The ‘Hybrid Armed Actors’ Paradox: A Necessary Compromise?
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series on hybrid armed actors in the Middle East. The concept for the series emerged from a Chatham House project on the same topic.
On Sept. 20, 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to relay a threat: If the Iraqi government did not put an end to the militias that were launching rockets at the U.S. embassy, then Washington would be left with no choice but to withdraw its ambassador and diplomatic representation from Baghdad. Months earlier, Kadhimi had visited Washington, where he met with President Donald Trump, Pompeo, and other senior White House officials, many of whom considered Kadhimi the most pro-American prime minister since 2003. Kadhimi, too, wants to see an end to such armed groups, which, over the summer of 2020, directly threatened him by sending fighters to his front gate. These groups also consider the prime minister pro-American. Then, on Jan. 9, 2021, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Faleh al-Fayadh, an Iraqi government official who heads the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — al-hashd al-shaabi in Arabic — leading the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to express its “surprise” and displeasure.
Despite the strong relationship between Washington and Kadhimi and their seemingly shared concern about militias, for the first time since 2003, the United States threatened to vacate its largest embassy in the world. For the first time since reinstating diplomatic relations after toppling Saddam, it threatened to treat Iraq as a rogue state — all this at a time when Washington had its best relations with the executive leadership in Baghdad. This strange paradox provides insights into the nature of power in both the Iraqi state and these armed groups.
For much of its time, the Trump administration focused on Ketaeb Hizballah as the main channel of Iranian influence in Iraq and the main chokepoint to rebuilding the Iraqi state. The two sides escalated their dispute. In areas such as al-Qaem, Iraq and al-Bukamal, Syria, the group competed against American interests. The United States then ran a campaign of bombings in 2019. Ketaeb Hizballah and its affiliates responded by storming the Green Zone — a secured area in the heart of Baghdad housing much of the Iraqi government and foreign representations — and surrounding the American embassy at the end of 2019. It also helped the proliferation of so-called resistance groups seeking revenge against the United States and its allies for the killings of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, who led the PMF, which included Ketaeb Hizballah. These groups are responsible for launching missiles into the Green Zone. To senior U.S. officials, the key to remedying the current instability in Iraq is to remove Ketaeb Hizballah as a medical doctor would remove a cancerous tumor. This can be done through bombing, isolating, and undermining Ketaeb Hizballah. Once this is done, the theory goes, the Iraqi government can chart a path toward stabilization.
However, Ketaeb Hizballah is more than a group of fighters that can be isolated and removed from the security sector. Likewise, it is more than a typical non-state actor. It has metastasized across the Iraqi body politic. Ketaeb Hizballah is a vanguard network of armed groups under the PMF. But the network also includes politicians in local and federal government, civil servants in government bureaucracy, businesspeople, religious authorities, and even civil society and humanitarian organizations. This network is entrenched in the Iraqi state such that military strikes, sanctions, and isolation strategies have, thus far, failed to root it out.
This story is not distinct. In the Middle East and North Africa, a seemingly increased number of armed groups appear to be more than the typical non-state actor. Groups such as Lebanese Hizballah or the PMF in Iraq acquire public authority over communities, operate sophisticated economic networks in formal economies, and even run for public office in local and national elections. Yet, despite their official titles and uniforms, these groups also function like irregular militias. Their ability to command forces independent of the government, their unaccountable economic power, and informal social capital at times compete with government authority and control. So, how should analysts and officials understand these groups?
In Search of a Term
Some policy researchers have turned to the word “hybrid actor” to describe groups like the PMF in Iraq, Hizballah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, or the National Defense Forces in Syria. They argue that these hybrid armed actors are not quite local warlords operating in limited areas, or insurgents like ISIL fighting to bring down political systems, or criminal organizations running economic enterprises without a political mandate. Instead, they, at times, seem to be de facto state actors. But, crucially, they are not completely state actors because they are not entirely under the command of the formal government. They seem to sometimes operate with the government and sometimes compete against it, making them “hybrid.”
