The Sad, Discordant Ballad of Husham al-Hashimi

The man who pulled the trigger on Husham al-Hashimi—by first misfiring an assault rifle and then pulling out his pistol to shoot the victim at point-blank range—was a first lieutenant in Iraq’s Ministry of Interior. He had only graduated as an officer in July 2019 after serving as a policeman for fourteen years.

The assailant, Ahmed al-Kinani, was known to be a quiet man. His colleagues and superiors were shocked after it was revealed that he had confessed to murdering al-Hashimi. Al-Kinani was respectful to his officers, was meticulous in his attendance and had not demonstrated the bravado of someone who dabbled in extrajudicial killings on the side. In fact, they did not peg him as the violent type at all: for most of his career as a policeman he had been assigned as a security guard at the home of a top police officer. He was the guy at the front gate whom the officer’s wife would ask to pick up groceries. After becoming an officer himself, al-Kinani had been relegated to administrative duties at the Directorate of Engineering Works at the ministry. Again, a ho-hum posting.

Al-Kinani was tracked down electronically and placed at the scene of the crime by investigators. He was then arrested on July 9. He confessed willingly and fully. He even struck the interrogators as sincere in demonstrating remorse; they did not have to go down the route of torture to get him to talk. Al-Kinani told them that he was one of seven in the assassination squad—the rest are still at large. He also confessed that he is a member of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia. He claimed that al-Hashimi was targeted for being an American agent, or so he was told by the two men who gave him the order. It is unclear how far up the militia’s chain of command the decision was taken. Many political and diplomatic actors have a vested interest in minimizing its leadership’s exposure. The Iraqi government for its part, when releasing news of the confession, edited out any direct references to Kata’ib Hezbollah. I beat out the government in announcing his arrest, his rank and a few other biographical details on Twitter by a few hours—I did not, however, leave out his political affiliation. I got word back that functionaries within the prime minister’s office were distressed by what I had revealed. Oh well.

So far, all this fits the narrative that has come to be associated with al-Hashimi’s murder. But there’s more, much more, and I take al-Hashimi’s story to reflect much of what remains beyond the reaches of how Iraq is discussed. His story is instructive; he was a man of his times, and what times! I can think of few other trajectories that so encapsulate the contradictions, the sorrows, and the shocking, unsettling decisions individuals have had to make to survive in a landscape as tempestuous as that of Iraq’s after 2003.

For when I heard the news of his murder, at first I considered the prospect that he had been killed off on American orders. You see, al-Hashimi had been working for Iran’s intelligence service, the Etalaat, as I shall be alleging in this essay, and had seemingly revealed to them details of the Central Intelligence Agency’s sources and methods in Iraq during the time he worked for the latter. In fact, it seems that al-Hashimi still had access to CIA-generated intelligence that had been shared with Iraqi counterparts even after leaving its service. It gets more intriguing: the CIA officer that had initially championed al-Hashimi as a source, back in 2006, had been promoted during the Trump administration to the role of the Agency’s point man on starting fires within Iran. So a former protégé of his having gone over to the other side would have been too much of an embarrassment. There was motive. There were means. But with al-Kinani’s confession it turned out that it wasn’t the Americans who were responsible for al-Hashimi’s blood after all.

How did it come to all this?

I wrote these words in January 2016. Read them closely for they will matter:

I had set the location of Gezi Park as the rendezvous spot with an Iraqi friend who was staying at a hotel near it. This friend carried in his personal experience all the contradictions of revolution and the status quo. He was from a Shi’ite family, but had converted to Sunnism. His brand of Sunnism was its most extreme: Salafist jihadism, which landed him in one of Saddam’s prisons for most of the 1990s. He was an early enabler of Zarqawi’s, when the latter had arrived in Baghdad from Afghanistan, even before the war. My revolutionary friend arranged for his band of Salafists to gather arms and ordinance, and rob banks, just as American tanks were rolling in. He plotted for revolution by coordinating with Salafist revolutionaries across the Middle East. He was hosted at times by Saudi princes, and traveled to Libya to raise funds for the revolution from Qaddafi. He only turned on Zarqawi because the latter had sought to dominate the Salafist revolution. Zarqawi ordered the killing of my friend’s father and two brothers in reprisal. When Zarqawi’s heirs attempted to establish a de facto caliphate in Iraq, my friend’s Salafist mentors in Saudi Arabia instructed him to wage war on the Zarqawists. He was given free rein to work with the Americans and the Iraqi state in achieving victory.

It was difficult for me to accept his friendship. I suspect his brand of revolution may have been responsible in some manner for the deaths of many friends of mine. But there was something about him that was endearing. He seemed to have developed remorse about his past. He may have self-servingly turned against the Zarqawi revolution to save his own Salafist revolution, but in the process he began to see things differently. He tells me that all he does now is atone for those prior sins. I was interested in his own quest for redemption as a human. He still carries many contradictions: to him, the House of Saud is still the best possible ally against a resurgent Shi’ism. Even Erdogan, close as he is to the Muslim Brotherhood—whom the Salafists detest—is a good soldier-sultan for Sunnism as far as he is concerned. My friend had ceased to be a revolutionary, and was now in the service of the regional status quo.

So it was a privilege to see Gezi Park not only through my own eyes, but through his too. Oddly, he kept repeating a mantra: “this is not right. Turks (the protesters) shouldn’t be doing this (against Erdogan).” I could sense that he was genuinely taken back by all the diversity there, the kind of diversity that is anathema to Salafism. I could sense too that he was surprised at himself for discovering that an intense array of diversity wasn’t so bad after all. As the crowds began swelling for a confrontation with the police, he clambered atop a burnt car to get a better look. I took a picture of him in that instant: the one-time Salafist revolutionary standing above a revolution very different from his own.

