Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Key sponsors and donors: Iran

That Iran sponsors terror-designated organisations and armed groups around the world has been well documented. The United States has listed Iran as a state sponsor of terror since 1984, and the last five years have seen Iran not only funding but also being involved directly in conflict zones in the Middle East. As a result of this, Iranian institutions such as the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been terror-designated due to the financial and material support they provide for terrorist groups.

Iran’s support for armed groups is often seen as having either an ideological or an explicitly Shia element to it. In the past five years alone, Iran has been funding Shia militias that are active in conflicts in Syria (Hezbollah and others), Iraq (Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilisation Units – PMUs) and Yemen (the Houthis). Although some of the groups that Iran supports subscribe to Iranian state ideology (primarily some of the PMUs), and many of them are Shia groups, most experts would say that the Islamic Republic’s funding of armed groups is more about security policy and national interest than about ideology.

Moreover, Iran does not exclusively support Shia groups. Somewhat unexpectedly, they have been known to house several al-Qaeda fighters. According to the US Treasury, al-Qaeda has an agreement with Iran to use the country as a transit point between the Arab world and the group’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was allegedly given shelter in the Iran between 2001 and 2002. In 2016, it was revealed that three senior al-Qaeda figures residing in Iran – Faisal Jassim Mohammed al-Amiri al-Khalidi, Yisra Muhammad Ibrahim Bayumi, and Abu Bakr Muhammad Ghumayn – had respectively both gathered funds in and transferred funds from Iran that reportedly went to the TTP in Pakistan and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. Moreover, Iran has increasingly funded the Taliban since 2012.

Although it is clear that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorist and armed groups, and therefore IED attacks, it is occasionally unclear as to which part of the state authorises funding of various groups. For example, the IRGC is believed to handle several foreign policy issues rather than the Iranian government. In fact, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reportedly said in a private conversation with US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015 that he is not in control of the Syria portfolio, which is instead managed by the IRGC.

The IRGC was established in the immediate aftermath or the Iranian revolution by Ayatollah Khomeini, and functions both as Iran’s primary internal and external security force and operates separately from the country’s military. The IRGC’s Quds Force (IRGC-QF) was established during the Iran-Iraq War, and mainly operates the country’s asymmetric warfare, and has been known to arrange weapons transfers to countries like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as operating on the ground themselves. Both the IRGC and the Quds Force control large assets, and while they remain excluded from public Iranian budgets, estimates place IRGC’s annual turnover at between $10-12 billion. The IRGC was designated by the US Treasury in 2007, and the Quds Force has been listed as both a supporter of terror and a major human rights abuser in Syria.[i]

What is lesser known are the sources of funding used by various Iranian bodies to finance terrorism. Although the IRGC received $6.5 billion from the Iranian government, some of which was spent on funding and arming militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, substantial funds are derived from hidden business and charity conglomerates. For example, many Iranian ‘bonyads’ have been identified as major financers of terror. ‘Bonyad’, which means foundation, is a tax-exempt charitable trust, and bonyads are highly influential in the Iranian economy. For example, Bonyad-e-Mostazafen va Janbazan (Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled) is believed to be the second largest company in Iran after the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company. Similarly, the Shrine of Imam Reza Foundation is one of the largest landowners in Iran. Both bonyads have allegedly funded Hezbollah, with the latter even conducting regular trips to south Lebanon to assist with reconstruction projects.

Another suspected source of terrorist funding is from the wealth controlled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself. Abdallah Safieddine, Hezbollah’s representative in Iran, stated in an interview that Hezbollah receives money directly from Khamenei’s private wealth, which has reportedly allowed Hezbollah to receive funds despite economic downturns in the Iranian economy. An investigation into Khamenei’s private wealth reveals that he controls an extensive and obscure business conglomerate called Setad Ejraye Farmane Hazrate Emam, commonly known as Setad. The conglomerate has two branches, one controlling real estate and the other controlling corporate investments. Setad reportedly controls over 37 companies; the biggest worth some $40 billion. In 2012, it was estimated that Setad had a total value of $95 billion.

