In Iraq, ISIS and Al-Hashd al-Shaabi are fighting against each other. However, both entities in different ways represent a threat to the region.

Al-Hashd al-Shaabi was established in mid-2014 as a collection of mainly-Shia militias to fight against ISIS (Daesh), after the collapse of the Iraqi Army and ISIS’s capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul. However, the sectarian objectives of these militias, which are partly funded and commanded by Iran, create long-term threats for the region, setting the stage for sectarian unrest and regional conflict long after Daesh has been forced out of all its territory. It is of particular concern that Hashd leaders have threatened other Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen.

This poses the question; which of these two entities poses the greatest threat to the region. Below we will compare these two organizations according to a number of criteria, to try and reach a conclusion about which group represents the greatest long-term danger.

Number of active fighters

In Iraq alone the Hashd has around 100,000 fighters, with several hundred thousand Shia from across Iraq additionally signed up as reservists after responding to Ayatollah Sistani’s call for mobilization and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s establishment of the Hashd in June 2014. However, there are around 20,000 associated paramilitaries fighting on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Syria; with thousands of Afghan, Pakistani and Lebanese proxy militants on battlefields across Syria. It was also recently reported that 150 Bahrainis had joined Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, calling themselves “Ahrar AlManama”.

At the beginning of its period of expansion in early 2014, ISIS was only understood to have a few thousand followers. However, its military triumphs and the establishment of its Caliphate attracted tens of thousands of radicalized individuals. By early 2017 many had fled, were captured, or declared themselves unwilling to fight after Daesh found themselves being beaten back on all fronts. The US in 2017 claimed that around 60,000 Daesh fighters had been killed. Military defeat will inevitably leave ISIS with a reduced hardcore of fighters, with many of its supporters dispersed around the world. The return of former ISIS fighters to their own countries itself poses a threat. Very small numbers of radicalized Bahrainis declared their loyalty to ISIS and travelled overseas. A few dozen were named and had their Bahraini nationalities withdrawn.

Use of extreme violence

Journalists on the ground in Iraq have witnessed Hashd forces beheading, dismembering and torturing captives who they claim are linked to ISIS. In the past these militia groups have burned people alive and used extreme brutality to terrorize people into fleeing their homes. Hashd leader Hadi al-Amiri was described in a confidential US diplomatic telegram as having a passion for murdering his opponents with an electric drill and personally ordering the killing of thousands of Sunnis.

Daesh has become notorious for the most brutal forms of violence; throwing people off buildings, massacres, burning people alive, rape and other un-Islamic atrocities. Unlike the Hashd which often sought to hide its brutal acts, Daesh made videos and used violence as propaganda to terrify its enemies and attract blood-thirsty recruits. ISIS also provoked outrage by its destruction of famous historic sites, for example at Palmyra in Syria. Those living under ISIS have reported the widespread use of harsh forms of punishment.

Funding & weapons from foreign sources

The Hashd receives about $1bn annually from the Iraqi state budget. The Hashd and other Iranian proxies across the region also receive billions of dollars in funding and weapons from Iran every year. In 2015 it was estimated that Iran was giving $15 billion in military aid to fund the war in Syria; with large amounts of support also going to proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain.

In late-2014 ISIS was declared to be the richest terrorist group ever, sitting on a reputed $2bn after seizing banks in Iraqi cities and other major sources. However, despite a lucrative business in selling oil to the Assad regime, ISIS struggled to retain sources of funding, other than taxing and extorting money from populations under its control. ISIS suffered from having no declared state sponsor, so it has struggled to acquire weapons; although the instability in Syria and permeable borders with Turkey allowed weapons and fighters to slip in. Iran has provided weapons and support to ISIS and Sunni terrorist movements and hosts Al-Qaeda fighters inside its territory. As one US official noted: “Iran and Syria have played a far more pernicious role in the rise of ISIS than have the Gulf monarchies.”

