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COLUMN: Americans Are Not the Only Targets of Iranian-Backed Militia Groups in Iraq and Syria

IRGC provides logistics and ideological support to these militia groups and is involved in out-of-border operations in Iraq.

Iranian-backed militia groups targeted the coalition base with a drone attack near Hasakah in northeastern Syria, killing a United States contractor and wounding six others on March 24. The U.S. forces responded to the attack with airstrikes and destroyed the facilities of militia groups. However, the tit-for-tat attacks by Iranian militia groups continued and launched rockets against U.S. forces. Recently, these militia groups have been well-settled in the Middle East and are capable of targeting U.S. forces and their allies. This article examines the targets of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

The Shah revolution in Iran replaced a monarchical government when Ruhollah Khomeini founded a theocratic government in 1979. Khomeini used the power of velayat-e faqih, a compulsory obligation to obey the supreme leader, and made himself the most powerful ruler over all government institutions. Fearful of losing governmental power, the new regime established the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to repress dissent and assassinate high-profile targets, using two strategies. While the extended deterrence policy aims to control all dissident groups and opposition in the country, the goal of the forward defense policy is to protect the government against its so-called adversaries. These two policies have shaped the regime’s politics and used various tactics to expand its global influence. For example, the regime aims to form terrorist groups to meddle in internal affairs of neighboring countries such as Turkey. As seen in Iraq, the regime creates and support Shia militia groups to seek influence in the country’s politics. Its involvement in Yemen aims to arm Shia groups to take control of the country. Also, the regime uses surrogate organizations to maintain Bashar al-Assad’s administration in Syria. In addition, the regime never gives up seeking influence over the Shia population in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Finally, the government sees the Lebanese diaspora in Latin America as a means of seeking regional influence.

The regime politics have prioritized fighting against the interests of the Western world, supporting non-state actors regardless of whether they are terrorist organizations. As a result, the United States has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. Today, Iran is one of four states listed as a terrorism-sponsoring state. According to the Department of State 2021 Country Reports on Terrorism, Iran continues its terrorist-related activity, sponsoring Hezbollah in the Middle East, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and various terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, and throughout the Middle East. Additionally, the report underlines how Iran uses the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to provide support to terrorist organizations and cover for associated covert operations and create instability in the region. In this context, Iranian-backed militia groups play vital roles in Iraq and Syria. The 2021 Annex of Statistical Information shared a table on the perpetrator categories. According to Table 1 below, the Iranian-backed group is the fourth biggest category with the most incidents globally. These groups perpetrated around 500 terrorist attacks in 2021, predominantly in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Table 1: Perpetrator Categories by Incident

Religious (Jihadist) 58%
Ethnonationalist/Separatist 45%
Left Wing 7%
Iranian-backed 6%

 

Iranian-backed Militia Groups in Iraq

Iraq has yet to grapple with two grave issues on the 20th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom: corruption and pro-Iran militia groups. Corruption is endemic in the country and is seen as one of the root causes of current economic and political issues. On the other hand, today’s militia groups backed by Iran seem to be more networked and organized non-state groups threatening regional security. Iraq recorded 605 terrorist incidents in 2021; Iranian-backed groups and individuals perpetrated 24 percent of these attacks.

Followed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), an Al Qaeda-affiliated organization, was formed and evolved into today’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group that was able to control territory in Iraq and Syria and acted like a de facto state. Iranian-backed militia groups convened under the banner of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) stepped in to secure Iraq after state forces collapsed in 2014 and took a leading role in the fight against ISIS. However, PMF remained poorly understood, divisive, and plagued by internal divisions. As a result, PMF has given birth to splinter organizations, and Tehran has begun funding the most loyal groups, such as Kata’ib Hizballah (K.H.) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), officially designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government in 2021. These groups can use lethal unmanned aerial systems and conduct rocket and missile attacks.

The Global Terrorism Trends and Analysis Center Database recorded 24 militia groups in Iraq, predominantly splintered by PMF, in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Several of these militia groups specifically targeted U.S. military embassy compounds, military facilities, and supply convoys. For instance, the Operations of Martyr Ali Mansour group fired eight rockets toward the Green Zone that housed Iraqi government buildings and foreign embassies in 2020. Revolutionary League (Usbat Al-Thairen) targeted Iraqi bases and airport facilities in Baghdad, accommodating the U.S. military with Katyusha rockets in four attacks in 2020. Al Sabiqoon strategically targeted Baghdad airport and used an explosive-laden drone to attack a U.S. complex housing American soldiers and personnel in 2021. Qassim Al-Jabbarin Brigade constantly targeted U.S. supply convoys with IEDs in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Its 2022 attack launched six Katyusha rockets toward a base that housed Iraqi and American soldiers and personnel. Revenge of al-Muhandis Brigade fired 14 rockets targeting a U.S. military facility in 2021, and its attack using IEDs in 2022 targeted a supply convoy belonging to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. Revolutionaries Brigade was another militia group targeting a base housing U.S. personnel and soldiers in 2021. Ashab al-Kahf (People of the Cave) was the most active group in 2022, targeting U.S. supply convoys and killing one American citizen. Saraya Awliya al-Dam was another group in the category of targeting Americans. Its 2022 attack fired rockets toward the airport in Erbil, killing one American contractor and wounding six others.

