Profile and Exclusive Interview with Iraqi Shiite Insurgents Ashab al-Kahf
Over the past few months, local contractors providing supplies to U.S. military bases and outposts in Iraq have come under a variety of pinprick IED attacks along highways stretching across southern and central Iraq from the Kuwaiti border. Although the attacks have generally caused few casualties and limited damage, they appear designed to send a deliberate message: U.S. supply lines can be cut off if the U.S. military refuses to withdraw from Iraq. While there is still some debate over precisely who is responsible for these IEDs, it is largely agreed that they are the work of Shiite insurgents, and many of them have been claimed by an insurgent faction that calls itself Ashab al-Kahf.
By Evan Kohlmann
Over the past few months, local contractors providing supplies to U.S. military bases and outposts in Iraq have come under a variety of pinprick IED attacks along highways stretching across southern and central Iraq from the Kuwaiti border. Although the attacks have generally caused few casualties and limited damage, they appear designed to send a deliberate message: U.S. supply lines can be cut off if the U.S. military refuses to withdraw from Iraq. While there is still some debate over precisely who is responsible for these IEDs, it is largely agreed that they are the work of Shiite insurgents, and many of them have been claimed by an insurgent faction that calls itself Ashab al-Kahf. This group is one of the oldest of the newer generation of armed Shiite splinter groups in Iraq and emerged five months before the U.S. airstrike in January 2020 that killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi Shiite militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The administrator of the pro-Shiite “Sabireen News” Telegram channel–who claims to have met with members of the group in Baghdad–commented that “they are good guys” but “not professional”: “they have good connections in Iraq” but “they have weakness in media.” According to the “Sabireen News” administrator, “they fight not for money or politics, they want just to take revenge.” In an attempt to better understand its origins, mission, and future trajectory, Flashpoint engaged the group in an exclusive recent interview.
Ashab al-Kahf first declared its existence on August 22, 2019 following a drumbeat series of five mysterious drone missile strikes within the space of only a month targeting pro-Iranian Shiite militia bases in Iraq. One day earlier, on August 21, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis issued a statement publicly accusing the U.S. of assisting Israel in bringing at least four drones into Iraq for the purpose of launching missile attacks on Iraqi Shiite militiamen and their Iranian allies. According to the statement from al-Muhandis, the U.S. was “the first and last party responsible” for the drone strikes and that his militiamen would use “all means at their disposal” to defend themselves. The U.S. military dismissed the claim, but the next day, on August 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to publicly confirm Israel’s responsibility for at least some of these strikes, commenting only, “We are working against Iranian consolidation—in Iraq as well.”
On the same day, a new Twitter account was created whose first post announced “starting today… we announce the launch of the resistance group guided by Islamic culture and principles, whose goals are to preserve human dignity, defend the oppressed, and restore our rights with the help of almighty Allah.” The message was signed in the name of “Ashab al-Kahf” from “the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.” According to the official Ashab al-Kahf website, “We are the soldiers of Islam, God willing, who have fought to defend Islam since 2003 when the arrogant invaded Iraq in order to achieve their destructive diabolical goals in Iraq and the region and our brothers confronted them in various stages and in various ways to thwart the goals of the enemy.” Ashab al-Kahf has accused the U.S. of “plunging Iraq” into a battle with ISIS “for tactical subversive goals and to embroil it in a war that made it impossible to refuse the return of American forces to Iraq.” As a result, according to Ashab al-Kahf, “the men of Islam (the youth of our project) gathered together from all of the respected Islamic resistance factions to reorganize their ranks under a new methodology and work in a more organized way to expel the occupiers… We gathered under the banner of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, Ashab al-Kahf.”
Ashab al-Kahf insists that it is resolutely opposed to negotiations or compromise with the U.S. or any continued presence of U.S. military forces on Iraqi soil–regardless of whether their stated purpose is to combat the spread of ISIS and a recent surge of ISIS activity in Iraq. Indeed, in its own words, Ashab al-Kahf is “focused on the main engine and supporter of ISIS in the region”: the United States. According to an Ashab al-Kahf representative, “We believe that the increase in ISIS operations is a pressure point used by the American occupation to achieve its interests and muddy the situation in Iraq and the region.” The group has urged Iraqi political leaders to avoid any political compromises with the U.S., even if “the Americans will get upset and will target us.” In May 2020, spokesmen for the group claimed that they welcomed an open military confrontation with America: “tell me what is different from now, let the situation develop and become like Yemen and then we can become prosperous…Get ready, agents of America and Israel, say farewell to the compromises and balances that caused us to reverse our progress backwards by centuries.”
