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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Who Are Iran-backed Militia Groups Targeting U.S. Bases in the Middle East?

Iran-backed militia groups have increasingly targeted the United States (U.S.) military bases and facilities in the Middle East after Hamas’s October 7th terrorist attacks. The U.S. airstrikes continuously retaliate from these groups and target their facilities. The most recent one took place on January 24th and targeted the facilities of Kataib-s Hezbollah in Iraq. However, these militia groups used an uncrewed aerial system and attacked the Tower 22 U.S. military outpost in Jordan on January 27, 2023, killing three U.S. service members and wounding 40 others. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI) claimed responsibility for this attack.  

The operational capacity of Iran-backed militia groups has threatened U.S. interests in the region, given the fact that these groups recently seem to be more capable and organized than even jihadist terrorist groups in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. This article uses the Global Terrorism Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID) and examines active terror groups backed by Iran in the Middle East.   

Hamas’s October 7th attacks have resulted in reviewing security policies and models in the Middle East. The questions of how Hamas conducted the attacks, how it was funded and procured arms and weapons, as well as who was behind the attacks would take some time to get answers. The early accusations have revolved around Iran and its ongoing support of terror groups in the Middle East. These attacks also have come to face another threat in the region, which is the operational capacity of Iran-backed militia groups in the Middle East. The groups have conducted 157 attacks targeting American bases and facilities since the October 7th terrorist attacks, as seen in Figure 1 below. 

Figure 1 Attacks Targeting American Facilities from October 7 2023 to January 28 2024

Iran aims to be a regional and global hegemon. Its increasing activities in Afghanistan, Turkiye, Syria, Iraq, YemenLebanon, and Latin American countries prove its regional and global efforts. Moreover, Iran competes with Saudi Arabia to be a regional hegemon in the Middle East. Both states have faced combat zones, and Iran seems to be a winner and a dominant actor in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. 

Why do these militia groups target Americans?

Iran’s linkage with terrorism dates back to the Shah revolution in 1979. The newly established regime has exported terrorism and seen it as a tool to protect its government and seek regional and global influence. Its tactics provide logistical support, funds, and arms and explosives to terror groups. Its pragmatist strategies are based on three pillars: First, the regime supports any terror groups fighting against American forces. Regardless of whether they are Sunni groups or a threat to itself, the regime has given its full support to Al Qaeda and ISIS groups in the Middle East and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Second, the regime never avoids providing logistics to groups in the West Bank and Gaza that target Israeli forces. Third, it supports Shia minority groups where jihadist terror groups in the Middle East target them. Its terror tactics have yielded results for the regime since Houthis seized the capital city, Sanaa, in 2014 and control territory today in Yemen. Iran has successfully maintained Bashar al-Assad in his position in Syria and has full control of politics in Iraq. The regime sees the presence of Americans as a threat to its interests; therefore, its primary goal is to intimidate American forces and drive them out of the region. 

Iran-backed Militia Groups in the Middle East

Iran-backed militia groups are active in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. In Iraq, the GRID recorded 3,184 terror attacks from 2018 to 2023 perpetrated by three groups. First, ISIS is the top group with the most attacks in the country and was the perpetrator of almost 50 percent of attacks in Iraq in the same period. ISIS still has a presence in Iraq despite its significantly declining attacks. Second, Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), target the Turkish military in the north of Iraq. Third, Iran-backed militia groups are the other largest groups with the most attacks in Iraq. The GRID recorded 28 terrorist perpetrators from 2018 to 2023 in Iraq, and 19 of them were Iran-backed groups, as listed in Table 1 below.  

Table 1: Iran-backed Militia Groups Recorded as Perpetrators in the GRID from 2018 to 2023

Ahel Al-Ma’rouf
Al Sabiqoon 
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq
Ashab al-Kahf 
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
Kata’ib Hizballah (KH)
Liwa Ahrar al-Iraq
Operations of Martyr Ali Mansour
Popular Mobilization Forces 
Qassim al-Jabbarin Brigade
Raba’ Allah 
Revenge of al-Muhandis Brigade
Revolutionaries Brigade
Usbat Al-Thairen
Saraya Ababil
Saraya Al-Salam
Saraya Awliya al-Dam
The International Resistance Faction
The Owners of the White Flags

These militia groups operate in many towns and provinces, from Kirkuk, Baghdad, Al Anbar, Tikrit, and Salahaddin to Basmaya, Babil, and Qadissiyyah in Iraq. They used drones, missiles, and rockets provided by Iran and planted Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) in the attacks. Their targets ranged from alcohol stores and U.S. supply convoys to activists in Shia-populated towns.  

