Iran has reportedly financed, trained, and founded Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia which is sanction-designated by the U.S. government as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
- Type of Organization: Militia, religious, terrorist, transnational, violent
- Ideologies and Affiliations: Iranian-sponsored, Islamist, jihadist, Khomeinist, Shiite
- Place of Origin: Iraq
- Year of Origin: 2006–2007
- Founder(s): Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
- Places of Operation: Iraq, Syria
Kata’ib Hezbollah: A Sanctioned Terrorist Group Sponsored by Iran
Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) is an Iranian-sponsored, anti-American Shiite militia operating in Iraq with ancillary operations in Syria. During the US-led war in Iraq that began in 2003, KH earned a reputation for planting deadly roadside bombs and using improvised rocket-assisted mortars (IRAMs) to attack US and coalition forces. According to US diplomat Ali Khedery, KH is responsible for “some of the most lethal attacks against US and coalition forces throughout the [US-led war in Iraq].” In August 2019, Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Michael Knights assessed that KH posed the greatest threat to US interests in the country. The group’s former leader, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, is the alleged mastermind behind the US and French embassy bombings in Kuwait in 1983 and the assassination attempt on Kuwait’s emir in 1985.
After the US military withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, KH sent fighters to defend the Assad regime in Syria, allegedly at the behest of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). As KH switched from fighting US forces in Iraq to combating Sunni rebels and extremists in Iraq and Syria, KH continued to prioritize its anti-American agenda, repeatedly boycotting battles against ISIS in which the US participates.
KH is sanction-designated by the US government as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). It is also reportedly the “most secretive” and elite of Iraq’s predominantly Shiite militias. KH has long-standing ties to Iran’s external military branch, the IRGC-Quds Force, as well as to Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
KH is suspected of involvement in extrajudicial killings and abductions in Iraq’s Anbar province, including the May 27, 2016 abduction of more than 70 Sunni boys and men from al-Sijir, and the murder of 49 men from Saqlawiyah. Moreover, the group has gained exclusive control over the Jurf as-Sakr area west of Baghdad where it prevents displaced Sunni residents from returning, operates private prisons, and produces, tests, and stores rockets and other explosives. This area, located in Babil province, near the holy Shia city of Karbala, which the group claims to protect against ISIS, “touches on numerous military industrial sites,” wrote one expert at the Washington Institute.
Since the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018 and implemented a “maximum pressure” campaign imposing economic hardship on Iran, Iran has pursued a strategy of gradually escalating hostilities against the economic and military interests of the US and its allies, taking care not to cross red lines that would trigger devastating reprisals. In April 2019, according to intelligence reports, IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Soleimani met with Iraqi Shia militia leaders and told them to prepare for a proxy war against the US KH has been at the forefront of Iran’s ongoing campaign of provocations, initiating hostilities and then exercising strategic restraint.
In March 2021, KH is believed to have attacked US forces stationed at Ayn al-Asad air base in the western Anbar province. In May, the base was attacked again; this time with drones. US airstrikes in June of that year, which the Pentagon said targeted KH facilities at the border of Iraq and Syria, may have been retaliation for these attacks.
On May 14, 2019, explosives-laden drones attacked two Saudi oil-pumping facilities. The attacks were originally thought to be carried out by the Houthis from Yemen, but US intelligence later revised this assessment and found the attacks emanated from KH’s Jurf as-Sakr base on the outskirts of Baghdad, implicating the group in the attacks. A few days later, on May 19, a missile was launched from Amana Bridge in Baghdad, reportedly aimed at the American embassy but landing in an empty field near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. According to a senior official in the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) the rocket was launched by KH.
A KH front group known as Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq claimed a drone strike on Riyadh on January 23, 2021. This attack revealed the increasing sophistication of KH drones, as it took place over a range of nearly 650 miles. KH houses most of its drones at Camp Speicher, an Iraqi Air Force academy and former US military base outside of Tikrit. The Washington Institute’s analysis of satellite imagery from a wrecked drone in Erbil shows that the Iraqi militias have begun using drones with twelve-foot wingspans that are similar to Iranian-designed models used by the Houthis and Lebanese Hezbollah.
