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 is Qassim Soleimani?
“We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa;” Qassim Soleimani, 2015
For twenty years Qassim Soleimani has been the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. Quds Force is responsible for Iran’s secret overseas operations. Although it is best known for its activities to destabilize states in the Middle East itself, Quds Force is also active across the American Continent, running arms smuggling and insurgency operations in Africa, in parts of South Asia; as well as having conducted operations in Europe.
Qassim Soleimani answers directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. When it comes to Iranian policy in states like Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Yemen, where Tehran has been directly interfering, Soleimani is known to be far more powerful in setting policy than the Iranian President, who enjoys little influence concerning these overseas agendas.
Many Middle East experts judge Qassim Soleimani to be one of the most powerful figures in the region. For example; when it comes to Iranian meddling in Bahrain through training and arming terrorist groups, the majority of such activity is understood be conducted under the supervision of Soleimani or his subordinates.
Background: Soleimani & Quds Force
“Soleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,” John Maguire, former CIA officer.
Qassim Soleimani was born in 1957 and was part of a poor, working-class family. He only obtained a standard high-school education and when he left school he spent several years working for the Municipal Water Department in Kerman. Soleimani was a very junior supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini and when Khomeini’s revolution succeeded in 1979, Soleimani volunteered to join the force which became the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). The IRGC’s initial mandate was to protect the revolution and prevent counter-revolutionary activity. However, the IRGC went on to become a permanent force which tended to enjoy greater capacity and more elite capabilities than the army.
Initially, support for revolutionary Islamic movements across the region was extended in a somewhat ad hoc manner, rooted in Khomeini’s doctrine of “exporting the revolution”. For example, Khomeini throughout the 1970s had enjoyed close links with Shia militants in Lebanon, particularly after the outbreak of civil war. Support for these elements would ultimately give rise to Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Hezbollah announced its emergence on the world stage with a series of spectacular terrorist attacks and kidnappings, particularly against Western targets. Hezbollah was the first Islamic organization to systematically use the technique of suicide bombing and many of the methods it developed around this time were later adopted by terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
One Tehran-based organization which was established to support Shia revolutionaries across the Middle East was the “Office of the Liberation Movements”. As well as sponsoring terrorist attacks and subversive activities in states like Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, this office also sponsored a failed coup attempt in Bahrain by a group it helped establish; the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, led by an Iraqi cleric; Hadi al-Mudarrisi. However, in the context of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, most of these subversive overseas activities were folded into a new entity which had been established as a segment of the IRGC. This entity would be henceforth known as Quds Force.
Quds Force began as a relatively humble IRGC division. However, the success in establishing Hezbollah made Khomeini realise the potentially huge value of such clandestine activities in states across the region. So while, in administrative terms, Quds Force remained within the IRGC, it was prioritized for funding and arms and would henceforth only answer directly to the Supreme Leader himself. Quds Force today has around 10-15,000 elite personnel, alongside approximately 150,000 IRGC troops.
Soleimani: Master of militancy
At the outset of the Iran-Iraq war at the beginning of the 1980s, Soleimani was a young man from a humble background fulfilling the most lowly of roles within the Islamic regime’s new forces. Soleimani’s first task was supplying water to troops on the frontlines, and he acquired the nickname “goat thief” for his notoriety in stealing and slaughtering goats to provide for the hungry frontline soldiers. Soleimani’s activities over this period are not well known. However, he must have displayed exceptional talent or bravery, because just he was in charge of a brigade.
During the late-1980s and early-1990s Soleimani was working his way up through the ranks of Quds Force. With the end of the war with Iraq, Quds Force temporarily had less of a role in nearby Arab states, but was finding its feet further afield in South Asia and Latin America, carrying out two bombings in Argentina during the early 1990s which killed well over 100 people.
Brigadier-General Qassim Soleimani formally became head of Quds Force in 1998. An immediate centre of his attention was southern Lebanon where Hezbollah up until 2000 was waging an insurgency campaign against Israeli forces. The arrival of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in 2005 marked a massive escalation of Tehran’s aggressive posture in the immediate neighbourhood of Iran and around the world. Quds Force underwent a large increase in its budget size and numbers of personnel.
Soleimani became engrossed in supporting Iraqi Shia militants who he armed and trained in order to fight the American and Coalition forces. As well as Iraqi entities like the Badr Brigades which Quds Force had established and supported as a clandestine force for fighting Saddam during the 1980s, Soleimani helped establish entirely new militia groups, like Asaib Ahlulhaq and the Hezbollah Brigades, which Quds Force split away from the Mahdi Army led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Soleimani’s influence over Iraq was both paramilitary and political, with him boasting that he personally appointed senior Quds Force personnel to the role of Ambassador to Baghdad and other senior Iranian diplomatic staff.