In messages posted on Twitter in August 2019 on the same day as it publicly emerged, Ashab al-Kahf drew a clear connection between its own immediate origins and the then-recent series of suspected Israeli airstrikes targeting Shiite militiamen in Iraq. The group warned, “In the event that the strikes were carried out by the Israeli or American enemy, then in both cases military targets, which may be American, will be mostly responded to… The reckless, oppressive occupier will be held accountable for the actions of the past”: “From today on, the Americans and the Israelis should know that bombings will be met with bombings, assassinations for assassinations, and kidnappings for kidnappings.” At least one of the posts hinted at feelings of dissent over “the silence of our brothers from the factions of the Islamic resistance” in the wake of the Israeli drone strikes–which “left the scene open to various methods of hostile, intelligence, military, and media work. Where are the sons of Ali bin Abi Talib, may Allah bless him, from those painful days of the enemy?”
In an exclusive interview with Flashpoint, Ashab al-Kahf representatives insisted that they do not have any specific relationships with prominent Shiite militia groups active in Iraq such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Likewise, during a conversation about the group with Flashpoint, the administrator of “Sabireen News” dismissed any notion of a hidden connection between Ashab al-Kahf and Kataib Hezbollah: “I’m sure… they are not [linked] and they don’t have any contact with them.” Nonetheless, Ashab al-Kahf was incensed several days after its public formation in August 2019 when yet another suspected Israeli drone strike took place targeting Kataib Hezbollah forces in a convoy near the Iraqi-Syrian border city of Al-Qaim. On August 25–via Twitter–Ashab al-Kahf accused its enemies of “playing with the lives and blood of our dear ones” and announced news of the “Israeli military drone strike on our brothers, Kataib Hezbollah, in which our dear brother Abu Ali al-Dabi won the honor of martyrdom.” Ashab al-Kahf created a page on its official website about the “fall of the martyrs from [Kataib] Hezbollah” in the Al-Qaim attack and posted further messages on Twitter “encouraging our brothers, the blessed Kataib Hezbollah, to take their revenge.”
As a matter of official record, Ashab al-Kahf told Flashpoint that it respects both Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah for having “a proven record of resisting the occupation and confronting its agenda.” The spokesman for Ashab al-Kahf spoke favorably of Kataib Hezbollah’s “honorable history”–and even after Kataib Hezbollah announced in the spring of 2020 that it would temporarily hold off further attacks on U.S. forces, he reassured to Flashpoint, “As it relates to them stopping attacks, they know what is best from their point of view and that is respected.” Yet, on several noteworthy occasions, various mouthpieces for Ashab al-Kahf have been unusually blunt in their criticism of the major Iraqi Shiite militias and their political leaders. In November 2019, the official Ashab al-Kahf Twitter account warned of “corrupt people affiliated with Islam and Shiism” who “were tools for the American enemy and the project of Jewish expansion in the region and Iraq in particular.” Two months later, an article was added to the Ashab al-Kahf website beseeching, “Where are the mujahideen of Asaib [Ahl al-Haq], who with their weapons cut the enemy’s soldiers to pieces, where are the sons of Kataib Hezbollah… just as many of you caused the failure of the project to overthrow Syria, please set out with many of you to expel the criminal American enemy.”
Later, in the spring of 2020, an Ashab al-Kahf Telegram account began blasting harsh rhetoric against a variety of others–including senior officials from Iraqi Shiite militias themselves. In April, the account admonished:
“Has everyone who promised to get revenge for the martyrs on the American enemy failed to fulfill their vows? Instead, they used the incidents as a negotiating tactic to secure powerful political positions by threatening to retaliate. Middlemen presented them with appealing offers… and these talks even extended to people close to the martyred commanders [Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis]. There is discussion among the brothers of jihad from all the factions of the Islamic resistance, and they have agreed about their dissatisfaction with what has been done by their groups and their leaders.”
In May, the Ashab al-Kahf account posted a photo of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, mourning, “twice you were backstabbed, the first time at the hands of your enemies and the second time at the hands of those that claim to love you…the betrayal of a friend is worse than an attack by the enemy.”
