The theatres of conflict in Iraq and Syria have seen the rise of a huge number of armed groups. Not only can it be easy to get lost in the sea of names of these groups, but there is also the risk of analysing these groups in too much of an abstract sense. As such, there is often little idea as to the actual people who join these groups and change their affiliations over time.
One way to remedy this problem is to focus on individual stories. In this case I relate the story of Mustafa Ali al-Aboudi, an Iraqi who first fought in Iraq and then Syria. I first got to know Mustafa at the turn of 2017 when I was looking into a minor Iraqi formation in Syria in which he had been involved: Liwa Fursan Zainab, also known as Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi (hereafter in this article: Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi).
Mustafa, who also calls himself by the nickname of Abu al-Mu'ammal, was born in Baghdad on 26 March 1997 CE. He first got involved in fighting around the turn of 2014, as the security situation rapidly deteriorated in Anbar province with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham and other Sunni insurgent groups taking control of Fallujah and large parts of Ramadi. The first formation Mustafa joined was called the "Sons of Iraq." This group should not be confused with the 'Sons of Iraq' associated with the Sunni Sahwa movement in the late 2000s. Rather, this 'Sons of Iraq', which was documented by Ned Parker at the time, should be thought of as a 'proto-Hashd' in the months leading up to the fall of Mosul in June 2014. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister at the time, thought that the conventional Iraqi military's capabilities were insufficient to meet the growing insurgency challenge, and so he established this 'Sons of Iraq' movement answering to his office. The 'Sons of Iraq' included new recruits and members of established paramilitary formations like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah. For his part, Mustafa confirmed that this 'Sons of Iraq' was indeed affiliated with Maliki. Mustafa added that he participated in the fighting in Anbar and was wounded in the foot.
One problem surrounding this 'Sons of Iraq' answering to Maliki was the issue of salary payments. As noted by Parker at the time, some fighters quit as salaries were not being paid. Mustafa says that he and other members of the 'Sons of Iraq' subsequently came under the command of the Emergency Response Division (ERD), which serves as the elite strike force of the Interior Ministry and was also fighting in Anbar in early 2014. Mustafa described the affiliation of 'Sons of Iraq' fighters with the ERD as the "Emergency Response's Hashd," though he did not receive a salary under this affiliation. Mustafa specifically says that he came under the ERD's First Brigade, but he adds that he also worked with other factions (which he preferred not to specify) according to their needs. However, he did not provide aid to those factions in an official capacity as someone working under the ERD, but rather worked with them during his leaves of absence from the 'Emergence Response Hashd'. In other words, while affiliated with the 'Emergency Response's Hashd', Mustafa moonlighted by working with other paramilitary formations.
Mustafa Ali al-Aboudi when he was in the 'Emergency Response Hashd' in 2014.
Mustafa continued to participate in fighting after the fall of Mosul and the wide advances of the Islamic State, though for a time he left the ERD and worked under the rubric of the "Hashd of Defence" in Babil governorate to the south of Baghdad. For clarity, the 'Hashd of Defence' is distinct from the more familiar Hashd Sha'abi: the 'Hashd of Defence' comes under the Defence Ministry and provincial and regional military operations commands, whereas the Hashd Sha'abi is affiliated with the Hashd Sha'abi Committee that comes under the Prime Minister's office. In fact, some supporters of the Hashd Sha'abi disparage the 'Hashd of Defence', criticising the latter as a group of criminal gangs. According to Mustafa, most of the 'Hashd of Defence' is concentrated in the Baghdad Belt area.
Under the rubric of the 'Hashd of Defence', Mustafa most notably participated in the recapture of Jurf al-Sakhr from the Islamic State in October 2014. As with the ERD's 'Hashd' and the 'Sons of Iraq', a problem was the lack of a salary. By May 2015, Mustafa had returned to the ERD, enlisting as a shorti (fighter) in the ERD and thus receiving a salary this time. He participated in fighting in Anbar, including the campaign to retake the Ramadi area from the Islamic State. By March 2016, he left the ERD and transferred to a job in internal affairs in the Interior Ministry.
Mustafa Ali al-Aboudi in the ERD in 2015.
At some point though, Mustafa decided that there was a more urgent need to fight in Syria. Thus, he deserted his post in the Interior Ministry and became one of the founders of Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi in around September 2016. According to him, the group numbered some 150 fighters, and the group participated in the campaign to recapture eastern Aleppo city from the rebels.
Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi emblem
The most interesting thing about the group though is that it established links with Suqur al-Sahara', which at the time was arguably the most powerful private formation fighting on the government side in Syria. Muhammad Jaber, the leader of Suqur al-Sahara', courted some more minor Iraqi formations to deploy fighters in Syria under the supervision of his formation. For example, here is a leaked agreement from 1 January 2016 between Suqur al-Sahara' and an Iraqi group called Quwat al-Buraq. The agreement includes some rather lucrative terms for the Quwat al-Buraq contingent to deploy to Syria: for example, a monthly salary of $750 for each fighter and a monthly salary of $1200 for each officer. Suqur al-Sahara' also took responsibility for arming and preparations for the Quwat al-Buraq fighters to deploy under its wing.
One should further note clause 11 of the agreement: that Quwat al-Buraq should deal exclusively with the Syrian government and Muhammad Jaber. In a similar vein, according to Mustafa, Muhammad Jaber made his support for Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi conditional on Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi not receiving support from anyone else or being linked to anyone else. Logically speaking, that would mean requiring that the group should have no links with Iran and should not receive any support from Iran.
A Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi member wearing a Suqur al-Sahara' jacket.
Screenshot from a video of Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi fighters in Sheikh Sa'id in Aleppo in late 2016. Note the Suqur al-Sahara' insignia again.
After the campaign to recapture eastern Aleppo city was finished, it appears that Jaber ended his support for Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi.* Indeed, by January 2017, it appears that there were some problems within Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi, as illustrated in a post written by one Mojtaba al-Lami in that month:
"To the brother and mujahid leader Sheikh Hussam al-Aboudi, the commander of Liwa Ansar al-Imam al-Mahdi, we thank him for his position of oversight [/honourable position] towards his mujahideen brothers in Syria and he has not abandoned them despite the problems whose cause is some of the errant people and even at this point he has not abandoned his brothers like some of those who claim responsibility and leadership..."
Mustafa Ali al-Aboudi in Syria (on right).
Liwa Ansar al-Mahdi continued to exist throughout 2017, though there is no evidence it engaged in any meaningful operations. The group most notably put out a statement denying that it was affiliated with any other group in Iraq. As of 2018, no further information about the group appears to exist. According to Mustafa, the group has in fact been dissolved.
Mustafa himself eventually returned to Iraq and handed himself over to the authorities for deserting his post in the Interior Ministry. Mustafa was imprisoned and subsequently released, and at the present time he is unemployed though he is hoping to reclaim a job in the Interior Ministry. As far as taking up arms goes, he says:
"I have abandoned arms because Iraq has been liberated but if Iraq is exposed to terrorist violation, I will return to the language of arms. And if a formation is set up to go to Jerusalem, I will be the first of the volunteers."
*- Note that Suqur al-Sahara' no longer exists as a separate formation on the ground.