Getting to know Iran’s proxies in the region: This series looks at radical Iran-linked organizations and militants in order to better understand the threat they pose.
See here for a link to the entire series of Citizens for Bahrain dossiers on Militancy in Bahrain.
Summary: Who are the Hezbollah Brigades?
The Hezbollah Brigades are an Iraqi paramilitary force which emerged around 2007 and is led by international terrorist Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The Hezbollah Brigades (Kata’ib Hizballah) was among the Iran-backed “Special Groups” which separated themselves out from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army after 2004 and devoted themselves to fighting the American occupying forces in Iraq.
In its early years, the Hezbollah Brigades was a relatively small but elite force (estimated to have around 1,000 fighters). They prided themselves on their secrecy and their specialization in specialist operations (assassinations, bombings, kidnappings…) using advanced and heavy weaponry provided by Tehran.
The Hezbollah Brigades use of EFPs (explosively formed penetrators) against US troops, was a particularly distinctive sign of their ability to exploit sophisticated and destructive weaponry. When EFPs, and workshops for manufacturing such devices, began appearing in Bahrain in around 2015, this was seen as a clear indicator of evolving connections between Iraqi and Bahraini militants.
The Hezbollah Brigades have been involved in training militants from across the region. Numerous Bahraini militants received training in Iraq at the hands of Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis’s forces:
“The allegation of a Kata’ib Hizballah connection is credible on a number of counts. First, Kata’ib Hizballah is directly controlled by the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] Quds Force, and it was the premier user of EFP munitions in the anti-coalition resistance operations in Iraq prior to 2011. Second, Iranian-backed militias such as Kata’ib Hizballah are collectively committed to supporting other Shiite communities in a so-called ‘axis of resistance,’ which regularly professes strong support for the Bahraini Shia and levels military threats against the Bahraini monarchy. Third, there is a strong emotional connection between Iraqi and Bahraini Shia, with the latter looking to Iraq’s shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala—not Qom, Iran—for religious guidance. One particularly significant Karbala-based preacher was Mohammad al-Husaini al-Shirazi, whose nephew Mohammed Taqi al-Mudarrisi established the aforementioned Bahraini Hizballah and whose other cousin Hadi al-Mudarrisi headed the 1981 coup attempt by the Iranian-sponsored IFLB. According to Bahraini authorities, Hadi al-Mudarrisi met in 2016 with Iraqi Shiite militias ‘to talk about escalating militancy in Bahrain in 2017;’” Washington Institute.
From 2014, the Hezbollah Brigades expanded significantly through a major recruitment drive and became one of the principle Iran-backed components of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi. The Hashd was established to fight ISIS, but has been responsible for massive human rights violations across Iraq; using its military capacity to dominate areas of central Iraq and expand Iranian hegemony.
In 2005 and 2006 Iran stepped up its support for Iraqi militant groups, with the principle aim of killing American occupying troops. These Shia militias were ultimately responsible for killing around 500 Americans. At that time Iran was mainly seeking to recruit paramilitaries who had originally been part of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which itself had engaged in bouts of armed confrontation with Coalition forces.
Iranian weapons, money and training persuaded many Iraqi militants that they would be better off abandoning their previous loyalties and operating according to an Iranian agenda. Iran was also bankrolling other militias like the Badr Brigades (formed in Iran by Shia Iraqi militants during the 1980s), and Asaib Ahlulhaq (another one of the “Special Groups” formed around 2005 by former Sadrists). However, Qassim Soleimani leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force desired a more elite and directly-controllable force for special operations like kidnappings, assassinations and qualitative attacks.
This took the form of the Hezbollah Brigades which was led by Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, who had been a leading figure in the Badr Brigades and who, since the 1980s, had been deeply involved in running Iran-sponsored terrorist operations.
Muhandis had been elected as an MP in 2005, but when the Americans discovered who he was (Muhandis had been indicted for his involvement in terrorist bombings in Kuwait during the 1980s) they unsuccessfully attempted to detain him, after which Muhandis fled to Iran. He only returned openly to Baghdad after the Americans departed in 2011.
The Hezbollah Brigades is an elite entity which is fully controlled by the IRGC Quds Force. The militia is better armed and enjoys greater freedom of action than other paramilitary groups. In July 2011, an Iraqi intelligence official estimated the group’s size at 1,000 fighters, paid around $300-500 per month.
The Hezbollah Brigades in 2013 sent forces to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but many of these returned after June 2014 to become part of the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella coalition of militia forces for fighting Daesh, with numbers of Hezbollah Brigades personnel expanding to around 10,000-20,000 fighters. Abu-Mahdi himself became the effective leader of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, which gave him immense powers for spending the budget provided by the Iraqi government for this force.
War crimes and sectarian cleansing
The Hezbollah Brigades have been accused of widespread human rights violations in Iraq, including mass detentions and torture of Sunni civilians, summary executions and sectarian cleansing of Sunni areas of central Iraq.
For example, during 2014 Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis oversaw the removal of ISIS fighters from the Sunni town of Jurf al-Sakhr to the south of Baghdad. During the fighting much of the town was destroyed and the population were forced to flee. They have not been allowed to return. The Hezbollah Brigades took over the city as a major centre of operations and established a major detention centre there where they have illegally imprisoned thousands of Sunnis from elsewhere in Iraq (Iraqi MPs have provided lists of citizens abducted from other provinces who are believed to be currently in detention centres in Jurf al-Sakhr). The Hezbollah Brigades even prevented other Shia militants from gaining entry to the town, which is seen as a lucrative source of revenue for its position on major pilgrimage routes to Najaf and Karbala. It is understood that locations like Jurf al-Sakhr have been used for training Shia militants from Bahrain and other states in the region.
