Qais al-Khazali is the U.S.-designated founder and leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), an Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia and political party operating primarily in Iraq.Matthew Hilburn, “One-time US Prisoner Now Key in Battling IS,” Voice of America, last modified March 15, 2015, http://www.voanews.com/content/qais-khazali-onetime-us-prisoner-now-key-in-battling-islamic-state/2679431.html. During the U.S.-led counterinsurgency, Khazali was one of the most wanted men in Iraq.Eli Lake, “Inside Iraq’s Iranian-Backed Militias,” Bloomberg View, February 4, 2015, http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-02-04/inside-iraq-s-iranian-backed-militias. Khazali’s attacks at the time included a January 2007 attack in Karbala that killed five U.S. soldiers.Sam Wyer, “The Resurgence of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq,” Middle East Security Report 7 (December 2012): 11, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ResurgenceofAAH.pdf; Iraq Releases Man Held In Slayings of U.S. Soldiers,” CNN, June 9, 2009, http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/06/09/iraq.prisoner.release/index.html?_s=PM:WORLD; David D. Kirkpatrick, “Shiite Militias Pose Challenge for U.S. in Iraq,” New York Times, September 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/17/world/middleeast/shiite-militias-pose-challenge-for-us-in-iraq.html. In March 2007, Khazali was found and captured by coalition forces. He was released in January 2010 as part of an apparent prisoner-hostage exchange.Eli Lake, “Inside Iraq’s Iranian-Backed Militias,” Bloomberg View, February 4, 2015, http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-02-04/inside-iraq-s-iranian-backed-militias; “Iraq Releases Man Held In Slayings of U.S. Soldiers,” CNN, June 9, 2009, http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/06/09/iraq.prisoner.release/index.html?_s=PM:WORLD; “Man with al-Sadr ties held in attack on U.S. troops,” CNN.com, March 22, 2007, http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/03/22/iraq.main/.
Since he was released in January 2010, Khazali has continued to lead AAH in both its paramilitary and political activities. When the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq in December 2010, AAH pivoted from attacking anti-American targets in Iraq to recruiting for pro-Assad militias in Syria. According to Guardian Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov, 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.” Martin Chulov, “Controlled by Iran, the deadly militia recruiting Iraq's men to die in Syria,” Guardian (London), March 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/12/iraq-battle-dead-valley-peace-syria.
As AAH seeks to expand its role into Iraq’s political sphere, Khazali continues his sectarian rhetoric. Days before Iraq’s April 30, 2014, parliamentary elections, Khazali gave an ominous speech, drenched with “sectarian undertones,” at an AAH rally in Baghdad to 10,000 supporters. ISIS bombed the rally, killing at least 33 attendants including 10 AAH militants who fought alongside Assad forces in Syria.Associated Press, “Shiite rally bombing sparks reprisals in Iraq,” Seattle Times, April 26, 2014, http://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/shiite-rally-bombing-sparks-reprisals-in-iraq/. Days later in the April 30 elections, AAH’s political party al-Sadiqun (the Honest Ones) ran as part of the State of Law bloc, winning only one seat.Nicholas A. Heras, “Iraqi Shi’a Militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Expands Operations to Syria,” Jamestown Foundation, May 15, 2014, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42367&no_cache=1#.VTlNmiHBzGc; John Hall, “Shocking image shows child aged under ten being used to fire rockets from car-mounted missile launcher in Iraq against ISIS targets,” Daily Mail (London), December 24, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2885162/Chilling-image-shows-child-aged-ten-used-fire-rockets-car-mounted-missile-launcher-Iraq-against-ISIS-targets.html.
Since that time, AAH has continued to act primarily as a militia under Khazali’s leadership, though the group maintains a political role. AAH today fights anti-Assad rebels in Syria as well as ISIS in Iraq. Meanwhile, the group has continued to prioritize its role as an anti-American militia, boycotting the March 2015 battle against ISIS in Tikrit because of U.S. military aid.Saif Hameed, “UPDATE 4-Iraq special forces advance in Tikrit, U.S. coalition joins fight,” Reuters, March 26, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/26/mideast-crisis-iraq-idUSL6N0WS1MM20150326. Khazali also continues to deliver divisive and sectarian rhetoric against fellow Iraqis. In March 2015, Khazali said of Iraq’s Kurdish population, “[they 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.”“Iraqi Shiite Militia Leader Qais Al-Khazali: Kurdish Leaders Are Leeches, Sucking the Blood of Iraq,” MEMRI TV, March 24, 2015, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/4846.htm.
