The beginning of 2020 marked the actual emergence of the so-called "Katyusha cells" in Iraq. The killing of the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards General Qasem Soleimani, accompanied by the Deputy Chairman of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport at the beginning of 2020, was the practical beginning of the formation of those cells, which took it upon themselves to attack the headquarters and bases in which the US forces are located, as well as the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Despite the lack of clarity of the structure of those cells and of their organisational and administrative links, what is certain is that they came about as a result of an agreed internal fission between the [pro-Iran] loyalist factions in order to carry out irresponsible missile attacks against the US forces and exert more pressure on the Iraqi government regarding the issue of removing the US forces from Iraq.
The nature of the Katyusha cells and who stands behind them
The Katyusha cells are a homogeneous and interconnected mixture in terms of ideological and intellectual integration. They have come about as a result of an internal incubation process of the loyalist factions, which are indirectly linked to the Quds Force and the authority of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Among the most prominent titles of those cells are: Ashab al-Kahf (the People of the Cave), Qabdhat al-Huda (the Fist of Guidance), Usbat al-Thaereen (the League of the Revolutionaries), the Martyrs of the Second 1920 Revolution Companies, Saraya Awliya al-Dam (the Avengers of Blood Companies), Liwa Montaqemoon (the Avengers Brigade), the Revenge of Muhandis Brigade, and the Saraya al-Muntaqim (the Avenger Companies). They are made up of fighters belonging to several loyalist factions, most notably: Kataib Hezbollah (Battalions of the Iraqi Party of God), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (Movement of the Party of God’s Nobles), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Saraya Taliat al-Khorasani (the Khorasan Forefront Companies), Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (the Sayyid of Martyrs Battalions), and Kataib al-Imam Ali (the Imam Ali Battalions).
The loyalist factions found in the Katyusha cells an effective means of treating the US, based on the principle of reciprocity, by carrying out irresponsible missile attacks on US headquarters. While the US declares that it is unaware of the attacks on the headquarters of the armed factions, likewise the loyalist factions declare that they are unaware of those cells and their missile operations. While there is no clear leadership for those cells, and no loyalist faction has claimed responsibility for the missile attacks that they carry out, there is a clear rhetorical, political and ideological unity that links them to the loyalist factions, given that they enjoy the indirect support of those factions. This indicates an important development in the work of the loyalist factions in Iraq, through the idea of leading from behind, without provoking the US side against the loyalist factions with regard to the attacks carried out by those cells.
The effective operatives of the Katyusha cells receive their monthly salaries from the PMC, through their association with the loyalist factions. They also wear the official badges (uniforms) of the factions, and move in their military vehicles. Many of the military operations carried out by those cells are broadcast through television channels associated with the Iranian-financed Islamic Radios and Televisions Union (IRTVU), along with some active channels on the Telegram application, most notably the Sabreen News channel, as well as many electronic cells active on the social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
The emergence of the Katyusha cells came as a new Iranian strategy in the post-Soleimani era. The first strategic task undertaken by the new commander of the Quds Force Esmail Qaani (Ghaani) was to introduce effective changes to the command and operations structure that was followed during Soleimani’s period in Iraq. Those changes came about in their entirety as a result of important political and security conditions, including Soleimani’s absence and the strategic shock that Iran’s allies were exposed to in Iraq. On that basis, Qaani took it upon himself to introduce military updates to the Iranian strategy in Iraq, by shifting from the idea of centralisation in leadership (the Quds Force – the loyalist factions), to the idea of decentralized leadership (the loyalist factions – the Katyusha cells), by allowing a margin of movement and manoeuvrability to the loyalist factions. In this context, the idea of the Katyusha cells emerged as the only option available to Qaani, pending the development of a new confrontation policy with the US in Iraq, taking advantage of the decision taken by the Iraqi Parliament on 5 January 2020 to evict foreign forces from Iraq to impose more pressure on the US side.
Iran believes that the strategic necessity in Iraq calls for maintaining those cells in order to form a military back for the loyalist factions in Iraq, after the failure shown by the ruling Shiite alliance to quell the popular demonstrations rejecting Iranian influence, as well as its failure to support the work of the loyalist factions in the face of US forces. Therefore, it is necessary for Iran to drive the loyalist factions to enter the arena of the political process in order to legitimise their political and military presence, as in the case of Lebanese Hezbollah, paving the way for those cells to replace the loyalist factions in the future, in order to carry out tactical operations against the US forces in the event that the US military presence in Iraq continues.