But “hybrid actor” has its own set of analytical limitations. As Toby Dodge notes, accepting these organizations as operating in both state and non-state areas means a compromise: the separation of the formal state from the rest of society. Researchers who use the term accept this mindset of the Western policymaker who — guided by international Westphalian norms — agrees that state power should be found in familiar formal government institutions and, when it is not, then something is hybrid. In the Middle East, however, the two spaces — state and non-state — are not so neatly separated. State power and formal government may not always be the same thing. Hybridity has been used as a stopgap to challenge, but not redefine, the state versus non-state binary. It has still accepted the existence of that binary.
Yet, the state is not only found where the outside policymaker may think to look, such as in a formal ministry or in a parliament. It can be found across a multiplicity of actors who, at different points, enjoy state power. Many of these actors may seem like distant militias like Ketaeb Hizballah but are nonetheless connected to state networks. In Iraq, this helps to explain why the United States continues to threaten to sever its relations with the country, even though it has strong relations with the prime minister. The fragmented state is not only found in the prime minister’s office. Instead, actors such as the PMF are both deeply embedded in the state network and often practice the same activities as actors who more closely resemble the Westphalian state ideal.
How the PMF Does the State
The PMF is commonly described as an umbrella organization of some 50 armed groups that rose in 2014 to defend the state from the rise of ISIL after the Iraqi security forces crumbled. But the PMF is more than the typical “non-state actor.” Unlike ISIL, the PMF is not an insurgent group pursuing a new state. It is not just a criminal organization pursuing profit and primarily engaging in economic activities. Moreover, it is not a local warlord pursuing local governance structures. Not only does the PMF leadership claim to be part of the state, but it claims to be defending the post-2003 political system and the state from perceived threats, whether that be insurgent groups or, more recently, popular uprisings calling for an end to the corrupt political system.
Since its inception, the PMF has valued legal standing. In June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s carefully worded fatwa called for volunteers to enlist with state forces to fight ISIL. Then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formed the PMF commission as a military institution under the national security council of the prime minister’s office. Through the years, PMF leaders pursued ways to gain even greater legal recognition and influence over Iraq’s government institutions. In November 2016, the Iraqi parliament passed a law recognizing the PMF as “an independent military formation as part of the Iraqi armed forces and linked to the commander-in-chief.” This law was only two pages long and left considerable ambiguity. Namely, the use of “independent” was intentional, allowing the PMF to be state-recognized but operate outside the centralized command structure of the formal government.
The PMF, at times, even looks like a formal state. Its military formation is organized through brigade numbers. Its fighters wear official uniforms linked to the commission. The commission manages its own military justice and disciplinary system and lobbies for a separate law granting their members the rights and benefits of regular armed forces.
PMF groups also act like a formal state. Around the country, they issue formal letters that grant citizens and businesses access through official federal checkpoints. Many Iraqis — both supportive and critical of the PMF — have told the author that, when faced with any legal or bureaucratic problem, they do not go to their local government officials. Instead, they go directly to PMF leaders, who are quicker and better able to navigate government bureaucracies than the very officials who sit in those governments.
Despite looking and acting like a state, policymakers view the PMF as separate from the Iraqi state. In many meetings on the issue, they have argued that the lack of centralized command structure and accountability to the formal government means the PMF is outside the state. The standard definition of a non-state actor is “any armed group, distinct from and not operating under the control of, the state or states in which it carries out military operations, and which has political, religious, and/or military objectives.” Since the PMF is distinct from the control of the prime minister’s office, it has been viewed as a non-state actor. Moreover, security sector reform programs often do not include the PMF because of its distance from accountable centralized command. American policymakers who advocate for cutting out the cancer view the PMF to some extent as separate from the state, like ISIL. However, in security, politics and economics, the PMF is very much an Iraqi state actor, even if it does not adhere to the Westphalian idealized command structure.
The PMF Competes in Iraqi State Politics
PMF groups play the same politics as other parties in the Iraqi state. They competed in the 2018 elections under the Fateh coalition and came second, behind Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance — which, itself, also had brigades and fighters linked to the PMF.
