Asaib Ahl al-Haq
Iran provides money, weaponry, training, and operational oversight to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iraqi Shia militia. As a proxy of the Iranian regime, Asaib Ahl al-Haq remains ideologically aligned with Iran’s Islamist political goals, and loyal to its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On January 3, 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. government would designate AAH as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
- Type of Organization: Militia, political party, religious, social services provider, terrorist, transnational, violent
- Ideologies and Affiliations: Iranian-sponsored, Islamist, jihadist, Khomeinist, Shia
- Place of Origin: Iraq
- Year of Origin: 2006
- Founder(s): Qais al-Khazali
- Places of Operation: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon
AAH: An Iranian-Backed Militia
Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)—in English, the “League of the Righteous”—is an Iranian-backed Shia militia and political party operating primarily in Iraq, with ancillary operations in Syria and Lebanon. Formed in 2006 by Qais al-Khazali, AAH has approximately 10,000 members and is one of the most powerful Shia militias in Iraq. Until the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, AAH had launched over 6,000 attacks on American and Iraqi forces, including highly sophisticated operations and targeted kidnappings of Westerners. The group seeks to promote Iran’s political and religious influence in Iraq, maintain Shia control over Iraq, and oust any remaining Western vestiges from the country.
AAH’s history in Iraq dates back formally to 2006, when the group broke away from the Mahdi Army (JAM)—the militia run by violent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In August 2007, the U.S. designated AAH a “Special Group,” a label given to Iranian-backed Shia militias operating in Iraq. AAH is still one of three prominent Iraqi Shia militias funded and trained by Iran’s external military wing, the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). AAH overtly displays its loyalty to Iran’s leaders, including the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The group reportedly operates under the coordination of Irans Quds Force.
After the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, AAH announced its intention to lay down its weapons and enter Iraqi politics. The group opened a number of political offices and religious schools and offered social services to widows and orphans. According to a Reuters report, AAH modeled its operations after Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy.
Since entering politics, AAH has not fulfilled its vow to halt armed resistance, instead continuing to carry out sectarian violence, execute homophobic attacks, slaughter women alleged to be prostitutes, and threaten the “interests” of Western countries participating in strikes in Syria. The group is one of the militias in Haashid Shaabi, Iraq’s anti-ISIS volunteer forces also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
In the May 2018 elections, AAH won 15 seats in the Iraqi parliament—a significant increase from the one seat it had won in the 2014 elections. Under the newly formed government, AAH member Abdul-Amir Hamdani was given the position of minister of culture. On July 13, 2018, Iraqi protesters in the country’s south attacked the political offices of AAH and other Iran-backed groups as they called for Iran to withdraw from Iraq.
AAH Ideology: Imported from Iran
AAH is a religiously motivated group with allegiance to Iran. The group is anti-American, sectarian, anti-Kurdish, homophobic, and violent.
Pro-Iranian: AAH seeks to establish an Islamist, Shia-controlled Iraq and promote Iranian objectives. While AAH has origins within the Iraqi Sadrist movement, the group is openly loyal to Iranian leaders, most notably the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. Similarly, AAH shows deference to the Guardianship of the Jurists (velayat-e faqih), a governing structure that serves as one of the cornerstones of Iran’s Islamic Revolution system. .Analysts characterize AAH as a Khomeinist organization that aims “to create a suitable environment for the return of Imam Mahdi through the imposition of strict Shi’a Islamic governance.” This assessment is corroborated by Guardian Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov, who writes that AAH is a “proxy arm of the Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds Brigades, whose main brief is to export Iran’s 30-year-old Islamic Revolution.” AAH is also ideologically aligned with Iranian proxy Hezbollah, a Shia Lebanese terrorist group.
Declassified interrogation reports of Qais al-Khazali, AAH’s founder, underscore the breadth and depth of the relationship between Shia militias and Iran. Al-Khazali described multiple trips to Tehran with Muqtada al-Sadr, beginning in 1989 with the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, where he met with representatives of the Iranian government. These meetings continued over the next decade, where al-Khazali met with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and other senior leaders. During questioning in 2007, Al-Khazali emphasized that while Iran didn’t order the militias to attack specific targets in Iraq, Iranian officials “suggested” the militias concentrate their efforts on British troops in Basra and American troops “to force a withdrawal.” Al-Khazali also spoke at length of generous Iranian provisions of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and their role in the slaughter of American troops. According to one report, “[d]etainee said that anyone can receive EFP training and Iran does not care who gets it… this is because of the availability and low cost of EFPs.”
