In 2017, zenith’s editor-in-chief, Daniel Gerlach, met Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, “the Engineer” behind a prominent Iraqi paramilitary organisation, who was killed on 3 January by a US drone strike in Baghdad. Who was he and what drove him?
He is known as “al-Muhandis”, the Engineer. The call of “Mr. Engineer” is directed toward every taxi driver, mechanic, or anyone else working with tool in hand throughout the Arab world. Whereas this may be somewhat over-the-top, Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Ebrahimi undoubtedly deserved the nom de guerre “al-Muhandis”.
Basra’s strategically important location meant that the city’s environs increasingly became the scene of geopolitical conflicts
Abu Mahdi was born in Basra, a once cosmopolitan trading port in southern Iraq. In former times the city was something of a Marseille of Mesopotamia, home to the legendary seafarer Sindbad, and the Arab world’s gateway to Asia. Abu Mahdi was born to an Iranian mother, who held both Iraqi and Iranian citizenship. He later married an Iranian woman and is as comfortable expressing himself in Persian as in Arabic. His political and ideological journey as a Shia dissident who increasingly turned towards the Islamic Republic of Iran therefore takes place amid this long-term cultural context.
Through the age, Iranian culture was as much a part of Basra’s melting pot as its Arab counterpart. Abu Mahdi’s hometown was, like most worldly trading centres, for a long time not known for being particularly religious. Although after the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini’s missionaries and emissaries did not struggle to elicit a positive reaction from the predominantly Shia, poorer strata of Basra’s population. This influence was limited, however, as many Basra locals fought alongside Iraqi forces against Iran during Iran-Iraq War, and Saddam Hussein launched his invasion of the Emirate of Kuwait in 1990 from Basra.
The Iran-led pan-Shia “resistance” nevertheless found supporters in the city. Basra’s strategically important location on the Shatt al-Arab, which flows into the Gulf, meant that the city’s environs increasingly became the scene of geopolitical conflicts. The USA and France supported Saddam Hussein against Iran while at the same time sending troops into the Lebanese Civil War, which was seen by Iran as a direct attack on its interests.
Abu Mahdi was not only at the table, he owned it
In April and October 1983, a Syrian-and Iranian-backed group calling itself “Islamic Jihad”, presumably a precursor of the Shia-led Hezbollah, carried out two devastating attacks on the US Embassy in Beirut and the joint French-US marine base. Both the US and French embassies were then targeted in a series of six bombings in Kuwait City on 12 December. The modus operandi, namely a suicide bomber at the wheel of a truck filled with explosives, was reminiscent of the tactics employed in the Beirut attacks. Although this time, possibly due to technical or planning errors, only five people lost their lives, none of whom were Westerners.
Among those accused of perpetrating the attacks were several supporters of the Iraqi Shia resistance movement, Dawa, an official of Hezbollah, and a certain Abu Mahdi. Both Kuwait and the US believed Abu Mahdi had masterminded the entire operation. He was therefore twice sentenced to death in absentia in Kuwait and Iraq. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he returned from exile in Iran, became a member of parliament, while simultaneously building up a militia to wage covert actions against the occupying forces. When US intelligence became aware of who they were dealing with, Abu Mahdi fled once again to his second homeland, Iran, and did not return to the banks of the Tigris until the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.
On the night of 15 June 2014, when the most powerful security figures and Shia militia leaders met to establish the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashd al-Shaabi, in response to ISIS’s capture of Mosul, Abu Mahdi was not only at the table, he owned it. The meeting was convened in his lounge, in his house in Baghdad’s Green Zone, located just a few hundred metres from the US Embassy. A rather austere room. On its far side hung two portraits, one depicted Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the other his predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini.
He was a personal friend of Major General Qassem Suleimani, the architect of the Iranian deployments in the Middle East
Abu Mahdi bought to the living table the Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Iraqi militia which he co-founded in 2003 just prior to the coalition’s invasion. But he also had another trump card up his sleeve. He was a personal friend of Major General Qassem Suleimani, the architect of the Iranian deployments in the Middle East, with whom he had worked after fleeing to Iran in 1979. Officially, “the Engineer” became vice-commander of the Hashd, unofficially he was the organisation’s thought leader and strategic head.
I found Abu Mahdi to be a lithe, elderly gentlemen who was surprisingly soft-spoken for a military commander. With his full head of thick white hair, matching snowy beard, rimless scholar’s spectacles and his liking for sports shirts or fleece jackets, he resembles an avuncular secondary school teacher just before his long-awaited retirement. But all this could not disguise the fact that violence haunted every aspect of his life.
One thing immediately becomes apparent to anyone who talks politics with him. He listens. He is definitely one of the few men of his line of work who does not pretend to have an immediate answer for everything. When I shared with him my assessment of the situation in neighbouring Syria, he noted down questions and comments, which he proceeded to work through methodically when I had finished speaking. He then called for detailed maps of Iraq and its surroundings to be brought, wherein he spread them out on the table and described the Hashd’s tactical deployments against the forces of the “Islamic State”.
For men like al-Muhandis political survival depends on the preservation of what brought them to power in the first place
He talked through the plans, where they had succeeded and where they had not. As he did so, he revealed an intricate knowledge of the battlefields in question. He spoke not only of their respective demographics, topographies, but also of the balance of power within the tribes over which ISIS ruled. And then he said something that set him apart him from his fellow commanders, and I had the feeling it was not just for show. He said he wanted to talk to everyone regardless of who they were, including his enemies. He said that even ISIS followers can become a loyal citizens, if they are shown mercy and treated with dignity.
He didn’t bear the faintest sign of hate or bitterness, yet the pages of Abu Mahdi’s biography are marked with the characteristics and mentalities that so decisively determine political events in contemporary Iraq. His journey did not begin in 2014 with the fight against ISIS, nor with the coalition’s invasion a decade prior. For people like Abu Mahdi, both are only temporary episodes of a great, prolonged struggle. They do not concern themselves with the minutiae of day-to-day politics, they operate on an epochal plane of politics rarely seen in the West.
And most importantly, they have no plan B. Beyond their current preoccupation they have no other career path and no option to peacefully tend their allotments as pensioners. Their political survival depends on the preservation of what brought them to power in the first place, and that alone guarantees that they will stay alive at all. Their driving force is a historical determinisation born out of witnessing the demise of so many other regimes. They therefore assume that while others will fall, they will remain. Whether these Shia politicians are actually religious at heart is another question. But they believe that as champions of the oppressed they have the right to dominate others to prevent the return of the oppressors.
This text is adapted from an exerpt of Daniel Gerlach’s 2019 book “Der Nahe Osten geht nicht unter”, published by Edition Körber Stiftung.