U.S. Sanctions Leader of Pro-Iran Terror Group in Iraq

Another member of Tehran’s “Axis of Resistance,” a constellation of pro-Iran proxies and partners, has been sanctioned by Washington. On Feb. 26, the U.S. Department of State designated Ahmad al-Hamidawi, the reported leader of the Iraqi Shiite militia called Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Despite the recent use of force by Washington, U.S. policy towards Iran and its proxies remains reliant on political and economic national security tools for punishment and coercion. The exposure and designation of Hamidawi is consistent with that trend.

Sanctions against Hamidawi were confirmed by Persian-language news sources in Iran. Much like English-language outlets, they provide scant biographical data. The lack of open-source material in English and Persian (at the time of this writing), however unreliable it may be, impedes a greater understanding of Hamidawi’s career trajectory as well as the overall leadership structure of KH, of which little is known.

This background matters greatly for analysts, policymakers, and academics studying Iran and its foreign legion. In a world without Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds-Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Qassem Soleimani, who played a key role in cobbling together militias in the service of the Islamic Republic’s regional aims, the non-Iranian men and organizations that constitute Iran’s threat network are slated to grow in importance. Already, there are reports about greater enmeshment of Lebanese Hezbollah in Iraq for purposes of training militias.

The most important – albeit complicating – piece of information the State Department revealed in its designation of Hamidawi was that he is the “Secretary General” of KH. Given that no start date for his tenure is given, that information conflicts with older open-source analysis from 2012 citing citing two individuals, among them a man named Adnan Hamidawi, not Ahmad, as KH Commander. There is no known link between the two other than the shared last name. Similarly, in more recent reporting about the new leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), Abdulaziz al-Mohammadawi (also known as Abu Fadak), a claim is also made that Fadak both served in and led KH as Secretary General at some point in his career.

The already murky picture chronicling KH leadership changes is further complicated by Jamal Jafar al-Ibrahimi (also known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis). Muhandis is largely reported to have founded and led KH, in addition to serving as Deputy Commander of the PMU in Iraq until his recent death.

Like Hamidawi, Muhandis was designated by Washington under counter-terrorism authorities. Born in Iraq to an Iranian mother and Iraqi father, Muhandis became intimately involved with the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary foreign policy from the beginning. Muhandis partook in terrorist attacks against Western and regional interests reaching as far back as the early 1980s. He had also supported multiple designated terror groups in the Middle East, all of which retain ties to the IRGC-QF.

Given this service, Muhandis was widely seen as something of an “adviser” or deputy to Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, and were often pictured together. Muhandis and Soleimani were both killed by a U.S. drone strike against their convoy in Baghdad airport in early January. After the killing of Muhandis and Soleimani, KH was among the first groups to issue a statement claiming that they would seek revenge.

Also known by the English translation of their name, the Hezbollah Brigades (more literally, the Brigades of the Party of God, and sometimes even Iraqi Hezbollah) KH is one of Iran’s most important regional proxies. Born out of violence and chaos in Iraq in 2003, but more formally established in 2007, the group made a name for itself killing American and other coalition forces during the 2003-2011 Iraq War. After the war, KH became an important element in the paramilitary PMU (known by their Arabic name, al-Hashd al-Sha’abi), helping make the umbrella organization a vector to further Iran’s interests in Iraq.

But KH’s presence spans beyond Iraq. KH has been active in Syria on behalf of Iran to secure the Assad regime, helping organize and train Iraqis for combat in that theater. Moreover, KH has occupied key portions of territory in Syria’s east, permitting it and other pro-Iran forces to control a key border crossing in what is popularly called Iran’s “land bridge.” Control of key border crossings and roads by militias loyal to Tehran enables the flow of men, money, and munitions from Iran through Iraq and into battlefields in the Levant.

KH was mentioned in the State Department press release sanctioning Hamidawi as having “claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks against U.S. and Coalition Forces in Iraq, including IED attacks, rocket-propelled grenade attacks, and sniper operations.” The release further noted that KH has not just targeted U.S. and coalition forces, but more recently “was reportedly involved in sniper attacks on peaceful protesters in Baghdad, which killed more than 100 people and injured another 6,000.”

The 2018 Country Report on Terrorism by the State Department cites Iran’s support to KH, as well as other terror and proxy groups. KH is the first pro-Iran Shiite militia in Iraq to be placed on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list, which is maintained by the State Department. Until January 2020, it was the only such entity on the FTO list.

Moreover, KH has featured prominently in the U.S.-Iranian shadow war and is responsible for its recent uptick. In response to a Dec. 2019 rocket attack by KH that killed one American in northern Iraq, Washington resorted to using military force. This kinetic action was historic for two reasons. First, the U.S. response entailed cross-border strikes in Iraq and Syria against KH targets, constituting the first time Washington used a kinetic policy tool in its otherwise economic and political maximum pressure campaign against Iran and its proxies. Second, it was the first – and to date – only time Washington has struck the same Iran-backed Shiite militia in Iraq and Syria at the same time.

Despite being designated, Hamidawi and KH can be expected to continue wreaking havoc. This means more rocket and terror attacks in efforts to bait, bleed, and ultimately, evict American forces in Iraq to further serve Iran’s regional goals. As with all non-kinetic measures, how Washington enforces its penalty is set to matter more than its announcement.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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