Of all the constituent parts of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, divisions like the Hezbollah Brigades and Asaib Ahlulhaq gained the worst reputation for involvement in systematic human rights abuses. At the end of battles to recapture towns like Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah from ISIS, Shia militants were documented participating in hundreds of summary executions and abductions. Thousands of homes were deliberately destroyed and torture was used as routine after mass round-ups of displaced people. Entire villages over vast areas of central Iraq were entirely cleared of their Sunni inhabitants.
By forcing thousands of people from their homes during systematic campaigns of terrorization, and preventing Sunnis from returning to their homes long after the fighting has ended, entities like the Hezbollah Brigades stand accused of involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In particular, the policy of sectarian cleansing has been used in a systematic manner to transform the demographics of provinces across central Iraq, with a view to strengthening control over Iraq’s political system by sectarian factions and consolidating military control into the hands of pro-Iranian forces. The use of proxy militia forces in Syria (many of whom are Iraqis), has helped Iran to open a vast corridor of dominance all the way through to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
Hezbollah Brigades support for terrorism in Bahrain
Following the 2011 Bahrain unrest, travel restrictions and closer supervision made it more difficult for Bahraini militants to travel to Iran for training. Linguistic and cultural barriers were also an problem for many. However, ease of travel between Bahrain and Iraq for hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims each year (often by bus through Saudi Arabia), made the Hezbollah Brigades an ideal partner for the training of Bahraini militants.
Several hundred Bahrainis reportedly have received various forms of training in Iraq. The most common specific kinds of training cited are: Firearms training, paramilitary techniques, and manufacture and handling of explosives.
The Hezbollah Brigades link was first officially reported in June 2015 when Bahraini police chief Tariq al-Hassan stated that this Iraqi force had provided training to Bahraini militants in the manufacture and usage of explosively formed penetrator (EFP) armour-piercing bombs at training facilities in Iraq and “offered logistical and financial support” to the Bahraini Al-Ashtar Brigades. In autumn 2015, Qasim Abdullah Ali, was arrested. Ali had reportedly received training in Iraq with the Hezbollah Brigades, before attempting to smuggle explosives back to Bahrain.
In confessions and court indictments of dozens of terrorism suspects during 2016 and 2017, a significant proportion of detainees acknowledged receiving training in Iraq at the hands of the Hezbollah Brigades. Others spent time in Iran in IRGC training camps:
“On March 26, 2017, Bahraini authorities further detailed that six arrestees had received military training in IRGC camps in Iran, five had been trained by the Iraqi Kata’ib Hizballah group and three received training in Bahrain itself;’” Washington Institute.
In February 2017 it was reported that approximately 150 Bahraini militants were fighting as part of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq under the name “Ahrar Manama”. It is understood that many of these fighters were trained at the hands of the Hezbollah Brigades, before being provided with combat experience. In the same manner in which Iran used Arab militants during the 1980s war with Iraq, we see here Bahraini militants who are benefitting Iran by fighting on behalf of one of its proxies, but also are gaining battlefield experience which they expect to take back and make use of in Bahrain.
Consequences of the Iraq connection for Bahraini terrorism
By 2015, the significance of Iraq as a key hub for facilitating terrorism in Bahrain was becoming increasingly obvious. On 15 March 2015 a suitcase of explosives transported from Iraq, headed for Bahrain, were impounded on the Saudi causeway. This was one of several attempts to smuggle explosive materials back and forth across the Saudi causeway for use in terrorist attacks. In many of these instances, the evidence pointed clearly back to Iran, such as the Iranian phone chips found in the possession of those arrested.
The training received from the Hezbollah Brigades gave rise to Bahraini militants who had the capacity to manufacture and use increasingly complex weaponry. The Hezbollah Brigades signature device – the EFPs – were a particularly blatant indicator of the close relationship between Iraqi and Bahraini militants:
A 6 June 2015 raid in Dar Kulaib resulted in the seizure of large quantities of C4 explosives, detonators and advanced circuitry. The location contained sophisticated equipment for fabricating EFPs, which Iran and Hezbollah had previously provided to Iraqi insurgents for attacking American troops: “The shop’s main function was to fabricate six-, eight- and twelve-inch EFP liners, the shaped dishes that give the devices their armour-piercing effect. At the time of its discovery, it was producing very accurate EFPs with passive infrared sensors (used to initiate a device as vehicles pass) and radio-controlled arming switches (to turn on the sensors).”
An industrial scale forge for manufacturing EFP components was also discovered during a 27 September 2015 raid on a facility in Nuwaidrat. “The underground complex had been hewed, foot by foot, beneath the floor of a suburban villa, with no visible traces at street level and only a single entrance, hidden behind a kitchen cabinet”. The site contained 1.4 tons of C4 and TNT explosives plus materials for manufacturing ammonium nitrate-based explosives. Also found were six large pipe bombs, Claymore-type warheads, a bomb disguised as a fire extinguisher, mortars and rocket launchers, AK-47s and 20 hand grenades.
“In one room, police found $20,000 lathes and hydraulic presses for making armour-piercing projectiles capable of slicing through a tank. Another held box upon box of the military explosive C-4, all of foreign origin, in quantities that could sink a battleship. ‘Most of these items have never been seen in Bahrain,’ the country’s investigators said in a confidential technical assessment provided to US and European officials… In sheer firepower, the report said, the caches were both a ‘game-changer’ and — matched against lightly armed police — ‘overkill;’” Washington Post.