KH’s anger with the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, as well as the Abraham Accords, was directed at the UAE in a social media statement by Musawi: “After a series of continuous assaults [against the Houthis] by those who made the Zionist dream come true… we will launch a big campaign to gather money for the Yemeni people to buy drones… to punish al-Salul and the House of Zayed [the UAE ruling family].” In January 2022, KH implemented a mostly-ineffective fundraising campaign that purported to help Yemini youth when in actuality it was designed to raise money for drones for the Houthis to attack the UAE.
KH does Iran’s bidding in Iraq in many ways, but it has continued launching attacks outside of Iraq to advance Iranian regional interests. In February 2022, Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq allegedly launched a drone from Iraq into the UAE. KH asserts that the UAE, along with the US and Saudi Arabia, is responsible for the growth of ISIS, its enemy. KH’s possession of drones in Iraq is a growing concern throughout the region.
Between October and December 2019, against the backdrop of an Iraqi protest movement whose grievances largely centered on Iran’s continued meddling in the country’s political affairs and the unchecked influence of Iran-backed militias, the Iran-backed militias undertook a concerted campaign of rocket attacks targeting US military targets in the country. According to a US military official, forensic analysis of the rockets and launchers used during the spate of at least ten attacks indicated the involvement of Shia militias, most notably Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Katai’b Hezbollah. The attacks placed the US on a collision course with the Iran-backed militias.
KH’s involvement, along with the Iraqi security forces, in the suppression of the popular anti-government protests starting in October 2019 did not help its public image. Members of KH are also believed to be involved in targeted assassinations of political activists who participated in the protests. Within two months, the death toll from the protests was over 600, with allegations of mass arrests and torture. Former IRGC-QF commander Qassem Soleimani reportedly facilitated the transfer of Katyusha rocket launchers and shoulder-fired missiles to KH to be used to provoke a US attack and redirect the anger of the people toward American interests.
The situation reached a boil in late December 2019 and early January, 2020. On December 27, 2019, more than 30 missiles were fired at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, killing a US contractor and wounding four US troops as well as two members of the Iraqi security forces. The US accused KH of being responsible for the attack, and retaliated by launching strikes against 5 KH targets in Iraq and Syria including weapons depots and command and control centers. The US strikes reportedly killed at least 25 KH militants.
On December 31, 2019, protesters, including members and supporters of KH, attempted to storm the US Embassy in Baghdad. Demonstrators threw stones and torched a security post, prompting embassy guards to respond with stun grenades and tear gas. The militia supporters withdrew from the embassy after prominent commanders reportedly spoke to them. On January 1, 2020, following orders from Mohammed Mohyee, KH’s political spokesman, thousands of protestors dispersed from the American Embassy in Baghdad. The withdrawal was reportedly agreed to upon the condition that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, will move ahead with legislation to force American troops out of Iraq. KH leadership vowed to return if the group was unsuccessful in forcing a US withdrawal from Iraq through the political process. In response to the attack on the embassy, former President Trump issued a statement that his administration would consider attacks by Iran-backed militias as attacks by Iran.
On February 26, 2020, as a result of the numerous terrorist attacks against US and Coalition Forces in Iraq, including IED attacks, rocket-propelled grenade attacks, and sniper operations, the US designated Ahmad al-Hamidawi, the Secretary General of KH, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
On March 11, 2020, Iran-backed Shiite militias attacked Camp Taji in Iraq, killing two American and one British servicemembers, and wounding 14 others. The next day, KH released a statement saying, we “ask Allah to bless those who carried out the jihadi operation that targeted US occupation forces at Taji Base in Baghdad…We assure them that we will defend them and deter anyone from targeting them.” In response to this aggression, on the evening of March 12, US forces conducted a defensive precision strike against KH facilities throughout Iraq, specifically five weapon storage facilities, which contained arms that have been used against coalition forces.