Providing in-depth analysis on each group that Iran supports would be outside the scope of this report. Rather, this section shall look at further at Iranian funding of groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan, mainly because these countries are heavily affected by IED violence. It should be noted that many of the groups that Iran supports in these conflicts do not figure in AOAV’s monitor of explosive violence. However, given the conflicts raging in these countries it is necessary to investigate Iran’s role in these conflicts, as their funding of armed groups certainly exacerbates the conflicts and therefore the use of explosive violence.

Iranian support for armed groups in Iraq

Iran has funded and provided arms for various Shia militias in Iraq ever since the US invasion of 2003. It has been estimated that between 2003 and 2009, Iran contributed between $10 and $35 million per year, and since 2009 that number has risen to between $50 and $100 million per year. Some of the Iranian-funded militias put down their arms in 2011 after the US withdrawal. However, when IS seized Mosul in 2014, Iraq’s most prominent Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, himself of Iranian nationality, issued a fatwa calling for the defence of Iraq and its Shia shrines. As a result, several militias were created, and in 2014 they were formalised as a branch of government called the Popular Mobilisation Committee.

The militias themselves are known in Arabic as Hashd al-Shaabi, or as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). It is estimated that there are between 90,000-100,000 fighters spread out across 60-70 militias. Kataeb Hezbollah is perhaps the most influential PMU, despite being a part of the Iraqi government. It has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United States. Other PMUs have also been accused of human rights abuses against the Iraqi Sunni population. In light of this, it remains relevant to examine Iran’s support for PMUs.

An Iraqi intelligence report leaked to Arabic media states that although it is difficult to speak of the PMUs as one cohesive group, there are two things that unite them: their ‘extremist religious cover’ and Iranian funding. According to the report, Iran sends each between $100,000 and $500,000 per month to the PMUs. Iraqi media has further substantiated these claims, saying that the payments are supervised personally by Quds Force General Qassem Solaimani. The influence of Solaimani should not be underestimated. Solaimani has been seen on the front lines with several of the PMUs. Moreover, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, the leader of the PMUs and leader of one of the most prominent units, Kataeb Hezbollah (KH), is seen as Solaimani’s right hand in Iraq. The extent of Quds involvement is demonstrated by the fact that as many as 7,000 Quds Force troops are believed to have been sent to Iraq to train the militias, along with hundreds of Iranian advisers. Muen al-Kadhimi, a senior official in a PMU called the Badr Organisation, has stated that Iranian advisers have assisted with everything from tactics to providing the PMUs with drone and signal capabilities, including electronic surveillance and radio communications.

In this way, the three most important PMUs, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), KH, and Badr, are all products of Iranian funding and training. AAH recruits are often taken to Iran for intensive training with the IRGC for two weeks, and the Iranian government allegedly pays $5,000 to the families of soldiers who die in battle. The IRGC was also present in the formation of KH, and even facilitated training sessions between KH and Hezbollah in 2012 and 2013. The Badr Organisation has the most longstanding relation with Iran, as the group was based in the country for two decades. Qassem Solaimani has also been seen on the frontlines in Iraq alongside Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri on several occasions.

Besides funding and direct involvement in fighting, Arabic media reported in September 2016 that Solaimani is overseeing the creation of a PMU intelligence service. According to reports, the Karbala-based Radwan Foundation has been tasked with creating an intelligence apparatus, and has allegedly recruited more than 2,000 people for it already.

Iran’s funding for the PMUs is seen both as direct strategic move to counter IS influence in Iraq, but also as a means to increase its own influence of the country. As a lead in this campaign, the country has also made various soft power efforts, launching various Arabic language Iranian TV channels in the country.

Iranian support for armed groups in Syria

Iran has a great deal invested in the fate of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Besides providing him with an estimated $15 to $25 billion between 2011 and 2015 alone, Iran has also spent significant funds on paramilitary groups fighting alongside Assad’s forces. The most well-known of these groups is Hezbollah, which has a long history of Iranian funding. From the beginning of the 1980s up until 2010, it is believed that the group received between $100 and $200 million annually. Due to an economic downturn in Iran, that number is believed to have dropped to between $50 and $100 million per year since 2010. Despite these dropping numbers, Hezbollah has, in large part due to Iranian funding, been able to contribute strength to Assad’s forces. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Qalamoun battle in 2013, for example, was said to have been crucial to the regime’s victory.

