The State Department listed Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and its leader, Akram al-Kabi, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) this week. The designation of Nujaba may signal greater readiness in Washington to confront the numerous Iranian proxy forces that undermine the independence of Iraq’s elected government.
After U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein, Tehran began to establish and operate an array of Iraqi Shiite militias. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-Quds Force) exercises command and control of Iran’s proxies. The U.S. has designated both Soleimani and the Quds Force for offenses including terrorism and human rights violations.
Al-Kabi initially achieved prominence as a leading figure in Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian proxy that claimed more than 6,000 attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. The U.S. sanctioned al-Kabi in 2008 for these attacks.
After leaving Asaib, al-Kabi founded Nujaba to mobilize Iraqi militants to fight on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria. According to the UN, Syrian troops and Nujaba fighters shot dead scores of civilians in Aleppo in 2016, including women and children. Nujaba also formed a “Golan Liberation Brigade in 2017” and vowed to support Hezbollah in a future war against Israel. The group now has an estimated 10,000 fighters.
The State Department’s announcement emphasized al-Kabi’s exceptional loyalty to Iran and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Al-Kabi has even said he would overthrow the Iraqi government if the supreme leader ordered him to do so. Nonetheless, the integration of Nujaba into Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) has given it quasi-legal status and access to state funding.
In January, the U.S. designated a pair of Shiite militias, the Fatemiyoun Division and Zeynabioun Brigade, which operate in Syria under the direction of Soleimani and the IRGC-Quds Force. While Nujaba and several other Iraqi militias clearly met the standard for designation applied to the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabioun, there were signs that the U.S. government was hesitant to sanction Iraqi groups lest it provoke a political and military backlash in Baghdad.
In 2017, a bipartisan coalition in the House introduced legislation that included calls to sanction both Nujaba and Asaib, to which al-Kabi previously belonged. The bill eventually passed the House as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in the House, yet Senate negotiators secured the removal of the provision in conference.
After the House vote, an Asaib spokesman vowed revenge against Washington. The incident raised concerns that Asaib, Nujaba, and others could possibly launch attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq fighting the Islamic State. Such threats only underscore the groups’ true nature.
In keeping with its broader strategy to counter Tehran’s influence in Iraq, the U.S. should continue to sanction Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. should next consider designating Asaib and its leader, Qais al-Khazali, who has broad influence over the PMF. Other prominent PMF-affiliated forces with close ties to Tehran include Kataib Imam Ali and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. Washington should likewise target IRGC-aligned groups that bring Iraqis to fight in Syria, such as Liwa Zulfiqar and Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. Finally, the U.S. should carefully monitor all directorates within the official PMF hierarchy to determine if they provide material support to the IRGC-Quds Force.
David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and its Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow David on Twitter @adesnik.