January 10, 2014
Following attacks on a U.S.-supported Iranian dissident group based in Iraq and a Saudi border post and public threats to hit targets in Kuwait, Jaysh al-Mukhtar (Army of the Chosen) leader Wathiq al-Battat was arrested at a Baghdad checkpoint on January 2.
Wathiq al-Battat, leader of Jaysh al-Mukhtar
The stated intention of Jaysh al-Mukhtar at its founding was to protect Iraq’s Shi’a population and aid the national government in fighting Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Al-Battat told AP in February 2013 that Jaysh al-Islam was armed by Iran, though Iranian authorities have strongly denied such claims (AP, February 26, 2013). Ahmad Abu Risha, leader of the Sunni Awakening National Council in Iraq, has accused the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of sponsoring and protecting Jaysh al-Mukhtar (al-Arabiya, February 27, 2013). Prior to forming Jaysh al-Mukhtar in February 2013, al-Battat was a senior figure in Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades. Al-Battat claims to operate with the approval of all the senior Shi’i religious authorities in the holy city of Najaf and regards Iranian Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei as the leader of Jaysh al-Mukhtar (al-Hayat, February 24, 2013).
Jaysh al-Mukhtar claimed responsibility for firing 20 Katyusha rockets and several mortar rounds at the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK – People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran) compound in the former U.S. “Camp Liberty” (re-named Camp Hurriya) in Baghdad on December 26, 2013, killing three MeK members and wounding several others Al-Battat justified the attack by saying his movement had repeatedly asked the Iraqi government to expel the MeK, “but they are still here.” The MeK saw the hand of the Maliki government behind the attack, while the United States called for the perpetrators to be found and held accountable (Reuters, December 27, 2013). The MeK is a former Marxist group best known for its terrorist attacks against the Iranian regime and an often bizarre personality cult built around its Paris-based leaders that enforces isolation from the outside world and a ban on personal relationships between its male and female members.
Once closely allied to Saddam Hussein, the MeK was a U.S. and EU designated terrorist group until both these bodies abandoned the designation following a well-funded lobbying campaign that fortuitously coincided with a Western desire to pressure Iran in the confrontation over the Islamic State’s nuclear ambitions. The turnabout ignored widespread reports of the movement’s cult-like activities under the leadership of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi (the latter has not been seen in public since 2003). The U.S. Department of State revoked the terrorist designation in September 2012, allowing the group access to frozen assets, but also noted that “the Department [of State] does not overlook or forget the MEK’s past acts of terrorism, including its involvement in the killing of U.S. citizens in Iran in the 1970s and an attack on U.S. soil [against the Iranian UN Mission in New York] in 1992. The Department also has serious concerns about the MEK as an organization, particularly with regard to allegations of abuse committed against its own members.”  Both Iraq and Iran continue to designate the MeK as a terrorist group despite its renunciation of violence in 2001.
Al-Battat may have felt he had a free hand to act against the MeK at Camp Hurriya after 52 members of the MeK were slain in a September 1, 2013 raid by Iraqi security forces against another MeK compound at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad (BBC, September 1, 2013). The raid was just one of many clashes between Iraqi security forces and the MeK since 2009, including a July 29, 2009 raid that killed 11 members of the MeK and injured over 500 others at Camp Ashraf.
Al-Battat’s group had previously launched rockets and mortar rounds at the MeK compound in Camp Hurriyah on February 9, 2013, killing eight and wounding nearly 100 without any serious government response despite calls from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for his arrest. Shortly after the first strike on Camp Hurriyah, al-Battat vowed to target the camp again, saying his movement regarded “striking and killing [MeK members] as an honor as well as a religious and moral duty” (al-Hayat, February 24, 2013).
Jaysh al-Mukhtar also claimed responsibility for a November 2013 mortar attack on an uninhabited area near a Saudi Arabian border post, which al-Battat described as a warning to the kingdom to end its involvement in Iraqi affairs (Reuters, November 21, 2013). Reflecting the strength of Shi’i eschatological beliefs, al-Battat has sworn to “annihilate the infidel, atheist Saudi regime” and all the regimes that support Israel and America by marching on Saudi Arabia with the Hidden Imam upon the latter’s return (Sharqiya TV, February 5, 2013). Twelver Shi’a Muslims believe the 12th Imam (Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdi) has been in hiding in a cave underneath a Samarra mosque since the late 9th century and will return to battle the forces of evil shortly before the Day of Judgment. When it briefly appeared a U.S.-led strike on Syria was imminent in September 2013, al-Battat promised to “cut the West’s economic artery” by attacking Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities and ports in retaliation (Fars News Agency [Tehran], September 11, 2013). Al-Battat’s threats to Kuwait, however, were based on the latter’s decision to build a new port that would compete with the nearby Iraqi port of Umm Qasr (al-Siyasah [Kuwait], February 25, 2013; al-Arabiya, February 27, 2013).
1. “Delisting of the Mujahedin-e Khalq,” U.S. Department of State Media Note, Office of the Spokesperson, Washington D.C., September 28, 2012, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/09/198443.htm
This article was originally published in the January 10, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.