Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba (HHN: The Movement of the Party of God of the Outstanding) is one of the major new Shi’a political and militant organizations to have emerged in Iraq, first coming to the fore in 2013 with its deployments to Syria in the form of multiple front groups, such as the Liwa Ammar ibn Yasir. Like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, the group openly identifies with Iran ideologically, regularly featuring the portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in its media output. Note also the sample logo below echoing the Iranian imagery of the globe and extended rifle, reflecting Iran’s global Islamist revolutionary ideology.
That said, considering that HHN’s leader Sheikh Akram al-Ka’abi has also been involved with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq that is led by Qais al-Khazali, a former student of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr- and Ka’abi was also one of his students- HHN is keen to tie itself to Ayatollah Sadr’s legacy, featuring his portrait on its official website. But this ideological element should be seen as secondary to the alignment with Iran, and the deployment to Syria is crucial to note in that regard.
Further, one should note a nasheed released by HHN in Iraqi dialect in praise of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, hailing him as the “living martyr” (al-shaheed al-hayy) of Ayatollah Khamenei. Among some of the lyrics: “We have seen victory in his eyes…he said ‘victory to the Shi’a'” (shifna n-nasra bi uyuna…gaal ‘an-nasr li-sh-shia)- with gaal being the distinct Iraqi form of qala (“he said”). The song also hails his role in antagonizing the Americans and his efforts in Syria (e.g. tabba Sham wa nazzama, Nusra durus allama: he entered Sham and controlled it, he taught Nusra lessons).
Though large numbers of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen have redeployed from Syria to Iraq since the advances of the Islamic State in northern and western Iraq last summer, the relative stabilization of the security situation has allowed for significant numbers to head out to Syria. HHN is a case in point with its contingent fighting in Aleppo province. For example, in February, the “martyrdom” of one Hussnain al-Sa’adi was announced: having fought in the ranks of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali (a Shi’a militia only fighting in Iraq but with links to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a key figure in the Iranian-backed militia mobilization effort in Iraq) in the midst of the crisis in 2014, he then joined the ranks of HHN and died fighting in Aleppo province in the attempt to break the rebel siege on the Shi’a villages of Nubl and Zahara. This case story illustrates well an understudied phenomenon among Shi’a militant groups, particularly those with demonstrable links to Iran: overlap between affiliations.
The recent interview below with Akram al-Ka’abi translated by me and featured on HHN’s website is of interest to give some idea of HHN’s current operations and its end goals:
1. Open identification with Khamenei as spiritual guide, contrasting with Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr’s more Iraqi nationalist image despite HHN attempting to tie itself to the latter’s legacy.
2. The desire to see the Popular Mobilization become like Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, aiming to remould the Iraqi state along the lines of Iran’s theocracy.
3. The continued role in the fighting in Syria’s Aleppo province.
4. Operational links with Hezbollah and direct links with Iran through receiving armed support. This should be contrasted with some Iraqi groups that clearly identify with Iran but do not seem to be given much regard by Iran, like the bombastic Wathiq al-Battat and his Jaysh al-Mukhtar with routinely wild exaggerations of strength and manpower- in short, a wannabe Hezbollah group. Indeed, Battat has even now complained of the lack of Iranian support for him.
5. The claimed links with some Palestinian “resistance” fighters are probably not a mere standard rhetorical trope. The ties between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Iran (and by extension Iran backed factions) are very real: in a recent trip I took to the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley, the influence of Palestinian Islamic Jihad among the Palestinian population there was very apparent by virtue of the ties with Iran and Hezbollah, with many of its banners on open display.
After its announcement of the offering of 14 martyrs from its fighters in the recent battles in north Aleppo countryside on the Nubl and Zahara road, and its announcement of its welcoming the being of the martyr of Syrian Quneitra Abu Eisa al-Aqleem who was one of the military advisors they worked with- preceded by the publication of photos of its secretary general with the leader of the Quds Force Qasim Suleimani and the secretary general of Lebanese Hezbollah, pointing to their participation in the Iraq battles, it was necessary to have a special discussion with Sheikh Akram al-Ka’abi the secretary general of Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba.
Q: Firstly Sheikh Akram al-Ka’abi what is the direct reason for your designation on the American blacklists of foreign terrorists years ago? Is it because of your role in fighting the American forces generally or is there a specific incident that pushed them to do that?
