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Iraqi Researcher’s Assassination Stirs Fears of Renewed Violence Against Academics

/ 13 Jul 2020

Iraqi Researcher’s Assassination Stirs Fears of Renewed Violence Against Academics

The recent slaying of a prominent Iraqi expert on jihadist groups by unknown gunmen in central Baghdad has stirred anger and shock among Iraqis, and raised fears of a new wave of assassinations targeting critics of foreign-backed militia groups operating in the country.

Husham Al-Hashimi, a 47-year-old security analyst,  was gunned down by three assassins outside his home in Baghdad’s Zeyouneh neighborhood on July 6. While no group has claimed responsibility for the killing, friends said he had been receiving threats in recent weeks from Iran-backed militias in Iraq, whose interference in Iraqi affairs he had criticized.

One of the world’s leading experts on the Islamic State, or ISIS, Al-Hashimi had been a key adviser in Iraq’s fight against the terrorist group since 2014. He was a member of the nongovernmental Iraq Advisory Council, a fellow at the nonpartisan, U.S.-based Center for Global Policy, and a  researcher at the Al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, in Baghdad.

He was also a regular commentator on Iraqi and Arab television, and many Iraqi officials, journalists and scholars sought his expertise.

“His martyrdom will leave a void and have a negative impact on combating terrorism,” said Hussam Botani, director of the Istanbul-based Center of Making Policies for International and Strategic Studies. “He actively helped fight terrorist groups and other militias undermining the state.”

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Al-Hashimi regularly “exposed the militias’ connections to other countries and their dominance over Iraq’s economy and decision-making,” added Botani, whose center published one of Al-Hashimi’s last articles in July and has launched a new research program, the Husham Al-Hashimi Program for Peace Studies, in his honor.

An hour before his death, Al-Hashimi tweeted that the current division in Iraq was a result of the ethnic and religious quota system put in place after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.  That post had been retweeted more than 5,000 times as of Wednesday.

Fears of More Killings

Al-Hashimi’s killing has renewed fears that Iraqi scholars might again be targeted for assassination, as they were in the decade after the toppling of Saddam. Brussels Tribunal, an activist think tank and peace organization, reported in 2013 that more than 20,000 academics and professionals had fled the country, and more than 400 had been killed. (See a related article, “Revival of Iraqi Violence Also Targets Academics.”)

“All noted activists are prone to get death threats, especially those who advocate a secular civil state.”

Saad Salloum   A political scientist at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University

Students, scholars and campuses also came under attack by ISIS and other unidentified gunmen in more than 70 incidents between 2013 and 2017, according to a report published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack in 2018.

“All noted activists are prone to get death threats, especially those who advocate a secular civil state,” said Saad Salloum, an assistant professor of political science at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University and the general coordinator of the Masarat Foundation for Cultural and Media Development.

“That was the fate of Jalal Dhiyab, a black Iraqi activist, who was assassinated in 2013,” said Salloum. “In 2015 and 2016, I received threats and my foundation and house were raided. This led me to leave the country just for criticizing the state and the judicial system.” (See a related article, “African-Iraqis Also Need the Black Lives Matter Movement.”)

‘A Horror Message’

Salloum sees Al-Hashimi’s killing as sending a threat to other independent activists. “It is a horror message to those who are against militarizing the society and against hate speech, those who fight any attempt to create a parallel state and combat international and regional interference in Iraq’s affairs,” he said.

For that, many think the investigation into Al-Hashimi’s death will be a test for Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is still only about two months into office.

In a tweet, the prime minister’s office said “We vow to pursue the killers and bring them to justice. We will not allow the return of assassinations to the Iraqi scene.”

Botani, in Istanbul, also believes that Al-Hashimi’s killing was meant to intimidate others “who oppose the influence of Shiite militias that have engulfed the state after 2014; a message that anyone who criticizes them will die.”

He called for a state campaign against armed factions. “Keeping silence might mean a new era of dominance of militias and maybe a coup against Iraq’s political system,” he said. “Everyone knows very well who killed al-Hashimi; we do not need an investigation. If nothing is done, no [competent people] will remain in Iraq.”

He lamented Al-Hashimi’s death as a tragic loss.

“We worked together for more than three years. He published 20 papers with our institute and a detailed book to be published soon,” said Botani. “It is a field study on the events that hit Iraq between 2014 and 2020. It will be a treasure of knowledge and the scholar’s last legacy.

“Al-Hashimi was by himself a mighty information battalion and a research institute,” Botani added. “He had an incomparable research methodology and had no match in Iraq and the Middle East. He deciphered the secrets of the most complicated terrorist and militant groups. His loss will not be compensated for a half-century to come. We lost a great man.”




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