A report published by the Wall Street Journal on 21 September 2020 indicated that Iran has changed its strategy of supporting the Katyusha cells in Iraq according to certain strategic approaches, including mainly to limit and reduce the harm caused by the missile attacks carried out by those cells on the headquarters and camps where the US forces are located. This indicates an Iranian tendency to impose a temporary truce with the US that may extend beyond the next US presidential elections, after recent strong US threats. Besides, Iran’s allies fear that they may be subjected to harsh US sanctions, or even military strikes, which would threaten their interests and undermine their political future.
In this context, some pro-Iran loyalist actors expressed new attitudes towards the US military presence, the most important of which is the announcement by the leader of the Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri of his rejection and condemnation of "any attack that targets diplomatic missions". On his part, Akram al-Kaabi, leader of the Nujaba Movement, stressed the need to expedite the removal of US forces from Iraq through resistant action. This reflects the extent of the current conflict within the loyalist factions on the issue of the Katyusha cells. While there is a wing that continues to believe that it is possible to deal with the US military presence in Iraq through diplomatic channels, as is evident from the position of the Badr Organisation, led by Hadi al-Amiri, another trend believes that armed action is the only way to get the US forces out of Iraq, which is the position of the Hezbollah Battalions, the Nujaba Movement and other loyalist factions.
The US approach
The process of targeting the US presence in Iraq constituted another major variable behind the formation of those cells, specifically after the unexpected US response in terms of targeting Soleimani and al-Muhandis. Those cells have succeeded in targeting many of the headquarters where the US forces are located in Iraq, most notably the presidential palaces in Mosul, the Balad and Taji bases, the US Embassy in the Green Zone, the Basmaya Camp in Baghdad, in addition to Camp Victory in the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport, and the K-1 Air Base in Kirkuk, in addition to the US oil companies operating in Basra, most notably Exxon Mobil and Halliburton.
During the period from January to September 2020, the Katyusha cells carried out nearly 70 attacks on US headquarters, the outcomes of which were the killing of a US contractor at the K-1 Base in Kirkuk in December 2019, the killing of three soldiers and the wounding of 12 others from the US-led international coalition in another shelling that hit the Taji base in March 2020. Unmanned reconnaissance aircraft (drones) have also been used by those cells to take pictures of the US Embassy in Baghdad and the Ain al-Assad Airbase in Anbar. Recently, those cells changed their operational strategy by targeting convoys carrying supplies to US or international coalition facilities, which reached nearly 25 armed attacks, specifically in Basra, Nasiriyah and Salah al-Din, as well as the Abu Ghraib area, west of Baghdad, on 17 September 2020, for which the Qasem al-Jabarin (the Breaker of the Titans) group claimed responsibility.
The withdrawal of the US forces from nine military bases has come to reflect the nature of the US conviction that the Iraqi government has failed to fulfil its obligation to protect the US interests in Iraq. Today, those forces are concentrated in Al-Baghdadi, Harir and Ain al-Assad bases, as part of a long-term plan to limit the US presence in Iraq within the framework of training, information exchange and logistical support. This comes within a US approach to fortify the US forces in Iraq against any aggression and preventing Iran’s allies to drag them into an armed confrontation prior to the next US presidential elections, in case Iran decides to do so.
The strategy of deterring conflict was one of the most prominent strategies adopted by the US leadership in Iraq, especially in the context of deterring missile attacks by the Katyusha cells. A security campus area was defined at a distance of 70 kilometres around the military bases where the US forces are located, specifically the Ain al-Assad base in Anbar, so that the loyalist factions and Katyusha cells would become vulnerable to the use of lethal force in the event that this distance is exceeded. Many anti-missile C-RAM air defense systems have also been installed around the US Embassy in the Green Zone. In addition, the US continues its endeavours to activate the intelligence effort on deterring attacks to which the US convoys are exposed to render those attacks ineffective and nonlethal. Besides, the US currently avoids responding to them with retaliatory strikes.
Furthermore, within this framework, the Washington Post newspaper pointed to a surprise that may occur in October 2020 in Iraq, mainly the likelihood of closing the US Embassy in the Green Zone and the possible launch of US strikes against pro-Iran factions in case missile attacks against US targets continue. This US approach came after the advance warning given by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Iraqi President Barham Salih, one day after the imposition of the US "Snapback" sanctions on Iran on 20 September 2020. Pompeo informed the Iraqi President that the US administration is greatly annoyed at the continued targeting of the US Embassy in the Green Zone and the columns of support for the international coalition forces, holding the Hezbollah Battalions and Asaib Ahl al-Haq responsible for any dangers faced by the US forces in Iraq. It was reported that Pompeo stressed to the Iraqi President that "the decision to close the Embassy in Baghdad is in President Trump’s hands and is ready".
