The Iraqi Shia jihadist threat on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep

The threat to Saudi Arabia is no idle talk but represents a clear danger to the kingdom.

Hostile agendas. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) walks with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (L), the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), during his visit to Mosul, last May. (Reuters)

2017/06/18 Issue: 111 Page: 8

The Arab Weekly
Tallha Abdulrazaq

An Iranian-backed but Iraqi-sponsored extremist Shia military organisation, the Popular Mobilisa­tion Forces (PMF), released a video of its fighters reaching the Iraqi-Syrian border after having taken the small town of al-Ba’aj in north-western Iraq. In the video, a direct threat to Saudi Arabia was made by one of the PMF’s senior commanders and one of the Middle East’s most dangerous terrorists.

A gleeful Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, could be heard saying that not only had the PMF reached the Syria border but it would continue to press forward into Syria proper and would advance until the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh.

He also expressed his wish that his “brothers” in the Shia Yemeni Houthi militia could join him in his conquest of the Sunni Arab heartlands.

Muhandis and his organisation, Kata’ib Hezbollah, have been formally blacklisted by the US government as designated terrorists and he has extensive ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which recently accused Saudi Arabia of involvement in the Islamic State (ISIS) terror attacks in Tehran, despite providing no evidence.

The threat to Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh in particular, is no idle talk but represents a clear danger to the kingdom. After all, Muhandis made direct reference to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and who have attacked Saudi Arabian territory, even firing missiles towards Mecca. As Saudi citizens in the south of the kingdom know well, the threat of Shia jihadists backed by Iran is all too real.

While both the Houthis and the PMF have solid ties to the IRGC and Iran’s theocratic regime, Riyadh must bear in mind that it is highly plausible that the Iranians would be seeking to provoke threats in areas other than Saudi Arabia’s southern borders. Iranian support for the uprising in Bahrain posed a direct threat to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, risking of sectarian strife — something which Iran has been keen on stoking to sunder its regional rival.

Therefore, having a serious threat come from a senior com­mander within the PMF shows that Saudi Arabia may be facing increasing threats to its northern border with Iraq. Not only is the PMF assisting Iranian strategic objectives of linking a chain from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria but it is brazenly threatening Riyadh with violence. This could easily materialise into low-level threats emanating from Iraq that could escalate over time, espe­cially if Iran is successful in propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Saudi Arabia must robustly deal with this new danger. It cannot afford to ignore the threat the PMF and its subordinated militias pose, particularly as it has a deadly Houthi threat to deal with far to the south.

Riyadh must also consider holding the Iraqi government to account for these threats. After all, Baghdad has formally recognised the PMF as a separate arm of the Iraqi armed forces. As such, Muhandis’s threats are not solely those of a terrorist commander but emanate from an official institu­tion within the Iraqi military under the authority of its com­mander-in-chief, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

While Iran links Saudi Arabia to terrorists in Iran without provid­ing evidence, Saudi Arabia can easily make links between terrorists like Muhandis, the Iraqi government and, more insidiously, the Iranian regime. Riyadh must act on these threats to its national security, before it faces a two-front war with IRGC-backed Shia terrorists both on its northern and southern boundaries.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute in England.

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