Anti-American: AAH is also virulently anti-American, a stance that has not abated since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011. In March 2015, for example AAH boycotted the PMF attack against ISIS in Tikrit because AAH rejected U.S. airpower support. By the end of the month, AAH only agreed to rejoin the battle against ISIS after then Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised that the United States would stop its airstrikes. AAH Spokesman Naim al-Aboudi said that the Prime Minister “realized this battle can’t be finished” without AAH and other militias, demonstrating AAH’s continued prioritizing of its anti-American position above its other goals.
In 2018, Qais al-Khazali framed AAH’s anti-Americanism as a political rather than ideological struggle. As al-Khazali told reporters “[i]deologically, we do not consider the U.S. an infidel or its people enemies. The only thing that happened is a phase of American occupation, and it is normal for people to resist occupation.” Yet this convenient rebranding of AAH came on the heels of the U.S. Congress’ attempts to sanction AAH as a terrorist organization.
On May 1 2019, AAH militants fired rockets at U.S. contractors working in Taji. Local security forces arrested two AAH militants shortly after.
Sectarian: As a Shiite, Iranian-backed group, AAH also follows and implements a sectarian ideology that has deepened the fault lines between Sunnis and Shiites. According to Martin Chulov, AAH leader Qais al-Khazali’s speeches have galvanized “thousands” of Iraqi Shiites to fight for Assad’s regime in Syria, worrying many Iraqi communities about “a sectarian conflict that increasingly respects no border.” In August 2012, AAH militants reportedly bombed the Sunni Sabatayn Mosque in Iraq, an attack that stirred a new wave of sectarian tensions in the country. Since then, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous AAH attacks on Sunnis in Iraq in which AAH militants target Sunni mosques or towns.
In line with this sectarian strife, AAH members have reportedly appropriated the derogatory term rafidah (a pejorative meaning “rejecters” that some Sunnis use for Shiites) as a badge of honor and “self-identity.” A January 2014 Foreign Policy piece reported that on an AAH linked-webpage, AAH proudly identified its fighters as rafidah “as a sign of mocking defiance against their foes.”
Anti-Kurdish: AAH leaders frequently demonize and alienate Iraqi Kurds. In 2015, AAH’s leader Qais al-Khazali said on live television, “The problem is that the Kurds are operating right now like leeches, which feed on the host’s body – sucking more and more of its blood – in an effort to grow in size.”
Homophobic: Members of AAH have committed numerous acts of violence targeting gays in Iraq. In May 2014, AAH members published a list of 24 “wanted” individuals, the vast majority of whom were accused of carrying out “homosexual acts.” Two months later, AAH members beheaded two teenagers believed to be gay, and threw their heads into the garbage. According to police anecdotes, these types of attacks and intimidation whole. Violent: AAH operates as a militia, with ancillary operations as a political party. The group does not eschew violence in pursuit of its objectives, which include the establishment of an Islamist Iranian-inspired Shia state.
AAH’s Organizational Structure: A Group that Answers to Iran
AAH is led by its founder, Qais al-Khazali, who broke off from the Mahdi Army (a.k.a. Jaysh al-Mahdi or JAM), a Sadrist militia, in 2006. According to a 2012 report by analyst Sam Wyer, al-Khazali sits on AAH’s five-person board of trustees along with two deputies. As an Iranian proxy, AAH coordinates with senior Iranian commanders, notably IRGC-Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani.
AAH first began as a military unit within JAM. With the 2003 Iraq War, AAH reorganized into battalions assigned to four sectors: Baghdad, Maysan, Najaf, and Samarra. When al-Khazali made AAH an independent group in 2006, he retained this structure. AAH’s military arrangement is thought to be based on fellow Shia militant group Hezbollah, with which the group has close ties.