These days, this friend of mine posts pictures of himself at the Baghdad protests. He has become a vocal proponent of madaniyya. How did the change come about? I’m not sure. But I am glad that it did. Could his transformation have happened had he not witnessed the protests in Gezi Park? Would I have been able to see the transformation come to light had it not been for the occasion of the Baghdad protests?

I saw his pictures on the same Facebook timeline along with pictures of another friend, a Shiite cleric in full clerical regalia standing among the protesters. This other friend was once a Sadrist firebrand, and a rising leader of the movement. He was arrested by the Americans and imprisoned in Camp Bucca for three years. Camp Bucca was the same prison in which the current caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was allegedly radicalized. However, my friend emerged from there as a liberal democrat. He kept his turban, but adopted a very different tone. When the protests came, he too adopted the term madaniyya as his rallying cry. Even his one-time leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, has recently hosted the leaders of the protests, including the Communist one.

I wish it were all a hopeful story. But it isn’t. The liberal Shi’ite cleric felt threatened by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, and recently opted to become a political refugee in London to be just another statistic in the rolls of the Middle Eastern exodus to Europe.

These two gentlemen may represent outlier cases. But since they were no ordinary foot soldiers for their respective causes, their transformation is rendered extraordinary, and instructive. Instructive not just to Western audiences as a feel-good story, but rather instructive to thousands and thousands of young men and women who may be vulnerable to the call of extremism, as these two had been in their youth. I am sure that Kratsev, in his capacity as a political scientist, can see the utility of such individuals becoming leaders of the madaniyya movement. Madaniyya may be merely a brand at this point rather than a fully formed ideology. But it is a more merciful brand, and maybe a potent brand, against the available brands of jihadism. And if there is utility in that, wouldn’t supporting it be a realistic endeavor, even if wasn’t a Realist one?

Whether the once-Salafist revolutionary and the once-Sadrist one ever get to see madaniyya succeeding in Iraq is an open question. Whether Baghdad’s Tahrir Square shall witness a firefight between the revolutionaries of the caliphate and the revolutionaries now led by Iranian general Qassim Suleimani is a possibility, a dark one. The believers in madaniyya may end up on rafts heading to Europe because their ‘Big Idea’ was no match for the forces of disorder. It is a heartbreaking prospect, as we saw in Paris, that the forces of disorder may chase them all the way there too.

The person I met at Gezi Park on June 15, 2013 was Husham al-Hashimi. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were witnessing the protest there during its last hours. We left right before the riot police moved in force, and were having dinner in nearby Beyoglu when the park was being violently cleared, blissfully unaware of the commotion.

The other person referred to, the former Sadrist, is Ghaith al-Tamimi. A few hours after al-Hashimi was assassinated in Baghdad on the evening of July 6, 2020, al-Tamimi published a few screen shots of a WhatsApp conversation between him and al-Hashimi revealing that the latter had been threatened by the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia; al-Hashimi wanted advice from al-Tamimi as to how to ameliorate tensions with them. Al-Tamimi’s subsequent media appearances to discuss the messages helped create a public impression that Kata’ib Hezbollah had made good on their threats against al-Hashimi. Suspicions in the media centered on a Kata’ib Hezbollah leader who allegedly went by the non-de-guerre ‘Abu Ali al-Askari’, and who al-Hashimi had publicly identified earlier (in March 2020) as Hussein Mu’enes Faraj al-‘Aboodi (the latter issued a communique denying the accusations of his involvement in al-Hashimi’s murder). Left unmentioned in al-Tamimi’s disclosures was that his messages with al-Hashimi were exchanged in mid-February, almost five months before the assassination. However, the allegation was eventually attested to with the killer’s recent arrest.

I first met al-Hashimi in the winter of 2010, in Baghdad. We were introduced by a friend who told me that al-Hashimi was eager to meet me. Al-Hashimi was an unknown person at the time. He immediately expressed admiration for a paper I had written about the jihadists and the caliphate which I had translated into Arabic and disseminated on jihadist discussion forums for the purpose of riling them up. I began to tell him about a new monograph that I had published about how jihadists perceived a transition of their fight to Syria. He was enthralled by the prediction and began recalling anecdotal evidence to support my hypothesis.

I found that al-Hashimi was very knowledgeable about jihadist topics such as ideology, strategy and hierarchy. So I began probing using material I had gleaned from another source I had met only a week before. That person was a significant ‘ex’-jihadist too. The man introduced himself as Abu Falah, from Tikrit. He began telling me a tantalizing tale about the rise of Iraqi Salafism and its central role in the insurgency. We spoke for hours. It was eye-opening. I thought the mutual acquaintance at whose home we had met would arrange for a second, more in-depth meeting during which I could take copious notes. I never got the opportunity to sit with him again though. He disappeared and apparently pressed my acquaintance never to revisit our talk. I later found out that the pseudonym ‘Abu Falah’ was useless in trying to track him down.

What I missed out on with Abu Falah I got to compensate, modestly, with al-Hashimi. It was difficult to piece his stories together for he was, it quickly became clear, a master at disinformation. However what I got from him was a run of the raw story of Iraqi Salafism and jihadism, and his role in it, before he had the opportunity to modify and edit some aspects of it as he became a prominent media personality and researcher. I still have those notes. We had two long sit-downs at my home in Baghdad (one of them in the presence of the person who first introduced us) and then we spent a whole day together in Istanbul on January 18, 2011. That was our first time there. We went sightseeing. We went to a traditional bathhouse. We took a meeting with a Turkish businessman. We had a couple of meals. We sat for several rounds of coffee and tea. We talked. A lot. And throughout it all I had al-Hashimi answering many questions. It was the final phase of a ‘debriefing’. I confronted him with several contradictions in his story, and while off-balance, he would reveal a tiny bit more. He knew what I was doing, and it was part of a game we played many, many times later over the years, often in Baghdad, a couple more times in Istanbul: sifting out his disinformation from the facts that mattered. I once told him that I think forty percent of what he tells me is disinformation—he chuckled at that.

