Headquarters that resulted in the capture and murder of five American soldiers.”

While the League of the Righteous is responsible for thousands of attacks on U.S. forces, the assault on the Karbala Provincial Joint Communications Center in 2006 was particularly brazen and significant. The operation was plotted with the help of Qods Force as the League of the Righteous fighters who carried out the attack trained in an Iranian mock up facility. The plan was to bring captive American soldiers to Iran.

Qais issued the order to kidnap and, later when the operation hit a roadblock, executed five American soldiers.

Qais, Laith and a Hezbollah military commander known as Musa Ali Daqduq were captured by British commandos in March 2007 during a raid on a compound in Basra, Iraq. Daqduq, who had served as the commander of Hezbollah’s special forces, was tasked by Quds Force to organize, train, and advise what was known at that time as the Mahdi Army Special Groups. These Special Groups were established as an analogue to Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s premier proxy in the Middle East. Qais later admitted to Iran’s role in the Shia insurgency, including its support of the Mahdi Army, during interrogations. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Iraqi militant Qais Khazali warned us about Iran. We ignored him.]

Despite their involvement in the deadly Shia insurgency in Iraq, the U.S. military freed Qais and Laith within two years of their capture. The U.S. released Laith and more than 100 League of the Righteous commanders and fighters in June 2009, Qais followed six months later.

The reason given for their release: Qais and company were freed so they could take part in a reconciliation plan. The U.S. military believed that the Khazalis and their Iranian-backed terror group would lay down their arms and join the political process.

In exchange for Qais and his men, the U.S. government secured the release of a British hostage, Peter Moore, and the bodies of three of the four men who were kidnapped with him in the spring of 2007. Moore’s compatriots had been murdered by Khazali’s men; three of the bodies that were returned were riddled with bullet holes, while the fourth was never recovered.

The U.S. military also handed over Daqduq, the Hezbollah special forces commander, to the Iraqi government in 2011 under the promise that he would remain in prison. Daqduq was freed within a year and is believed to be active within Hezbollah’s military organization. State designated Daqduq in late 2012. Qais, Laith, and Daqduq never paid for the kidnapping and murder of the five U.S. soldiers in Karbala or any of the other attacks they had orchestrated against U.S. forces.

Additionally, after their release, Qais and Laith never disbanded the League of the Righteous, renounced violence, or severed ties with Iran. In fact, the League of the Righteous remains one of the premier Iranian-backed militias and has expanded its activities into Syria under the banner of Harakat al Nujaba.

The designations of League of the Righteous and Qais and Laith Khazali are long overdue. Additionally, these designations are symbolic of the failure of the U.S. government to keep known terrorists in custody and prosecute them for their crimes.

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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