A: The forces of the occupation claimed that the reason was the targeting of their forces and supporting the financing of armed operations. In any case those forces were subjected to painful strikes on our part including special operations, continual exhaustion and disruption of their movement on account of growing pressure that continued to increase until finally there was carried out an operation of the most secretive and distinguished type that occurred as a result of all this- a deal for prisoner exchange between us and them through government mediation in which we received many of our brothers from commanders and staff functionaries from the various factions of the resistance including some of them from the Ahl al-Sunna.
Q: What did you gain from the stage of the American presence and resisting it in Iraq previously? And what do you miss from those days?
A: Of course resisting the occupier has a special and distinguished nourishment because it makes you feel that you are the greatest and deepest sacrifice. And of course this stage was important in acquiring experience and developing capabilities, experience, as well as understanding the mind-set of the enemy and related ways of resisting.
Q: Do you actually continue to remain in Syria despite the withdrawal of most of the fighters of the Iraqi factions on the occasion of the fall of Mosul? What are the fronts on which you are present and fighting?
A: We continue to be present in Syria and our forces there are under the name Liwa Ammar bin Yasir affiliated with Harakat al-Nujaba.
Q: Months ago the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement [Aleppo based rebel group of Salafi orientation] published videos of what it said was your base on which the banner of Harakat al-Nujaba was raised in the Rashadeen quarter of Aleppo. What is the current state of your geographical presence? Is it in the besieged part of Aleppo?
A: Yes our forces are present in Aleppo and its surrounding. And the area this group announced had been liberated a while ago by our forces and handed over to other forces.
Q: Your official electronic site mentioned your participation in the battles to open up the Nubl and Zahara road, and your seizure of “Arab Seloom” and your directing “painful strikes” at Jabhat al-Nusra in Hardatneen before the withdrawal of the Syrian army from there towards Bashkawi. What is the latest news of the confrontations there?
A: We are currently reorganizing the forces and dividing the fronts of confrontations for a new plan that will be implemented after the completion of its components. And the situation is stable in relation to the lines of mutual contact. And we would like to stress that it was during the prior confrontations in north Aleppo that clear Saudi-Qatari-American intervention took place to prevent the separating of Aleppo from Turkey and cutting off the road between them.
Q: What is the total number of martyrs for Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba from the beginning until after your announcement of 14 martyrs during the recent battles in north Aleppo countryside?
A: The total number of our martyrs in Iraq and Syria is 126 with 38 of them in Syria.
Q: Photos have been published of you with the secretary general for Hezbollah Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah during your visit to Beirut [NB: for this and other photos, refer to the original article linked to on HHN’s website]. What is the reason for it? Are there some details you can disclose?
A: His eminency the secretary general of Hezbollah is a personality to whom we are a lesser colleague on all levels and our meeting with him was not the first for we met with him in 2004 in the attendance of al-Haj al-Aziz the martyr Imad Mughniyeh who had a direct supervisory presence in my first military lessons. And the meetings continued which we avoided publicizing because of the occupation and the security circumstances. But the last meeting was on the day which followed the operation to respond to the targeting of the martyrs of Quneitra to bless this great victory and to discuss with the eminency the Sayyid- may God protect him- about the security situation in Iraq, Syria and the region.
Q: The martyr leader Abu Eisa one of the martyrs of Syrian Quneitra and that photo was during a reconnaissance air mission over the Baghdad Belt. What are the details of the photo and its background? Is the martyr one of the entrusted advisors from Hezbollah?
A: Al-Haj the martyr Abu Eisa was a military advisor with Nujaba in the operations to liberate the Baghdad Belt and he had an outstanding role in the liberation operations and his fingerprints are clear in the field. Love of him has become ingrained in our hearts and his separation from us has saddened us deeply….whoever saw him loved him and benefited from his expertise.
Q: You have announced the use of a reconnaissance aircraft you have named Yasir and that is within the operations of al-Ishaqi [in Salah ad-Din province]. Is it of Iranian make but assembled in Iraq? What is the extent of military and logistical support from the IRGC to you?
A: The aircraft is of Iranian make. And a specialist cadre from the sons of Harakat al-Nujaba has been trained to use it. We received military and logistical support from the Republic [of Iran] in continuing form and according to the needs of the fronts.
Q: Is there a line of independence in deployment decisions within the fronts and cleansing them or does the decision go back to the leadership of the Popular Mobilization?
