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On Hisham Al-Hashimi’s murder

Iraq’s leading security expert was assassinated last week, with his death leaving behind a complex legacy and many unanswered questions

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 16 Jul 2020
On Hisham Al-Hashimi’s murder
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Hisham Al-Hashimi, a prominent Iraqi commentator on terrorism and armed groups whose murder on 6 July sparked outrage, was born in Nassiriya to a Shia family in 1973 only five years after Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party came to power in a military coup in Iraq.

By the time Al-Hashimi had graduated from college in 1994, the former dictator had seemingly switched the party’s secular views by institutionalising Islam into the state via the “Faith Campaign” he had launched apparently to help the regime grapple with political, economic and social problems in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

One theory is that Saddam’s “Faith Campaign” Islamised large sectors of Iraqi society, in particular Sunni Muslims, paving the way for the rise of religious extremism of the likes of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Like all college and high-school students in Iraq, Al-Hashimi was made to study the Sunni version of “Islamic education” first thing in the morning every day, though he was majoring in statistics and economics. 

As time went on, the young Al-Hashimi not only changed his secular attitudes in favour of the religious model encouraged by the campaign, but he also converted to Sunni Islam, apparently influenced by the indoctrination.

In addition, the young and zealous Al-Hashimi started studying the Hadith, the religious science of evaluation and critique based on the collection and use of the Prophet Mohamed’s sayings, the second pillar of Islamic Sharia, or jurisprudence.

Al-Hashimi also became a Salafi preacher, and among those who attended his lectures in a mosque in northern Baghdad was Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi who later became the IS leader and the declared “caliph” of the group in 2014.

While under the auspices of the Salafis, Al-Hashimi married a Sunni woman, further consolidating his family and cultural ties to Iraq’s then ruling community. 

In the years after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Al-Hashimi was close to Islamist extremists who were a major force in the country’s sectarian anti-occupation insurgency.

He served as an instructor and a preacher in a mosque run by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, formed by Sunni militants after the invasion to fight the American troops and the newly installed Shia-led regime.

Al-Hashimi was arrested and spent time in Camp Bucca, a notorious and sprawling US army detention centre that detained some of the most radical jihadists including Al-Baghdadi along the Kuwaiti border.

Unlike many of the other detainees who were freed later to become more radicalised and seek revenge, Al-Hashimi began collaborating with the US army and Iraq’s security forces in fighting Al-Qaeda.

With his wealth of knowledge about extremists and information provided by his US and Iraqi intelligence contacts, Al-Hashimi became a leading security expert, a member of the Iraq Advisory Council and former adviser to the US-led Coalition to defeat IS.

Al-Hashimi began to write regularly about terrorism in Iraq, and he authored detailed publications on IS for various research institutions and spy agencies in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

Soon, Al-Hashimi began to gain international attention as Iraq’s leading expert on armed groups and became an adviser to research centres in the US and the UK such as the Centre for Global Policy and Chatham House.

The British newspaper The Guardian has reported that his expertise was sought by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed bin Salman, both of whom consulted him personally.

With such broad influence beyond Iraq and large contributions to the international media, Al-Hashimi was on the radar of powerful actors in Iraq who were monitoring his every word and movement.

Al-Hashimi was shot dead last week near his home in the Zayouna district of Baghdad by a group of gunmen riding motorbikes. The shooting, caught on surveillance cameras, showed a cold-blooded murder by professional hit-men.

No group has claimed responsibility, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has vowed that the authorities will find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Al-Hashimi’s body was carried in a simple cortege through the streets of Baghdad to Najaf, where he was laid to rest in the sprawling cemetery of the Shias’ most holy city.

But his assassination also gave rise to a wave of grief and shock that has swept Iraq, and it has taken on the dimensions of a global cause.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the assassination and called on the Iraqi government to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice.

Several Western embassies and the United Nations mission in Baghdad also strongly condemned the assassination and called for the perpetrators of the crime to be brought to justice.

While it has been established that Al-Hashimi was killed in cold blood by a death squad and his murder was premeditated, a lot of questions remain whose answers will contribute to the understanding of Al-Hashimi’s history.

Among these are, why Al-Hashimi? Who were the killers? Who gave the order to kill him? What was the motive behind the crime? And why now?

Al-Hashimi’s life and work, particularly in his final year, were inevitably more complicated than can be captured in the idealised frame drawn by those who knew him in the international media, world intelligence agencies and the Iraq expert community.

The truth about his fate remains elusive in large measure because of the complex situation in Iraq and the continuing deterioration of the country’s security and stability, a situation that includes rising tensions between the United States and Iran.

Al-Hashimi’s research and commentaries on TV talk shows and social media recently focused on the Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq that he had been criticising for gaining substantial power and influence while remaining unaccountable.

Lately, Al-Hashimi had published a study on the Website of the Centre for Policy Making, an NGO, which detailed the struggle between the pro-Iran militias and the rest of the groups within the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), the umbrella organisation of the militias.

When Iraqi security forces raided a camp of the Kataib Hizbullah (KH), one of the most powerful pro-Iran militias, and arrested a dozen of its members last month, Al-Hashimi advised the government on how to deal with the group and spoke frequently to international news outlets about it.

Al-Hashimi’s support for Iraq’s months-long popular protests last year against the government of former prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, perceived as dominated by Iran, angered many Iran-backed factions in the PMF.

As his name became a byword for opposition to Iran’s proxies, Al-Hashimi began receiving death threats from hardline groups, including some allegedly from a notorious spokesman for the KH who had previously accused Al-Kadhimi of collaborating in the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds Force and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the KH leader.

Seemingly, Al-Hashimi reacted to these threats with a combination of the nerve and concern that would define the remaining days of his life. He had previously stopped speaking to the media after being warned by the militias.

Ironically, Al-Hashimi did not receive protection either from Al-Kadhimi’s government or from his international “friends,” even as it became evident that the country’s militias were monitoring his every word and sending him threats.

While the focus now remains on the investigation promised by Al-Kadhimi to divulge details surrounding the crime, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the assassination may prove to be a covert message for multiple receivers.

Al-Hashimi’s murder came amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran against the background of the killing of Suleimani and Al-Muhandis and retaliatory rocket attacks against US interests in Iraq.

It also came as the relationship between Al-Kadhimi and Iran has deteriorated after he came to office in May, as he has begun challenging the Iranian-sponsored militias and interest groups that have often dictated terms in Iraq.

Many experts believe that Al-Hashimi’s murder may be Iran’s retaliation for Suleimani’s and Al-Muhandis’s killing and a stern message to Al-Kadhimi who has promised to make it a priority to rein in the unruly militias.

The brazen murder is also a message to many in Iraq’s intellectual community who have been outspoken against Iran’s interference in Iraq and the country’s ruling Shia elites who are accused of corruption and mismanagement.

Though Iraq has been a playground for a plethora of rival local and foreign forces vying for influence, Al-Hashimi’s assassination could be a change in the dynamics of the beleaguered country.

The murder has raised concerns about the lives of critics, especially among the country’s most outspoken intellectuals who may now start weighing the costs of speaking out and opt instead for silence.

It has also raised fears about Al-Kadhimi’s declared efforts to prevail over the Iran-backed militias that have started challenging the prime minister in several areas in order to underline his limits in restoring state sovereignty and imposing law and order.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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