And it was on that brisk day, as we were sitting in the popular Firuzaga teahouse in Cihangir as dusk was upon us, warming our hands by clasping a sage leaf tea concoction, when al-Hashimi shared a tidbit that would haunt me in the months preceding his murder. He revealed the nickname that the Americans had given him. At the time, all it warranted from me was a shrug. But it was one of those things that stick in one’s memory. Eight years later I would be forced to revisit it. 

His past up to the winter of 2010-2011 was not what haunted me. I do not know why he chose to confide in me. When I had met him he was no longer dangerous as a jihadist. And even if he were snooping for the Saudis or the Turks, as I sometimes suspected, I didn’t feel as if that was particularly threatening to my safety. Yet it is a very different game when the Iranians play it. I think al-Hashimi thought he could temporarily turn to the Iranians and play them as he had played many others before them. He would have assumed that his services to them would get swirled into the general chaos of Iraq, and that he would get away with perfunctory favors rendered in return for temporary protection from their minions. Even so, how would anyone ever know?—he must have thought. But that is not how the Etalaat works. Once you enter through their doors you are theirs—for life. It is a particularly nasty and effective organization. I felt sorry for al-Hashimi, that he had gotten himself so tragically entrapped. I was hoping that he would be wise enough to understand that he had no recourse but to escape Iraq and the Middle East, and to start anew somewhere far away. It seems he did not see it that way. But before we delve into this part of the story some aspects of his past must be recounted for they may provide an explanation as to why he walked into the Etalaat’s den to begin with.

Some parts of his jihadist past are now known. Al-Hashimi was born into a Shia family that had moved to Baghdad in the 1980s from al-Fajr District, which is situated between al-Rifa’i and al-Hayy in southern Iraq. His full name was Husham Jallab Ira’ayyid Abdullah Muhammad al-Rikabi; ‘al-Hashimi’ was an affectation. (There are several versions of his full name—this is the one he gave me.) He gravitated towards a Sunni mosque near his home in Karrada as a youth. He became a Salafist. He was arrested by the Saddam Hussein regime several times throughout the 1990s. He spent some time in the Salafist bastions of Iraqi Kurdistan. He was arrested by the Americans after 2003. He was one of the founders and chief operators of Jaish al-Mujaheddin.

The Jaish al-Mujaheddin was a nasty, murderous organization. Its members were responsible for numerous assassinations, bombings and military confrontations. They targeted Iraqi civilians, Iraqi army and police, and U.S. soldiers and contractors. Its victims number in the thousands. Al-Hashimi was one of that organization’s chief ideologues and financiers. He was involved in intricate issues such as mandating specific assassinations and bombings as legal and justified under Islamic law. When I wrote above that “I suspect his brand of revolution may have been responsible in some manner for the deaths of many friends of mine” I was referencing a specific event that al-Hashimi, although he did not take outright responsibility for it he did try to justify the operation anyway and in doing so revealed that he knew a lot about its specifics. This indicated to me that he and the Jaish al-Mujaheddin could have been involved in the murder of Sheikh Haitham al-Ansari, a dear friend of mine and onetime comrade-in-arms, on December 30, 2004.

Al-Hashimi was very keen on inflating his role in the insurgency, at least when talking to me. I didn’t quite understand why he would do so. He claimed that he rented an apartment for Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi in Baghdad, and found a Pepsi stand for Abu Hamza al-Muhajir to manage, also in Baghdad, before the 2003 war even started. He would also claim to have been one of the chief conduits of Gulf money to the insurgents, placing himself at such noteworthy events such as the time when the moniker ‘Islamic Army’ was coined at the home of a Saudi prince (the ruler of Jeddah, to be specific), and when bags of cash were being disbursed by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He even implied that it was he who provided Zarqawi with a reading list to shape his anti-Shia rhetoric. I did chase down some of the names and events he referenced. It was difficult to do so given the closed nature of jihadist circles but where I was successful I concluded that he had made up some of the details.

Al-Hashimi claimed to have a PhD in manuscript preservation. I spoke to a man who said that that would not have been possible; this topic is only taught as a multi-week course in Iraq, and it was this man who taught it. He does not remember al-Hashimi as one of his students. Up to that point I would habitually call al-Hashimi by the honorific ‘Dr.’ as many did, but I stopped when I realized it was a fib.

Another claim that al-Hashimi made was that he was a major disinformation strategist for the jihadists. This claim holds more water. He claimed one of his chief targets for disinformation was CNN’s Michael Ware because “Ware would always share his intel with the CIA, so this way we got our disinformation into the CIA bloodstream” as he told me. One particular success he cited was a campaign to inflate the numbers of jihadists, the ultimate goal of which was to get this information to the Badr Corps and to deter them from encroaching on Sunni neighborhoods and areas lest they invite ever fiercer retaliation from the jihadists. At the time, al-Hashimi’s cover was that of a minor bureaucrat for the Iraqi Red Crescent Society in Baghdad. It was there that he got close to the Karbouli brothers, and their subsequent rise in the world of politics would benefit him too. He would prove to be an effective networker.

I was never able to pin down the ‘when and why’ of his break with the jihadists, and with Zarqawi in particular. Al-Hashimi left Iraq at some point. Was it after he was arrested by the Americans? I don’t know. His criminal file record was ‘16646 Karkh’—it’s been scrubbed clean though and the file itself no longer exists according to an Iraqi security source. But rather than stay in Syria as he claimed in recent years, he told me that he went to Saudi Arabia and actually lived in the house of prominent Saudi Salafist leader Safar al-Hawali (now under arrest). In my notes it says he stayed there from 2005 until July 2006. As with many things al-Hashimi has said, the subsequent events turn murky. While enjoying al-Hawali’s patronage, he claims that a Saudi Salafist by the name of Walid bin Uthman al-Rashoudi was exposed in al-Hawali’s circle as a spy for Saudi intelligence in 2005, and was consequently expelled. Al-Hashimi then spun a yarn in which he turned al-Rashoudi into the Salafist equivalent of Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s Qods Force.