In March 2017, Khazali called for the establishment of separate universities in Iraq to be run by Shiite militias within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). In the speech delivered before a crowd of university students, Khazali reportedly said that Iraq needed a “PMU University, through which we could address our enemies and tell them, ‘If you fear us now, you must know that the PMU is present in every university, college and department.’” According to Iraqi journalist Hassan al-Shanoun, Khazali’s call appears to mimic Iranian-style “cultural revolution” tactics from the 1980s. During that time, schools were closed, teachers and students were expelled, and all western and non-Islamic teachings were removed from curriculums. Khazali also released a statement saying that Iraqi students “need to organize their ranks, which would allow them to overthrow any corrupt government or regime.”Hassan al-Shanoun, “Shiite militias prepare for education 'revolution' in Iraq,” Al-Monitor, April 17, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/04/university-iraq-cultural-revolution-pmu.html.
AAH ran in the May 2018 national elections within the Fatah Alliance, a coalition of Iran-backed Haashid Shaabi militias. AAH won 15 seats propelling Khazali into a position of political power within the new government.Phillip Smyth, “Iranian Militias in Iraq's Parliament: Political Outcomes and U.S. Response,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 11, 2018, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iranian-militias-in-iraqs-parliament-political-outcomes-and-u.s.-response. After Iraq’s October 10, 2021, parliamentary elections, the Fatah Alliance, which includes AAH and other Shiite factions, won only 14 seats, dropping from 48 seats in the 2018 election. Shiite faction leaders rejected the results and threatened violent action. AAH accused foreign countries of manipulating the election results.Suadad al-Salhy and Alex MacDonald, “Iraq elections 2021: Shia parties reject results as armed group threatens violence,” Middle East Eye, October 12, 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-elections-shia-parties-reject-results-militia-threatens-violence; Dilan Sirwan, “Iraq election results see giant parties fall, unexpected victories,” Rudaw, October 12, 2021, https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/121020212; “Pro-Iranian groups reject early Iraq election results as ‘scam,’” Al Jazeera, October 12, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/12/iraqi-pro-iranian-groups-reject-elections-a-scam; Faris al-Omran, “Asaib Ahl al-Haq's unpopularity on the rise in Iraq,” Diyaruna, November 3, 2021, https://diyaruna.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_di/features/2021/11/03/feature-01.
On August 30, 2022, Khazali called a press conference to urge parliamentarians to form a new government for the betterment of Iraq. Khazali praised the PMU for maintaining order in Iraq during the government crisis.“Sheikh Khazali Calls for Government Formation, Says PMU Acted Responsibly,” U News, August 31, 2022, https://www.unews.com.lb/en/archives/31/08/2022/41142/. After 73 legislators loyal to influential leader Muqtada al-Sadr resigned on June 11, 2022, Khazali called for new parliamentary elections.“Leader of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq Calls for New Parliamentary Elections in Iraq,” Tasnim News Agency, June 25, 2022, https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2022/06/25/2734161/leader-of-asa-ib-ahl-al-haq-calls-for-new-parliamentary-elections-in-iraq. After a year of deadlock, Iraq’s parliament elected Abdul Latif Rashid as president on October 13, 2022. Rashid immediately named Mohammed Shia al-Sudani prime minister-designate.Ahmed Rasheed and Amina Ismail, “Iraq elects new president and premier, ending stalemate,” Reuters, October 14, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/rockets-hit-baghdads-green-zone-sources-2022-10-13/.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury sanction-designated Khazali in December 2019 after AAH killed multiple peaceful demonstrators in Iraq.“Treasury Sanctions Iran-Backed Militia Leaders Who Killed Innocent Demonstrators in Iraq,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 6, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm847. The following month, the U.S. Department of State designated him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order 13224.“State Department Terrorist Designations of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and its leaders, Qays and Laith al-Khazali,” U.S. Department of State, January 3, 2020, https://www.state.gov/state-department-terrorist-designations-of-asaib-ahl-al-haq-and-its-leaders-qays-and-laith-al-khazali/.
