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, al-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. Al-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, al-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, al-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, 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.” 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, al-Khazali continues his sectarian rhetoric. Days before Iraq’s April 30, 2014, parliamentary elections, al-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 al-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. Al-Khazali also continues to deliver divisive and sectarian rhetoric against fellow Iraqis. In March 2015, al-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, al-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, al-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, al-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. Al-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.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury sanction-designated al-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/.
In a June 2021 televised speech, al-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, al-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.
United StatesDecember 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 EmiratesNovember 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.