Again, the IRGC’s role cannot be underestimated. Although Iran wants to give the appearance of its Syria policy and operations being a decision taken in unity among the countries’ military institutions and policy makers, it is clear that it is the IRGC that are calling the shots. Besides funding Hezbollah, the IRGC have themselves been involved in many battles alongside the Syrian Army. In fact, President Barack Obama’s decision to sign an Executive Order blocking Quds Forces property was a result of alleged human rights abuses carried out by the forces in Syria.[ii] In April 2016, the number of IRGC and Iranian military personnel in Syria was estimated at lying between 6,500 and 9,200.

The IRGC was also instrumental in establishing, funding and training the National Defense Forces (NDF), a pro-Assad paramilitary group and Syria’s largest pro-government militia. Moreover, Iran funded the Iraqi Shia group Kataeb al-Imam Ali, as well as creating the Fatemiyon Brigade, consisting of Iranian-recruited Shias from Afghanistan, as well as funding the Zaynabiyun Brigades, made up of Shia Pakistanis. All of these groups are or have been fighting in Syria. Salaries in these militias are believed to range between $500 and $1,000 per month, and are all paid directly from Iran. According to Arabic media, the Afghanis fighting in the Fatemiyon Brigades have even been offered permanent residences in Iran. Other Arabic sources have reported that Iran has been instrumental in creating the little known Maghawir Brigade, a tribal militia based in northeastern Syria. The group has been very active in battles around Hashaka, and is said to number around 650 fighters. There have also been reports of Iran funding and training the notorious Shabiha militia, a group most commonly described as pro-Assad Alawite thugs, but these efforts have concluded and Hezbollah has been said to have taken over direction of the Shabiha’s involvement in the Syrian War.

In fact, much of Iran’s funding and support for groups in Syria has been facilitated by Hezbollah. For example, AAH entered the Syrian conflict as early as 2011, and KH quickly joined, and were reported to have sent 1,000 fighters into Syria by 2015. Both of these groups have fought alongside Hezbollah, and the groups together established the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN), a group that has remained in Syria and is directly funded by Iran. In August 2016, the HHN had reportedly sent 2,000 fighters to Aleppo.

Furthermore, Arabic media has reported on the presence in Syria of several other Iraqi Shia militias, such as Liwa Amma bin Yasser, Liwa al-Hamad, Kataeb Said al-Shuhada, Liwa Zulfiqar and Liwa Sayyida Zeynab. Since many of these groups also have representation within the PMUs, they are also believed to have received funds from Iran. Iran’s ambitions in Syria are mainly believed to be the defeat of groups like IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Jabhat al-Nusra), the restoration of the status quo ante and the preservation of state institutions.

Iranian support for armed groups in Yemen

Iran has funded, armed and trained the Houthi rebels since 2010, well before they seized control over Yemen’s capital Sanaa in September 2014. Estimates say that the Houthis have received between $10 and $25 million per year from Iran since 2010 – significantly less than many of the groups they support in Syria and Iraq.  This is, in one way, reflective of their relationship with the Houthis in general, and their strategy in Yemen in particular. Whereas the conflicts in Syria and Iraq present direct threats to Iranian national security, Yemen is more of a (low cost) opportunity for Iran to upset regional rival Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the Houthis are far from being controlled by Iran, but are rather a homegrown group that happen to represent interests that are in line with Iran. This way, one might say that Iran needs the Houthis more than the Houthis need Iran.

