Dr. Hisham al-Hashimi, a renowned Iraqi security expert, was murdered by gunmen outside his house in Baghdad on July 6, reportedly one hour after he appeared on TV. Motorcyclists pulled up and fired five gunshots at him, according to one family member. He later died in a hospital.
A national uproar erupted in Iraq, and the killing left much of the world in shock. Sympathetic and mournful comments flooded social media, testament to the impact al-Hashimi had on countless people. The public outrage also revealed the controversy surrounding his assassination. Leading politicians, ambassadors, and diplomats showed their concerns and thoughts. Other organizations, including the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), condemned the assassination and asked the Iraqi government to bring the culprits to justice.
Many Iraqis considered him a true national hero, who touched many people he met, and who was known for his gentle character and depth of knowledge. Many of his colleagues, friends, and acquaintances outside of Iraq felt the same way. He always seemed to find the time and effort to help anyone who needed assistance and to take from his knowledge.
“He had a zest for life, for good food and for good company, always cracking jokes, putting people at ease and explaining what was going on in his beloved Baghdad.”
“Hisham will be remembered as a generous host, whether smoking cigars on the terrace of the Babil hotel or eating Masgouf in his favorite restaurant in central Baghdad,” wrote Toby Dodge, a professor at the London School of Economics and friend of al-Hashimi. “He had a zest for life, for good food and for good company, always cracking jokes, putting people at ease and explaining what was going on in his beloved Baghdad.”
An expert of Iraqi politics, al-Hashimi became a specialist of Islamic State (IS) and its followers, after the extremist faction’s emergence in Iraq in 2014. After the military campaign against IS, he switched his focus to Shia militia groups, as these were subsequently the more dominant forces. He also appeared frequently on local and international news channels, and diplomats, reporters, and government officials often sought his insights.
Despite popular media portrayals of Iraq as an inherently sectarian country, al-Hashimi broke this stereotype as he was loved by Shia and Sunni Muslim Iraqis alike. Since his killing, international donors have raised over US$50,000 to support his family.
More than just a brilliant mind, al-Hashimi was also deeply committed to reform within his country and was known to be very critical of corruption within Iraq. The day before he was killed, al-Hashimi tweeted, “The rights, blood and dignity of Iraqis have been lost, and their money gone into the pockets of corrupt politicians.”
He supported the nationwide protests which started in October 2019 against mismanagement by consecutive Iran-aligned governments in Iraq. This caused a rift between him and the Tehran-supported factions that increasingly dominated Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. He particularly condemned the Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF), which was set up in 2014 to defeat ISIS, and received Iranian funding. Though Hashd al-Sha’abi showed sympathy for his death, this has been cited as one of the factions that may have been involved.
One businessman in Iraq, who wished to remain anonymous, said al-Hashimi revealed the funding of pro-Iran groups in June.
Though, no faction claimed responsibility, al-Hashimi said he received death threats from Kata’ib Hezbollah.
Though, no faction claimed responsibility, al-Hashimi said he received death threats from Kata’ib Hezbollah, and some Iraqis consider them to be the likely perpetrator.
The day after al-Hashimi’s killing, Iraqi protestors placed an image of Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khameinei, with blood around his mouth in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. There is much opposition towards Iranian influence in the country, and al-Hashimi’s killing has evidently further fueled it.
Iraq’s current government has promised firm action for al-Hashimi’s murder. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who worked with al-Hashimi during his time as national security advisor until his current position, blamed groups “outside the law.”
“We vow to his killers that we will pursue them, so they are justly punished. We will not allow assassinations to return to Iraq for a single second,” al-Kadhimi said in a statement.
Paying respects to al-Hashimi’s family on July 8, al-Kadhimi said “those afraid of a word can only be described as cowards. Hisham did nothing but try to help Iraqis through his words,” while hugging the deceased’s tearful three sons Issa, Moussa, and Ahmed.
However, the Prime Minister has not named any potential culprits directly, indicating Iran’s ongoing influence over the country. This has been a wide concern: that while there is condemnation, no efforts have been made to track the perpetrators.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to put the spotlight on Iran, given tensions between the US and Iran, and Washington’s harsh ongoing sanctions on Tehran in its “maximum pressure” campaign.
“The United States joins partner nations in strongly condemning his assassination and [calling] for the government of Iraq to bring to justice the perpetrators of this terrible crime . . . swiftly,” Pompeo told a news conference in Washington.
“It was either a choice for al-Hashimi to change his views or be killed, given his prominence.”
Such forces, that Iraqis feel wish to dominate and exploit their country, increasingly repress freedom of speech. As one observer on Twitter expressed, it was either a choice for al-Hashimi to change his views or be killed, given his prominence. This reveals the harsh restrictions on critical and independent opinions, and the punishment that awaits those who breach them.
One Middle East political writer, Fanar Haddad, argued the killing was a response to the raid by Iraqi security forces on Kata’ib Hezbollah in June. Haddad said he expected that there would be some sort of “face-saving solution” after the raid.
“That’s how it usually works in Iraqi politics,” he said.
The UK and other international partners will work to strengthen the Iraqi security forces to help them achieve justice, claimed the British Ambassador to Iraq Stephen Hickey.
Some analysts have therefore highlighted the importance of providing direct help to Iraq’s institutions and security, with the support of a government independent of militia forces.
Speaking to the Italian Institute for International Policy Studies, Ranj Alaaldin of Brookings Institute said: “Hisham al-Hashimi’s assassination symbolizes the magnitude of the task facing reformists [and] protestors. What we have seen unfold is the culmination of long-standing failures [and] neglect [and] the alienation [and] degradation of people across the region.”