Al-Hashimi placed al-Rashoudi in Iraqi Kurdistan in late 1999, directing Salafists to begin targeting Ba’athists. Al-Rashoudi was also allegedly present at that meeting at the prince’s house in Jeddah. Al-Rashoudi was effectively managing the jihadist insurgency, or at least many of the Salafist components that populated its ranks other than Zarqawi’s outfit. He was a member of a Saudi ‘crises cell’ that included former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Prince Midhat bin Abdul-Aziz (this guy does not seem to exist), and Abdullah Muhammad al-Mutlak, according to what al-Hashimi said. Al-Mutlak does not strike me as a high ranking intelligence official. He is a leading cleric in the kingdom; he’s a member of the Senior Clerics Commission and an advisor to the royal palace. Al-Rashoudi too has a public profile. He is basically a televangelist for Salafism, quite a prominent one. A few years ago I cold-called his cellphone and had a somewhat lengthy conversation with him. He was taken aback when I described what al-Hashimi had accused him of. I of course made no mention of al-Hashimi or gave any details that would have identified him as my source. I felt that al-Rashoudi was genuinely bewildered. He denied fully all the things that al-Hashimi had said he’d done. Then he began ruminating about who could have slandered him in this way. He didn’t mention someone fitting al-Hashimi’s description. If I had to guess I’d say that al-Hashimi had reversed the details: al-Rashoudi may have outed him as a spy for Saudi intelligence in al-Hawali’s circle, and gotten him expelled. Al-Hashimi would go on to bear a grudge against al-Rashoudi, and would try to get him into trouble by claiming that he controlled a significant swath of the insurgency. This became my hypothesis. I later told al-Hashimi that I had spoken to al-Rashoudi. He was visibly shaken by that. He asked what did he say? I told him he denied everything. Al-Hashimi then asked if I had mentioned or intimated that I got my information from him. I said no and changed the subject.

Al-Hashimi claimed that he turned on al-Zarqawi per al-Hawali’s orders. Al-Hawali had figured out that al-Zarqawi intended to proclaim a caliphate which would “kill the goal by the means” as al-Hashimi quoted him saying. Al-Hashimi was allegedly tasked with turning the various Salafist groups such as the Islamic Army, Jaish al-Mujaheddin and Ansar al-Sunna against Zarqawi. Al-Hashimi told me that al-Zarqawi retaliated by having his father and two brothers killed. I really don’t know whether any of that is true. There could be a more mundane answer: money. The stories of jihadists turning against each other is rife with quarrels over money: al-Hashimi claimed that Muharib al-Juburi stole 40,000 U.S. dollars from Jaish al-Mujaheddin in 2005 before defecting to Zarqawi. Mulla Nadhum al-Juburi, another jihadist who turned into an enforcer for the Iraqi government, stole 10,000 U.S. dollars from Jaish al-Mujaheddin in 2004, precipitating his break, later on, from the insurgency. I have reason to believe that something similar may have happened between al-Hashimi and the Zarqawists, especially as the latter made a push to control all the finances of the insurgency.

Al-Hashimi spoke about money a lot, almost manically so. I used to assume that he was doing so to throw me off the scent, to show that he was indeed very materialistic and that he harbored no more impulses to further the Salafist revolution. I think I liked it more when I thought he was in it for a cause. But he would persistently detail every sum he got; “…the United Nations team gave me this much…Masroor Barzani assigned this much of a monthly stipend to me…I told Ammar al-Hakim’s people that they were asking too much work for what they were paying,” and so on. I once asked him, I believe it was in 2013, how much savings had he accumulated, and he answered “800,000 dollars.” I then followed-up by asking, “then why don’t you leave Iraq?” He claimed he was trying to find a way. He said he would get serious about it after finalizing a new deal he was working on: the Americans had picked him as a middleman for the purchase of dozens of pick-up trucks that they intended to donate to anti-ISIS tribesmen in Anbar. It was supposed to be a reward for his new work aiding American intel teams.

It is unclear when he began working for the Americans. Was it 2006? They also paid him then. He told me roughly how much, and he also told me about a bonus, and a car. I assumed both came in April 2010, when the dual leadership of ISI was taken out. Abu Ali al-Basri, the head of the Falcons Unit, an intelligence outfit created by then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to circumvent other agencies and to be loyal to him, told me that al-Hashimi began working for him in 2007, at a time when, according to a newly published hagiography about al-Basri and his team authored by former Wall Street Journal and New York Times journalist Margaret Coker, the ‘Spymaster of Baghdad’ had only three adjuncts working under him. Al-Basri said that when al-Hashimi worked for him it was an exclusive arrangement and that he certainly did not work for the Americans. He added, in fact, that the Americans that al-Hashimi worked for before he came under al-Basri had a very negative opinion of al-Hashimi, as they told al-Basri subsequently. He did not elaborate as to why.

Al-Basri seemed to have dabbled in intelligence work while being an underground operative in Baghdad and then later, after leaving Iraq, as an aide to al-Maliki while the latter was the Da’awa Party’s representative in Damascus during the opposition days. He left party work in the early 1990s and began a new, sedentary life in Sweden. He only returned to political and security work after Maliki became prime minister in 2006. That is a significant break. And as it were, his former intel work did not rise to the level of high tradecraft or result in important breakthroughs or operations. So was al-Hashimi moonlighting for the Americans right under his nose without him knowing so? It is possible. Al-Hashimi led me to believe that he was still working closely with the Americans up to the strike that took out Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and al-Muhajir near Tharthar Lake. That was the event that I assumed resulted in him getting a bonus and a car from the Americans, at a time when al-Basri believes that al-Hashimi was working exclusively for him. I could be wrong about the timeline here though.