Sectarian & ethnic cleansing

Between 2004-2008 around half of Baghdad’s Sunni population were forced out of their homes, while tens of thousands were abducted and murdered by death squads linked to the Badr Brigades (now the main component of the Hashd), militias associated with security forces and other sectarian paramilitary groups. These entities were complicit in attacks against Christians in Baghdad and elsewhere, which forced tens of thousands into exile. The number of Christians in Iraq fell from 1.5 million to less than 400,000 between 2003 and 2013; with further reductions in the Christian population after 2014 largely attributable to ISIS.

In Diyala and other parts of central Iraq, Sunni populations since 2014 have been terrorized and attacked by militia groups which are part of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi. Hundreds of killings have been documented by human rights groups. Hashd commander Hadi al-Amiri was given security control of Diyala and he appointed his subordinates as Interior Minister (Qassim al-Araji) and Diyala Governor (Muthanna al-Tamimi). This gives him a free hand to force tens of thousands of citizens out of their homes and prevent the return of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in a calculated move to influence forthcoming elections.

Daesh waged particularly brutal campaigns against Yazidis, Christians, Shia and other minorities, forcing tens of thousands to flee from areas under ISIS control. The killing of at least 5,000 Yazidi civilians was documented. Entities like Al-Qaeda in Iraq which preceded ISIS were also responsible for indiscriminate bombing campaigns which killed thousands of Iraqis in the years after 2003.

Summary executions

According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international, tens of thousands of young men have disappeared across Iraq, particularly in the aftermath of fighting in Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit and in the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin. Hundreds of these are documented as having been summarily executed. There are grave doubts about whether those who disappeared will ever be seen again.

ISIS videoed the slaughter of dozens of those it captured, including enemy combatants and members of other sects and religions. Mass graves have been discovered in areas previously held by ISIS.

Religious extremism

Iranian proxies are engaged in a propaganda war in Iraq’s Shia holy cities to undermine the more tolerant and inclusive teachings of Ayatollah Sistani; while promoting sectarian doctrines and Khomeini’s Wilayat al-Faqih principle of rule by Islamists. Many fear that after Sistani’s death these sectarian factions will have a free hand to promote their sectarian and extremist theology which reinforces Iran’s hegemony.

Daesh’s brand of extremism is responsible for radicalizing thousands of vulnerable people around the world. It has exploited the Internet as a dangerous tool for radicalization. However, the excesses and bizarre beliefs and practices of Daesh have been condemned by Muslim scholars around the world as obviously un-Islamic.

Are they a long term threat?

After agreement on new legislation in November 2016 the Hashd are now a legal part of the Iraqi state, entitled to pay, pensions and weapons. The Hashd will be around long after ISIS is a distant memory. Iranian funding and weapons mean that the Hashd is stronger and better-armed than the discredited Iraqi Army. Iranian and paramilitary leaders have talked about the Hashd as an expeditionary force for use in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.

If ISIS is pushed out of Mosul and Raqqa in the coming months it will revert to being an underground insurgent movement which doesn’t hold significant territories. This will affect its ability to recruit fighters, secure funds and project its influence around the world. Undoubtedly these jihadist groups will continue to pose a threat and will try and expand once again when the opportunity arises. ISIS also tried to destabilize GCC states, for example with attacks against Shia mosques and the security forces, although crack-downs against the movement have severely weakened it across the Gulf.

Relationship to affiliated groups across the region

The Hashd is associated with a dense network of like-minded entities: Hezbollah in Lebanon; factions like Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Sayyid al-Shuhada in Syria; the Houthis in Yemen and groups like Al-Ashtar Brigades and the Resistance Brigades in Bahrain.

Beyond Iraq and Syria, ISIS has major branches in Yemen and Libya, with smaller groups and individuals around the world declaring their loyalty. Although ISIS and Al-Qaeda are radical Sunni terrorist movements they have been rivals and enemies with each other in recent years.

