Al-Mahdi Army in the Lead Up to USF-I Withdrawal

When USF-I presence is diminished at the end of 2011, Iraqi Security forces (ISF) will be accountable for all security responsibilities in Iraq, a role that many say ISF are not yet  prepared to assume at this point in time.  Currently, ISF are still in the developmental stages of training with its USF-I partner.  Without USF-I guidance and/or side-by-side training, there is a high probability that ISF may be overwhelmed with managing all internal security issues.  One of these security issues is the potential reactivation of Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Shia militia faction, Imam al-Mahdi Army, aka Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM).  The data and analysis provided in this report support the claim that both Muqtada al-Sadr and JAM are gaining increasing momentum in Iraq.  USF-I withdrawal combined with the ISF’s lack of skills creates an environment where sectarian violence, fueled by JAM, has potential to reemerge and to intensify.  Further, once al-Sadr reasserts himself to Iraqis, there is a high probability that he will lead Iraq to serve as a puppet of Iran.

Looking forward, Muqtada al-Sadr could combine forces from JAM and Promised Day Brigades (PDB) under the banner of PDB in an attempt to lose the negative image and poor reputation associated with JAM’s history.  This scenario would also provide a possibility to please JAM members who want to continue the fight.   With so many Iraqis upset at the potency of USF-I and the Government of Iraq (GOI) since 2003, al-Sadr will not be hard-pressed to find additional recruits among the Iraqi Shia populace.  Alternatively, the permanent freeze could enrage JAM members to once again split from al-Sadr completely and to develop into their own splinter militia.  There is also potential for one of these groups to fully reconcile with the League of the Righteous, aka Asa’ib Ahl al-Haaq (AAH), considering the recent joint attack harvest released by PDB and AAH, whose attacks occurred in April and May 2011.  It seems as if AAH is coincidentally reconciling and returning to the leadership of al-Sadr just as he is about to lift the freeze on JAM.  Whether or not he will disregard their past disloyalty is a possibility, but he will most likely value any additional supporters he can get.

Al-Sadr is not going to leave the Iraqi political or militia sphere anytime soon. Now that AAH seems to be seeking reconciliation with al-Sadr and the Sadrist Movement, he already has a greater pool of supporters than in the past.  He has a substantial Shia following, and is only bound to gain additional supporters in the coming months.  Clearly, al-Sadr’s trip to Iran combined with a diminished USF-I presence, has only motivated al-Sadr to increase his political power in Iraq.  Whether his supporters act under the banner of PDB, JAM, or even AAH, they will actively profess Iraqi Shia/ Iraqi Sadrist dominance in a more professionally-organized way than can be seen in JAM’s history.  Additionally, if an offshoot militia is started from frustrated JAM, it will not be substantial enough to overrule al-Sadr’s control.  Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his supporters are on the verge of incorporating increasing amounts of strict Islamic rules, seen in Iran, into the future of Iraq, potentially destroying whatever evidence of stability enacted by since 2003.

Kelly Seeger served as an Analyst Intern for Strategic Social, LLC. She is currently a senior studying Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. Her academic interests include US National Security and Political Developments in the Middle East. This OpEd was extrapolated from a longer paper and if you are interesting in reading the piece in its entirety you may download the document here: Al-Mahdi Army in the Lead Up to USF-I Withdrawal

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Defining Terrorism

A number of recently exposed terror plots and successful attacks are revealing an overlooked dimension in national security.  A small but dedicated number of American religious zealots have been beating the drums of holy war in our midst.  As this reality slowly begins to sink in, uncomfortable questions about the country’s security strategy begin to arise.  How we respond to the various aspects of our increasingly homegrown problem stands to have a lasting impact on American society.

First, let’s confront the problem of perception.  Who’s a “terrorist”?  The definition often depends on who you ask.  Is a terrorist necessarily affiliated with an organization such as Al-Qaeda?  Does an unorganized loner with the motivations and goals of a foreign terrorist qualify?  What are the relevant distinctions and similarities between attacks by foreigners and attacks by U.S. citizens?  Moving forward, will society view them as separate issues altogether, or different types of the same problem?

Consider the Virginia-born Army Major accused of the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting, Nidal Malik Hassan.  He allegedly murdered 13 people and wounded dozens of others.  A few months before that incident, Tennessee-born Abdul Hakim Mujahid Mohammad opened fire outside of an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and injuring another.  Unlike Major Hassan, Mujahid Mohammad has claimed affiliation with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and had lived in Yemen before being imprisoned and deported for overstaying his visa.