So I can’t say with any certainty when al-Hashimi began working with the Americans. He alternated between FBI and CIA teams, or so he claimed. However, one American stood out for him. He was older, and much senior to the others showing up at Baghdad station. In al-Hashimi’s telling this gray-hair spoke some pleasantries in Arabic and seemed knowledgeable about Islam, at least compared to the CIA officers he had previously met. He gave his name as ‘Roger Sminth’. I asked al-Hashimi, “are you sure it wasn’t ‘Smith’?” but he kept pronouncing the name as “Sminth.” Al-Basri told me that al-Hashimi had mentioned this name to him too yet without going into details of his physical description and mannerisms. This man debriefed al-Hashimi several times, and he seems to have signed off on al-Hashimi’s credibility and usefulness. During those years in the mid-2000s, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center was headed by Michael D’Andrea, a convert (by marriage) to Islam who also went by the alias ‘Roger’. More recently, D’Andrea was made chief of Iran Mission Center under President Donald Trump. Was he the same person who had debriefed al-Hashimi and vouched for him? I strongly suspect so.

Al-Hashimi would go on to work for many outfits in the realms of security and politics. As mentioned above, he worked for al-Basri, but afterwards his most influential benefactor in the Iraqi state was former National Security Advisor and currently chief of the PMUs Falih al-Fayyadh. At one point, al-Hashimi tried to get close to Ahmed Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister’s influential son. During the 2014 election, al-Hashimi worked for Fadhel al-Dabbas, the infamous importer of the useless bomb detectors once ubiquitous at Iraqi checkpoints—al-Dabbas gifted him a car, among other financial perks. He was also advising and networking, at one time or another, for the Karbouli brothers, and for Khamis al-Khanjar. Among his one-time employers were French intelligence, an assortment of European governments, Swedish intelligence, Turkish intelligence, Masroor Barzani’s Parastin, the UN Mission in Iraq, the Hikma Party, and several others.

One can spot many contradictory loyalties in this partial list. But that was al-Hashimi, a deeply conflicted man. Early on in our relationship he tried to get me to take a website that he was involved with seriously. He brandished it an intellectual endeavor, and claimed in texted correspondence that he was one of three founders and was a regular author (under various pseudonyms). But the website, alrased.net, was a virulently radical Salafist and anti-Shi’a web journal, one that remained in circulation and was regularly updated until December 2017. It was always a wonder to me that al-Hashimi can work for so many Shi’a parties and Shi’a dominated entities yet still spew off offensively sectarian rhetoric. We would laugh off our mutual jabs at one another, and I think I may even have been fond of this radicalism of his because it was a genuine part of himself. Needless to say, few of his acquaintances knew of this ‘intellectual’ output.

Al-Hashimi did, however, do genuine damage to the jihadists, especially the Zarqawist branch. He was the original source for plenty of reporting that embarrassed and humiliated their ranks. Many of the ‘stars’ of the publications that covered jihadists, such as Muhammad Abu Rumman and Mishari al-Dhayedi, owe significant gratitude to al-Hashimi. He could come off as shady and cagey sometimes, for example, he once told me that he pushed the Falcons Unit to kill off a Saudi militant in a strike rather than try to capture him alive since “he would reveal a lot about the Saudis if he talked.” He said this to me without hesitating in revealing an agenda, even one that served the Saudis in this particular respect. Later, during the ISIS comeback, he ‘managed’ his former leader Muhammad Hardan Hashim al-Issawi, the commander of the Jaish al-Mujaheddin, in a public relations campaign which included the release of a book that did significant damage to the pseudo-caliphate. Al-Issawi got released from prison in return for his cooperation, a deal secured by al-Hashimi.

His personal sense that he had done much to maul the Zarqawists probably explains why al-Hashimi felt stung when the leader of a newly-arrived CIA team accused him of still working for the other side. This happened sometime in mid-2014 (I think it could have been in late August). The CIA man told him, “They would have killed you by now if you were truly working against them.” I saw a flash of anger in al-Hashimi’s eyes when he recounted what had happened to him; he stopped by my house around noon right after coming back from that meeting. It was true that he did get a message from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shortly after Mosul’s fall inviting him to join the caliphate. The message said something along the lines that the ‘caliph’ still saw “the residue of decency within him” and invited him to repent and start afresh. I felt that al-Hashimi was beaming out a little ray of pride when he was telling me of the message, but it wasn’t a yearning for the ‘cause’, not at all, it felt more like a sense that he was gratified to know that he was still being taken seriously by the enemy.

Later, it seemed as if he had an impulse of sabotage that I couldn’t really place. For example, he relayed to me in detail the inception of a media effort involving Iraqi social media influencers to coordinate their platforms against ISIS. It was organized under the auspices of War and Peace Reporting, a British NGO. Each influencer (there were about twenty of them in the beginning) received a monthly salary commensurate with their digital standing. I think al-Hashimi told me he was getting 2,500 USD per month. He broke down how much the others were getting. But he also insinuated some weird things: he kept talking about this “British Jew” who was pulling the strings, and how he thought the Israelis may be involved. I pressed him on a name and he promised to get back to me, but never did. A technician from Facebook was brought in to boost internet traffic to the influencers’ profiles. Later it seemed that al-Hashimi was advising Facebook and Twitter directly on fighting online extremism, but this is something I heard anecdotally about him rather than from him.

I began to spot other things that I just couldn’t place within his usual agendas, things he would say on television or write. When he would drop by my house in Baghdad he would ask the other guests questions in a manner that I detected as deliberate and systemic intelligence probing. I didn’t really mind at the time, but I was watching him closely, trying to figure out what he was up to. Yet whoever he was working for—or at least the list of entities I could conceive he may be working for—didn’t worry me much.