After the election, PMF groups got together with all major political parties to divide up the ministries. Since 2016, a technocratic drive in Iraq has meant that most parties no longer directly send their representatives to become ministers, but instead they select weak independent ministers who they can coopt. As such, in Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s new cabinet, the PMF pursued the same strategy. Its main groups within Fateh included the Badr Organization; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which called its political wing al-Sadiqoon; the Sanad Alliance, which consisted of a number of smaller PMF parties; and a loose coalition linked to Shibl al-Zaidi and others who works closely with Ketaeb Hizballah. Each group managed to secure at least one ministry. This does not mean these ministers are directly linked to the PMF, but rather that each minister had to agree to certain terms and conditions.
Critically, this practice is not distinct to the PMF. It is the nature of Iraqi politics today. Most political parties do not send their own representatives to serve as ministers but agree to so-called independent technocratic ministers, who remain weak. The political parties then send officials into senior civil service positions, such as the director general or deputy minister positions, known as the special grades. These proxies then enforce the political party’s interests when it comes to government contracts and all major decisions, often overstepping their own independent minister. The PMF, again, does the same thing and has now secured its share of special grades across the government agencies in Iraq.
Looking into the political activity — and not at formal versus informal legal structures — reveals that the PMF may look different from typical Westphalian norms, but it is not distinct to all major actors competing within the state in Iraq. What makes one a “state” actor, another a “hybrid” actor, and another a “non-state” actor if they all practice the same politics?
The PMF Compete in Iraqi State Economics
Like all other parties in Iraq, the PMF’s economic activities, operating across “formal” and “informal” lines, reveal a system of actors that seek rent both from the government and outside government accountability. Yet, to the Westphalian policymaker, some are considered state actors and some are considered non-state or hybrid.
PMF groups receive formal salaries from the central government. There are formal decision-making and management processes embedded in Iraqi law and bureaucracy that nominally govern these salary payments. Each group submits a list of names to the government. Formally, the PMF general manager of the finance department and the manager of the central administration vet these names. These administrators sit in the PMF commission, under the national security council of the prime minister’s office, presenting the image of the government’s administration and control of these groups. However, PMF members and security researchers have told me that the real decision-making on salary payments is negotiated through informal channels and power holders who do not sit in this formal bureaucracy. Prior to his death, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis made these decisions. After his death, an informal committee that includes leaders such as Abu Fadak, Abu Zainab al-Lami, Abu Muntazir al-Husseini, Abu Ali al-Basri, and Abu Iman al-Bahli meets to decide the flow of governments payments. These senior PMF leaders send a lump request of money to the ministry of finance which then asks the central bank of Iraq to pay the PMF. With greater political power, PMF allocations in the federal budget have increased from 1.28 trillion Iraqi dinar ($877.5 million) in 2017 and 2018, to 2.1 trillion Iraqi dinar in 2019 — the first budget after their electoral success. This increased to 3.1 trillion Iraqi dinar in 2020 and 3.55 trillion Iraqi dinar in 2021.
The so-called informal or conflict economy in Iraq represents another blurred line. The minister of finance recently admitted that the Iraqi government expects some $8 billion per year in customs revenue, but the groups running all the border crossings only send to Baghdad $1 billion at most. From checkpoints to border customs, actors cooperate and compete for revenue. This process includes PMF groups, which share revenue at checkpoints, along borders, and in cities, with other groups, including the Iraqi security forces, police units from the Ministry of Interior, and, at times, other forces under the prime minister’s office. According to interviews with Iraqi researchers, a dozen or so of these checkpoints make up to $100,000 per day. Autonomous divisions from the Iraqi army; operations commands from the ministry of defense and prime minister’s office; the federal police from the Ministry of Interior; and PMF brigades, even those linked to Ketaeb Hizballah share these major checkpoints. Across the country, these so-called state, non-state, or hybrid actors work together to generate revenue outside the control of the formal government.
These economic practices are not distinct to the PMF but are common to all major state-linked groups and political parties. Is it worthwhile to differentiate an Iraqi security forces commander as a state commander but a Ketaeb Hizballah commander as a non-state or hybrid actor if they are part of the same economic activity? Or are all these actors, then, hybrid because they do not conform to a centralized command structure? Political and economic state power, in this sense, is not found only in formal government institutions. The analytical clarity of hybridity is complicated in this application.
