Reuters has published a profile of Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba (HHN), sometimes simply called Harakat al-Nujaba, a Shi’a militia made up of Iraqi citizens that is loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i and the revolutionary theocracy’s ideology of absolute wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurist). HHN, which first emerged in the summer of 2013, is one of a web of overlapping Shi’a jihadist groups recruited from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond—as far afield as the Ivory Coast—that have been used to spearhead Tehran’s imperial push into the Arab world, particularly the rescue of Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria that would otherwise have fallen to a popular rebellion. In recent months, Iran has been raising the profile of HHN.
HHN emerged in 2013 as an ostensible schism from Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), one of the “Special Groups” or Shi’a militias under the control of the Quds Force, the expeditionary-terrorist wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) led by the infamous Qassem Sulaymani, that fought the United States in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, killing and wounding hundreds of soldiers. AAH itself emerged as a splinter from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi under the command of Qays al-Khazali and Akram al-Ka’bi. Al-Ka’bi, who as part of AAH was designated by the U.S. Treasury in 2008 for “threatening the peace and stability of Iraq”, now leads HHN. This pulling away of ultra-radical splinters to create proxy militias, which Iran has done repeatedly from the Sadrist movement, is similar to what Iran did in creating Lebanese Hizballah from AMAL in the 1980s. And Hizballah was on the ground, with its Unit 3800, to put an Arab face on IRGC’s operations in post-Saddam Iraq.
This confusing and tangled web of names and associations is deliberately so. It is intended to allow Iran to expand its influence while hiding its hand, presenting the spread of its ideology and its recruitment of allies as an organic process. “What appears to be atomization within the ranks”, wrote Phillip Smyth, who has done the most to track Iran’s transnational network of militias, in his paper The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects, “is instead more reminiscent of cell replication, with new groups simply expanding the size and influence of a broader IRGC-created network and model.”
Even when dynamics are spontaneous or organic, Iran has proven adept at co-optation. Al-Sadr has found his authority utilized by Iran to convince Iraqis to fight in Syria for the Asad regime, despite al-Sadr being opposed to this since he takes a more nationalist line. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, the marja (source of emulation) for many Shi’is and a stern foe of Iran’s theocratic concepts, has found his visage annexed to mobilize fighters into Syria for Iran’s Shi’a jihad in defence of Asad, despite his explicit opposition to this course. And al-Sistani found himself outpointed when he issued a fatwa in June 2014 that called for men to join the security forces to defend against the Islamic State (IS).
Like so many other bad actors, Iran found the claim it was acting against IS to be ideal cover for the accelerated pursuit of its longstanding ambitions. Tehran swiftly appropriated the mass of volunteers, creating an umbrella structure, al-Hashd al-Shabi, which was controlled by Iran’s pre-existing proxy militias: the Badr Corps, Kataib Hizballah, AAH, and many spin-offs since. Al-Sistani’s assiduous efforts to counter Iran’s influence in Iraq were severely damaged, and now the Hashd militias, including HHN, have been formally integrated into the Iraqi state—a situation not dissimilar to the IRGC’s role in Iran, Hizballah in Lebanon, and the National Defence Forces in Syria.
Al-Ka’bi has not been coy about what his group is. “We do not hide the fact that the technical and logistical support comes from the Islamic Republic at all levels of training, arming and with the provision of advice through the presence of leaders and field advisers from the brothers in the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards”, al-Ka’bi told Al-Monitor in March 2015. Al-Ka’bi further explained that he abandoned his studies to return to “jihad work” after the uprising erupted against Asad. HHN “originated in Syria and we are still a jihadist movement to this day”, al-Ka’bi added. In November 2015, al-Ka’bi gave a famous interview where he made clear—after noting the Hashd’s dominance over the Iraqi state—his total devotion to Iran, saying he would overthrow the government of Iraq if Khamene’i ordered him to. The group’s propaganda output emphasizes its commitment to absolute wilayat al-faqih and Iran’s leadership, including very catchy marching songs dedicated to Sulaymani.
HHN and al-Ka’bi have a history of being the most vocally radical of Iran’s proxies. In March 2015, when Sulaymani’s legions pulled back from Tikrit to provide a fig leaf of distance so U.S. air power could break IS’s resistance and the militias could move in afterwards, HHN refused even to pretend to retreat. Shortly after that, HHN threatened to shoot down U.S. jets on the basis that they were providing weapons to IS—a standard narrative from Iran. The jihad in Syria Iran orchestrated to save Asad is justified as a “defensive” operation to repel the U.S.- and Israeli-supported takfiriyyin, who have been set loose on the country to kill Shi’is and Alawis, destroy their shrines (especially Sayyida Zaynab), and humble a “resistance state”. This conspiracy is also said to include the Iraqi Kurds, whose president, Masud Barzani, was threatened by HHN as early as June 2014 for “coordinating” with IS.
