Iraqi PMU Commander Shaykh Wanas Naji al-Jabara al-Jabouri: Holding the Line in Salah al-Din

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 12

On December 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared that the Islamic State (IS) organization was defeated in Iraq (al-Hurra [Baghdad], December 30; al-Arabiyya [Dubai], December 9). Despite Prime Minister al-Abadi’s declaration, during the month of December, Iraqi security forces, including constituent groups within the al-Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU- Popular Mobilization Units) organization, continued to conduct operations against pockets of IS control, particularly around the city of Hawija, in Iraq’s central-northern Salah al-Din governorate (Zawya [Baghdad], December 18; Sawt al-Iraq [Baghdad], December 18). One of the PMU organizations participating in these operations is Liwa 88 (88th Brigade), a Sunni Arab tribal organization predominately mobilized from Iraq’s important Jabbour tribal confederation. Shaykh Wanas Naji al-Jabara al-Jabouri is the general commander of the 88th Brigade (Facebook).


Shaykh Wanas, 35, is a native and resident of al-Alam, a market town in Salah al-Din governorate on the Tigris River located approximately 20 kilometers (km) east of the major central-northern Iraqi city of Tikrit and approximately 190 km north of Iraq’s capital Baghdad. He is a relatively young Sunni Arab tribal leader who was thrust into the role due to the military campaign that IS’ predecessor organizations, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), waged against his family (YouTube, April 20, 2015). His family, which is the sheikhly lineage of the al-Jabara sub-tribe of the Jabbour confederation, is dominant in and around the area of al-Alam. The al-Jabara have consistently been organizers and leaders of Sunni Arab tribal resistance against IS and its predecessors: it was one of the first tribes to organize an Awakening Council militia in Salah al-Din governorate, which has made Shaykh Wanas’ family high value targets for the terrorist group. [1]

His father, older brother, uncle and sister were all killed in fighting with or abducted and assumed to be assassinated by IS or its predecessors (al-Nahar [Beirut], March 3, 2015). In 2007, his father, Shaykh Naji Husayn al-Jabara al-Jabouri, who was the paramount leader of the al-Jabara and one of the most powerful Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Salah al-Din governorate, was kidnapped by ISI. That same year, his oldest brother, Shaykh Muawiya Naji al-Jabara al-Jabouri, who had organized the tribe’s Awakening Council militia, was assassinated by ISI. [2] Although Shaykh Wanas did not immediately assume overall command of his tribe, which fell to his older brother and the successor to his father Shaykh Khamis Naji al-Jabara al-Jabouri, he became the de facto commander of his tribe’s Awakening Council militia. During the time period between 2007 and 2009, he led an estimated 500 fighters from his tribe’s Awakening Council militia against ISI with the support of the U.S.-led Coalition and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad (al-Mada [Baghdad], October 22, 2013). Also during that time, in 2008, Shaykh Wanas was nearly assassinated by a roadside bomb planted by ISI that targeted his convoy (Radio Sawa [Baghdad], October 25, 2008).

Countering Islamic State

In the years prior to IS’ June 2014 capture of Mosul, Shaykh Wanas’ armed group (organized through the Awakening Council) stopped receiving financial support from the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad. Meanwhile, local feelings of persecution by the al-Maliki government intensified Sunni Arab tribal opposition against Baghdad and provided a socio-political context for the reemergence of the Islamic State organization (al-Jazeera [Doha], December 31, 2014; al-Mada [Baghdad], October 22, 2013). Prior to IS’ capture of Mosul, the group had begun to capture large areas of Salah al-Din governorate. The al-Jabara of al-Alam resisted the IS advances but were unsuccessful, and IS captured al-Alam (al-Monitor, November 26, 2016; Washington Post, November 6, 2014; Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2014). It was during this time that the IS captured and demolished Shaykh Wanas’ home and killed his sister in a battle for control over al-Alam (al-Nahar [Beirut], March 3, 2015; al-Sumaria [Baghdad], November 2, 2014).

