The U.S. Institute of Peace mourns the death of Husham al-Hashimi, a leading expert on extremist groups who devoted his life to building peace in Iraq. Al-Hashimi, 47, was shot dead near his home in Baghdad on July 6 by motorcycle-borne gunmen. No group has so far claimed responsibility for his murder.

Al-Hashimi was “an intellectual, a thinker, an expert, a strategist, someone who was respected, loved, and appreciated by everyone who worked with him,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs at USIP. “To target someone like Husham is a huge shock and a dangerous indicator of the political and security situation in Iraq,” he said, adding, “It undermines the belief that change is possible through peaceful means.”

The fact that al-Hashimi was killed in Baghdad “amid all the layers of security, goes to show that civilians and intellectuals are not safe there,” said Hamasaeed. “It signals the weakness of the state and undermines trust in its ability to bring criminals to justice,” he added. One of the demands of the protesters who have been demonstrating in Iraq since last year is that the government hold accountable those responsible for violent crimes.

“Given Iraq’s vulnerability [al-Hashimi’s murder] could push frustrated young Iraqis in the wrong direction,” Hamasaeed warned.

A Political Message

Al-Hashimi’s murder is seen by some as a message to Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has promised to get tough with Islamic State militants and armed groups with ties to Iran. Al-Hashimi served as an informal adviser to Al-Kadhimi and often publicly goaded the government to do more to stamp out extremism. 

Husham al-Hashimi
Husham al-Hashimi

“It sends a very clear political message,” said Elie Abouaoun, director of the Middle East and North Africa programs at USIP.

Al-Hashimi’s murder is a “political assassination even though he was not a politician because it happened as a consequence of his work and because he was considered to be close to and representing what the current government of Iraq is doing and what the protesters in Iraq are demanding,” said Hamasaeed.

Al-Kadhimi blamed groups “outside the law” for al-Hashimi’s murder and vowed to “pursue [the killers] so they are justly punished.”

Al-Kadhimi’s government has recently cracked down on armed groups aligned with Iran that have attacked U.S. targets in Iraq. One such group, Kataib Hezbollah, was the target of a raid by Iraqi security forces in June.

In a Facebook post, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said it was “deeply shocked and saddened by the cowardly murder” and called on the Iraqi government to “bring those responsible for his murder to swift justice.”

Al-Hashimi the Peace Builder

Al-Hashimi’s research focused on jihadi groups, including ISIS, and armed groups in Iraq that have ties to Iran. He is remembered by those who knew him as down-to-earth, gracious, and ever ready to share his wealth of knowledge with journalists, intellectuals, and politicians.

Abouaoun first met al-Hashimi in Iraq about a decade ago. In their more recent exchanges, al-Hashimi mentioned receiving threats to his life. Rumors of al-Hashimi’s murder had circulated many times in the past, including once when he and Abouaoun were sitting together in a hotel in Baghdad. “This time … my immediate response was, ‘OK, this is not the first time,’” Abouaoun said. This time, however, the news was true.

Between 2016 and 2019, al-Hashimi joined the Network of Iraqi Facilitators, a USIP-supported network in Iraq. He also advised Sanad for Peacebuilding, USIP’s strategic partner in Iraq. He provided invaluable conflict assessments and analysis about areas in Iraq where USIP has led reconciliation work.

Abouaoun said al-Hashimi’s murder could have a chilling effect on other, lower-profile individuals who are working toward peace in Iraq. “Some of them will think twice about venturing into some of the topics Husham covered,” he said.

An Enormous Legacy

Hamasaeed recalled al-Hashimi as being a “relationship builder” who “helped bring good actors into the conversation.”

Both Hamasaeed and Abouaoun noted that al-Hashimi’s lasting legacy will be the enormous body of work he leaves behind—his meticulous research on extremism.

Hamasaeed recalled being struck by al-Hashimi’s apparent omnipresence. “You felt at any given day he was everywhere—sharing his views on television, meeting people, participating in events, and working on his research. It made me wonder where he found the time,” he said.

Last, but not least, Hamasaeed recalled al-Hashimi’s bravery. “He had the opportunity to leave Iraq. Many organizations outside Iraq would have offered him a high-paying job. Yet he chose to stay in Baghdad and work in plain sight and say what he had to say in the most moderate way,” he said.

Al-Hashimi was active on Twitter where he had a huge following. In a tweet in June he wrote: “Baghdad … neither you are you nor home is home.” Hamasaeed said the threats to his life that al-Hashimi was facing at the time were probably weighing heavy on his mind.

Hamasaeed last met al-Hashimi while in Baghdad to speak at a conference. As they chatted, al-Hashimi cautioned him against becoming complacent about his security. “He advised me to take care because … there are limits to what can be said and lines that should not be crossed,” Hamasaeed recalled. “It is unfortunate that the person who gave me that advise lost his life in this way.”

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