Killing of Islamic State expert in Baghdad marks critical moment for Iraq

Hisham al-Hashimi backed action to tackle Iraq’s powerful militias, despite knowing risks

As Hisham al-Hashimi pulled up outside his Baghdad home on Monday night, a gunman strode purposefully towards the Iraqi official’s white four-wheel drive, drew a pistol and fired four shots through the driver’s window.

Each jolting flash was captured by security footage from a camera on Hashimi’s roof. So was the hitman’s escape on the back of a motorbike, and the helpless vigil of his three young children as their father’s body was dragged on to the driveway.

In a city numbed by decades of brutality, violent deaths such as this have left an ever diminishing mark. But the brazen assassination of one of the country’s most celebrated intellectuals has cast a pall over the Iraqi capital, leading many again to weigh the cost of speaking out and forcing a reckoning among leaders who had vowed that the troubled state had begun to prevail over the country’s powerful militias.

Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa Kadhimi, with whom Hashimi had worked closely as national intelligence chief before the latter became leader earlier this year, vowed that there would be a transparent investigation into his murder, and pledged to name a Baghdad street after his most trusted adviser on Isis and jihadist thinking.

The relationship had consolidated over the past four months in government, when Kadhimi, as prime minister, had challenged Iranian-sponsored militia groups that have often dictated terms in Iraq. Two weeks ago, Kadhimi ordered the arrest of 14 members of one group, Kata’ib Hezbollah, who were suspected of firing rockets into Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The arrest was a stark challenge to the group’s standing and Hashimi had offered strong support through his prolific and widely read social media posts and appearances on Iraqi television. Hashimi knew the risks, outlining his fears to the Guardian in recent weeks and to a London-based friend, Ghaith al-Tamimi, to whom he wrote on Monday: “I’ve been sent death threats by Kata’ib Hezbollah. How should I deal with them, in your expertise?”

The response from al-Tamimi was “Can we speak?”. Hashimi was shot dead hours later.

Man approaches car
CCTV grab from security camera footage showing a gunman approaching Hashimi’s vehicle. Photograph: Security camera footage

Hashimi, 47, had been a prominent figure in Iraq’s ongoing upheaval for more than 20 years. In the late 1990s, he was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein for being a salafi cleric; he was released in 2002, ahead of the invasion the following year. Then came the chaos of the US-led occupation, the jihadist insurrection that emerged in its vacuum, and the political and security turmoil that followed, during which he became a go-to adviser for early leaders and senior politicians.

His life, and death, loosely tracked Iraq’s fortunes; Hashimi had preached to the man who would later become the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, before moving away from a fundamentalist interpretation of the faith. He was later targeted by all incarnations of the terror juggernaut, from al-Qaida to Isis, as it rampaged across Iraq and Syria, before mostly disintegrating early last year.

He also rubbed shoulders with Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, the powerful overlord who ran Iraqi affairs until he was assassinated in Baghdad by a US drone in early January. A second Iranian loyalist, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the strike. He was the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, which vowed to avenge his death.

Throughout Iraq’s postwar trajectory, Hashimi advised Iraqi intelligence and the US military. He was consulted by spies from Britain and France and became more important than any other Iraqi in informing the world about the inner workings of Isis.

Hashimi advised the US military as well as Iraqi intelligence. Photograph: Reuters

His expertise was sought by the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, both of whom consulted him personally. He crossed Europe and the region interviewing captured jihadists and briefing officials on his findings.

“Dr Hisham al-Hashimi was a brilliant analyst, a prolific writer, and a respected commentator on Iraqi affairs,” said Emma Sky, author of The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq and senior political adviser to the US military leadership in Iraq from 2007-10. “He possessed unique insights into the motivation, ideology and inner workings of extremist groups. But he also spoke out against the corrupt political class and Iranian interference that keeps Iraq in a state of dysfunction. Despite the constant threats to his life, he refused to leave Baghdad. He paid for his bravery with his life.

“He loved Iraq, and had the best interests of Iraqis – no matter what sect or ethnicity – at heart. He represented hope that a different Iraq was possible. The government needs to bring his killers to justice and crush the militias, or Iraq will never become a functioning state.”

Sir John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Iraq, said Hashimi’s death was a clear challenge to Kadhimi’s authority. Washington has perceived the new leader as more closely aligned to its interests than his predecessors. But he remains the central figure in a struggle for the fate of the region between Iran, which had made enormous strategic gains in Iraq since the ousting of Saddam Hussein, and the US, which has struggled to assert enduring influence since then.

“This was a hit by a militia with links to Iran,” he said. “Shutting them down and bringing those responsible to justice is the only test that matters for the government of Iraq. First off, they come for the writers, the lawyers, the academics, the demonstrators and the activists. It happened in Iraq and Egypt after 1962, Iran in 1979-83, in Algeria in 1990-92 and in Lebanon a decade ago. It won’t end until we collectively stop indulging those who despise our shared humanity.”

Hashimi was laid to rest on Tuesday in Najaf, south of Baghdad, and a wake was held at his home in Baghdad’s Zayouna district. Despite the testimonies of officials on Iraq media and social platforms, there was no state presence at his funeral.

“Let them prove what they say is worth listening to,” said one mourner, Issam Jabouri, 37. “He was a brave man who gave his life by offering truths. The state must honour him by arresting his killers. If they don’t, this is a huge step backwards for Iraq.”


Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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