Al-Ka’bi has been fully at the forefront of inflaming the sectarian passions that allow Iran and IS to thrive. In December 2015, at a Friday sermon in Aleppo, al-Ka’bi incited the crowd against America and Israel, as expected, then added: “Death to the Nawasib”, the plural of Nasibi, or in other words, Sunnis. Nearly a year later, in September 2016, al-Ka’bi arrived in Aleppo as the pro-Asad coalition moved in for the kill with Russia carpet bombing the city and Iranian-controlled terrorists moving in on the ground. On 8 October 2016, al-Ka’bi made a widely-circulated statement claiming that Aleppo—a historic fortress of Sunnism—was a Shi’a city.
HHN was massively expanded in late 2015, as was Kataib al-Imam Ali (KIA), when they became the primary conduits for Iran to funnel Shi’a jihadists into Syria in preparation for the pro-Asad coalition’s offensive against the rebel-held areas of Aleppo city. KIA is perhaps best known for containing the axe-wielding, Rambo-lookalike commander, Ayyub al-Rubaie (Abu Azrael), who has committed war crimes on video. HHN and KIA were also among those fortified with new recruits a year later for the offensive that shattered Aleppo.
An evolution in HHN’s role has also become visible: it acts as a means of outreach for Tehran, forming the connective tissue that binds the Iranian revolution with local populations in Syria. HHN was involved in the formation of Liwa al-Baqir, a tribally-based militia that came under the blatantly Iranian-controlled “Local Defence Forces” brand in Aleppo. Liwa al-Baqir is now being used by the pro-Asad coalition as part of the Deir Ezzor offensive. And it is HHN that has visited with the wavering Druze population in Suwayda.
According to Reuters, as it stands, HHN, despite suffering about five-hundred fatalities, “has about 10,000 fighters”, many zealots but some at the lower levels there for the salary ($1,500 per month), all of them “helping Tehran create a supply route through Iraq to Damascus … The route will run through a string of small cities including Qayrawan [in the Sinjar area].” There is reason to be sceptical that Khamene’i and Sulaymani had as their premier goal the creation of a “land bridge”, since their imperium from Baghdad through Damascus to Beirut has functioned efficaciously with air supplies. But if it is available they will take it—especially since it so clearly comes at the expense of the Americans, who have no desire to contest Iran’s push into eastern Syria where it can and has linked up its forces on either side of the Syria-Iraq border.
The greater attention given to HHN by Iran’s vast propaganda apparatus can be dated to the spring. HHN’s spokesman, Hashem al-Musawi, announced on 8 March the creation of a HHN subunit, “Brigade for the Liberation of the Golan”, which brandished banners reading: “Israel will cease to exist”. “If the [Asad] government … requests, we and our allies are ready to take action to liberate Golan”, said al-Musawi, who also “revealed” that his organisation has been fighting in Syria for the last four years (i.e. since 2013), something long known. Al-Ka’bi had already said in February that IS was the instrument of a conspiracy led by Israel, in collaboration with Turkey and the Gulf states, and that the presence of his group and the other sectarian killer squads of the Iranian revolution “in Syria is aimed at resisting against this plot”. Al-Ka’bi added that HHN was ready to fight alongside Bashar al-Asad’s troops to destroy Israel.
The Iranian regime’s effort to raise HHN’s profile could be seen from al-Musawi’s press conference, which was, firstly, in Tehran, and, secondly, was organized by one of the main IRGC media outlets, Tasnim News Agency. On 8 February, al-Ka’bi met with Khamene’i’s representative to Iraq, Sayyed Mojtaba Hosseini, in a much-publicized episode. Al-Ka’bi was in Tehran himself on 27 August, where he appeared on prime-time television and met with senior officials of the revolutionary government, the speaker of parliament Ali Larijani and “former” IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaie, the Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council. Al-Ka’bi’s message concentrated on condemning Saudi Arabia, especially for the Yemen operation to push back Iran’s Huthi allies after their coup d’état in 2014, and the Iraqi Kurds who are to vote in a referendum on independence in a few days, regarded by al-Ka’bi as a treacherous attempt to form “an Israel-supporting government”. Al-Ka’bi has previously met the Supreme Leader.
HHN has also been involved in military provocations designed to boost its image. On 15 February, HHN test-fired missiles at IS positions in northern Saladin Province in Iraq to celebrate the “martyrdom” of Imad Mughniya, the Lebanese Hizballah military commander and the most infamous anti-American terrorist before Usama bin Ladin, with whom he was a collaborator to train al-Qaeda cadres in the 1990s. Just as HHN is not shy about its relationship with Khamene’i and Sulaymani, it brazenly broadcasts its connections to the Iranian revolution’s truest Arab offspring: Lebanese Hizballah. In March 2016, al-Musawi let it be known that HHN and Hizballah were “twins of resistance that cannot ever be loosened or separated”.
Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society