Islamic State Fighters Are Back, and This Time They’re Taking Up Arms With Shiite Militias

A strange alliance between Sunnis and Shiites is sure to leave Iraq worse off.

A sign that reads “Here is a cemetery of the Islamic State group” sticks out from a pile of rubble in the old city of Mosul on Jan. 9. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
A sign that reads “Here is a cemetery of the Islamic State group” sticks out from a pile of rubble in the old city of Mosul on Jan. 9. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

The war in Iraq continues to bring together strange partners, and the latest odd couple may be the oddest of all. Particularly in Iraqi territory near Kurdish-held lands, the Popular Mobilization Forces—or the PMF, a collection of mostly Shiite militias—have started to join forces with some ex-Islamic State fighters. The idea of these former foes partnering may seem strange, but there are real benefits for both sides. Factions of the PMF, for their part, get to expand their footprint into Sunni areas. Islamic State fighters, meanwhile, can re-enter Iraqi society. Whatever the end result, it is likely to be bad for Iraq.

The PMF was a key player in the war against the Islamic State that started in 2014. Made up exclusively of Shiite warriors and often fighting under Shiite religious flags, some PMF militias came to be seen as Iranian proxies. That made it difficult for them to work in Sunni-majority areas, and it made the Iraqi government’s international partners, including the United States, suspicious of including them in their own war-fighting efforts.

Even so, the PMF endured. Today, it is in charge of security in some of the towns the Islamic State used to command, and it constitutes a major political force in the country. In the most recent national election, for example, a conglomeration of PMF groups called the Fatah Alliance won 48 seats in the 329-seat Iraqi parliament.

By all appearances, the PMF would like to expand its writ further. And to do that, it has made a dramatic change in its recruitment strategy. Now, in addition to young Shiites, it is also bringing in ex-Islamic State members.

In interviews this month, several Iraqi government officials and activists confirmed the trend, attesting that the Badr Organization, one of the largest PMF militias, which operates in Iraq, has recruited about 30 such fighters in town of Jalaula alone. In addition, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the most radical PMF groups, has recruited about 40 ex-Islamic State members in the same area, which is disputed between the Iraqi central government and the Kurds. “After Islamic State was defeated there in late 2014, local Islamic State members were not able to return to Jalaula,” Khalil Khudadad, a Kurdish official in the town, told us. They went to other cities where they joined the PMF, he continued, and now they’ve returned “wearing new uniforms.”

In addition to low-level former Islamic State members, several of the group’s leaders also seem to have entered the PMF ranks. According to sources in the Asayish, the Kurdish internal security force, one such recruit is Mutashar al-Turki, who led the battle against the Peshmerga in the southern part of Jalaula between June and August of 2014. Another is Zaid Mawlan, who according to our sources successfully persuaded members of an Iraqi emergency police battalion to hand over their arms to the Islamic State in 2014.

Members of the PMF we interviewed had mixed opinions about the inclusion of ex-Islamic State fighters. One official we interviewed from Asaib Ahl al-Haq denied having any ex-Islamic State members in his group. He acknowledged that his force was interested in getting Sunnis to join but that it is only “recruiting local Sunnis only with no known ties to Islamic State.” Shekh Abu Ahmad, a battalion leader in northern Diyala, said, “When we started recruitment, some ISIS members joined. However, later we did background checks and dismissed everyone suspicious.” When we confronted another local Iraqi official with the exact names of people in the PMF with ties to the Islamic State, he claimed that the new recruits were needed to continue the fight against the Islamic State insurgency. “Mutashar al-Turki,” he said, naming one example, “turned out to be a good man right after he changed allegiance, and now he [is] ensuring security of the town of Tawuq against ISIS insurgents.”

It may seem odd that Sunni fighters would be eager to join the very Shiite forces they recently battled. But there are some good reasons for it.

For some ex-Islamic State fighters, it is a matter of economics. These were fighters who did not join the Islamic State out of religious fervor but rather because they needed a salary. When the Islamic State was defeated and they found themselves unemployed, it was time to look for other work. For men with few skills besides war-making—and given Iraq’s high youth unemployment rate of 18 percent—signing up with another force was rational.

