BAGHDAD — Iran has built up a multinational network of tens of thousands of young men from across the Middle East, turning them into a well-drilled fighting machine that is outgunning the US on the battlefield, as Tehran outsmarts the White House in the corridors of power.
These men can be found leading the defense of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, recapturing land from ISIS in Iraq, and fighting for control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The transnational militia of Shiite men — which has no official title — is now the dominant force in the region, enabling Iran to take full advantage in the absence of a coherent strategy from the Trump White House.
Over six months, BuzzFeed News spoke to researchers, officials, and militia fighters who described what they knew about the Iranian program, overseen by the secretive Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its infamous commander Qassem Suleimani — who often shows up on front lines in Iraq and Syria. Accounts by the fighters reveal the scale and structure of the program, and although many of the details could not be independently verified, BuzzFeed News was able to confirm all the fighters’ memberships in various armed groups. Their stories, collected independently, match one another — as well as accounts gathered by US military and intelligence officials.
Mustafa al-Freidawi is one of those men.
Freidawi, a compact man with a neatly trimmed black beard, fondly recalls his early days as a member of Iran’s militia. “It was a new adventure,” he said. “We were happy.” Speaking in a noisy restaurant in northern Baghdad earlier this year, Freidawi outlined how he was recruited, trained, and deployed to be part of a fighting force that aims to cement Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and beyond.
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, September 18, 2016.
Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Freidawi grew up the son of a bus driver in the rundown neighborhood of Ur in northern Baghdad, before following in his father’s footsteps. But that was never going to be enough for a young man looking to find meaning in his life. In June 2013 he answered the call to join a Shiite militia group known as Asaheb ahl al-Haq — or the League of the Righteous — notorious in the 2000s for its roadside bomb attacks against US forces, and alleged human rights abuses against Iraq’s minority Sunni population.
Freidawi was given 10 days’ training at an Iraqi army base in the town of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, before being dispatched to fight against Sunni insurgents. His first assignment was to join a team looking for three missing Iraqi soldiers in the town of Karma, east of Fallujah. Freidawi and his comrades stepped right into a terrible firefight. “I was so scared,” he said. “They were shooting at us like crazy. The other side believed we were broken. But we weren’t.”
Over the course of the next few months, Freidawi demonstrated his bravery and was quickly ushered up the chain of command. He soon adjusted to the long hours of waiting, punctuated by brief, intense moments of terror that characterize the life of a militiaman. What had started out as a volunteer effort to do some good for his “collapsing country,” as he described Iraq, was quickly evolving into a new career: professional gunman.
It was his talents on the battlefield that earned him the ultimate accolade for any young man fighting for the Shiite cause — he was recommended by his commanders for a 45-day military and ideological training program in Iran.
And so it was that on a cold January day in 2014, Freidawi found himself on a bus filled with fellow Shiite fighters, their spirits high, as it made its way along the highways and rural roads leading out of Baghdad. Heading southeast toward the long border with Iran, they dedicated songs to Zeinab, the sister of the martyred Imam Hussein. “For Zeinab, we became servants. With our chests, we welcome darts,” they sang.
It would be the first time many of these men had ever left Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis visit their wealthier, calmer neighbor each year to make the pilgrimage to its holy sites, or to access its health care. But instead of getting their passports stamped as they crossed the border in Shalamcheh, the men handed over their identification papers to Iranian authorities. They also gave in their cell phones — there would be no gleeful selfies on this trip.
Though they had entered Iran, there would be no official trace of their presence.
The men were then taken to the airport in Ahvaz, a city of 1 million in Iran’s furthermost southwestern corner, where they boarded an unmarked plane. Freidawi, then 23 years old, was excited — he had never flown before — and snagged a window seat. He watched in awe as snowcapped mountains appeared in the distance, perhaps on the outskirts of the Iranian capital, Tehran. To this day he’s not sure exactly where he was taken; no one told them and the men had been advised not to ask questions.
Military training began right away. “No sleep, two hours of running every day. They taught us to be very hard and very patient ... We survived on little food and water,” said Freidawi. Smoking was banned, as were phone calls to friends and relatives back home. But by the time the course was over, Freidawi was ready for the next step of his adventure: to fight for Assad in Syria.