Both men were very public in their disdain for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:  Lots of nonviolent people are.  Both perceived the U.S. Military operations as unjustified attacks on Muslims and Islam.  Again, this idea isn’t unheard of and is far more likely to incite debate rather than violence.  So, what pushed them over the edge?   Hassan’s lawyers have pointed to psychological issues, unrelated to any jihadist intentions.  Though he claims no terrorist group affiliations, he frequented sermons in Virginia by radical American-born Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki (who also preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers) and they communicated via email shortly before the shooting.  He allegedly yelled “Allahu Akbar” before he began firing.  If we take Mujahid Mohammad at his word, he was motivated by his faith and ideology as espoused by AQAP.  “He told the detective he wasn’t guilty of murder, that the shooting was an act of jihad.”  Both are facing murder charges.

Further than simple religious zealotry and having strong opinions about American foreign policy, both men allegedly escalated their ideology to violence.  Still, many of us feel uneasy about categorizing them as Islamic terrorists.  The uneasiness may come from the implication of American Muslims and the perceived backlash that this could incite against them.  Those fears aren’t without some warrant.  But explaining the attacks away as isolated psych cases or random acts of violence becomes difficult as a theme begins to materialize.  The recently attempted attacks in Oregon and Maryland have eerie similarities to the first two.  In Portland, Mohamed Mohamud (born in Somalia, raised the US) is charged with attempting to detonate a bomb near the city’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.  In Baltimore, Muhammad Hussein is charged with trying to blow up a military recruiting office.  Both were unambiguous about their jihadist intentions leading up to and during their would-be attacks.   If they believe what they say they believe—the evidence suggests that they do—then we should take these warnings seriously and not obscure the threat.

Al-Qaeda and other groups are openly seeking American and western converts to their cause.  To a small but unavoidable extent their strategy seems to be working.  The people most susceptible to this appear to be young, devout Muslim males.  Because anti-Muslim sentiment already stands to make them feel isolated from their neighbors, simple kindness and engagement from non-Muslims can go a long way to breaking barriers. Within the American Islamic community, reaching out to at-risk youth is especially important as they have the opportunity to shape their understanding of Islamic texts.

As with Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic zealots will have lots of violent and disturbing passages to bolster their cause.  It’s not enough to simply call them “bad Muslims” or “un-Islamic” while pointing to a majority of peaceful Muslims.  To stop the problem of radicalization, we have to address a big part of what makes it so convincing in the first place:  Devout religious faith.  If children (or new converts) are taught to endorse a book as inherently good and entirely true, then the violent and problematic verses may not seem very violent or problematic.  These should be discussed and explained in the most candid way without omission or euphemism.  Where needed, teaching should be infused with a healthy dosage of doubt.  Otherwise, terrorists groups, extremist websites and radical Imams are left to fill in the gap.

Homegrown terrorists need not be members of an organization so much as they consider themselves members of a movement.  To combat this movement, we cannot be evasive about its implications, composition or motivations.  “What I am trying to do in this interview is to make people aware of the fact that the threat is real, the threat is different, the threat is constant.” In disseminating that message, Attorney General Eric Holder may have his work cut out for him.

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Bowen and Biddle: Corruption Causes COIN Complications

On November 2, 2010, the Elliot School of International Affairs at The George Washington University hosted a panel on corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In attendance were Stuart W. Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and Dr. Stephen D. Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy and the Council on Foreign Relations.  In his prepared remarks, Bowen pulled no punches on the importance of defeating corruption.  He referred to it as “the second insurgency” in Iraq, and said “corruption has like a cancer spread” in the country.  Iraq’s oil and gas resources are government owned, allowing only a privileged few to benefit, and to skim profits off the top.  He pointed to a lack of services and corruption as the major reasons Iraqis lack confidence in their government.

Dr. Biddle discussed corruption as it relates to Afghanistan and emphasized the role of the US to combat it.  When Afghan farmers are being preyed upon by corrupt government leaders and see the US aiding the government, they often turn to the Taliban as the only body that will protect them from corruption.  Biddle emphasized good governance as key to successful counter-insurgency, and characterized corruption as the “hydraulic fluid” making the machine of Afghan government run.  He proposed a pragmatic middle-ground solution in which corruption would not be defeated completely but rather brought down to a “reasonable” level.

Both Bowen and Biddle advocated greater unity of effort in the US government to fight corruption.  Bowen called for unifying anti-corruption agencies.  Biddle urged “cooperation among a variety of government sectors,” noting that this is “unusually hard in COIN” because of the complex environment.  Nonetheless, Biddle pointed to the cooperation during the Iraqi troop Surge of 2007 between Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus as a successful model of the unity of effort.

Both speakers hit on a key point, which is that support (which includes the perceptions) of Iraqi and Afghan citizens are critical in America’s ability to win the fight in both theaters.  Counterinsurgency is not only a military campaign for security, but a political campaign for confidence and trust.  The appearance that the US is indifferent to or complicit with regard to corruption activities not only damages morale, but is a strategic liability in the war effort.  As Dr. Biddle succinctly put it, “If we fail in this…we lose the war.”