Is it Time to Call a State a State?
In the everyday practices of politics and economics in Iraq, PMF groups are indistinguishable from Iraqi state actors across the spectrum. They take on the same mundane practices of a state. They compete for representation in the government. They work with formal government officials to generate revenue in the “formal” and “informal” economies. This reality complicates any attempt to split all these actors into state, non-state, and hybrid categories. Far from monolithic organizations, many of these actors are better understood as networks of state power, which I analyze in an upcoming Chatham House paper entitled “Networks of Power: The Popular Mobilization Forces and the State in Iraq”.
Some argue that calling these groups a state actor reflects a normative judgement which, in a sense, recognizes or legitimizes these armed groups and militias. This is not the intention of this debate. Indeed, a number of Iraqi actors — recognized and unrecognized — are responsible for human rights violations. However, this debate seeks to reach an understanding of the nature of power that these groups enjoy and the nature of the Iraqi state — which has not conformed well to Western expectations.
Hybridity lacks a clear litmus test of which groups or parties are hybrid and which are state versus non-state, since these networks all operate in the same arenas and conduct the same activities. In the Middle East, where the state is often not found in formal institutions but across a fragmented society, many state actors with armed elements might fairly be argued to be hybrid, notwithstanding if they sit in formal or informal institutions.
To overcome this predicament, the focus, then, should not be on the nature of these groups but rather on the nature of the state itself. Rather than a neo-Weberian institution where the government has a monopoly over legitimate violence and where power is primarily located in formal institutions, the state in Iraq resembles a network of actors that compete and cooperate across government and society. The Ketaeb Hizballah example shows this network is fluid and adaptable. It can play both formal politics in parliament and also morph into smaller resistance groups with different names that fire missiles into the Green Zone. It is very much a vanguard network that competes for power inside the Iraqi state, itself an arena where networks meet.
Yet, Western policymakers will still consider some of these groups as state and some as non-state simply because they hold (or do not hold) an official government position. The cabinet minister’s office in Baghdad is formal, yet a political party’s or armed organization’s economic office is informal. This reality — of international norms — is why policy researchers looking to overcome the confusion have resorted to the word hybridity to explain the blurriness.
Is hybridity the right term for these organizations, or for the space in which they operate, or for their actions more generally? Academics and policymakers will never stop fundamentally dancing around this debate given that state officials will always see things in a state or non-state construct, and academics will always see nuance.
Hybridity has been important because it serves as a vehicle to bridge the gap between status, theory, and policy reality. The concept was an attempt for policymakers to reconceive the nature of non-state actors in the Middle East. But it is only a step toward a final understanding that accepts that the state and society in Iraq are far less divided than the neo-Weberian would like. The next step, then, should be for policymakers to focus less on formal and informal titles and more on the principles of accountability and social power, wherever it may reside.
In the forthcoming papers in this series, experts engaging in a Chatham House project on hybrid armed actors in the Middle East will discuss the oft-used term and its application to a variety of contexts in the Middle East and North Africa. Erica Gaston looks at how these Western states have responded to hybrid armed actors in the Middle East and North Africa region and beyond. She argues that, while international legal norms and Western states’ policies are still largely state-centric, there are ample examples of de facto recognition and partnership with so-called hybrid actors. Tim Eaton contends that, in the case of Libya, the term hybrid actor is preferable to explain the activities of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, which cannot be viewed as a state military actor because it lacks legal status, is unaccountable to the formal government, and is an alliance of loosely affiliated armed groups. To him, these three traits define a state military actor. Yet, he also contends that the Libyan Arab Armed Forces cannot be considered a non-state military actor but instead as a hybrid armed actor. Ariel Ahram focuses on hybrid security arrangements that have emerged in the region, arguing that the Westphalian state is still present but that functional control over security and economic welfare does not fall into the hands of armed non-state actors. He argues that these changes need to be reflected in Western policies in these countries.
Renad Mansour is a senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program and director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House. He is the co-author of Once Upon a Time in Iraq: History of a Modern Tragedy, which came out from BBC Books in July 2020 and was based on a documentary for which he consulted. He tweets at @renadmansour.