Since the United States withdrew its forces from Iraq in December 2011, AAH has expanded significantly into politics, “opening a string of political offices” throughout Iraq, according to the Washington Post. AAH runs two political offices in Baghdad, and others in the Iraqi cities of Basra, Najaf, Hillah, al-Kalis, and Tal Afar. AAH has also sent political representatives to the southern Iraqi provinces of Dhi Qar, al-Muthanna, and Maysan to meet with tribal and minority leaders. The group’s political bloc is called al-Sadiqun (the Honest Ones), and in the May 2018 parliamentary elections, AAH ran in alliance with Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Coalition. Outside Iraq, AAH has maintained political representation in Beirut, Lebanon since early 2011.and in the April 30, 2014, parliamentary elections, AAH ran in alliance with Prime Minister Maliki’s Dawlat al-Qanoon (State of Law). Outside Iraq, AAH has maintained political representation in Beirut, Lebanon since early 2011.
AAH: Financed by Iran
AAH has received training, arms, and financial support from Iran, particularly through Iran’s external military branch, the IRGC-Quds Force, as well as from Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. Col. Rick Welch, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer, said that during the 2007 U.S. surge in Iraq, Iran was giving AAH “$20 million a month or some outrageous figure like that” in order to train AAH fighters. After U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, the financial pipeline from Iran continued. As of 2012, Iran was giving AAH $5 million in cash and weapons per month, according to an Iraqi close to the group. As of March 2014, the group was receiving an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million a month from Iran.
Recruitment Tactics and Messaging: AAH as the Protector of Shiites in Iraq
AAH recruitment focuses on two strategies: traditional propaganda efforts to raise the group’s profile, and a comprehensive religious system aimed to indoctrinate and recruit members. AAH has also emulated groups like ISIS by using social media to expand recruitment throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and the West.
One of the main ways AAH draws recruits is by advertising itself as a protector of the Shiite community within Iraq and abroad. AAH uses posters and issues calls for recruits on Iraqi television stations, often emphasizing its connection with Iran and Hezbollah. One AAH member said that he was drawn to AAH because it was “protecting the Shia community inside Iraq and abroad as well.” In the past, the most important galvanizing point for Iraqis to join AAH and go to Syria to fight alongside Assad forces was the defense of the Sayeda Zenab shrine, a Shia holy site in a Damascus suburb.
AAH has seized homes and offices in Baghdad in order to establish recruiting centers where would-be volunteers could go to join other Shiites fighting in Syria. In southern Iraq, posters urge men to join the fight in Syria with other Iraqi Shiites and provide a hotline number to call. In August 2012, AAH distributed over 20,000 posters with AAH’s logo; a photograph of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and a photograph of the late Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. The posters were plastered on buildings and billboards and also used in street demonstrations.
AAH’s second, but perhaps most comprehensive, recruitment strategy is a religious activism and education system. The group uses two mosques in particular, the Sabatayn mosque in Baghdad and the Abdullah al-Radiya mosque in al-Khalis, as hubs for recruitment. AAH leaders give sermons at these mosques, advocating social and religious reform in Iraq in an attempt to entice attendees into joining, financing, or otherwise contributing to AAH’s mission.
AAH has expanded its reach through a network of religious schools known as the “Seal of the Apostles.” These schools, spread throughout Iraq, serve as propaganda and recruitment facilities for the group. As with its military and political structures, AAH also appears to be emulating Hezbollah by launching social services programs for widows and orphans. AAH’s recruitment efforts are funded in large part by Iran.
Training: Emulating Iran’s Hezbollah Proxy
Iran’s IRGC–Quds Force trains AAH in addition to funding and arming the group. AAH’s training program reportedly resembles that of Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. As of March 2014, AAH was receiving an estimated $1.5 million - $2 million from Iran a month. U.S. Colonel Rick Welch said that during the 2007 U.S. surge in Iraq, Iran was giving AAH “$20 million a month or some outrageous figure like that” in order to train its fighters.
In the past, AAH militants have received training from Lebanese Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq. The Quds Force placed Daqduq in charge of overseeing training for Iraqi Shia militants in the region, including AAH fighters.
In June 2014, following calls for volunteer fighters from the Iraqi government and Iraq’s highest Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, there was a surge in Shia volunteers to join the fight against ISIS. Many found their way through AAH recruiting centers in Iraq. According to an Iraqi source from 2014, AAH recruits aiming to join Assad forces in Syria are sent to Iran for approximately two weeks of training before going off to fight.
In December 2017, al-Khazali joined Hezbollah on a tour of Lebanon’s border with Israel. During the visit, he proclaimed “[w]e declare our full readiness to stand united with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause in the face of the Israeli occupation,” Al-Khazali’s trip signaled the transnational nature of Iran’s nurturing of Shia militias.