Shaykh Wanas’ sister, Shaykha Umaya Naji al-Jabara al-Jabouri, organized a local defense militia in al-Alam and was its front-line commander, a role for which she became a minor celebrity inside Iraq. She was killed in battle in late June 2014, as IS advanced on her hometown. Following her death, she subsequently became a heroine for the national counter-IS resistance (YouTube, May 30, 2015; YouTube, August 31, 2014). It was in her memory that Shaykh Wanas mobilized and led Quwat al-Shahida Umaya al-Jabara (The Martyr Shaykha Umaya al-Jabara Force), which would eventually become the core force of the 88th Brigade of the PMU organization, drawn from fighters who had participated in his tribe’s original Awakening Council militia (YouTube, April 10, 2017; YouTube, April 20, 2015).

Following IS’ defeat of the al-Jabara armed groups in al-Alam, Shaykh Wanas turned to the Haidar al-Abadi-led government in Baghdad for support. The Martyr Shaykha Umaya al-Jabara Force became part of the PMU organization, one of the earliest Sunni Arab armed groups to join the PMUs (al-Masalah [Baghdad], November 28, 2016; Twitter, March 4, 2015). This decision allowed Shaykh Wanas’ al-Jabara fighters, many of whom had been displaced from their homes in and around al-Alam, to receive support from Baghdad through the PMU organization and to participate in the counter-IS campaign to reclaim Salah al-Din governorate from IS (Kitabat [Baghdad], October 14, 2015; YouTube, April 20, 2015). Toward accomplishing that objective, the Martyr Shaykha Umaya al-Jabara Force participated in a series of battles in Salah al-Din governorate in 2015 that resulted in the recapture of al-Alam and Tikrit (YouTube, September 10, 2016; YouTube, March 10, 2016). This began a slow but steady process whereby Sunni Arab areas conquered by IS in Salah al-Din governorate were won back (al-Monitor, November 26, 2016).


Since the 2015 campaign in Salah al-Din governorate, Shaykh Wanas has maintained a relatively low profile, even as his armed group has become more integrated into the PMU organization, resulting in its designation as the 88th Brigade. Under his leadership, his armed group, and also the al-Jabara of al-Alam, are alleged to be working closely with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and are part of the IRGC effort to build strong lines of influence into Iraq’s Sunni Arab community (Baghdad Post, December 1, 2016; al-Bayan, March 4, 2015). Al-Afaq, the television station closely connected to Nouri al-Maliki, and by extension the IRGC mission to build an enduring and strong influence in Iraq, has been particularly interested in Shaykh Wanas’ family and his tribe’s role in the counter-IS campaign (YouTube, May 30, 2015; YouTube, April 20, 2015). In September 2017, the 88th Brigade, under Shaykh Wanas’ general command, began to participate in the campaign to capture the areas in and around Hawija, seeking to finally eliminate the IS zone of control in Salah al-Din governorate (al-Hashd al-Shaabi [Baghdad], September 28).

Shaykh Wanas is a rising leader within the Sunni Arab community of Iraq who is willing to actively engage not only with Baghdad but also potentially over the long term with the IRGC, which provides support for a significant part of the PMU organization. He is still relatively young and is not the senior shaykh with authority over his tribe. Nevertheless, he is from an important family and has a proven track record of leadership in military campaigns against IS and its predecessors. These qualities make him a potentially worthwhile, long-term investment opportunity for the IRGC to build a strong line of influence into one of the core areas of the Sunni Arab community in Iraq, Salah al-Din governorate. However, he is still not a particularly high-profile leader within the Iraqi Sunni Arab community, and despite the 88th Brigade’s participation in recent offensives against IS, it is not one of the larger or more famous armed groups in the PMU organization.

His significance is attributed to his tribe, which has provided important front-line fighters against Islamic State and its predecessors, and the area in Salah al-Din governorate, where he has influence through his command of the 88th Brigade, is important for the defense of Baghdad from the reemergence of IS. With ongoing reconstruction and mass displacement dilemmas afflicting Salah al-Din governorate, and the potential insecurity that these conditions could cause, Shaykh Wanas and his armed group are an important component of the local security infrastructure that Baghdad is building to manage these challenges. Shaykh Wanas, as the leader of an anti-IS tribal armed group, and a willing Sunni Arab tribal commander within the PMU organization, in a strategic area of Iraq that is fragile, has the potential to develop significant influence and power due to the patronage of Baghdad.



[1] Pat Proctor, Task Force Patriot and the End of Combat Operations in Iraq, (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 2012), pgs. 24-25.

[2] Ibid.