But that changed on November 17, 2019. On that day, The Intercept and the New York Times published excerpts from “roughly 700 pages of leaked reports [that] were sent anonymously to The Intercept, which translated them from Persian to English and shared them with the Times. The Intercept and the Times verified the authenticity of the documents but do not know who leaked them. The Intercept communicated over encrypted channels with the source, who declined to meet with a reporter.” These were internal reports leaked from the Etalaat. I was particularly struck by what they published about “Source 134992.”

A source that gets a number from the Etalaat means that Iran’s spies would have considered him a recruit, an asset, someone who was theirs. This was no passing exchange. The Etalaat plays for keeps. The report seems to have been generated at the time when the relationship with this source began, which occurred sometime during November 2014.

The Intercept and the Times were keen on not revealing too much from the files lest they put anyone in danger of being exposed as an Etalaat asset. However, it was easy to figure out the other numbered source that they mentioned, who had worked as an advisor to the Speaker of Parliament. That identity was shared widely on Iraqi social media by several writers. Source 134992, however, remained a mystery for many others—though not for me.

Source 134992 told his Etalaat handler that he had worked for the CIA, and that he would share “everything he knew about American intelligence gathering in Iraq” including “the locations of CIA safe houses; the names of hotels where CIA operatives met with agents; details of his weapons and surveillance training; the names of other Iraqis working as spies for the Americans.” Moreover:

Source 134992 told the Iranian operatives that he had worked for the agency for 18 months starting in 2008, on a program targeting Al Qaeda. He said he had been paid well for his work — $3,000 per month, plus a one-time bonus of $20,000 and a car.

But swearing on the Quran, he promised that his days of spying for the United States were over, and agreed to write a full report for the Iranians on everything he knew from his time with the CIA.

“I will turn over to you all the documents and videos that I have from my training course,” the Iraqi man told his Iranian handler, according to a 2014 Iranian intelligence report. “And pictures and identifying features of my fellow trainees and my subordinates.”

Source 134992 then told the Etalaat that the CIA had a nickname for him: ‘Donnie Brasco.’ The moment I read these two words I knew it was al-Hashimi. See, he had told me that ‘Donnie Brasco’ was his handle. He said this to me at that café in Istanbul in early 2011. He pronounced ‘Donnie’ as ‘Doonie’ at first, a bit embarrassed by that, because doonee (دوني) is a word used for a lowlife in Iraqi colloquial Arabic. I corrected it for him, then I remember sneering and saying something like, “these CIA guys are idiots. Do you know it’s from a movie?” “A movie?” “Yes, a movie about the real story of an FBI undercover agent.” I told him something of the plot, but did not delve too deep into his relationship with the Americans. I had learned long ago not to take too much of an interest in U.S. clandestine operations so as not to raise any flags as to why I was asking such questions and to what purpose. As al-Hashimi was sharing such tidbits with me, I was worried that his whole act was a CIA sting operation: years doing intel work during opposition times turns one into a bit of a paranoiac.

I felt personally betrayed when I realized that al-Hashimi was working for the Etalaat. Suddenly his odd behavior in recent years began to make sense. I felt endangered and exposed. Why wouldn’t he share details of our conversations with the Iranians? Some interesting things get said during the gatherings at my house, things that may be of use to the Etalaat. I felt that I was compromised, and that I had compromised my guests.

I sent a message on the Signal app to al-Hashimi that same day the report came out: “Tell me again, what was the name the Americans called you by?” He must have already realized what had been published. He read my message but never responded. This was our last communication.

But was I sure? Could there have been two Iraqis who worked on jihadist issues and who had worked for the CIA for 18 months beginning in 2008 and who got a salary of 3000 dollars a month and who were nicknamed ‘Donnie Brasco’ by their American handlers? Such a coincidence would be unlikely I thought.

Did I mishear al-Hashimi at that café? If I did, then why did I recount the plot of the movie to him?

I wanted to keep things under wraps until I could make sure. I quickly reached out to Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was then still the head of Iraqi intelligence (now he’s the current prime minister). I had introduced al-Hashimi to al-Kadhimi many years back. But if al-Hashimi was an Etalaat spy then al-Kadhimi’s agency would be effectively compromised since one of its chief directors was relying heavily on al-Hashimi. This Director of Operations, Qassim Atta, the onetime spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief, was giving al-Hashimi everything that America’s spies were sharing with their Iraqi counterparts about the jihadists, things like names, photos, chains of command, communications, locations, etc. Atta would run this stuff by al-Hashimi before relaying his comments back to the Americans. It was al-Hashimi who told me about this sloppy, unsecured process, and how he had amassed a wealth of data from it. I didn’t care much at the time, but with the ‘Donnie Brasco’ revelation it meant that the Etalaat were getting an up-to-date peek on critical portions of the CIA’s intel product. This was bad enough for al-Kadhimi in of and by itself, but I hoped to get him motivated partly because he wanted a reason to oust Atta, a rival of his who regularly undermined him even within the service.  

Al-Kadhimi had a simple enough task: “Ask your American counterparts whether they know who their officers had nicknamed ‘Donnie Brasco’ among their Iraqi assets?” I didn’t get an answer the first time, so I raised it with al-Kadhimi again a few weeks later. He needed a reminder of the details, which I provided again. On the third time he claimed that his American liaison was traveling and unreachable. On the fourth try he said that he may be coming to Washington DC and would raise it discreetly with the CIA Director in person. The fifth time I reminded him was right after he was designated as prime minister: “I hope you don’t get busy and forget to ask about Donnie Brasco…”

I never got an answer. But he knew what I knew. I chalked it to forgetfulness, maybe even incompetence, but I doubt he was deliberately giving me the runaround.

