On January 18, a day before the annual Shiite festival of Ashura, most of the concerns in Iraq revolved around possible attacks by Sunni extremists against the Shiites. What happened was unexpectedly different—the attacks came from the little-known Shiite cult of Ansar al-Mahdi (Helpers of the Expected One). Gunmen of the cult—believing that a Shiite Messiah was coming to help them—launched simultaneous attacks against Iraqi forces in the cities of Basra and Nasiriya in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq. The attacks came a month after British forces handed over security responsibilities in Basra to Iraqi security forces. During the clashes in Basra and nearby Nasiriya, 97 members of Ansar al-Mahdi were killed and about 500 arrested. Among these were doctors, engineers and other respected professionals (al-Hayat, January 30).
The media mistakenly referred to the group as the Soldiers of Heaven, another small Shiite cult with similar beliefs. By the end of the second day of fighting, Iraqi forces succeeded in restoring order in the two cities, but the mystery of Ansar al-Mahdi was not completely solved—especially with the disappearance of the leader of the group, Ahmad al-Hassan, better known as Shaykh al-Yamani. It is possible, as some suggest, that al-Yamani commands the allegiance of as many as 5,000 followers.
Development of the Post-Invasion Doomsday Cults in Iraq
The apocalyptic radicalism of the Ansar al-Mahdi derives from a militant interpretation of the “Twelver School” of Shiite theology. Twelver Shiites await the return of a Mahdi (Expected One) in the form of the twelfth Shiite Imam, Muhammad ibn Hassan ibn Ali, born in 868 A.D. It is believed that the Imam is still alive, but has been hidden by God from mankind—a process known as “occultation”—until the appointed time of his return. The Imam will help the Nabi Isa (Prophet Jesus) to defeat al-Masih al-Dajjal (the false Messiah—an Anti-Christ figure) and establish social justice on earth prior to the Day of Judgment. Mahdism is not unique to Shiite Islam, though many orthodox Sunnis frown on the concept as being unsupported by Quranic tradition. The most notable Sunni “Mahdi” was Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi—who lived from 1844 to 1885 and led a successful revolt against Turco-Egyptian rule in the Sudan during the 1880s.
During the January 2007 Ashura festival, a millenarian cult known as the Jund al-Samaa (Soldiers of Heaven, or SoH) engaged in severe clashes with Iraqi government forces in southern Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf. The SoH were led by Dhia Abdul Zahra al-Gar’awi, or the Judge of Heaven as he is known among his followers. According to the Iraqi government, hundreds of gunmen of the SoH were about to implement a plan to assassinate the top Shiite clerics. The SoH believed that killing those clerics who are followed by the majority of Iraq’s Shiite population would pave the way for the return of al-Imam al-Mahdi (the Shiite Messiah). The Iraqi government announced that it had uncovered the plot. Coalition-backed Iraqi forces surrounded the SoH in a rural area and attacked them—263 of the SoH members, including al-Gar’awi, were killed and a further 500 arrested.
The radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers in the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia might not believe in an imminent return for the Mahdi, but their ideology still gives the impression that his return is close. Whenever al-Sadr or other leading members of the movement are asked about the possibility of disbanding the militia, they reply that only the Imam al-Mahdi (the returned savior of mankind) could do this and no one else, including militia founder Moqtada al-Sadr.
The Sadrists deny any connection with Ansar al-Mahdi. Some media reports mentioned that Sadr’s men were fighting with the Iraqi army against Ansar al-Mahdi, but an anti-Sadrist web forum suggests that Ansar al-Mahdi is merely a group of al-Mahdi Army. There are reports that former members of the Baathist Fedayeen Saddam militia have joined the Ansar al-Mahdi and al-Mahdi Army in an effort to regain their old power and influence (Shababeek, January 19).
Al-Yamani and the Ansar al-Mahdi
Ahmad al-Hassan al-Yamani—whose real name is Ahmad Ismail Gat’a—was born near Basra to a well-known and well-respected Shiite family. One of his brothers had a doctorate in nuclear technology and worked as an assistant to General Hossam Ameen, the spokesman of Saddam’s nuclear program. Another brother of al-Yamani was a colonel in the former Iraqi Army. The strong family ties to the regime could not help al-Yamani when he was sent to jail in the 1990s for unknown reasons. After the 2003 Coalition invasion, al-Yamani—who already had a college degree in civil engineering—enrolled as a scholar in the Shiite religious institutes of Najaf and became a cleric. In 2004 he participated in the Najaf battle between Coalition forces and Moqtada al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi Army. Eventually al-Yamani led his followers to his home town of Basra and the adjacent Nasiriya and Emara areas where they established their own mosques and offices. The mission expanded quickly in the poor Shiite far south of Iraq (al-Malaf, February 2007).