Since Iraq, like many post-conflict societies, has no official reintegration policies, these men could not join official Iraqi security forces, so they started to look for less official alternatives. At first, many turned to the Tribal Mobilization Forces, U.S.-backed Sunni counterparts to the Shiite PMF groups, which paid $400. Few were able to join, though, even if they had family or tribal ties. Next up in these former fighters’ job searches was the PMF. The PMF, it turns out, was relatively more willing to let former Islamic State members join its ranks.

Beyond a steady paycheck, joining a PMF group was also an opportunity for ex-Islamic State fighters to launder their histories. When their group was defeated and its members became wanted men, crossing the security checkpoints that freckle every town became nearly impossible. But people with military IDs—something membership in a PMF militia provides—are not usually checked against official lists of suspect Islamic State members.

Another benefit of a PMF ID is that an ex-Islamic State member can use it to convince his community that his former affiliation was for the sole purpose of spying. Such ploys are surprisingly effective. Based on Iraqi law, at least two witnesses are required to accuse someone of being part of the Islamic State. Witnesses are harder to find when the person in question has at least a minimum of plausible deniability. “To convict such a person, we first need to arrest him,” one local law enforcement officer in Mosul told us, “and only after people see that his military affiliation was not legitimate will they testify.”

Self-preservation seems like a plausible reason for a Sunni fighter to join a Shiite militia. But it doesn’t explain why the PMF, which gained respect among civilians for fighting the Islamic State, would recruit them. But there are several good reasons.

Politically, the PMF wants to increase its influence in the Sunni-majority areas, so it needs Sunni members. Apparently, it lost no time in taking advantage of out of work Islamic State soldiers to achieve that goal. According to a local policeman in Mosul, “Right after Islamic State was defeated in Mosul, we detained many ex-Islamic State members who [had] an official piece of paper saying they were [PMF] members and their IDs were in production.”

And in terms of military know-how, the PMF could have done worse than ex-Islamic State fighters. After four years of war, most of the fighters have extensive combat experience. They are also particularly effective when it comes to rooting out other ex-Islamic State members who have not joined the PMF. In fact, the PMF can rely on a certain amount of loyalty, because its new recruits don’t have anywhere else to go. If a new fighter were fired, his ID would be confiscated. He’d then be at risk of getting arrested at a checkpoint and sentenced to death.

And then, of course, there’s corruption and incompetence. For the right price, some PMF officials might look away if a new recruit matches with an Islamic State suspect in the national database. According to locals in Mosul, the price for a PMF ID ranges from $500, for just the ID, to several thousand dollars, for the ID and registration on the Badr Organization membership list. Beyond that, some PMF offices might not have the capacity to check a potential recruit’s background. According to one member of law enforcement in Mosul, “Right after the end of the battle for Mosul, there was no coordination between different armed groups, so it was a total mess with IDs. The situation really improved after the Security Force Coordination Office was established in Baghdad to coordinate different armed groups.” But such coordination does not yet extend to all areas that were until recently controlled by the Islamic State.

The alliance of Islamic State fighters and PMF groups poses an obvious security problem for Iraq. To be sure, it is not certain that all of the new recruits are dangerous, and in many post-conflict countries, reintegrating low-level ex-combatants is common practice. However, Baghdad needs to be able to monitor former Islamic State members who have joined the PMF, and it currently would have a hard time doing so.

Further, given the PMF’s potential ties to Iran, its expansion into Sunni areas is worrisome to the United States and the international community. As long as Iraqi security is provided by various sectarian militias, Iraq will have a difficult time finally ending years and years of bloodshed.

Such recruitment is also bad for the local Sunni population already devastated by the war with the Islamic State. According to a member of Jalaula’s main Sunni tribe, “In mixed Arab-Kurdish areas, there are a lot of Arabs who appreciate the stability and security that existed during Yaqub Lhebi’s era”—that is, when the town was governed by a local Sunni Arab with close ties to Kurdish political parties. “However, those moderate Sunni Arabs are not represented by any military force.” Once again, it is the extremists—or at least those who were once affiliated with extremists—who have found their way to the fore.

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov

Mohammed Hussein is the policy director at the Iraqi Center for Policy Analysis and Research. Twitter: @MohammedHkalari

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