At first, the posts insisted that “names would not be mentioned”–but then quickly descended into ugly personal attacks on rival Shiite forces in Iraq: “without mentioning names, one of them promised to take revenge and loves oil so much, the other is hooked on women, the other killed half the Sunni people for money and fame, and later became their defender, the other is strong and leads a deep state, while the other is short and falls down at every celebration and doesn’t understand anything, but he is very evil.” Attached to a photo of Iraqi Parliamentarians, the posts continued, “this one is a lowlife, you can’t blame him–but the other one is [a member of] Asaib [Ahl al-Haq]! …[O’ Asaib] where is your prestige and your sword that shines defending Islam and the sect? Where are the martyrs?…Has it really come to this? Shaykh Qais [al-Khazali] has become an agent of one of the three [Iraqi] presidencies?”
The Ashab al-Kahf Telegram lambasted “traitors” to the hardline Shiite cause in Iraq as “American trash”: “if the heads of… those who claim to be America’s enemies publicly but its friends in private were cut off, Iraq’s situation would improve… In the past, we would target one common enemy… but today, the scenario has changed.” The posts conspiratorially blamed “American and Israeli infiltration of Iraq”–which according to the author “is deeper than one might think. The infiltration may have reached further than the political, financial security, military institutions… it may have reached individuals who surround the safety valve and center of trust.” During an interview with Flashpoint, Ashab al-Kahf characterized current Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as “a CIA agent and we have no contact with him, and there will be no communication with a government led by an agent. Our position is consistent and clear.”
In discussing the ongoing situation in Iraq with Flashpoint, an Ashab al-Kahf representative separately acknowledged being familiar with the other smaller armed Shiite insurgent splinter factions “that appeared recently after the martyrdom of our commanders” including Usbat al-Thaereen and the Al-Muhandis Revenge Brigade–”they [these groups] adopt Islamic ideas and we wish them success in their work. No, we do not coordinate with them.” Although Ashab al-Kahf maintained to Flashpoint that “we have no relationship with Iran”, the group has effusively praised Iran’s key ally in the region Lebanese Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah. On its official website, Ashab al-Kahf openly addressed Nasrallah and reassured him that “here in Iraq, you have those who believe in your leadership, follow your orders, [and] trust your words.”
Following its emergence in the late summer of 2019, Ashab al-Kahf immediately homed in on the controversial issue of U.S. and Israeli military aircraft operating in Iraqi airspace. On August 23, the group’s official Twitter account reasoned that “enemy Israeli aircraft were able to enter and implement their objectives and safely return only through the unjust assistance of America.” The account began to post technical information about U.S. military radar and air defense systems used in Iraq, as well as alleged overhead photos of U.S. military bases in Iraq–with analysis of key areas within the bases and the locations of American military hardware positioned there. It posted photos and technical information about the Lockheed Martin AN/TPQ-53 radar system, which the group labeled “an example of the surveillance and monitoring of the Ashab al-Kahf intelligence team on the camps and bases of the enemy.” Ashab al-Kahf pointed to this information as proof that “the enemy is penetrated and weak and they are not even aware. We are above you and you do not know.”
Likewise, in its public propaganda, Ashab al-Kahf has repeatedly alluded to possessing shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and has threatened to use them against hostile aircraft, including drones. The group formally claimed responsibility for downing a U.S. reconnaissance drone on July 23-24, 2020 near the Iraqi city of Baiji, and distributed images suggesting that the attack was carried out with a guided surface-to-air missile. According to the administrator of “Sabireen News”, the specific type of missile used was neither a Russian-made SAM-7 nor an Iranian-made Misagh series. The U.S. military publicly denied that any such downing of a drone had taken place.
Ashab al-Kahf also claims to have carried out advanced sabotage attacks on strategic targets–such as the Jirishan crossing on the Iraq-Kuwait border. On August 10, 2020, the group announced that it had set off an explosion at the crossing, wounding non-Iraqi foreign contract workers and “destroying the equipment and vehicles of the American enemy.” It further released grainy nighttime video footage of a distant explosion, which it claimed had been recorded near the site of the attack. Nonetheless, a spokesman for the U.S. military told Flashpoint that “there definitely was not an attack” at the Jirishan border crossing. During an interview with Flashpoint, Ashab al-Kahf claimed to have also attacked U.S. assets on the Iraqi-Syrian border, but provided no further details.