I also heard that al-Hashimi might be getting himself attached to the office of the presidency as an advisor, another sweet listening post for the Etalaat to spy on what the CIA was up to, so I sent word to President Barham Salih through a trusted intermediary describing the situation. It didn’t seem to make a difference in al-Hashimi’s standing with him.

I wanted al-Hashimi to know that I remembered the name, and that I would not let this go. I had hoped he would do the smart thing and leave the country, the game having played itself out for him. There would be no escaping the Etalaat’s embrace. There would be no escaping the CIA’s retribution either, which in the gentlemen’s rules of the spy world would be considered a fair and square ending for turncoats that endanger and expose other agents.

I tried to reach out to one of the reporters who worked on the Etalaat documents. I was told that there was more biographical information in that document concerning Source 134992. This journalist’s response was professional and reasonable: they won’t share the document with me. But we arrived at a solution: they would take an unpublished biographical detail from the file and ask me a question about it. If I got it right then they would tell me that I did. In this way I would have one more way of knowing whether it was al-Hashimi. But COVID made such understandings more difficult to pull off. I reached out to another reporter at the publication to see if he would be able to match the deal, but that too went nowhere.

As it stands, if other biographical information in that report does not fit al-Hashimi’s story then I am prepared to eat crow and to publicly apologize and retract. But I am certain he told me that his name was ‘Donnie Brasco’, and there it is, in black and white, on the pages of leading publications.

I agonized over whether I should write-up any of this. I decided to wait until the first year anniversary of al-Hashimi’s murder had passed. It also helped that it coincided with the arrest of his killer. Would revealing this information do any good? Wouldn’t it be best to leave al-Hashimi’s remembrance, even myth, intact? Isn’t it more useful to keep the focus on the Iranian-backed militias, without complicating the picture?

But who was Husham al-Hashimi?

I think the information above helps us understand him better, and through him the country he was living and working in. Isn’t that what a historian should attempt? If al-Hashimi was ultimately a victim of his circumstances, then should we not develop a deeper understanding of those circumstances, hoping that through such an understanding one could figure out a way to change things for the better, so much so that there would be fewer victims down the road?

Moreover, al-Hashimi was associated in the public mind with the October 2019 protests, which had taken a decidedly anti-Iranian tone. Wouldn’t the Iranians have forced him to say nice things about them if he was truly working for them? Not the Etalaat. That is not what they were up to. The Etalaat would not use him for blatant on-the-nose propagandizing. The Etalaat was and is playing a higher-minded game. For example, one of their chief goals in Iraq was to undermine Soleimani and his acolytes. There was fierce competition between the Etalaat and the Revolutionary Guard as to whom would control the Iraq file, a competition that the Etalaat had effectively ceded to Soleimani since 2004. But the Etalaat wanted to make a comeback. They had been arguing for years that it was Soleimani’s policies that had unleashed ISIS and nearly wiped off friendly regimes in both Baghdad and Damascus. This much became clear in the leaked Etalaat files too. And with Soleimani’s demise, the Etalaat made a big push to regain the upper hand in Iraq.

So I imagine the Etalaat had al-Hashimi doing things that would irritate Soleimani’s camp, such as shining a bright light on the role played by Abu Fedek before the latter had been prepared by Qods for the limelight. The Etalaat also had an interest in getting al-Kadhimi picked as prime minister, and if one re-interprets al-Hashimi’s media appearances in light of the ‘Donnie Brasco’ revelation than one would spot a pattern here too. Then it quickly became useful for the Etalaat to embarrass al-Kadhimi, so somehow a story showed up in The Guardian on May 9, 2020 that had al-Kadhimi meeting Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut to obtain his blessing in selecting al-Kadhimi as the next Iraqi prime minister. I believe the story was bullshit. It came out under Martin Chulov’s byline. A couple years back, al-Hashimi had told me that he had Chulov wound tightly around his finger. He gave me several examples of Chulov’s stories where he had been the author’s singular source.

Sometimes the Etalaat used al-Hashimi to dampen the fervor of the protests, such as the time on January 12, 2020 when al-Hashimi published a Twitter thread where he alleged that there were “deep conversations” over previous weeks and days involving the U.S., Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia for the purpose of “activating federalism” in Iraq, implicitly meaning federalism for the Sunnis. Al-Hashimi described how the negotiations arrived at setting up six separate federal zones. For many Iraqis such talks would be interpreted as a conspiracy to divide up the country. For militant Shi’as, it was evidence that while protesters were weakening the Shia-led government, the Sunnis were working discreetly to get back to power.

Al-Hashimi had concocted this thread out of nothing. What had happened, apparently, was that a group of Sunni leaders had met for dinner at the home of a prominent Iraqi media baron in Abu Dhabi a few days before al-Hashimi began tweeting. Not much of consequence was said at this dinner beyond the usual spiel. But al-Hashimi spun it into a much bigger thing, at a time of very high tensions not ten days after Soleimani was targeted. It was in these ways that al-Hashimi could have been useful for the Etalaat.

One must consider whether al-Hashimi had been sent to infiltrate the Etalaat. But that would force us to answer the question of “sent by whom?” which is not an easy one to answer in this case. The simpler explanation is that after his encounter with that new CIA team, the one which accused him of still working clandestinely with the jihadists, al-Hashimi felt that he had no one protecting him, so he may have turned to the Etalaat.

Another question to ask is whether the turf war between Qods Force and the Etalaat was a motive for his murder. I doubt that too. Things do get messy between the two camps, but at the end of the day both have to answer to Khamen’i, and if the Etalaat could find an excuse to go to him and say that Qods was killing off their best agents then that would put their competitors in bad standing with the Supreme Leader. It would be too much of a headache to justify.