Iran has been at odds with the West since 1979, when Islamic radicals overthrew the pro-US shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and established the country as a theocracy. Over the last decade Iran’s nuclear program has caused panic in Washington, DC, as successive administrations have struggled to work out how to deal with their regional bogeyman. This culminated in the controversial 2015 nuclear deal signed by Barack Obama — which Donald Trump now appears to have in his sights.
While Washington obsesses over Iran’s nuclear program, officials in Tehran are busying themselves with the facts on the ground in the Middle East. Ever since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran — a Shiite state — has had its eyes on its Shiite-majority neighbor, intent on taking over the levers of power, commerce, and the military. But this is just one part of Iran’s wider goal: to establish territorial dominance from the Gulf of Aden to the shores of the Mediterranean.
Iran’s enemies see the Shiite militia as little more than mercenaries, but Freidawi and his comrades sincerely believe in their cause. In their eyes, the threat posed by the region’s Sunni extremists, the US, and its allies is very real — and demands that they take up arms to defend their nations and their faith.
A truck full of Shiite militiamen near the frontline in Tal Afar, Iraq, on January 21, 2017.
Alex Potter for BuzzFeed News
In the summer of 2011, as the Arab Spring uprisings were shaking regimes across the Middle East, hundreds of young Syrian and Lebanese men gathered in the mountains of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. They were watched over by military trainers from the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to Fidaa al-Itaani, a Lebanese journalist, who witnessed the scene.
Back then, Itaani was a big supporter of Hezbollah, even occasionally picking up a weapon and training alongside the group. But he’s since publicly turned against Hezbollah, and agreed to speak out his experiences and insights about the training program. After witnessing the spectacle in the Bekaa Valley that day in 2011, he said he later asked a contact in Hezbollah’s intelligence unit why so many men were being trained so aggressively. Were they preparing for another war against Israel, he wondered. “We are training them in everything,” Itaani said the Hezbollah official told him. “Municipal governance, self-defense, religion, how to use the infrastructure of the state, electricity, water, civil defense.”
Hezbollah leaders meet in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, July 1985.
Joel Robine / AFP / Getty Images
Itaani said he was stunned by the ambition and scale of a project that had originally started during the 1980s Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon as a means for Iran to draw young aimless Shiite men off the street and against an invading force. Over the decades Hezbollah has become increasingly powerful as a tool of Iranian foreign policy and perpetrator of alleged violence in the Middle East, Europe, and even Latin America.
Now these young men were being used to prepare for war across the border in Syria, where the Shiite were a distinct minority, and where Sunnis were battling to overthrow the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad. “Assad may leave,” he described his contact as saying. “If so we will take a small part of Syria. If he wins, we will take all of Syria.”
Since the start of the Arab Spring, Iran has drawn tens of thousands of Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan fighters to fight in the war for Syria. Ely Karmon, at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, Israel, estimates there are 5,000 to 7,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria at any given time. The Fatemiyoun Brigade, a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, an elite branch of the armed forces, is comprised of Afghan fighters, and numbers up to 17,000 fighters. Hisham Hashemi, an Iraqi security expert, estimates around 65,000 Iraqi militia fighters have received training, weapons, or funding from Iran.
US and Israeli officials have voiced grave concerns about what appears be an emerging land bridge of fighting groups loyal to Tehran stretching from Iran’s Zagros Mountains all the way to the borders of Israel — but seem powerless in their attempts to stop it. Iran appears to be using these men in ever more creative ways, in an ongoing sectarian and geopolitical war that pits pro-Iranian Shiite countries and organizations against a Saudi-led bloc of conservative Sunni governments backed by the US.
"Many will go home. But 500 or 1,000 is all it takes to organize a terrorist network."
Others worry that building up a multinational network of highly trained and experienced combatants could have lasting consequences for a region already awash in arms, extremism, and overlapping conflicts. “What will happen with all these Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis fighting in Syria? Many will go home,” said Karmon. “But 500 or 1,000 is all it takes to organize a terrorist network. It will be a future threat. Their role is now strategic.”