In August 2021, the US placed additional sanctions on the Iran-backed militia for violating a US law that restricts weapons transfers from Iran.
Controlling the Border with Syria
KH has had a prominent role, alongside Lebanese Hezbollah, in maintaining control over the al-Qaim border crossing between Iraq and Syria, after the group helped oust ISIS from the area in late 2017. While KH controls the road between al-Qaim and Akashat to the southwest, it is not the only actor on the Iraqi side of the border. According to a Carnegie Endowment report from 2020, “the Iraqi Army’s 7th and 8th Divisions, border guard units, a counterterrorism force, federal police, various militias operating under the auspices of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and a local tribal force” are all present here. ISIS has also sought to expand its insurgency into Anbar province.
Located in the western Anbar desert of Iraq, al-Qaim is a strategically important location for Iran and difficult for the Iraqi government security forces to monitor. This crossing is a critical transit hub for weapons and supplies from Iran into Syria and the Levant. Kataib Hezbollah is also present on the Syrian side of the border in Abu Kamal.
The group finances its activities, in part, through illegal cross-border smuggling operations, which include drug smuggling. The smuggling of Captagon pills flourishes in the areas under KH control, between al-Qaim and Rutbah. ISIS also takes advantage of the drug trade in this region. According to one resident in al-Qaim, Iran-backed militias “control all access points.” KH’s control of the border also allows it to ensure that weapons and other illegal shipments are not stopped by customs.
KH derives its legitimacy from the fact that it helped to liberate Iraqi cities and towns from ISIS. It frequently issues warnings that ISIS is still poised to carry out terrorist attacks so that they are still seen as being necessary. They also seek popular support for their mission against the US military. A KH military spokesperson said in February 2022: “We have information about IS’s intentions to enter the Karma district,” and “America is facilitating the movement of terrorists on the border.”
The Iraqi people, including those in Anbar province, are becoming increasingly fed up with the activities of the Iran-backed militias. KH brigade movements reportedly sparked an outcry in the province, which has become increasingly Shiite since KH took control there. KH reportedly took farm land from locals for “security reasons” and stopped Sunnis displaced from the war against ISIS from reentering the province. A local security officer told Al-Monitor “All foreigners—except the Lebanese and Iranians—are enemies [to the PMF]. They [the PMF] are the same as IS.” KH’s harsh sectarian policies could fuel a resurgence of Sunni radicalism and ISIS, which already has a presence in the region. KH is known for its sectarianism, even more so than other Iran-backed militias.
Iraqi Politics: Countering Militia Influence
On July 1, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Mahdi decreed that the PMF forces, including KH, must fully integrate within the Iraqi armed forces chain of command or disarm. The Counter Extremism Project notes that the policy may have been adopted under pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia, given the above-mentioned KH drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in May 2019.
His predecessor, Prime Minister Kadhimi, also sought to limit the power of the militias, whom he referred to as “outlaws,” and establish the state’s monopoly on violence. KH stands in the way of these efforts, as one of the most dangerous and powerful Iran-backed militia in Iraq. KH is officially part of the Iraqi state, and as such receives government funding, however it frequently disregards the Iraqi chain of command; its loyalty rests with Iran and the IRGC. Coordinating with other PMF militia leaders, KH’s Abu al-Askari claimed that Kadhimi won the premiership through “fraud” and that he was trying to postpone the elections by promoting tension between demonstrators and Iran-backed militias.
In an effort to combat the Iran-backed militias, Kadhimi launched a campaign to fight corruption at the borders and re-establish state control. In the west, the borders with Jordan and Syria are largely desert and difficult to secure. On the eastern border with Iran, the Zerbatiya crossing in the Hamrin mountains is known to be a safe-haven for insurgents. The Port Authority’s efforts resulted in government revenue, but many of the border crossings are still believed to be under the control of Iran-backed militias.