Despite the designation, Khazali has continued to meet with international diplomats as the leader of an Iraqi political party. A month after Iraq’s October 2021 parliamentary elections, Khazali met with Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Iraq and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). They met again in July 2022. The meetings were to discuss Iraqi attempts to form a government.Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “UN envoy meets with Qais Al-Khazali on Iraq government formation,” Kurdistan 24, July 27, 2022, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/story/29074-UN-envoy-meets-with-Qais-Al-Khazali-on-Iraq-government-formation. In January 2023, Khazali met with Australian Ambassador to Iraq Paula Ganley. In response to media inquiries, Australia’s foreign affairs department said al-Khazali and AAH are not designated as terrorists in Australia. A department official says Khazali is head of a political party in Iraq, which is part of the Iraqi governing. Therefore, it was within the parameters of the ambassador’s job to meet with him.Jake Evans, “Australian ambassador in Iraq's meeting with US-designated global terrorist defended by Foreign Affairs Department,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, February 16, 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-02-16/australian-ambassador-met-with-terrorist-in-iraq/101985438. On May 3, 2023, Khazali addressed the Iraqi Forum a day after U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf addressed the conference. The presence of U.S. officials at the same conference as Khazali drew criticism in the United States. The State Department defended its presence by saying Khazali did not appear on the same day as the U.S. officials.Bill Roggio, “U.S. State Department officials speak at same conference as dangerous Iran-backed Iraqi terrorist,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, May 4, 2023, https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2023/05/04/conference-iran-backed-iraqi-terrorist/; Michael Lee, “US officials attend event whose guest list includes known terrorist responsible for murder of US troops,” Fox News, May 9, 2023, https://www.foxnews.com/world/us-officials-attend-event-guest-list-known-terrorist-responsible-murder-us-troops.
Notwithstanding AAH’s position in the Iraqi government, Khazali has continued to endorse violence in Iraq. In a June 2021 televised speech, Khazali vowed to attack U.S. troops in Iraq in response to a U.S. airstrike that killed five pro-Iran Iraqi militants. In the speech broadcasted by AAH’s satellite channel, Khazali said, “we are not seeking blood… however the American treacherous enemy is the one who started wasting lives and moved the battle to this level.”“Pro-Iran militia leader vows retaliation against US troops in Iraq,” Middle East Monitor, June 30, 2021, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210630-pro-iran-militia-leader-vows-retaliation-against-us-troops-in-iraq/; “Al-Khazali to the United States: An eye for an eye,” Shafaq News, June 29, 2021, https://shafaq.com/en/Iraq-News/Al-Khazali-to-the-United-States-An-eye-for-an-eye. During a May 6, 2023, speech marking AAH’s anniversary, Khazali claimed the group had carried out 5,000 operations against U.S. forces. Khazali declared AAH would continue its anti-U.S. operations.“Iraqi resistance group: 5,000 operations carried out against occupying US forces,” Press TV, May 7, 2023, https://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2023/05/07/702899/Iraqi-resistance-group-operations-against-US-occupiers.
- Extremist entity
- Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)
- Type(s) of Organization:
- Militia, political party, religious, social services provider, terrorist, transnational, violent
- Ideologies and Affiliations:
- Iranian-sponsored, Islamist, jihadist, Khomeinist, Shiite
- Founder, secretary-general
AAH is an Iranian-backed Shiite militia and political party operating primarily in Iraq, as well as in Syria and Lebanon. Until the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, AAH had launched more than 6,000 attacks on American and Iraqi forces.
- December 2019
On December 6, 2019, the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Qais al-Khazali pursuant to Executive Order 13818 for involvement in serious human rights abuses in Iraq.“Treasury Sanctions Iran-Backed Militia Leaders Who Killed Innocent Demonstrators in Iraq,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 6, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm847.January 2020
On January 3, 2020, the U.S. Department of State designated Qays al-Khazali as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.“State Department Terrorist Designations of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and its leaders, Qays and Laith al-Khazali,” U.S. Department of State, January 3, 2020, https://www.state.gov/state-department-terrorist-designations-of-asaib-ahl-al-haq-and-its-leaders-qays-and-laith-al-khazali/.
United Arab Emirates
- November 2014
The United Arab Emirates designated “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq (The Leagues of the Righteous)” as a terrorist organization in November 2014.“List of groups designated terrorist organisations by the UAE,” National (Abu Dhabi), November 16, 2014, http://www.thenational.ae/uae/government/list-of-groups-designated-terrorist-organisations-by-the-uae.
Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.
On October 27, 2018, domestic terrorist Robert D. Bowers carried out an anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He fired on congregants as they gathered for worship, killing 11 people and wounding six others.