However, this does not mean that support is non-existent. A little reported story in Arabic media has shed light on Iranian support for the Houthis, revealed in a classified letter from the Iranian bonyad Iranian Martyrs Foundation’s head, Mohammad Ali Shahidi, addressed to the bonyad’s subsidiary, the Yemen Martyrs Foundation. The letter apparently shows a reply to a request by the Quds Force on behalf of the Yemen Martyrs Foundation, which allegedly demanded that the Iranian Martyrs Foundation send $3.7 million to the Houthis. In the letter, the Iranian Martyrs Foundation seems to accept the request.

The Iranian Martyrs Foundation was established by Ayatollah Khomeini to help families of those killed in the Iran-Iraq war, and the Yemeni subsidiary was set up for the same purpose in Yemen in 2009, following fighting between the Houthis and former Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh (who is currently in alliance with the Houthis).

Arabic media has reported that throughout the Yemeni Civil War, a list of killed Houthi fighters has been sent to Quds Force General Qassem Solaimani twice a month. After Solaimani’s authentication and sign-off, families of Houthi ‘martyrs’ are then able to obtain the same amount of money as the families of Iranian soldiers.

Yemeni sources have also reported that Iran has sent more than 200,000 tonnes of oil to the Houthis, therefore managing to circumvent the Yemeni naval embargo. Allegedly, Yemeni businessmen loyal to the Houthis have purchased oil from Iran, and transported it to Hudaydah. According to the reports, most of these transactions occur through oil traders in Dubai. For these purposes, the Houthis have reportedly set up around 20 front companies that are owned by its leaders or loyalists, such as ‘Yemen Life’. Once the oil, which is bought by the Houthis for modest prices, reaches Hudaydah, the Houthis are able to make a profit through selling it themselves.

Moreover, at least four major arms shipments from Iran have been intercepted in the Gulf of Aden between September 2015 and March 2016. All of the shipments contained light weaponry. There have also been reports of Iran sending Zelzal (meaning earthquake in Persian and Arabic) rockets to the Houthis (although state-affiliated Iranian media has claimed that these rockets have been produced in Yemen).

Little known is that Iran has allegedly sent fighters through Lebanon, where Hezbollah has provided them with Lebanese passports before travelling to Yemen. One man identified as Iran’s contact point in this organisation is Khalil Harb, a former special operations commander in Hezbollah. Besides facilitating the flow of fighters and funds, Hezbollah are also said to have trained the Houthis in how to efficiently use social media. Hezbollah sources have also stated that eight of their commanders have been killed fighting in Yemen, although that has not been confirmed by other sources. The Houthis are also said to have had a presence in Lebanon since at least 2012.

Iranian support for armed groups in Afghanistan

A group that is often forgotten whilst talking about Iranian support for terror groups is the Taliban. Iran has escalated support for the group throughout the 2000s, despite sharing a turbulent past. In fact, the Taliban and Iran almost engaged in full out warfare in 1998 after Taliban commanders killed Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif. However, the situation changed when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and some reports even state that Iran made deals with the Taliban as early as a few months after the US invasion in order to quell US influence.

Iran seems to have oscillated between supporting the Afghan government and the Taliban ever since. Tehran tried to court the Afghan government, reportedly in an attempt to decrease US influence over the country, through both charitable donations and trade agreements. According to leaked diplomatic cables, Iran even encouraged Afghanistan to raise ‘anti-US talking points’ and to back anti-US policies to stir tensions between the two countries.

According to the US State Department, Iran has sent weapons and financial assistance to the Taliban since 2006, and in 2007 Iran hosted a Taliban delegation at an ‘Islamic Awakening’ conference. Having clearly failed to lure Afghanistan away from the US camp, Iran seems to have fully embraced the Taliban since 2012 or 2013. This has reportedly been done in order to disturb US interests in the region, as an unstable Afghanistan has been deemed as favourable to Iran’s interests.

As outlined in the section on Taliban funding, it has been proven that Quds Force commanders have financially assisted the Taliban, and that Iran has hosted Taliban fighters at various training camps. For more details, please see section 5.3.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] Presidential  documents, Executive Order 1357 of April 29 2011. Federal Register Vol 76 no 85

[ii] Presidential  documents, Executive Order 1357 of April 29 2011. Federal Register Vol 76 no 85