- 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 U.S.-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 U.S. and coalition forces. According to U.S. diplomat Ali Khedery, KH is responsible for “some of the most lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces throughout the [U.S.-led war in Iraq].” In August 2019, Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Michael Knights assessed that KH posed the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the country. The group’s current leader, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, is the alleged mastermind behind the U.S. and French embassy bombings in Kuwait in 1983 and the assassination attempt on Kuwait’s emir in 1985.
After the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. participates.
KH is sanction-designated by the U.S. 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. The group has gained exclusive control over the Jurf as-Sakr area west of Baghdad where it prevents displaced Sunni residents from returning and operates private prisons.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. KH has been at the forefront of Iran’s ongoing campaign of provocations, initiating hostilities and then exercising strategic restraint.
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 U.S. 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.
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 U.S. military targets in the country. According to a U.S. 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 U.S. on a collision course with the Iran-backed militias.
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 U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. troops as well as two members of the Iraqi security forces. The U.S. 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 U.S. strikes reportedly killed at least 25 KH militants.
On December 31, 2019, protesters, including members and supporters of KH, attempted to storm the U.S. 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 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq through the political process.
KH Ideology: Hostile to America, Loyal to Iran
According to the U.S. 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 U.S.-led war in Iraq, KH built its reputation by targeting U.S. personnel and interests and killing numerous U.S. soldiers in terrorist attacks. Since the U.S. 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 U.S. troops. KH had previously warned it was prepared to confront the U.S. military “at any moment” if it was preparing a long-term presence in Iraq.
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. Little is known about the group’s structure, aside from the fact that Abu Madhi al-Mohandes leads KH. Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes is the nom de guerre of former Iraqi MP Jamal al-Ibrahimi. In addition to acting as leader of KH, al-Mohandes has 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military veterans and family members of deceased U.S. 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 U.S. soldiers.
KH Recruitment: Do You Hate Uncle Sam (but Love Assad)?
KH has sought to lure recruits by advertising its fight against U.S. 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 U.S.-led war in Iraq, KH filmed attacks against U.S. 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.
As of mid-2018, KH maintains its own website.
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.