As the United States continues its battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, some analysts believe Iran has turned its attention to captured ISIS fighters, recruiting them unwittingly to join militias that target U.S. interests in the region and to instigate growing sectarian violence as the regime continues to influence Iraq’s military, political and economic affairs.
It is a complex covert operation coordinated by Iran’s intelligence agency through the nation’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, say some U.S. officials who have spoken to Circa. Iran’s use of proxy groups to coordinate or plan attacks against its perceived enemies or co-opt institutions in neighboring states is not new and the regime has used proxies in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, just to name a few, said one U.S. official, who spoke on background due to the nature of their work.
The official noted that there’s concern that despite efforts to abolish ISIS there isn’t enough being done to quell “Iran’s influence in the predominately Shi’ite Iraq and the use of Sunni fighters allows the regime to utilize all players to its benefit,” the official said.
Information made available to U.S. intelligence suggests that the “Iranian regime is covertly utilizing former ISIS fighters to engage in operations that would destabilize U.S. and western nation efforts.”
Iran’s close ties with the predominantly Shi’ite Iraqi government are complex and for minority Sunni, Kurdish, Christian and Yazidi people it can be precarious. Monday’s referendum by the Kurdish people to seek independence is one example. The referendum for independence was backed by 92 percent of the Kurds and has now provoked not only Iraq but also Iran and Turkey. Iraq’s parliament asked the prime minister Wednesday to send troops to the city of Kirkuk, one of the disputed oil cities.
Bob Kent, the CEO of Knowledge Information Services, which helps businesses and corporations working Iraq, said over the past several years his company has received information, from more than 1,200 contacts in the region, that Iran has been systemically recruiting war-trained ISIS fighters. Kent a former Air Force intelligence officer has spent more than eight years in Iraq since 2008, and has also worked as a contractor for the Department of Defense as a sociocultural researcher.
“One of things that Iran does is because they can't project power overtly is they like to instigate sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shia,” said Kent, who noted that Iran is focused on the geopolitics and religion is used as a tool.
“What we're seeing now is that not only is Iran supporting all of the Shia militias that are in Iraq, Hezbollah plus all the popular mobilization forces that are coming up, they're also supporting what are known as the Sunni militias,” he said. “They're fighting against ISIS and at the same time, after the battle is over, they're recruiting the ISIS fighters and they're going to work for Iran.”
Kent said the information his company incidentally gathers is shared with U.S. officials both in Iraq and in the United States but he believes the warning signs are being ignored.
He noted that there has been “multiple threats to U.S. forces in the region, active targeting of the U.S. Embassy, both with multiple rocket launchers and cyber teams.”
“We passed that along. Like I said, there has been no follow-up,” Kent added.
A State Department official, who spoke on condition that they not be named, told circa, "the U.S. Embassy receives and welcomes threat information from a variety of sources. We don't provide confirmation, analysis or readouts on reports we receive."
Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said “this danger is worth worrying about but to my knowledge it is hypothetical to date.”
O’Hanlon noted “Iran does have influence that they promote through bribery, cajoling, coercion, and even in the past at times assassination of some Iraqi politicians.”
“However, I also think the U.S., aware of this history, jumps to worst-case analysis quite quickly,” he added. “I am dubious to date about any reports of Iranian-trained ISIS-populated anti-U.S. hit squads.”
But in the Middle East, where there are so many nations vying for control, information and intelligence analysis can be murky.
“Iran has allies now in China and Russia,” said Kent. “They're sharing intelligence. They're sharing resources. They're pre-positioning weapons, heavy weapons and missiles inside of Iraq for use against the other GCC countries and countries from the West like the U.S. If we don't address it now, I'm afraid it's going to get worse and this is how, I believe, world wars get started.”
CENTCOM Army Maj. Earl Brown told Circa, “We are concerned about Iranian malign influence in the region, which is a threat to long-term stability.”
But Brown declined to give specifics as to whether the military has information regarding the allegations that the Iranian regime is covertly recruiting from ISIS fighters in the region. Brown said CENTCOM’s “focus remains on working with our Coalition and partner nations to defeat ISIS, and we encourage all of our partners in the region to work towards common solutions that enable regional security.”
Kent said he is concerned that if the U.S. fails to understand or respond to the serious threats posed by Iran, Iraq will once again fall victim to war and deadly sectarian violence.
“I believe it all depends on what U.S. policy is in the next few years,” said Kent. “Iraq will be lost within a year or year and a half to Iran if the U.S. doesn't start to support the moderate people on the ground. It's important to note that even though the majority of people in Iraq are Shia, most of them support... they're pro- Iraqi. There's a definite nationalist Iraqi feeling -- you're seeing Sunni, Shia, Christians, they want the Iranians out.”
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