The United Arab Emirates sent a major message to Washington by their inclusion of specifically named, Iranian-backed Shia jihadist organizations in a new list of terrorist organizations. This list has come under a mixture of criticism, praise and some level of confusion for some of its inclusions and exclusions. Much attention has also been placed on the inclusion of Muslim Brotherhood–related organizations, such as the U.S.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). However, it is the addition of Iran’s proxies that deserves equal attention.
Their presence represents the Gulf state’s simmering tensions with their neighbor across the Persian Gulf. The release of the list takes on an added precedence in the context of Western and Iranian leaders meeting in Vienna for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. For Abu Dhabi, it appears the present danger of Iran’s proxies is just as much of a pressing threat as Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Of the eighty-three listed groups, nine are direct Iranian proxies or contain demonstrable levels of Iranian influence or support. The listed organizations include groups operating in the Arabian Peninsula, including the Houthis of Yemen, Hizballah al-Hijaz (A.K.A. Saudi Hizballah), and “Hizballah in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).” Iraqi Shia groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), Liwa Ammar Ibn Yasir (LAIY), and Liwa al-Yum al-Mawud also found places on the list. Even a Shia militia which has essentially become a synonym for the Iranian-organized and -led Shia jihad in Syria, Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), was named as a terrorist group.
It’s highly probable that Abu Dhabi released the names of these groups as a further way to snub the United States for a perceived lack of action against Iran’s and its proxies’ moves in the Gulf and/or highlight that the Gulf is not going to march in lockstep with Washington on Iraq or issues dealing with Iran. Speculation on the Gulf-Washington alliance aside, the UAE clearly views Iran’s Shia proxy militias and more covert organizations as a major and expanding threat.
What does the inclusion of these specific groups mean?
The Badr Organization, the largest and oldest of Iran’s Shia proxies in Iraq, was established by Iraqi Shia exiles in Iran around the time of the Iran-Iraq War. The group is also a firm believer in the Iranian ideological system of absolute Wilayat al-Faqih, a structure where religious and political authority is entrusted with Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Badr wields monumental political and military power in Iraq, along with having a history of running sectarian death squads. The group has also been used as a source to create and grow new Iranian-controlled Iraqi Shia militias and political organizations. Badr’s deep links into Iraq’s security establishment have only increased since the 2014 ISIS onslaught and was recently presented with the Ministry of Interior. While Badr has not been listed by the U.S. as a terrorist group, the UAE’s inclusion of the group establishes that the Emirates cares little whether a group is a major player in the Iraqi political system. This theme was accentuated by the UAE’s removal of their ambassador to Iraq in June over “sectarian” politics orchestrated by Baghdad.
Badr is not alone. Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, so-called “special groups” established during the Iraqi War (2003), have been growing in power within Iraq. As with Badr, both organizations are ideologically loyal to Iran.
AAH began as an Iranian-sponsored splinter from radical Iraqi Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. KH began life as a more elite force using core force from Badr, and has developed into a potent military force within Iraq. Both groups were responsible for advanced attacks against U.S. forces. According to the Washington Post, “in 2008, U.S. officials identified Asaib Ahl al-Haq as the biggest single threat to U.S. forces” then in Iraq. In 2009, KH was listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
Since the U.S. pullout, KH and AAH have continued to field thousands of combatants and AAH has created their own political wing. Along with Badr, both deployed forces to Syria.
The inclusion of these Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militia creations is another example of the increasing threat they pose to the Gulf states. Throughout 2011, KH and AAH forces attacked Coalition targets as a way to show support for their oppressed coreligionists in Bahrain. During the summer of 2011, KH threatened South Korean companies operating in Kuwait as part of a new port project. The same group attacked the port in June 2011 with rockets. In November 2013, another Iraqi Shia proxy of Iran launched mortars at Saudi Arabia. In late-December 2013, a speedboat loaded with Iranian-made weapons was seized off of Bahrain.
Yet, when it came to listing these groups, a major pitfall was expressed via a basic misunderstanding regarding some of the groups and front organizations. The addition of Liwa Ammar Ibn Yasir (The Ammar ibn Yasir Brigade or LAIY) perfectly demonstrates this problem.
LAIY—like Badr, KH and AAH—is ideologically loyal to Iran. It was first announced as a fighting group operating in Aleppo, Syria in the late spring of 2013. It also continues to operate in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, LAIY is little more than a subunit belonging to an Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah front, Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba (the Movement for the Outstanding Party of God or HHN). HHN is led by a “former” main commander within Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Akram Ka’abi, and came into existence at the same time LAIY was declared. Still, HHN has a number of other sub-militias like LAIY. These groups include Liwa al-Hamad and Liwa al-Imam al-Hassan al-Mujtaba. HHN and its submilitias are also still operating in Iraq and Syria, and primarily recruit from Iraq’s Shia. Still, neither HHN, nor its other submilitias made the list. Nevertheless, LAIY’s inclusion highlights the Emirati government may be seeking to address the continually growing network of Iranian proxy groups. Details be damned, the list was meant to send a signal to Washington.
Still, two of the listed groups have much hazier links to Iran.
Liwa al-Yum al-Mawud (The Promised Day Brigades) was initially established by radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during the Iraq War and actively targeted American forces in the country. Despite being linked to Sadr, who has had problems with Iran and its proxies, the group maintained links with Iran. According to Iraq expert Michael Knights, during the Iraq War (2003), group members seemingly, “collaborate[d] with KH and AAH organizers” during anti-American attacks. The group has also reportedly sent members to Syria and has been deployed to fight ISIS in Iraq. While officially not an organ adhering to Iran’s ideological formula of Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih, the group’s listing suggests the UAE considers militant Sadrists who can be swayed by Iran as an equal threat to ideologically loyal and fully controlled Iranian proxies.
The addition of Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (The Abbas Brigade or LAFA) is another sign that the UAE is more invested in focusing on “name brand” Shia militias that underline the sectarian nature of the region’s continuing conflicts. Originally tasked with defending the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, LAFA has become active in Iraq and Syria. Established with a mix of assistance from Lebanese Hizballah, Iran’s Iraqi proxies, local Shia militants and Shia foreign fighters, LAFA is the original and most well known of the Shia militias in Syria. The group has also been hazy on where it bases its religious and ideological loyalties. At times, the group has claimed Sadrist roots, at other times it is supportive of Iran’s Supreme Leader, still on other occasions the group has been claimed to be followers of radical Iraqi cleric Qasim al-Ta’i. Nevertheless, for supporters of Syrian rebel groups, as the UAE is, LAFA is one of the key enemies for their cause.
Iranian proxy networks present in the Arabian Peninsula further compliment the UAE’s increasing alarm about Iran’s Iraqi Shia staffed groups.
Yemen’s Ansar Allah, listed as “Al Houthi Movement in Yemen,” finds a mention. While hardly a recently established group, Ansar Allah has developed as a potent representative of Yemen’s Zaydi Shia. For years, the extensiveness of Iran’s influence over the group has been debated. Still, Iran had been shipping arms to the Houthis and possibly advisors from Lebanese Hizballah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. These developments created an intractable belief in the region that Iran was guiding the Houthis.