Options for the Kadhimi government
In addition to the Iranian objectives and targeting US forces, one of the main reasons for the existence of those cells is to obstruct the efforts of the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, which seeks to limit the possession of weapons to the state and combat the economic power outlets of the loyalist factions, in addition to influencing the efforts of the Iraqi government that is today engaged in a strategic dialogue with the US to discuss the future of the US military presence in Iraq. Although US President Donald Trump announced, during Kadhimi’s recent visit to Washington, his intention to withdraw his forces from Iraq within the next three years, the Katyusha attacks did not stop; rather, they began to escalate.
The period during which Kadhimi became prime minister witnessed an upsurge in the number of missile attacks carried out by the Katyusha cells. Despite his directive to the Counter-Terrorism Service in August 2020 to form a special unit within the Service to deal with those cells, in accordance with Article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Law, and his formation of many investigative committees to uncover those cells, none of them yielded clear results due to the political pressures he is exposed to from the pro-Iran political wing. The Dora incident, which took place on 26 June 2020, also constituted a real point of clash between Kadhimi and the loyalist factions because of those cells, after the arrest of armed operatives belonging to those cells, who were preparing to launch missiles against a US military headquarters in the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport, which led to great tension between Kadhimi and the Iran-backed Hezbollah Battalions.
In this context, Kadhimi sought to adopt several approaches to confront those cells, the most prominent of which are:
1. Carrying out structural reforms in the PMC by appointing Faleh al-Fayyad as Chairman of the PMC, a government approach that aims to benefit from Fayyad’s relationship with the loyalist factions and Iran in order to rein in the Katyusha cells.
2. Asking Iran, during his visit to Tehran in July 2020, to play an important role in stabilising Iraq and freeze support for the Katyusha cells.
3. Imposing the authority of the Iraqi state over the border crossings with Iran, as well as making a set of leadership appointments to institutions charged with overseeing Iraq’s economy, and starting his efforts to combat major corruption crimes on 14 September 2020.
4. Carrying out administrative reforms in the National Security Agency and its chancellorship in July 2020, as well as introducing military changes at the level of national operations commands on 14 September 2020, by designating military commanders that are not subject to political influence.
However, the approaches that Kadhimi adopts in confronting those cells continue to be ineffective or unfeasible in light of the political conflict surrounding him. In addition to the Katyusha cells issue, he has to deal with prominent issues such as combating corruption and preparing for the early elections, in addition to the influential security role that the tribal weapons have come to play in southern Iraq, whose relationship with the Kadhimi government is currently witnessing significant tension in the city of Nasiriyah. Kadhimi has also unveiled a scheme for overthrowing him, within the framework of an arrangement that is said to have been orchestrated by Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Amiri and Qais al-Khazali, and the support of the commander of the Quds Force Esmail Qaani, and the official in charge of the Lebanese Hezbollah file in Iraq Mohammad al-Kawtharani, which may impede any solutions sought by Kadhimi on the issue of the Katyusha cells.
The Katyusha cells constitute one of the most complex security issues faced by the Kadhimi government, due to their ability to act and attack almost without any government action to hold them to account. This is attributable to the blurred nature of the work of those cells and the indirect support they receive from the loyalist factions. While the US forces have succeeded in limiting the influence of those cells through political, security and intelligence measures, the Iraqi government is still reluctant to take effective measures against them due to the political and security influence it has come under, especially by the loyalist factions within the Al-Fateh Alliance, on the pretext of resisting the US occupation in Iraq.
Today, the Iraqi government is required to activate intelligence and security measures to stop the attacks of those cells, by continuing the process of administrative and institutional change and development, as well as benefiting from the relations with the international coalition against Daesh and giving NATO a major role in supporting government efforts in reforming the security sector in Iraq, specifically the issues related to reforming the status of the PMC, through programmes that would achieve more professionalism in the conduct of the factions that rebel against the decisions of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and refuse to obey and respect them.
The Kadhimi government should also benefit from the political, popular and international circumstances that support the trends to confine the possession of weapons to the state and consolidate Iraqi sovereignty, especially the calls issued by the Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani and Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, which called for establishing the state authority, consolidating sovereignty, and the need to form security, military and parliamentary investigation committees to investigate the Katyusha attacks, as well as the recent PMC statement on 24 September 2020 in which it dissociated itself from the continuous missile attacks and targeting foreign missions and their interests in Iraq. All those conditions could facilitate Kadhimi's progress on the security and stability front and reining in the Katyusha cells.
 Husham al-Hashimi, “Internal discord in the Popular Mobilisation”, The Center of Making Policies, 2020, p. 12
 Nancy A. Youssef and Warren P. Strobel, "As U.S. Election Nears, Iran Tones Down Its Posture in Iraq, Officials Say", The Wall Street Journal, 21 September 2020. https://on.wsj.com/3cpkr46
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EPC | 11 Nov 2020
Ahmed Diab | 10 Nov 2020
EPC | 26 Oct 2020