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.
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.
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.”