In 2006, the Ansar al-Mahdi started to increase their propaganda efforts in Basra and Baghdad with slogans like “Every solution has failed but the solution of al-Mahdi” or “Democracy is the people’s rule but al-Mahdi is Allah’s rule.” On August 28, 2007, the first issue of the group’s newspaper (al-Sirat al-Mostakeem) was published to express the policy and ideology of the cult. Intellectual adherents of al-Yamani were placed in charge of editing the paper.
Al-Sirat al-Mostakeem was mostly devoted to the cult’s propaganda, but the editorials had a clear anti-American position. In the October 13, 2007 issue, there was an article about “jihad by words and swords” based on Jihad is the Gate of Heaven, a book written by al-Yamani. In the January 25 issue, there was a statement by al-Yamani—allegedly answering a Christian woman—declaring that America would fall by Imam al-Mahdi’s hands. The United States is customarily referred as al-Masih al-Dajjal (the “Grand Imposter” or “False Messiah,” a personality comparable to the Anti-Christ). In the same issue, al-Yamani writes that the Americans—whom he cursed—supported the enemies of Islam, like the apostate rulers of the Gulf countries. He claims that Osama bin Laden was raised up by U.S. support and says elsewhere in the same issue that the campaign against the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr is intended to clear the ground for U.S. occupation.
In a video released on YouTube, al-Yamani stresses his role as a representative and deputy of Imam al-Mahdi while challenging other Shiite clerics to a debate. Al-Yamani has made this challenge many times, but while the traditional senior Shiite clerics have not responded, some junior members of the Shiite movement have offered to take up al-Yamani’s challenge. The top Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged the government to address those who spread defective views on religion. The Sadrists blame the Iraqi government for the emergence of “spoiling movements” like that of al-Yamani, claiming that while the national army was busy tackling al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi army, more dangerous extremist groups were proliferating in southern Iraq.
An Iranian Role?
The Iraqi government first accused neighboring countries of sponsoring the extremist millenarian Shiite groups. Later on, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh stated that there was no evidence that the cult was supported by any party from outside Iraq (al-Sharqia, January 28). In an interview with al-Hurra TV, an arrested senior member of Ansar al-Mahdi admitted that there were foreign individuals but no states involved in the financial support of the cult. Unnamed political and security sources took a different view by telling the Iraqi press that “the interrogations with Ansar al-Yamani showed that they are agents of Iranian intelligence and some of them were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The weapons and ammunition of the cult’s fighters were Iranian made” (al-Malaf, February 6).
Although the Iraqi forces succeeded in putting down the Ansar al-Mahdi rebellion in two days, the danger is still present. Cult leader Ahmad al-Hassan al-Yamani managed to escape and might return to launch other attacks against the Iraqi government or the Coalition. The possibility of attacks outside Iraq cannot be ruled out. Militant cults like Ansar al-Mahdi and the SoH have an international agenda as they believe that al-Imam al-Mahdi is coming back to liberate the entire world and defeat the unbelievers. It was a worrying sign that one of the SoH had a British passport.
The clashes at Basra and Nasiriya occurred a month after the security handover between the British and the Iraqis in the south and a month before the end of the six-month suspension of al-Mahdi Army activities. The Iranians have expressed many times that they are willing to be involved in the security arrangements in Iraq and fill what they describe as a security vacuum that will exist after the Coalition withdrawal. A connection between Ansar al-Mahdi and Iranian intelligence could explain the clashes—even partially—as an unusual means for Iran to send a message about potential instability in Shiite Iraq.
The followers of al-Sadr ascribed the violence in southern Iraq to the government’s crackdown on their militia. By accepting al-Yamani’s call for a debate, the Sadrists are apparently trying to gain the political benefits of negotiating on behalf of the Iraqi government or being a mediator. They are likely thinking of bringing the cult back to its wider Shiite environment and more specifically to al-Mahdi Army.
It is important that the Iraqi government not underestimate the threat of such cults; the Shiite-led government must avoid being affected by its historical relationship with Iran if Iranian forces are indeed behind these cults. Dealing with radical Shiite groups is complicated by the delicate internal balance between the different Shiite parties that form the government. Whether al-Yamani is captured or remains on the loose, the danger of the doomsday cults could linger for years, even after the backbone of the movement has been destroyed.