In Syria, Iran-backed militia groups serve the interests of Bashar Al-Assad, who receives support from Iran due to historical, political, and ideological concerns. His father was the only Arab leader giving his support to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Therefore, Bashar Al-Assad has opened its borders to Iran-backed militia groups since the launch of the civil war. IRGC trained Shia militias and formed Liwa Fatemiyyun and Liwa Zainebiyyun in Syria. Liwa Fatemiyyun is an Afghan militia mainly composed of Hazaras from Afghanistan, while Liwa Zainebiyyun is made up of Pakistani Shias. Both groups were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2019 for supporting the IRGC’s Quds Force. It should be noted that Liwa al-Quds in Syria is a Sunni group but receives massive support from Iran. These groups conducted many terror attacks in more than 20 locations in Syria, indicating how they have been well-settled and spread their operational capacity across the country.

Iran-backed Groups After Hamas’s Attacks: Islamic Resistance in Iraq

Hezbollah, Houthis, and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq are three groups that have frequently targeted Israeli and American facilities in the Middle East since the October 7th attacks. Houthis targeted U.S. commercial ships on the Red Sea and launched missiles that aimed to land in Israel. Hezbollah targeted the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and civilians in Israel and conducted 238 terror attacks from October 7 to December 31, 2023, as seen in Figure 2. There were only two Hezbollah attacks in the first nine months of 2023 until Hamas’s October 7th attacks. 

Figure 2 Hezbollah Attacks in the Middle East between October 7 and December 31 2023

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI) received the highest attention after its recent attack in Jordan. IRI is an umbrella term for pro-Iran Shia insurgent groups composed of ideologically similar groups backed by Iran. Its umbrella includes Tashkil al-Waritheen (The Inheritors), Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Party of God), Asaib Ahl al Haq (League of the Righteous), Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba (Movement of the Party of God’s Noble Ones), Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada (Masters of the Martyrs Brigade), and Badr Organisation. The stated goal of the organization is to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq and Syria and support Palestinian groups in the Middle East. IRI is funded, armed, and directed by Iran, although Iran denies and claims that these militias are autonomous. 

IRI made its first attack in October 2023 and launched rockets and drones at U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. According to the GRID, IRI was the perpetrator of 107 attacks from October 7 to December 31, 2023. IRI conducted 69 attacks in Syria, 35 in Iraq, 2 in Israel, and 1 in Jordan, as seen in Figure 3. They were all missiles and drone attacks. Most of its attacks fell short or were intercepted by American or Israeli forces. 

Figure 3 Islamic Resistance in Iraq Attacks from October 7 to December 31 2023

IRI’s attacks intensified in four provinces in Iraq. Al Anbar recorded 20 attacks, followed by 13 in Arbil/Hewler, 1 in Baghdad, and 1 in Ninawa. In Syria, IRI conducted its most attacks in Dayr az Zawr, also known as the last territory partially controlled by ISIS, followed by 28 attacks in Al Hasakah and 9 in Hims. The group also was the perpetrator of several attacks in Israel and Jordan.  

To conclude, Iran-backed militia groups seem to be multi-functional tools under the control of Tehran. They not only target the local state officials, politicians, and political parties in the opposition but strategically serve the interests of Iran. Iran’s new strategy aims to take the leading role in the Islamic world and sell itself as a country that can stand against Western powers in the Middle East. In fact, its goal is to intimidate American forces and drive them out of the Middle East, given the fact that the American presence in the region is a threat to the interests of Tehran. Its new strategy also gives a solid message to the U.S. to revise its policies in the Middle East. It will be a challenge for the U.S. to counter Iran-backed militia groups with a strong presence in many countries in the Middle East and a capacity to use drones and missiles provided by Iran. 

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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