Overall, however, the vast majority of attacks claimed by Ashab al-Kahf are smaller roadside bomb-type IEDs targeting local private contractors resupplying U.S. military posts and bases in Iraq. The attacks have taken place over a vast swath of central Iraq–in an area stretching from Iraq’s southern and western borders all the way to the northern city of Tikrit–and at least some of them have ultimately been acknowledged by the U.S. military and Iraqi government. The tempo of these attacks also appears to have dramatically increased over the course of the summer of 2020. However, they have rarely resulted in any casualties and the damage caused by them has been relatively minimal. Ashab al-Kahf has posted multiple warnings advising drivers and other civilians to steer clear of U.S. military supply convoys and has even named the companies behind contractor convoys it is eyeing. When asked why the group would risk its personnel to engage in such a low intensity IED campaign, the administrator of “Sabireen News” responded, “All the convoys of logistics for the USA army have Iraqi people as drivers. We are resistance, we don’t attack civilians and our people.” Ashab al-Kahf also expressed ambivalence in its discussion with Flashpoint over the targeting of foreign embassies in Baghdad: “Diplomatic missions enjoy immunity as long as they are bound by [diplomatic] norms and do not deviate from the boundaries of their diplomatic work, although we think most of them do not.”
Given the significant number of attacks claimed by Ashab al-Kahf that have been later categorized as false by the Iraqi government and the U.S. military, there have been questions over to what degree the group really exists outside of the Internet and/or whether it is merely a propaganda tool for a more established Shiite militia group seeking plausible deniability. Ashab al-Kahf Telegram accounts have even made light of how “typical” it has become for a U.S. military spokesman to reject their claims. The photos and video the group has released in an effort to document their attacks have often been noticeably blurry, low quality, and ultimately inconclusive. When asked about these questions by Flashpoint, an Ashab al-Kahf spokesman responded, “The sounds of explosions and fires that are killing American soldiers in Iraq since 2017 until today are the best evidence that [we] actually exist.” It is interesting to note that 2017 is at least two years before the group formally declared its existence, another hint to its potential origins.
Although it has yet to attack any target outside the borders of Iraq, Ashab al-Kahf has directly threatened Iraq’s neighbors over their cooperation with the United States and Israel, and due to their role in supporting U.S. military operations on Iraqi soil. On its Twitter feed, the group has derisively referred to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as the “puppets” of the U.S. and its Western allies and an Ashab al-Kahf spokesman explained to Flashpoint that “our opinion of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel is not different from our opinion of the United States of America as a system that places its top priority on targeting Islam and Muslims in all parts of the world.” It claims to have taken action to confront “provocative activities by enemy diplomats in Iraq” and warned Flashpoint that–even beyond Iraqi territory–“in the future it is possible to target all those that target Islam and Muslims and attack the sovereignty of our beloved country.”
Most recently, Ashab al-Kahf has placed its crosshairs on Kuwait, warning the Kuwaiti government regarding its irritation at the presence of U.S. bases and posts “very close to the Iraqi border”: “we have not carried out any provocations or operations out of respect for the security of the people of Kuwait.” In an open statement addressed to Kuwait, the group cited “groups of combat helicopters and others used for U.S. logistical support that violate the airspace of Iraq and cause harm to its people take off from various American bases in Kuwait… Despite the above, until now, no one has attacked you.” Ashab al-Kahf identified four U.S. bases in Kuwait of specific interest to them: Ali al-Salem Air Base, Camp Arifjian, Camp Virginia, and “Camp Udairi” (now known as Camp Buehring). Separately, the group also emphasized “the importance to us” of Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
At the conclusion of our exclusive interview, Flashpoint asked Ashab al-Kahf representatives if they had a particular message they wished to send to the U.S. government or the U.S. military regarding their ongoing presence in Iraq. According to Ashab al-Kahf, “Our message to America and its allies is that we tell them we will resist your projects and plans until the last breath in this life, God willing. Our message to Trump is: Thank you, Trump, because your folly in making decisions greatly contributes to heroic men going to the fronts and saved us a lot of trouble in persuading young believers of the need to resist and expel the occupiers.” It remains an open question as to whether Ashab al-Kahf will continue ramping up the scale of its attacks in Iraq (and perhaps elsewhere in the region) until it gains the notoriety from the U.S. military and American policymakers that it is seeking.