The Iranian training of militia fighters seems to be accelerating, with fresh recruits and veterans of past training missions planning trips to Iran this year, according to the fighters themselves. Recent recruits described being trained in the use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), which can pierce the armor of military vehicles and were used extensively against US forces during the occupation of Iraq a decade ago.
Iran’s reach extends beyond Syria and its neighbors. US and other officials suspect that Iranian training of fighters in Yemen — where Tehran’s Houthi allies control the capital — is behind recent attacks on ships off the coast of Yemen that some worry could cripple crucial sea lanes.
Fighting loosely organized and diverse armed groups of men who blend easily into civilian populations also presents a significant challenge to the US and its allies, one for which conventional tools of warfare rarely suffice. “It’s a huge threat,” said retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, a former adviser to Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs former and chief of the research division at the Israeli Defense Force’s Military Intelligence branch. “The fact that we have F-16s and F-35s is not relevant to this problem.”
Iran’s ruling elite is opaque at the best of times, and figures within Tehran’s security apparatus have rarely disclosed details about the training program. No one outside Iran's circle of security leaders knows what it is called — one Iranian national security insider told BuzzFeed News that it doesn’t even have an official title. In the media, Iranian officials describe the fighters as “Defenders of the Holy Shrines,” in reference to their role in protecting Shiite religious sites. In rare moments when Iranian officials do talk about the program, they describe it in grand terms, linking its aims to the establishment of a just world order that will come about with the return of the Mahdi, the disappeared 12th Imam in Shiite theology, whose reappearance they say will herald a new age.
It’s also a battle Tehran sees as a direct assault on US influence in the Middle East. “The Americans spent $3 trillion in the war in Afghanistan under the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda but they are still wandering lost in the region,” Ismail Qaani, deputy commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force said during a speech earlier this year commemorating the role of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the mostly Afghan militia fighting for Iranian aims in Syria. “The United States and Israel should know that the Fatemiyoun is growing and resistance in the world has spread. This is just the beginning. America must pay attention.”
BuzzFeed News sought comment from several Iranian Foreign Ministry and security officials, but none responded. Ali Omidi, a professor of international relations at the University of Isfahan in Iran, surmised that the main goals of Iran’s militia program are to maintain Iran’s security by weakening or eliminating radical Sunni groups; strengthening Iran’s strategic objectives by expanding the capabilities of its allies; keeping a balance of power favorable to Iran in the Middle East; and countering rivals such as the US and Israel. But he cautioned that the program remains shrouded in mystery. “These matters are categorized confidential and secret and there is no verified or reliable information about them,” he said.
Even Iran’s critics marvel at the grandiosity of the Iranian vision, with its mixture of political and military power in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and even Nigeria, where an unarmed franchise of Hezbollah operates.
US officials, struggling to build up the capacity of allies from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, grudgingly acknowledge Iran’s mastery of this particular style of warfare. “In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen — anywhere we’ve trained — they suck; they can’t shoot straight,” one former US official said, in frustration. “The Iranians train these guys and they become good fighters.”
Shiite militia fighters in northern Iraq, October 18, 2015.
Thaier Al-sudani / Reuters
Iran’s armed groups are made up of men like Mustafa al-Freidawi, recruited from the proud and pious poor of the Middle East’s slums. Across the region, a sort of modus operandi for recruiting them has developed over the decades. At first, small Hezbollah cells scout out the terrain for local grievances to exploit and recruits to draw. “After that they send special advisers to connect with people, pay money to rent, or, if possible, buy houses,” according to Itaani, the former Hezbollah supporter. “Later they send political and religious guys to start to convince people. Only much later, they start to train fighters and militias.”
Freidawi and six others, including two Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, described a grueling application and vetting process for anyone joining an Iranian-backed militia. Recruiters want to know every detail about a potential militiaman: family, friends, distant relations, political views, religious habits.
“They were shooting at us like crazy. The other side believed we were broken. But we weren’t.”