Threat level to Western interests

A high proportion of the 4,486 US troops who died in Iraq were killed in rocket and terrorist attacks by the same Shia militias which are now part of the Hashd. Asaib Ahlulhaq and the Hezbollah Brigades were complicit in hundreds of these attacks between 2004 and 2011. Quds Force and Asaib Ahlulhaq jointly staged the raid on the US military HQ in Karbala in 2007, during which numerous personnel were killed, including four US troops who were kidnapped and murdered. Ahlulhaq also staged spectacular daylight raids against Iraqi ministries and other major targets, kidnapping Iraqi and Western officials. Following the Trump Muslim travel ban leading Hashd figures have threatened to resume attacks against US forces and Western interests.

ISIS is undoubtedly considered to be the number one terrorist threat to Western interests. It is capable of wielding influence beyond its actual capacity when independent figures with little meaningful contact with ISIS’s leadership stage attacks in ISIS’s name around the world. In this sense, entities like ISIS and Al-Qaeda can be considered to be ideological franchises. According to estimates, ISIS is responsible for 143 attacks in 29 countries, killing 2,043 people, as of February 2017.

How much territory do they control & how much political influence do they wield?

Leading figures associated with the Hashd, like Qassim Soleimani, Hadi al-Amiri and Nouri al-Maliki are undisputedly the most powerful figures in Iraq today and are expected to consolidate their power through coming rounds of elections. The Revolutionary Guard/Quds Force and Iranian proxies like Hezbollah are the de facto power-brokers in Lebanon and Syria, while the Houthis hold Yemen’s capital city and much of the northwest of the country. Iran is in effective control of a vast region all the way across to the Mediterranean.

The territory held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria is shrinking fast, with ISIS currently being pushed out of the key Iraqi city of Mosul and multiple forces encroaching on its Syrian capital of Raqqa. Libyan fighters recently regained control of ISIS’s former stronghold in Sirte. This is a dramatic change from 2015 when the Islamic State’s Caliphate encompassed vast areas of Iraq and Syria (around 34,000 square miles). If this continues, within two years ISIS won’t hold substantive territory and will cease to act as a political entity or state. However, it will continue to represent a global terrorist threat.


Since 2014 Daesh has been the most successful entity in grabbing the world’s attention through spectacular acts of violence. However, on every front in 2017 Daesh is on the defensive and facing defeat. It struggles to obtain funds and weapons and its fighters are being killed and fleeing the battlefield. By 2018 it is possible that ISIS will be a broken organization which holds no territory beyond a few pockets in failed states, wielding indirect influence through those it reaches online.

Meanwhile, Al-Hashd al-Shaabi is a movement on the ascendant. It may emerge as the dominant political faction during rounds of Iraqi elections in September 2017 (provincial) and April 2018 (parliamentary), thanks to a brutal strategy of displacing hundreds of thousands of citizens who would be inclined to vote against it. Next door in Syria, Iraqi militias and Revolutionary Guard proxies succeeded in capturing the remaining districts of Aleppo at the outset of 2017, making Bashar al-Assad entirely beholden to Hezbollah and Iran – Iran and its proxies are today in de facto control of multiple Arab states and seek to use these paramilitary forces to extend their control further.

The same militias which killed hundreds of US troops in Iraq are today threatening America and the West and asserting their readiness to use terrorist and unconventional methods to widen their influence. In Iraq and elsewhere, these ruthless strategies threaten to trigger sectarian and ethnic conflict as disaffected communities are shut out of the political process and excluded from the benefits of national resources.

The biggest threat to Iraq’s long-term stability isn’t ISIS, according to General David Petraeus, who led the US surge against ISIS’s predecessors in Iraq. Petraeus instead warns that Al-Hashd al-Shaabi represents “the foremost threat” to long-term stability in Iraq. However, most people in the West have never even heard of the Hashd.

By regarding Al-Hashd al-Shaabi as the blunt instrument with which to combat ISIS, America and the international community have unleashed a monster which is threatening to extend its influence to other Arab states like Yemen and Bahrain.

Both these organizations are guilty of doing terrible damage to the region. They have large amounts of blood on their hands. But which of these two entities poses the greatest threat to the region and the world in the coming years? You decide!

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