In life and death, Iraq’s Hisham al-Hashimi

Renad Mansour pays tribute to his friend and colleague, the security expert killed in Baghdad.

The World Today
6 minute READ

Early one morning several years ago, I was woken in my Baghdad hotel room by my phone buzzing. It was Hisham. He had tried several times to reach me on WhatsApp while I was fast asleep. We had arranged to have breakfast together, but I was sure he was far too early. Fumbling for my mobile, I called him back. ‘Doctor,’ he shouted, using the title we sometimes jokingly used with each other, ‘I’m outside your hotel. We’re having breakfast with Qais al-Khazali. Hurry up! He’s waiting for us.’

I jumped out of bed and dressed: a surprise meeting with the leader of an armed group really wakes you up. I grabbed my notepad and pen and raced out on to the street where Hisham was waiting in his white Jeep.

I was excited to get the chance to interview Khazali, a leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), as I was writing a report about the group. In the car, Hisham and I talked tactics as I wrote out a list of questions. Once we had arrived and exchanged pleasantries, I asked Khazali my first question – a general one to set the mood. Halfway through his response, however, Khazali turned to Hisham with a question of his own. He was loath to miss an opportunity to mine one of Iraq’s foremost security specialists for information.

Khazali asked Hisham about the situation in the Sunni areas of Iraq, which were then experiencing battles between militants of the so-called Islamic state, also known as ISIS, and Iraqi forces, including the PMF. For the next hour and a half, I became an observer in my own interview. I listened as the two men exchanged notes. Only when they were winding down did Hisham steer the conversation back to me, asking Khazali to quickly answer a few of my questions because we had to get moving.

This is how we spent most days together when conducting research in Baghdad. Our time was always filled with fascinating, surprising, sometimes overwhelming meetings.

After our morning with Khazali, we went on to meet other political leaders. Over lunch, we talked to leaders of the Islamic Party, the chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq. Later we were given time with Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. I quickly learnt during these sessions that if I had pressing questions to ask, I could fight to get them in. But most of the time observing these discussions, at the heart of Iraqi politics, taught me more than any interview could. My social science training had not prepared me for this kind of research.

In between meetings, Hisham’s two phones never stopped ringing. During his calls, usually taken in his Jeep, all I would hear was Hisham saying: ‘Okay, no problem. I’ll talk to him.’ The ‘him’ was usually someone important. Hisham wore different hats. He was a researcher and analyst. But he was also a respected adviser to many in Iraq, doling out informed opinions to those who he thought had the best interests of his country at heart.

The day that began over breakfast with Khazali ended with Hisham doing a couple of live TV interviews with leading news channels, and dinner with activists, journalists, and aspiring Iraqi policy researchers, whom Hisham helped immensely. We gorged on tashreeb lahm – a lamb stew that soaks into a bread base underneath. Tea and Hisham’s beloved cigars followed. These pleasures were complemented with talk of politics and our shared reflections, often critical, of the characters we had just met.

Hisham dropped me off at my hotel some time before midnight. I sat down in my room and thought: ‘What just happened?’ Over 15 hours, Hisham had whirled me around Baghdad. I had met some of the most important actors in Iraq’s political theatre. But these discussions also offered me an inside look into how Iraqi politics worked: the discussions and dealings, the mediations and intermediaries, of which Hisham was no doubt an important one. This one day represents a tiny glimpse into his work at the heart of Iraqi politics as a journalist and researcher, adviser and analyst, but also a critical go-between for the politicians who, in the end, so persistently disappointed him as an Iraqi.

A sought-after source

Hisham al-Hashimi’s rise to becoming one of the most influential analysts in Iraq was not typical. Before the US and British-led invasion of the country in 2003, he was jailed by Saddam Hussein for anti-government activities and then released before the regime was toppled.

At the time, clerics got into his head. He travelled to the northern mountainous area of Hawraman and joined the Islamist resistance to the occupation of his country. Although Hisham grew disillusioned and left the group, the Americans eventually caught up with him and arrested him. After his eventual release, Hisham turned to research and writing, focusing among others on the fighters with whom he had once been aligned.

He leveraged his access into the world of Salafi jihadism to work on the rise of ISIS in 2014. He became a security researcher at the Al-Nahrain Centre for Strategic Studies, a defence think-tank in Baghdad and was quickly recognized as the pre-eminent expert on ISIS. This is when we met and both started looking into ISIS financing. We then began writing together, publishing a piece entitled ISIS Inc in Foreign Policy.

Soon after, I brought a hard copy of the magazine including our article with me to Baghdad to give to Hisham. ‘Look!’ I said to him excitedly. He looked at it with a pause and then realization: ‘So this is why my phone is blowing up with calls from foreign journalists and researchers.’ Until that point, he hadn’t published much in English.

Hisham’s work on ISIS made him possibly the single most sought-after source in Baghdad. His analysis informed thousands of articles in dozens of languages. He often joked that he would tell a journalist a piece of information and a foreign diplomat would call him later that day to corroborate it. When it came to security and politics in Iraq, he had somehow become everybody’s first call.

After the slow and violent demise of ISIS, Hisham began focusing on the security situation that followed in its wake – namely the growing influence of armed groups, specifically the PMF, that are closely connected to the state.

As it was with his work on ISIS, he was often the first to reveal critical information, such as the numbers of armed groups that had been formed and the internal dynamics of the PMF. The general accuracy of his accounts brought more respect and greater access.

It is common for Iraq’s politicians to pay for public endorsements by apparently independent journalists and researchers. But Hisham always refused such approaches. In the lead-up to federal elections in May 2018, the requests came in hard and fast. I remember watching him field these calls with amusement. Politicians would ring Hisham asking him to tweet in their favour. Because of his large social media following, a single tweet could bring him thousands of dollars, they insisted. He always declined.

