Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 18


Iraq: Basra Protests

Protests that first began in July and intensified in early September have wreaked havoc on Iraq’s port city of Basra. The unrest—motivated by protesting government corruption, and shortages of electricity, jobs and clean water—began shortly after the country’s inconclusive parliamentary elections produced a political stalemate. The situation in Basra has only complicated the formation of a new government, which will help shape future relations between Iraq, Iran, and the United States.

While the protesters’ grievances and demands are pointed toward the Iraqi government, they have also directed their anger toward Tehran and pro-Iran political figures and militias that have long been entrenched in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq.  The clear disdain for Iran’s influence became glaringly evident when protesters torched the Iranian consulate and numerous other buildings associated with pro-Iran entities (Baghdad Today, September 7). Iran’s destabilizing influence in Iraq is undoubtedly worthy of attention, but media reports relating to the protests in Basra have, perhaps, placed too much emphasis on Iran. Meanwhile, not enough attention has been placed on the harsh realities the people of Basra face. A level of stability being reached in the near term is a high priority for the people of Basra. This can only be done by pushing the government forward.

The immediate effect of the protests is that Haider al-Abadi’s role as prime minister is certainly coming to an end, partly at the behest of Muqtada al-Sadr (Rudaw, September 13). The former Mahdi Army leader and his Sairoon Alliance won a plurality of seats in the parliamentary election and he appears to be steering the political process recently. As the political uncertainty and protests escalated, Sadr called for Abadi to resign his post while looking for an alternative alliance to help put forward a candidate for prime minister. The protests and backlash against Abadi also hastened the outcome of the second parliamentary meeting since the election. Unlike the first meeting, the second meeting on September 15 resulted in Sunni politician Mohammed al-Habousi being elected as Speaker of Parliament (Baghdad Post, September 15).

Abadi’s decline and Sadr’s reemergence as a key political player will likely be detrimental to the United States’ relations with Iraq.  Abadi’s stance toward Iran and U.S. sanctions made him the United States’ preferred candidate while Sadr has long made his disdain for the United States clear. Similarly, the new Speaker of Parliament was the candidate put forth by Hadi al-Ameri’s pro-Iran Fatah coalition and has already denounced U.S. sanctions on Iran (al-Monitor, September 17).

Concern over the implications the protests and the composition of the new government will have on both U.S.-Iraq and U.S.- Iran relations are entirely valid. What is positive at this moment, however, is that the protests have seemingly hastened the formation of the next government. It would be beneficial to both Iraq and the United States if the political deadlock ends and the new government fulsomely addresses the very real grievances that prompted the protests. If Abadi had secured another term as prime minister before grievances against his administration boiled over it would have been even more likely that Iraq would have fallen into a dangerous backslide so soon after its victory against the Islamic State. The next Iraqi government is almost certain to have closer ties to Iran, which will likely necessitate a reconsideration of U.S. sanctions and diplomacy between Iran and the United States to ensure future stability in Iraq.


Pakistan: Jalaluddin Haqqani’s Death and U.S.-Pakistan Relations

The Taliban reported the death of the fearsome and elusive founder of Afghanistan’s Haqqani Network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, on September 3 (Jihadology, September 3). His death marks the end of one of the longest tenured jihadists in Afghanistan. Having fought the Russians with the Afghan mujahideen and being a key figure alongside his Taliban counterparts, Jalaluddin was part of a generation of jihadists that are either dying or ageing out of active leadership roles. Like the death of other notable leaders within the Taliban milieu, such as Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin’s death will have little, if any, effect on the Haqqani Network’s operations. His death, however, could potentially have broader geopolitical implications and is a reminder of increasingly strained relations between the United States and Pakistan.

Jalaluddin was reportedly in very poor health for years and had already passed the leadership of the Haqqani Network to his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, in 2001 (Tolo News, September 4). Sirajuddin has more than proven his leadership ability through his network’s persistence and ability to repeatedly conduct complex attacks on both soft and hard targets. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense and the U.S. spokesperson for the NATO Resolute Support mission have attributed countless attacks in Afghanistan to Haqqani Network members in the past two years. A notable example includes the ambulance bombing in Kabul that killed 103 people on January 28 and the bombing near the German Embassy that killed 105 people in Kabul in May 2017 (Pajhwok January 14; Express Tribune, January 30).

The Haqqani Network has not captured as many headlines as the Taliban in recent years, but that is only because they generally operate congruently, as they have for years. Countless attacks attributed to the Taliban were actually carried out by members of the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani Network under Sirajuddin has maintained the same level of loyalty to the Taliban and al-Qaeda as the groups always had under his father. This sentiment was echoed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda in eulogies published via their respective media outlets (Jihadology, September 3). [1]

Although Jalaluddin’s death was reported on September 3, it is unclear when he actually died. Rumors of his death had occasionally circulated in previous years. It is possible he could have in fact died years before this confirmation, as was the case when the Taliban finally confirmed Mullah Omar’s death. What is also unclear and could prove to be highly contentious is the location of his death—whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The announcement comes amid escalating violence in Afghanistan and at a time when the United States has increasingly pressured Pakistan to address militancy in the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province —including the former Federally Administered Tribal Area—and other known militant safe havens in its border regions. The Trump administration has publicly expressed frustration toward Pakistan on countless occasions and has proposed two different reductions in security assistance to Pakistan since January. The combined total of the reductions is approximately $550 million. The administration has specifically cited Pakistan’s acquiescence toward the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network in briefings related to the proposed reductions (Express Tribune, August 3). [2] U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Pakistan just days after the announcement of Haqqani’s death for “reset” talks with newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan, prompting many to speculate the Taliban timed the announcement. The meeting did not result in any concrete progress, nor did it fix the relationship.

If a discovery is made that Jalaluddin died or was treated for his illness inside Pakistan, it will likely draw the ire of President Trump and will undoubtedly add further strain to U.S.-Pakistan relations. Such a discovery would also be a litmus test for how Imran Khan will address the issue of militancy and approach relations with the Trump administration. However amenable Khan’s response is to tackling terrorism, it will likely be hampered by Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The agency has historically operated outside the state’s control to support and harbor the groups it deems “good terrorists.”


[1] Collection of eulogies released by numerous terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda (ICTC, September 12)

[2] Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 first introduced April 2018 and since amended shows proposed reduction from $900 million to $350 million (Congress, April 4).