It is worth noting that these militia groups also targeted Iraqi forces. For example, Saraya Al-Salam targeted Iraqi security forces in the Green Zone area with rifle fire and rockets, killing one Iraqi soldier and wounding five others. Additionally, the militia groups targeted each other in Iraq. For example, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq members ambushed Saraya Al-Salam and killed its two members in 2022. Moreover, many militia groups targeted alcohol stores in Baghdad and its neighboring provinces. For example, Al-Ma’rouf (People of Righteousness) was involved in attacks in 2020 and 2021 and targeted alcohol stores with IEDs in Baghdad.

These groups also took the side of government forces and targeted protesters. For example, Kata’ib Hezbollah stormed the protesters’ tents and opened fire on them, injuring six in 2020. In addition to the PKK terrorist organization, Liwa Ahrar al-Iraq targeted a Turkish military base in three attacks with 122 mm Grad missiles in Zlikan in 2022. Saraya Ababil Brigade was another militia group targeting Turkish bases in its four attacks with Iranian-made drones in 2022. Saraya Awliya al-Dam joined the list of militia groups targeting the Turkish military base in Zlikan in the same year.

In the analysis of Iranian-backed militia attacks, IRGC deserves special attention. The group provides logistics and ideological support to these militia groups and is involved in out-of-border operations in Iraq. For example, IRGC was the perpetrator of one coordinated attack in 2020 and 11 attacks in 2022 in Anbar, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah provinces. Its 2020 attack used surface-to-surface missiles targeting U.S. bases in Ain Al-Asaad and Al-Hareer bases, injuring 64 U.S. soldiers. Its 2022 attacks, launching a dozen Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles and conducting drone strikes, targeted Iranian Kurdish groups, journalists, and Kurdish political parties such as Kurdish Freedom Party, Kurdish Democratic Party, and Kurdish Komala Party.

Iranian-Backed Militia Groups in Syria

Iranian-backed militia groups actively operate in Syria. Since the inception of the civil war, Iran has supported Bashar al-Assad, whose father was the only Arab leader giving support to Iran during its war with Iraq. Furthermore, the Iranian regime sees the Al-Assad government as friendly and able to serve the interests of Iran in the region. IRGC, partnering with Hezbollah, has taken the leading role in training and transferring Shia militia groups in Syria. These groups interestingly targeted Assad forces due to disputes over arms deals. Both IRGC and Hezbollah targeted Israeli military positions with armed drones in 2019. Hezbollah targeted Syrian regime forces, including Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers, in its attacks in 2020, 2021, and 2022. In its attack in August 2018, Hezbollah targeted the SAA headquarters in Dayr az Zawr and killed 25 regime soldiers. Kata’ib Hizballah also clashed with Syrian military intelligence in June 2020 and killed two intelligence officers. The organization additionally targeted jihadist rebel groups in Syria. The clashes between Hezbollah and National Liberation Front (NLF) in August 2019 killed 19 NLF members. Hezbollah also was involved in criminal activities in Syria. Hezbollah militants looted shops in June 2021 and targeted a Russian-backed Al-Qatirji group to confiscate the convoy of oil tankers for ransom in May 2022. Like Iranian-backed groups targeting Turkish military bases in Iraq, Hezbollah targeted Turkish military vehicles in 2020, killing 42 soldiers and wounding 33 others.

Liwa al Quds is another Iranian-backed group in Syria, composed of a predominantly Palestinian militia that operates as a part of the pro-Syrian government. The group clashed with ISIS in Dayr az Zawr and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib and targeted state security branches in 2020 and 2021.

Liwa Fatemiyoun occupies a special place in terms of exhibiting Iranian regime policies in conflict zones. Composed of Afghan Shias and trained in Iran by IRGC, these militias are transferred to Syria and fight under the banner of the Liwa Fatemiyoun group. The organization seemed to be one of the most active groups in Syria. For example, while its attack in April 2020 killed eight civilians in Dayr az Zawr, its attacks in August 2022 launched a series of attacks with rocket and mortar shells against U.S. targets and troops in the Green Village and Conoco military bases. Moreover, the group targeted Russian-backed Fifth Corps at the Al-Dar Al-Hamra checkpoint in May 2022. Another attack in May 2022 used rocket artillery and wounded two Turkish soldiers in Aleppo.

The Western world has experienced the unintended consequences of supporting non-state actors when deployed against Salafi-jihadist terrorist organizations. These actors have been trained and equipped with arms and explosives during their fight against ISIS or al Qaeda. Nonetheless, they are evolved into power hubs and become threatening to the local governments and Western forces in Iraq and Syria.

To conclude, Iranian-backed militia groups are actively involved in terrorist attacks in Iraq and Syria. After ISIS has begun to lose power in Iraq, these militia groups threaten regional and global security. They not only target American bases and the military but aim to be influential over local governments. These militia groups are involved in attacks targeting the Iraqi government opposition, state officials, and politicians when they are against their interests. They carry on similar missions in Syria and serve the interests of the Iranian regime. The Western world once again has questioned its counterterrorism strategies and debated how decent a strategy it is to turn a blind eye to the activities of Iranian-backed militia groups when they fight against jihadist terrorist groups. What if jihadist terrorism is defeated, but these militia groups have flourished and become regional actors, as seen in their attacks targeting the American soldiers in Iraq and Syria? There are still lessons that need to be learned when countering terrorism in the Middle East.

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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