Kadhimi’s policies to counter the PMF militias may have provoked the failed drone assassination attempt on his residence, which some Iraqi officials blamed on KH and AAH. Afterall, KH threaten violence if parliament approved him as prime minster, threats for which a senior leader of the militia, Abu al-Askari, was later issued an arrest warrant. The leader of KH denied the groups involvement in the attacks, saying “no one in Iraq has the desire to waste a drone on the house of a former prime minister.”
A prominent political figure, Muqtada al-Sadr, appears to support Kadhimi’s approach to the militias, even though he used to command one of the most powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq, known as the Mahdi Army (JAM). Sadr has claimed in the past to have disbanded his units in the PMF and echoed former Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi’s policy of militia integration in the Iraqi chain of command; he explained that if the militias wanted to be a part of his government, they must disband. In response to this message from “a friendly party,” a senior KH official, in November 2021, said on Telegram that Saraya al-Difa al-Shaabi, a KH unit, was ordered to “stop all its activities and close its headquarters.”
KH Ideology: Hostile to America, Loyal to Iran
According to the US Department of State, KH is “a radical Shia Islamist group with an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology.” The group is virulently anti-American and ideologically loyal to the Iranian regime.
Anti-American: During the US-led war in Iraq, KH built its reputation by targeting US personnel and interests and killing numerous US soldiers in terrorist attacks. Since the US military withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, KH has retained its anti-American ideology. In KH’s efforts to fight ISIS in Iraq, KH remains opposed to any cooperation with the United States.
In September 2014, for example, KH released a statement saying, “We will not fight alongside the American troops under any kind of conditions whatsoever. [Our only contact with Americans will be] if we fight each other.” In March 2015, KH’s military spokesman reaffirmed the group’s anti-American position, saying, “It is not possible for Kataib Hizbollah or any of the resistance factions to be in the same trench as the Americans.” In March 2018, KH supported the Iraqi parliament’s decision to implement a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. KH had previously warned it was prepared to confront the US military “at any moment” if it was preparing a long-term presence in Iraq.
In October 2020, KH agreed to a conditional ceasefire with the US. The PMUs made assurances that while the US and Iraqi governments negotiated a timetable for the complete withdrawal of US troops, they would abstain from attacking US forces. The total drawdown of US troops from Iraq is a central objective of the Iranian proxy. According to the KH website, “waging jihad against the occupation until the last American is expelled from Iraq” sits among the group’s top “jihadi pillars.”
But the group was not satisfied with the progress of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, and thus resumed its attacks. “The equation has changed. Political mediation will not work… This is a new transformation in confronting [the enemy],” said KH-controlled Unit 10,000, a propaganda channel. A spokesperson for the group also claimed that the talks were “coercive.” After the ceasefire broke down, KH turned to attacking Iraqi supply trucks in order to prevent the transfer of material to Iraqi security forces at the border with Syria, while at least initially avoiding redlines that could provoke US retaliation.
In January 2022, there was an unclaimed rocket attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad. In July 2021, Hezbollah leader, Abu al-Askari, posted a statement to Telegram that said “The decision of the Iraqi resistance is not to attack even the camp of the evil US embassy in Baghdad.” Of course, this does not rule him and his group out as culprits of this recent attack, but it could show that the group does not want the embassy to be shut down in the same way that it wants US troops out of the country.