A: The decision to deploy and define the fronts for the factions of the resistance and the Popular Mobilization is in the hands of the Supreme Advisory for the forces of the Popular Mobilization headed by Haj Qasim Suleimani, may God support him.
Q: A nasheed has been published attributed to you concerning the leader of the Quds Force in the IRGC Qasim Suleimani. How would you describe your relations with him?
A: Al-Haj Qasim Suleimani is a soldier of Islam, a man of difficult missions, and leader of victories all over the world against imperialism and terrorism and we welcome our existence from the same military-ideological school.
Q: What is the extent of Iranian influence on internal political decision-making?
A: As for our political decision-making, the brothers in the Islamic Republic offer consultation and support and do not intervene for connection and that is in accordance with the general strategy that our religious marja’iyya represented by the guardian of the jurist Sayyid Ali Khamenei may his life be prolonged. And the marja’iyya has supported the political operation in Iraq in most by stance and letter.
Q: Is it possible to say that the Popular Mobilization is the ‘Basij’ (Revolutionary Guard) in Iraq? And how would you describe your cooperation with the rest of its factions?
A: If the Popular Mobilization is kept safe from evil hands it will be the Revolutionary Guard in Iraq and not only the Basij, and our relations with all the factions by consensus are excellent and great.
Q: What are the levels of support for the Revolutionary Guard militarily for you? Does this support come through the leadership of the Popular Mobilization or is it on account of the request of the leaderships of the factions wholly on intensity?
A: The Revolutionary Guard’s support for Harakat al-Nujaba is excellent on all levels and is given directly to us. As for us as Harakat al-Nujaba we are not affiliated with the Popular Mobilization organizationally but we appreciate the organization of brigades in the mobilization, their members chosen, trained and prepared by the movement which participates in the field through supervision and organization of those forces through our cadres.
Q: The Popular Mobilization launched the greatest assault since its founding to cleanse Tikrit and its surrounding continuing the geographic borders for Baghdad towards Mosul. What was your role in the assault?
A: The battle is not only in Tikrit that is the centre of Salah ad-Din province but also in the town in its entirety, Samarra and its districts, al-Dur, al-Ilm, Tikrit and Baiji rising to the Hamrin mountains. As for Harakat al-Nujaba’s role and the forces of the Popular Mobilization that are under our administration, it covers the west Samarra area in its entirety, the Jazira area located between Samarra and Anbar province, the south of Samarra going all the way to al-Ishaqi in the Umm al-Talayeb and al-Rihala area and climbing up towards the north of Samarra from the west of al-Tahar all the way to the al-Abbasiya area. As for Tikrit, our forces will move in a joint operation with the other factions of the resistance and the Iraqi army from the west of Tikrit beginning from the Speicher base towards the centre of Tikrit.
Q: What is the approximate number of Popular Mobilization forces that have participated in that battle?
A: The forces participating in the operations to liberate Tikrit and the towns around it constitute some 27,000 mujahideen.
Q: Is there a relation with the factions of the resistance in Palestine?
A: We expect that the relation will be opened between us and the brothers in Palestinian resistance. But that has not happened in its broad form till now but despite that a good relation connects us with some of the mujahideen in Palestine on the path of correspondence through some of the brothers we trust.
Q: Do you have a final word you would like to say?
A: Finally I ask God to grant us success for His satisfaction and to record us among the enduring, working mujahideen, to accept our work, to bestow on us purity and to bestow on us martyrdom so that we may join the convoy of martyrs living with their Lord. Indeed He is mild, glorious.
(Sheikh al-Ka’abi was born in 1977. He moved between the prisons of special rulings in the era of the Saddam Hussein regime to the American prisons in Iraq after the occupation. One of the students of the Second Sadr Martyr [Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr], he completed “Al-Muqaddamat wa al-Shutuh” in the Hawza of Najaf al-Ashrad and attended external research. He is a Friday imam in the town of Musayyib [town in Babil province]. He took leadership responsibility in the Jaysh al-Mahdi during the second battle of Najaf to complete after that lessons in military sciences and strategic administration and to be one of the founders of the Islamic Resistance Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and a secretary general for it after the arrest of the comrade of his trainer and his friend the current secretary general Sheikh Qais al-Khazali before his return to follow his religious studies and his abandonment of military work to which he returned on the occasion of the beginning of the events in Syria to be on the front lines in Aleppo with the fighters of his new movement).