The assassination of a top Iraqi security analyst this week has sent shockwaves throughout the country, stirring fears among independent and critical voices including journalists and activists of even “darker” days ahead.
Hisham al-Hashemi was killed outside his home in the capital, Baghdad, late on Monday.
Security footage from a nearby camera showed a masked gunman walk up to al-Hashemi’s white SUV and fire several gunshots through the driver’s window. As the hitman escaped on a motorbike, al-Hashemi’s three young boys were seen helping neighbours pull his bullet-riddled body from the car.
The analyst was pronounced dead at a hospital soon afterwards. He was 47.
There has been no claim of responsibility and no arrests have so far been made. But reports have emerged that in recent months al-Hashemi had told friends and colleagues he was receiving death threats from hardline groups and militias – including from anonymous online accounts that were public – accusing him of being a close ally of the United States and Israel.
‘Victim of confrontation’
An expert on the inner workings of al-Qaeda, ISIL and Shia militias, al-Hashemi was an adviser to Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the new prime minister of Iraq, who has moved to challenge rogue elements of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF or the Hashd al-Shaabi) after coming to office in May.
The PMF was founded in 2014 – after a fatwa issued by Iraq’s top Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – as a loose network of Shia-majority factions to fight ISIL. With time, the network’s political and military power has increased as has Tehran’s influence over some of its factions.
Last month, al-Hashemi provided updates and insights to tens of thousands of his social media followers after Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service raided a Baghdad base of Kataib Hezbollah (KH), one of the groups under the umbrella of the PMF, over allegations it was behind rocket attacks on US and other diplomatic interests in Iraq.
Fourteen KH members were detained in the operation. Within days, 13 of the detainees were released and the militia pledged to take legal action against al-Kadhimi.
The timing of al-Hashemi’s assassination suggested it was “a message to al-Kadhimi” and response to his raid on KH, said Fanar Haddad, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the University of Singapore.
“Hisham was a victim of the confrontation between the government and the Iran-backed paramilitary groups,” Haddad told Al Jazeera. “More broadly it was a response to the prime minister’s stated goal of bolstering state authority,” he added.
Following al-Hashemi’s killing, the PMF published a statement offering its condolences to his family. KH issued a statement on its telegram acount denying its involvement in the killing, while other groups within the network have remained silent.
Silencing ‘free voices’
Al-Hashemi was an acclaimed researcher and public intellectual who was celebrated for his deep insight and encyclopedic knowledge of armed groups. He was the author of several books and research papers including for top global research centres such as Chatham House in London and the Centre for Global Policy in Washington, DC.
Domestically, he was a go-to adviser for senior policymakers, researchers and journalists due to his sprawling network of contacts within political and civil society groups, as well as state institutions. During his career, he also advised the Iraqi intelligence and US military, and was known for his close ties to al-Kadhimi and Iraqi President Barham Salih – both of whom issued statements mourning his death.
Al-Hashemi’s support for the protests that erupted last year against the former government that was seen as too close to Iran angered Tehran-backed groups, according to observers. His seeming support for al-Kadhimi – considered close to the US – also made him a potential target of armed groups that pledged to take revenge against the US and its allies over the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January.
In a tribute to his late friend and colleague, the UK-based Iraq expert Toby Dodge said al-Hashemi’s commitment to reform his country’s political system had led him to work with the current government.
“It was almost certainly this role that led to his murder,” wrote Dodge. Without naming a specific group, he said “a plethora of ungoverned militias, whose use of violence to defend their vested interests had recently become the main focus of Hisham’s work. It was those militias who killed Hisham.”
Al-Hashemi’s links to the Iraqi political elite and his past role as a mediator among activists and rival political groups afforded him a level of protection in many people’s eyes – so his assassination has been a cause for intense worry among journalists and activists over further political violence.
“Many thought al-Hashemi was untouchable because of his prominence and connections across the state spectrum,” said Renad Mansour, head of the Iraq Initiative at London’s Chatham House and close friend of al-Hashemi’s.
The biggest fear that many have in Baghdad today is a return to big-time political assassinations.
“The biggest fear that many have in Baghdad today is a return to big-time political assassinations,” he added.
Mustafa Saadoon, a Baghdad-based journalist and founder of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, said the “deep sense of fear and alarm in Baghdad” had already driven him outside of the capital and forced him to cut back on his critical writings and television appearances.
“The high-profile assassination of Hashemi was a message to us all: Free voices must fall silent, or be silenced,” Saadoon told Al Jazeera.
“This incident will have deep implications on the strength of independent and critical voices speaking out against political and armed groups,” he added.
Explaining that the targeting of someone with al-Hashemi’s political stature “represents something very scary for human rights activists, journalists and members of civil society”, Belkis Wille, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said “they [critical voices] should and will now be even more fearful”.
Darker phase ahead
While high-profile assassinations had become rampant across Iraq in the period that followed the 2003 US-led invasion, extrajudicial killings have been rare in recent years.
Still, more than 500 people including prominent civil society activists were killed and others arrested and kidnapped during the anti-government protests that swept across Baghdad and Iraq’s mainly Shia south since October last year.
The high-profile assassination of Hashemi was a message to us all: Free voices must fall silent, or be silenced.
According to Wille, al-Hashemi’s killing could be seen as an “extension” of the past few months when “armed forces from different groups were able to operate with impunity to silence who they wanted with absolutely no fear of accountability.”
Alternatively, she said, the murder may mark the start of a “darker phase” during which the state carries little “significant weight in its ability to enforce the law”.
Unless an investigation into who ordered the assassination goes all the way up the chain of command, “empowered groups who feel immune from the law will not stop at this killing,” warned Wille.
On Tuesday, many activists who took part in the mass anti-government protests that dwindled as the coronavirus pandemic spread, participated in a demonstration and vigil in al-Hashemi’s honour at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
Protesters in several provinces also held banners and chanted slogans to mourn his death.
His death was also mourned by foreign ambassadors in Iraq and the United Nations.
‘Al-Khadhimi’s big test’
Following the killing, al-Kadhimi promised to hold a transparent investigation, saying he was determined not to let “this cowardly crime go unpunished” and pledged to name a street in Baghdad after his late adviser and friend.
While there was no state presence at al-Hashemi’s funeral processions in the holy city of Najaf, where he was laid to rest, al-Kadhimi paid his respects at the family home in Baghdad on Wednesday night.
Mansour believes that with al-Hashemi’s assassination carrying a more political message to the government than others in recent months, “this is al-Kadhimi’s big test”.
“People want accountability, not just for Hisham’s death, but for all those who have been killed,” said Mansour.
“Are they [al-Kadhimi and Salih] really willing to stick their necks out and take the risks that Hisham took every day because he wanted to fix his country, without the security of bodyguards or an armoured vehicle,” he asked.
But meeting those expectation carries even more uncertainty than the confrontation with KH two weeks ago.
“The prime minister is in an extremely difficult position now: Hisham’s murder leaves him with very few face-saving options and open confrontation remains a risky choice,” said Haddad.