Pro-Iranian: KH’s loyalty to Iran is key to the group’s ideology. A RAND Corporation report claims that “Kata’ib Hezbollah, like Lebanese Hezbollah, is used as a tool to ‘export the Islamic revolution’ as practiced in Tehran.” KH openly accepts Iran’s vision of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurists), a strain of political theology that entrusts Iran’s Supreme Leader with unique authority in the Shia faith. Members of KH swear an oath of loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and accept him as their own spiritual leader. Indeed, KH has actively projected Iranian power throughout the region—in June 2018, Israel targeted KH in a strike on a villa on the border of Iraq and Syria. According to The Wall Street Journal, KH was embedded there with the IRGC to transfer Iranian weapons to Syria. The Congressional Research Service also indicated in an October 2018 report that “Iran had transferred short range ballistic missiles to Iran-backed militias in Iraq, reportedly including Kata’ib Hezbollah.”
KH’s Organizational Structure: the “Most Secretive” Militia in Iraq
Many analysts consider KH the most secretive Shia militia operating in Iraq. Abu Madhi al-Mohandes was the leader of KH. He was killed in January 3, 2020, in an airstrike on Iraq's Baghdad International Airport that also killed Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Quds Force. Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes is the nom de guerre of former Iraqi MP Jamal al-Ibrahimi. Al-Mohandes also served as Iraq’s deputy national security advisor and the deputy commander of the Haashid Shaabi (also called the popular mobilization forces, or PMF), Iraq’s umbrella group of anti-ISIS Shiite militias. In the fight against ISIS, the PMF has coordinated military strategy among KH, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Badr Organization, and other predominantly Shiite and Iranian-sponsored militias.
KH: Financed by Iran
As of 2008, Iran’s IRGC Quds Force has been funding KH, according to the US Treasury Department. Though little is publicly known about Iran’s financing of KH since then, it is widely believed that Iran continues to finance KH’s operations.
In November 2014, wounded US military veterans and family members of deceased US soldiers filed a lawsuit against European banks for processing money from Tehran that bankrolled terrorist attacks in Iraq. According to the lawsuit, KH allegedly received money from Iran to finance terrorist attacks against US soldiers.
Another way that the group finances itself is through extortion. Qatari officials reportedly paid 25 million dollars out of a 150-million-dollar ransom to KH after it was discovered that the group had kidnapped a member of the royal family.
KH Recruitment: Do You Hate Uncle Sam (but Love Assad)?
KH has sought to lure recruits by advertising its fight against US forces in Iraq. Following the start of the Syrian civil war, the group also advertised its efforts to support Assad forces in neighboring Syria.
During the US-led war in Iraq, KH filmed attacks against US and coalition targets, publishing the films online for propaganda and recruitment purposes. During the Arab Spring, KH and fellow Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) also attempted to attract recruits to fight anti-Assad rebels in Syria by advertising their involvement there. They did so by holding public funerals for fighters in Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, and by posting updates on the groups’ Facebook pages. The two groups also posted phone numbers around Baghdad to attract potential recruits.
KH promotes itself through the prolific use of social media and puts a large quantity of resources into internet propaganda. A Telegraph report revealed in 2020 that Facebook received millions of dollars in advertising revenue from KH. Furthermore, the report said that KH deploys “electronic armies” to publish droves of fake news stories on the platform.
Up until 2020, KH maintained its own website. The US seized this website, along with one other being used by KH to recruit new members and promote extremist propaganda.
Training from Iran and Hezbollah
In the past, KH members have received training from Iran’s external military wing, the Quds Force, as well as from Lebanese Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy. By 2008, the Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah were running training camps in four locations in Iraq (Tehran, Qom, Ahvaz, and Mashhad). There, KH and Iran’s other Shiite militias were trained in the use of small arms and explosives.
Lebanese Hezbollah also ran training camps in southern Iraq until the group was forced to relocate the camps to Iran in April 2008. By 2010, training camps in Iran continued to provide KH with training related to small arms, surveillance, small unit tactics, and communications. By November 2013, KH members trained in either Iran or Lebanon and then flew to Syria to fight alongside Assad regime forces. By 2015, some KH members trained near the city of Samarra in northern Iraq.
KH has developed especially close ties with Unit 3800, the Lebanese Hezbollah wing devoted to arming and training Iraqi Shiite militias.