Quds Force after 2005 was deeply involved in setting up arms smuggling networks across Africa; selling and providing munitions to rebels, insurgents and terrorist groups in service of a variety of agendas. The objective was to put Tehran on the map as a major player in some of these marginal areas. However, the inevitable result was that pro-Iranian or Shia entities were often viewed with deep suspicion. A Pentagon 2010 report analysed Quds Force’s typical approach around the word; stationing “operatives in foreign embassies, charities and religious/cultural institutions to foster relationships with people, often building on existing socioeconomic ties with the well-established Shia Diaspora and even carrying out paramilitary operations to support extremists and destabilize unfriendly regimes.”
After 2011 Soleimani was a strong advocate of Iranian investment in Yemen, in support of the Houthi forces. The aim here was to carve out a niche at Saudi Arabia’s back door. Although Soleimani was incorrect in his assessment that Saudi Arabia and GCC states would be reluctant to become directly involved in Yemen, Iran continued to step up its military assistance to the Houthi rebels, with international patrols regularly intercepting shipments of Iranian arms being smuggled into Yemen.
Around the same time Soleimani also played a personal role in brokering enhanced Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. This included training for sectarian Syrian forces which had been complicit in massacres against civilians; as well as establishing entirely new paramilitary forces from a mixture of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and other nationalities, as well as bringing Hezbollah in to play a central role in the conflict. Soleimani spent a lot of time coordinating these activities in Damascus and on key Syrian battlefronts around 2012-13, and he regularly returns to the frontlines to oversee major assaults, such as the battles to recapture Aleppo during 2016. These militant forces established by Soleimani now number tens of thousands of personnel, with Tehran spending several billion dollars each year in propping up the Assad regime.
In 2014 Soleimani played a major role in setting up Al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq from numerous paramilitary forces which he had been the patron of over the years, including; the Badr Brigades, Asaib Ahlulhaq, the Hezbollah Brigades, the Imam Ali Brigades, Sayyid al-Shuhada and Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Although Al-Hashd al-Shaabi was supposed to have been set up to fight ISIS, these forces were complicit in the killing, torture and abduction of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis. Entire villages were burnt to the ground and large areas were cleared of their Sunni inhabitants who were prevented from returning. Systematic human rights abuses were perpetrated in the cause of extending political control by Iranian proxies as part of Soleimani’s wider project of turning Iraq, Syria and Lebanon into client states, creating a vast region of expanded Iranian control.
Soleimani’s Iraqi proteges; Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Amiri are today two of the most powerful figures in Iraq. However, like in Syria, Soleimani plays a hand-on role in operations in Iraq, and is regularly seen and photographed on the battlefronts and leading the fight from operational headquarters. In October 2017, Soleimani personally visited PUK Kurdish leaders and threatened them that they must withdraw their forces from Kirkuk, Sinjar and other major Iraqi cities. Just days later Soleimani and Muhandis directed the operations for pushing the Kurdish Peshmerga out of these areas which subsequently came under Hashd control.
Soleimani and Bahrain
From February 2011 Iran and Qassim Soleimani became heavily involved in efforts to push the Bahrain protests in a more militant and sectarian direction. Numerous Bahraini militant figures such as Murtada al-Sanadi based themselves in Iran from where they coordinated closely with high level figures from the IRGC and Quds Force.
Militant entities across the region under Soleimani’s control helped train Bahraini militants, in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran itself. Soleimani’s Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq (led Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis) trained hundreds of Bahrainis who came to Iraq as part of pilgrimage bus tours. But also entities like the Lebanese Hezbollah, Asaib Ahlulhaq, and the IRGC played substantive roles in training Bahraini extremists. Soleimani and the IRGC are also understood to have overseen the smuggling of numerous shipments of weapons and explosives into the Kingdom.
In Iraq, EFPs (Explosively Formed Penetrators) had been Soleimani’s signature weapon against US troops, resulting in hundreds of fatalities. During 2015 these sophisticated weapons began appearing in Bahrain, with militants having acquired the training to manufacture and use these munitions. As a report in the Washington Post explained; these “caches were both a ‘game-changer’ and — matched against lightly armed police — ‘overkill.’”
At moments of local and regional tension, Solemani played a direct role in seeking to ratchet up tensions inside Bahrain. For example, during 2016 when Bahrain put cleric Isa Qassim on trial for charges including improper use of religious taxes and money laundering, Soleimani viciously attacked Bahrain’s ruling family and warned that there would be a “bloody Intifadah in Bahrain: “The Al Khalifa surely know their aggression against Sheikh Isa Qassim is a red line that crossing it would set Bahrain and the whole region on fire, and it would leave no choice for people but to resort to armed resistance… Al Khalifa will definitely pay the price for that and their bloodthirsty regime will be toppled.”