One lingering question after the event, however, is the role that cultural differences play in this issue.  Many practices considered here in the US to be corrupt are well-accepted as legitimate in counterinsurgency theaters.  These are cultural differences with which commanders on the ground are forced to pragmatically deal.  Achieving the kind of tolerable corruption which Dr. Biddle advocates will require understanding the cultural norms surrounding corruption in COIN theaters, and dealing with them in ways that most successfully enable our troops to accomplish the mission.

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Al-Manar: Hizbollah’s Version of Must-See TV

“If it was not for Al-Manar, the victory would not have been achieved.”[i]

- Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah commenting on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Southern Lebanon in May 2000

One of the most important weapons that the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah has in its arsenal for its struggle against its adversaries is not a rocket launcher or an anti-tank missile or a suicide bomber.  It is a TV station called al-Manar, which is Arabic for “the beacon.” Al-Manar serves as a platform for the group to disseminate its views to the people of Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.  Al-Manar has been so successful at reaching Hizbollah’s target audiences that it seems to have become a model for extremist Shia groups in Iraq which have launched copy-cat versions of al-Manar.

A screenshot from an al-Manar TV clip. Note the Hizbollah logo in the top left of the screen and how it appears to be co-equal with the al-Manar logo in the top right.

Hizbollah launched al-Manar TV as a small terrestrial TV station in 1991, just as the group started becoming active in Lebanese politics.  The station initially focused on programming that helped Hizbollah make a political issue of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.  Since then, its reach and its content have expanded significantly.  It is now a major satellite station with significant viewership not just in Lebanon, where it is generally believed to be the third most-watched station in the country, but other parts of the Middle East.

Al-Manar resembles other major Arab satellite TV stations in its broadcast of a variety of content, including news programs, sports, entertainment shows, family programs, and talk shows.  But the station also displays a very clear bias reflective of Hizbollah’s political outlook.  For example, it is strongly anti-Israeli and anti-US; it is openly supportive of Hizbollah’s fighters and military operations; it openly promotes “resistance” to include violent attacks in response to Israeli control of the Palestinian territories and the US military presence it Iraq.[ii]

Programs that Al-Manar has aired in recent years include The Spider’s House, an anti-Israeli talk show which emphasizes how Israel can be defeated over time through a combination of low-intensity warfare and population growth in Arab communities. Returnees is a program dedicated to the issue of Palestinian refugees. Terrorists is a weekly documentary highlighting what the station refers to as “terrorist acts” that Israel has committed against Arabs. My Blood and the Rifle is a documentary series that glorifies Hizbollah fighters.  The station also airs “filler material” which come in the form of short segments aired during commercials, like this one which glorifies Hizbollah fighters.

Al-Manar’s primary target audience is the people of Lebanon, particularly Lebanese Shia Muslims, but the station also makes an extensive effort to appeal to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  Since 2003, the station has also devoted significant broadcast time to commenting on the US military presence in Iraq.  The station regularly rails against the continued US military presence, accusing the US Forces of committing a variety of abuses and atrocities in Iraq.  The station also openly calls for violent resistance to US Forces in Iraq and airs video clips of attacks against US Forces circulated by Iraqi Shia extremist groups, like Kata’ib Hizbollah (Arabic for “The Hizbollah Brigades in Iraq”) and the Promised Day Brigade, which is the successor to Muqtada al-Sadr’s now-defunct Mahdi Army.[iii]

The growth and success of Al-Manar TV may have provided inspiration for the emergence of at least one relatively new outlet:  Iraq’s al-Ahd TV.  the station’s programming reflects very strong political opinions, one of the most notable of which is strong opposition to the US presence in Iraq.

The picture on the left shows a female broadcaster on al-Manar TV, the one on the right shows a male and female broadcaster from al-Ahd TV.  Note the similarity in the dress of the two women from al-Manar and al-Ahd, which is an indication that both stations embrace relatively conservative social mores and anti-Western political views.  Contrast this with the picture in the center of Al-Arabiya TV correspondent Rima Salha, who is dressed in Western-style clothing, which is much more typical of female correspondents who appear on major Arab TV stations.

While no firm evidence currently exists to suggest that the launching of al-Ahd TV was inspired by al-Manar TV, there are at least on the surface there are some noticeable similarities between the programming of the stations.  These similarities seem to be based on similarities in the political and social views of the forces behind the two stations (see the pictures below for an example of how the social views of the people who control these two TV stations seem to appear on-screen), which may have formed entirely independently of one another, but the creators of al-Ahd TV may have taken inspiration from al-Manar TV as an example of how to use television as a platform to spread their political messages.