There is also the possibility that the documents were a false flag operation in that they were forged by someone to look like Etalaat internal records. They would have inserted narratives within the files that pushed the agendas they were interested in pushing. The Intercept journalists never met the source, so there is some room for speculation. But who would go so far out of their way to ‘burn’ al-Hashimi, and in this subtle ‘Donnie Brasco’ way? How many people could al-Hashimi have told about his nickname? Al-Basri, his onetime employer, hadn’t heard of it. And whoever orchestrated the leak would have seemed too clever by half in going to such extraordinary lengths. The Intercept apparently received these documents sometime in late 2016. Its journalists sat on these records for three years before publishing them. They even leveraged the resources of the Times to get them authenticated. One would have to assume that after such careful consideration they got some of the provenance correct, enough so to actually determine that the leaks were genuine. And of all the excerpts they chose to share, they put out the ‘Donnie Brasco’ one—too many coincidences here for this be a deliberate burn.

I even entertained the idea that The Intercept had gotten the translation or context of the report from the Farsi original wrong, and that Source 134992 was talking about someone else, not him, that the Americans had nicknamed ‘Donnie Brasco’. But that too is doubtful.

The ‘Donnie Brasco’ revelation demonstrates how one detail can upend a narrative. Seldom do these details make it to the historical record. Even rarer is their accumulation with one or two country watchers. Al-Hashimi was eulogized by Mike Pompeo, Tom Friedman, the United Nations, and several governments around the world after his murder. What happened to him was brandished by commentators, experts, activists and officials to burnish all sorts of talking points. But it goes to show what is missing when a country like Iraq is discussed, in Baghdad, in Washington, and elsewhere. And as America nowadays fades away from its Iraqi sojourn, we are left with a sense that neither party had really understood what was going on throughout this journey.

Al-Hashimi adored his wife and deeply loved his children. There was no double-life in anything to do with them. He worshipped his late mother. He was very smart and talented. Those who knew him attest to his easy charm and comforting presence. He was generous and charitable. Given how multifaceted his agendas were, a cynic may say that his acts of charity were self-serving, but I did witness his involvement in cases that he had nothing to gain from but helped anyway. Al-Hashimi did have me convinced that he was trying to redeem himself from the sins of his past. I believed and continue to believe that that desire of his was genuine. It was supreme fun playing games of wit and wordplay with him. We would regularly go to Mutannabi Street together; we competed over old books, which always rankled me because I had introduced him to my go-to booksellers, and then, spotting a big spender, they began reserving the good stuff for him. Media stardom came naturally to him after an initial clumsy and stiff debut. I had a hand in making introductions for him to that world. He learned quickly, and went on to outshine, deservedly, many competitors.

What could Husham al-Hashimi have amounted to in different circumstances? Who could he have become had he never crossed paths with that assassin? Al-Hashimi made some poor decisions beginning with the Saddam years, and then on through the convulsions beyond the 2003 war. We can’t say that he was forced to make all of them, but we can attribute some to the folly of youth. But where can we place a decision like going over to the Etalaat? Hubris? Spite? Survival? I can’t excuse that one. There are a few others too that I would never forgive in a man, any man. He knew that but he wanted to maintain the myth of a soul being saved. And I think he believed my role to be that of a witness to it happening.

I shall remember al-Hashimi. He was a memorable guy. But there will be plenty of melancholy to go along with it, for he cannot be separated from the circumstances he found himself in, and those of Iraq’s were and continue to be heartbreaking, his murder being just another fracture in the shell of that country’s core vessel. I shall remember him as one who tried to arrive at, but fell short of, deliverance—much like the ‘New Iraq’. 

Hard as I tried I could not find that picture that I had snapped of al-Hashimi at Gezi Park—the one with him atop the mangled car, looking out over the crowd, his profile and slender frame set against the orange-red-purple hues of a looming twilight. It is seared in my memory. I wanted it to be part of this essay, but it has vanished from the devices I may have used on that trip. It was just one more detail lost to time.

UPDATE (July 27, 2021): The Kata’ib Hezbollah leadership apparently believed at the time of Husham al-Hashimi’s assassination that he may have been involved in the strike on Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis seven months earlier. Their circumstantial evidence was based on phone records and the testimony of a witness who accompanied al-Muhandis for most of that evening but did not get in to the two cars that were struck. According to a source who heard this from one of their leaders, al-Hashimi called al-Muhandis three times that evening. Al-Muhandis told al-Hashimi on the first call that he can’t see him that evening because he has guests. Al-Hashimi called him again and al-Muhandis told him that he is heading to the airport to receive his guests. Al-Hashimi commented that “they must be important guests if you are going to meet them there” and they both laughed at the implication. Al-Hashimi then called a third time but al-Muhandis did not respond. The latter told those around him at the time that he finds al-Hashimi’s insistence bizarre and said something along the lines of “I wonder what he so urgently wants to have called so many times?” This is the version of events that Kata’ib Hezbollah uses to justify their murder of al-Hashimi. I highly doubt that al-Hashimi was involved in the strike. He may have really had something urgent to share with al-Muhandis, or was driven by curiosity (or asked to do so by interested parties, though not necessarily by the Americans) to figure out whether Soleimani was coming to Baghdad or not. This narrative tells me that at the time of al-Hashimi’s murder Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Iranians did not have solid leads as to how the operation likely went down.

تحديث يوم 1 آب 2021:

ترجمة المقال شفهيا
الجزء الاول
الجزء الثاني

2 comments

  1. Mousa Jawad · July 28

    A false report full of inaccuracies, the author of the article is not sure of what he wrote and most of his words are perceptions and hypotheses. Where is your evidence for what you say? Why do you want us to believe this nonsense? YOU ARE BAD FRIEND ..

    Like

  2. Pingback: The Iraqi Paradox. By Roma Beluca – Iraqi Economists Network

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s