During debates with colleagues over the years, he would urge other researchers never to tarnish their work by taking such payoffs. Their independence was far more valuable. He told me he hoped he could help open a policy research institute like Chatham House in Baghdad that would uphold such values. Training a new generation of policy researchers was important to him.

Hisham lived a relatively modest life – something most other Iraqi political actors cannot claim. These politicians preferred to live in comfort while relying on others to do the hard work. Some turned to Hisham, including senior government advisers who needed help navigating Iraqi bureaucracy.

The tragic irony is that this mix of traits – his influence and his independence – proved deadly to him in the end.

Death threats

October 2019 was a watershed moment in Iraq’s modern history. Like most Iraqis, Hisham was shocked and disgusted by the Iraqi government’s violent response to a mass uprising calling for revolution that engulfed the centre and south of the country, including his city Baghdad. Under the premiership of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, state forces which also included groups linked to the PMF killed more than 600 peaceful protesters and wounded thousands more.

Hisham became a prominent voice speaking out against the use of force by the government and its allied militias. But Hisham’s behind-the-scenes work also continued. He still went back and forth between leaders and armed groups, participating in several high-stakes talks among the country’s elite.

Last December, more than two months after the start of demonstrations, I was at a Track II meeting with Hisham. He spoke critically of the government’s violent response, which was partly led by the most powerful armed groups that comprise the PMF, and whose leaders were also at the meeting. Later, rumours began circulating in Baghdad that Hisham had been bad-mouthing the PMF, and threats began to emerge. Hisham was able to speak directly to Khazali, who calmed down the problem. Crucially, what he said privately he continued to say in public during many media appearances in which he strongly criticized the coercive power these groups maintained.

The beginning of the uprising last year was a monumental event for Iraq and its people. But in January the United States’ assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani seemed to do more to change Hisham’s working environment, as did the killing in the same bombing of Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, then deputy head of the PMF, which is often given less attention.

Muhandis’s assassination immediately created disorder within the senior ranks of the organization. Many groups felt less bound to a central command structure that no longer had Muhandis at its core.

In 2018, Hisham took me to meet Muhandis for an interview. Just like so many of his colleagues, Muhandis leaned on Hisham as an analyst, adviser and intermediary. When he was killed, Muhandis was trying to further centralize the PMF’s command structure, realizing that rogue groups acting alone presented an increasing problem for the PMF. This work unravelled with his death.

Hisham recognized that the assassination changed the security situation in Iraq for the worse. For the first time, before the coronavirus shut down travel, Hisham told me that it was best not to visit Baghdad. He was tempering his eagerness to continue our research in the name of safety. Even during the darkest days when ISIS controlled significant amounts of Iraqi territory, he had never suggested to me that it was too dangerous to come to Iraq. I was taken aback.

The US decision to again resort to violence in Iraq and kill the PMF’s most influential leader created the country’s latest bout of instability. Tit-for-tat attacks became commonplace as hostilities between Washington and Iranian-allied militias ratcheted up. The militias fired rockets primarily as warning signals to the US. However, Washington’s targeted assassination made Hisham’s work even more dangerous by fracturing the tenuous cohesiveness among the militias. He began receiving death threats from groups who saw him as too critical of their positions.

His close relationship with the new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who at times called on Hisham for advice on sensitive security issues (dating back to Kadhimi’s time as intelligence chief) and relied on him to disseminate talking points in his media appearances, made Hisham more of a target. This came to a head in recent weeks as Hisham spoke about the details of the prime minister’s attempted crackdown on Kata’ib Hizbollah, a group under the PMF.

Whereas once he could call Muhandis or Khazali to better understand and perhaps even mitigate the threats he faced, that option was no longer there. All of his senior PMF contacts had gone into hiding and could not control increasingly rogue groups and he had to turn in desperation to outside analysts, such as Ghaith al-Tamimi.

Hisham was ultimately a victim of the US campaign of bombings and assassinations even if he was not their intended target. US actions at the beginning of the year were championed by some of the same hawkish analysts and strategists who had relied on Hisham for his access, analysis and information. This fact is a reminder that he had far more to lose – his life – than those who used him in order to advance the case for persistently myopic US intervention.

Corruption is everywhere

One of the last times I spoke with Hisham at length was a few days before his killing. He had spent much of the conversation frustrated that the new government was not serious enough about fighting corruption. The political parties still controlled the system. Hisham wanted Iraq’s so-called reformist leaders to make bold moves, since they now occupied senior state positions. He told me that if Kadhimi failed, Iraq would again be in a dark place. When we hung up, I was overcome with a sense of anguish.

While Iraq’s politicians live behind fortified walls protected by guards, Hisham walked the streets of Baghdad. While they issue long, platitudinous statements, he spoke out against the corrupt forces he believed were harming his country. But these same politicians needed Hisham and tried to use him to build and shape their narratives through his media appearances. But unlike Iraq’s reformist political elite who now occupy senior positions in the state and whom he admired, Hisham risked and gave his life for his political beliefs, which were guided by a sense of duty to the Iraqi nation he was proudly a part of.

Hours before he was gunned down outside his home on July 6, Hisham joked with me over WhatsApp about the latest propaganda images depicting him as the new prime minister’s stooge – the man he had been critical of over the phone with me just days before. ‘We need to write about this, Doctor,’ Hisham implored to me at the end of that call. ‘The situation here isn’t good. The government doesn’t seem willing to upset the political parties. It’s not moving against the system. Corruption is everywhere and there’s no hope. We need to write about this. You, me – we need to write.’