The growth of al-Manar and its potential to influence/inspire the creation of copy-cat stations like al-Ahd TV represent a significant challenge for US strategic communications initiatives in the Middle East and the Islamic world.  US policymakers need to be able to monitor the types of messages and themes that stations like al-Manar TV disseminate so that the US can adjust its to account for the impact of such messages if US strategic communications efforts in the Middle East are to be successful.


[i] Zahera Harb, “Aiming at Liberation:  Al-Manar Media Campaigns Against the Israeli Occupation of Southern Lebanon (1998-2000)”, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communications, Volume 2, Number 1, p. 55-56.

[ii] Beacon of Hatred:  Inside Hizballah’s al-Manar TV by Avi Jorisch (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004).

[iii] Muqtada al-Sadr announced the disbanding of the Mahdi Army in 2008 and that the group was being replaced by two new organizations:  the Momahidoun, which he stated would be a political, social, and religious organization, and the Promised Day Brigade, a military group which would conduct attacks against US Forces in Iraq to liberate the country from US occupation.  It is believed that the Promised Day Brigade is smaller much more tightly organized than the old Mahdi Army, thus giving al-Sadr greater controller over the group than he had over its predecessor, and that he disbanded the Mahdi Army organization and created the two new organizations at least in part for this reason.

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Shia JFM Creates Graphic Tribute to “The Lions of the Shia Resistance”

Without saying a word, a pro-Shia militant group has asserted that Shia groups are the soldiers of Imam Ali, the most important figure in Shia Islam after the Prophet Muhammad himself.  A posting to an Iraqi Shia militant web forum shows footage of the “Great Lion” Aslan, the central character from the 2005 Walt Disney Movie The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (based on the 1950 C.S. Lewis book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), side-by-side with logos of two militant Shia groups, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq. It’s ironic that the creator chose Aslan to represent the Imam Ali, as The Chronicles of Narnia contain a significant amount of Christian symbolism and parallels to Christian scripture.  In fact, the Aslan character is thought by some to represent Jesus Christ.  Regardless, by combining the images of Aslan the Lion with the logos of these two groups, the creator of the graphic is declaring them soldiers of the Imam Ali, as fierce and dangerous to their enemies as he.  Further, the creator is saying that primary mission of these militant groups, defeating the US military in Iraq, is a holy one blessed by Imam Ali himself.

Depiction of Imam Ali accompanied by a lion

The lion has special significance in Shia Islam because of its association with the Imam Ali.  During his lifetime, Imam Ali was given the nickname of “Haydar,” meaning “Lion,” and was often referred to as “The Lion” or “The Lion of Allah.”  Because of this association, Imam Ali is often accompanied by a lion in graphical representations, or depicted as a lion himself.  Shia militant groups in Iraq, like Kata’ib Hizbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, frequently refer to their fighters as “the Lions of the Shia Islamic Resistance.”[1] Two of the most notorious Shia militant groups in Iraq, Kata’ib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq are suspected of being offshoots of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which was officially disbanded by the Shia cleric in 2008.  Both groups are thought to have received support from Iran and/or the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah and have conducted attacks against US military forces in Iraq.  Kata’ib Hizbollah has even been officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department.

A lion depicted with a body of calligraphic invocations to Allah

Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups occasionally compare their fighters to lions as well.  For example, when a group like the Islamic State of Iraq[2] claims to have conducted a suicide bombing attack, they may claim responsibility with a reference to the lion, saying that the attack was carried out by the “brave Lions of the Islamic State of Iraq.”  However, when Sunni groups make such claims, their comparisons lack the religious significance that they hold for Shia groups.  The Sunni comparison comes as a reference to the lion’s ferocity, strength, and reputation as a top predator, not as an association with a holy figure.

The Lion Imam Ali T-Shirt design, sold by Islamic Artistic Design

The association between Imam Ali and the lion is so strong that it often appears in popular culture.  For example, in this YouTube video, footage of an actor portraying Imam Ali on horseback chasing down an enemy is interspersed with footage of a lion chasing down another animal.  In another example, a clever and entrepreneurial group of artists has designed a T-shirt for sale online showing a lion with facial features represented by intricate Arabic calligraphy, to include the word “Ali” in the center of his face.

Yet another example of this association permeating popular culture is a common Iraqi joke.  Intended as a commentary on the current state of Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence in Iraq today, this joke is a bit of gallows humor that further demonstrates the strong connection that Shia Muslims make between Imam Ali and lions:

An Iraqi lion arrives in the United States to apply for asylum.  When immigration officials ask the lion for his reason for requesting asylum, he shows them a picture of Imam Ali with a lion.

“You see?” says the lion,“the Sunnis are after me because they have seen pictures of me with Imam Ali!”


[1] The names of these two groups are translated as “The Hizbollah Brigades in Iraq” and “The League of Righteous People.”

[2] The Islamic State of Iraq is a political front organization used by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in Iraq to issue public statements on behalf of the group.

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