Iraqi demonstrators attend a symbolic funeral for slain Iraqi jihadism expert Hisham al-Hashemi, who was shot dead outside his house in the Iraqi capital, on July 7, 2020, at Baghdad's Tahrir square. The slogan reads in Arabic: 'The voice of right killed with the bullet of wrong.' Photo: AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye

Husham al-Hashemi, one of Iraq’s foremost experts on armed extremist groups, was assassinated outside his home in the capital on Monday night.

The 47-year-old rose to prominence for his expertise on ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but had recently shifted his focus to Iran-backed militias in Iraq. He had also become a vocal supporter of the youth-led October uprising, which opposed Iranian dominance of the country.

Hashemi’s death has been widely blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed faction operating under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashed al-Shaabi.

Hashemi last week penned an op-ed on the need to dismantle the paramilitary groups operating in the “grey zone” of Iraq’s security infrastructure.

“The state’s ability to curb violence is directly related to its ability to … neutralize the violent behavior of hybrid factions that inhabit a gray zone,” he wrote on the Al-Aalem news site on July 2.

“The growing influence of the factions … has become a threat to the country’s institutions, constitution, law, economy and sovereignty,” he warned.

Iraqi counter-terrorism forces had earlier conducted a raid against a Kataeb Hezbollah unit believed to be responsible for attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone where the US Embassy is located.

The raid was seen as part of a campaign by the new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to clamp down on Iran-backed paramilitaries. The move backfired, sparking fury and the prospect of a counter-attack on government forces.

Within days, the detained Kataeb Hezbollah members were freed.

Hashemi had advocated for a gradualist approach to tackle the issue of armed paramilitaries, a national dialogue aimed at lessening the influence of these factions and dismantling their core over time.

But even this approach was sensitive for his enemies.

Message to prime minister

Ghaith al-Tamimi, a colleague and friend of Hashemi, said the analyst had been directly threatened by Kataeb Hezbollah before his killing.

“He told me, ‘Kataeb Hezbollah threatened me officially … they threatened to kill me’,” Tamimi told Al-Hurra Television.

Tamimi says he advised the 47-year-old to protect his life and his family at all costs, arguing that while other paramilitaries could be reasoned with, Kataeb Hezbollah would go through with their threat.

Hashemi had stayed on, however, seeing hope in the new prime minister.

On Monday night, Hashemi was gunned down by three men on motorbikes outside his home in Baghdad, shot multiple times at close range.

Hashemi’s assassination comes down to “timing,” said Sofia Amara, an investigative journalist who has interviewed him extensively over the years.

Iran and its key regional allies have been facing a ratcheting US pressure campaign and were spooked by mass protests that broke out in Iraq and Lebanon last fall.

“Then you have an Iraqi prime minister who says let’s clean up the situation with the militias,” she said. “That was a good time for them to send a message to the prime minister to be careful — that you could be the next one on the list.”

While Hashemi’s killing sparked condemnation from the highest echelons of power in Iraq, there was no government protection for his humble funeral convoy or official presence at his burial, a testament to the dangers he had taken on and the humble life he led.

Carrying the torch

For many Iraq observers, Hashemi is irreplaceable. He was an advisor to political figures, a fountain of knowledge for diplomats and media, and a mentor to the young generation of civic minded Iraqis. Most critically, he was based in Iraq and working closely with the state apparatus.

Hashemi was also a key source for Asia Times, offering insights into how Islamic State secured the escape of its former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as well as the critical role human intelligence played in his 2019 killing.

“He knew Iraq intimately. All of the chapters of terrorism Iraq went through since 2003,” Amara said. “He was even part of it, because he came from Islamic roots … He used to negotiate with the Iraqi Sunni tribes so they’d get their sons out of jail and as a reward go and fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq, so he was not only an expert.”

According to Amara, Hashemi believed the only chance for Iraq to succeed was to move from a sectarian to a civil state, in which Sunnis and Shiites would not be caught in a zero-sum game.

On Tuesday in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, demonstrators gathered for a symbolic funeral for Hashemi, the rare Iraq-based public figure that represented their ideals.

In one of his last messages to a young activist — posted to Twitter by Rasha al-Aqeedi, editor of the Iraqi youth-driven media outlet, Irfaa Sawtak — Hashemi urged caution in order to persevere.

“Do not fight the lowlifes by speaking directly; be implicit. I am proud of you, and I see in you all the goodness for a future I might not witness.”

Hashemi leaves behind a wife and four young children.

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.