How Sistani Fatwa Helped Iraq Achieve Rare Anti-Terror Feat

Cleric Ayatollah Ali al Sistani rallied the demoralised Iraqis in June 2014 by issuing a fatwa calling on all able-bodied to resist ISIS when the terror group controlled 40% of Iraq

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued the fatwa in Najaf in 2014.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued the fatwa in Najaf in 2014.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In the middle of the last decade, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controlled a third of Syria and 40% of Iraq and imperiled world peace as never before. The group appeared uncontrollable when the security forces fled Iraq’s Mosul in June 2014 in the face of a major assault to allow ISIS to overrun large swathes of territory.

ISIS’s rival, al-Qaida, paled in comparison to the threat of transnational terrorism the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi-led group posed. The capitulation plunged the war-weary Iraq into a fresh crisis and stunned its government into silence. It sparked global doom and gloom and fears of terror attacks across the world.

The Turnaround

It was difficult to imagine that just in a few years, ISIS would be decimated territorially. The Syrian Democratic Forces ended the group’s claim to any territory in March 2019. It captured Baghouz, the last village under ISIS control, less than two years after Iraqi forces freed the group’s last stronghold of Hawija in Iraq in October 2017.

The American special forces perhaps drove the final nail into ISIS’s coffin in October 2019 by killing al Baghdadi.

The Taliban, meanwhile, remained invincible in Afghanistan while the so-called ISIS caliphate, which once stretched from Aleppo (Syria) to Diyala (Iraq), rose and fell.

The US’s inability to defeat the Taliban despite its military might forced Washington DC to sign a peace deal with the Afghan group. It was back to square one 18 years back after the US declared a war on the Taliban and dislodged them from power for sheltering al-Qaida post the 9/11 attacks.

Few And Far Between

Successes against terrorist groups with territorial control are not unprecedented. But wars on them have invariably been very long drawn.

Sri Lanka took 25 years to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was once the most deadly terrorist organisation. LTTE gained notoriety for its brutal suicide bombings that left hundreds of people including former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dead.

Pakistan took around a decade to reclaim control over parts of its territory lost to terrorist groups such as the Tahreek-e-Taliban, which has reared its ugly head again with a series of attacks.

Turning The Tide

But Iraq managed to defeat ISIS in just three years even as history was not on the Iraqi side. Campaigns against other terrorist groups with territorial control have been long-drawn and often unsuccessful nature.

I had a ringside view of Iraq’s fightback when I visited the country in 2016. My journey across Iraq as part of a media delegation began in the southern city of Najaf, where the seeds of Iraqi fightback were sown.

Reclusive Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani rallied the demoralised Iraqis in June 2014 from his headquarters in Najaf. He issued a fatwa calling on able-bodied Iraqis to resist ISIS from one of Islam’s holiest shrines—the fourth Caliph Ali’s mausoleum.

The sistani fatwa galvanised thousands of volunteers, who played a key role in defeating ISIS. The fatwa gave the anti-ISIS resistance much-needed legitimacy in the absence of credible political leadership.

The volunteerism Sistani’s call triggered was palpable in our interactions with volunteers and visits to anti-ISIS Hashd volunteer force camps. Hashd pursued effective recruitment while Iraqi Security Forces struggled to attract recruits due to poor public image.

The Resistance

In November 2015, Carnegie’s Middle East Center noted Iraq’s successes against ISIS were largely attributed to the Sistani fatwa. It cited well-informed contacts in Baghdad to estimate that some 80% of men of fighting age signed up from provinces where he held sway.

Carnegie acknowledged the Hashd’s critical role in anti-ISIS resistance even as it challenged ‘the state’s monopoly on force.’ The volunteers played an important part in reclaiming territories such as Ramadi and wresting control over the Mosul-Raqqa route that choked ISIS’s finances and blocked its lifeline oil exports.

The Heroism

There appeared to be a ubiquitous celebration of the heroism of the anti-ISIS fighters. Pictures of fallen heroes and eulogies dotted public squares, highways, markets, and shrines across major Iraqi cities Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad.

The anti-ISIS heroes were celebrated in the media. Giant screens relayed visuals from the battlefields to keep alive the spirit of resistance, which Iraqis insisted was a unified and hence successful battle for their existence.

Most Iraqis appeared at pains to dispel ‘the western projection’ of the war in sectarian terms. Basheer Hussain Najafi, one of the five Grand Ayatollahs and potential Sistani successor, articulated the sentiment best when we met him at his office in Najaf.

The Unifier

Simplistic western narratives on issues such as sectarianism within Islam ignore how sectarian divides are not cast in stone. The devotion to the Prophet and his family unites Muslims across sectarian lines.

Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law who lies buried in the golden-domed mausoleum in Najaf, is central to Shia devotion. For Shias, Ali was the only rightful successor as the Prophet’s closest relative.

Ali’s supporters, who insisted only the Prophet’s direct descendants should be his successors, came to be known as the Shia or Shi’at Ali (the party of Ali). Others, who insisted that bloodline should not be the sole criterion for selecting Muslim leaders, came to be known as Sunni.

Sunnis revere Ali as one of the four caliphs. Most Sufi saints are Sunni. They mostly trace their lineage to Ali, who is seen as the spiritual inheritor of the Prophet.

Ali was one of the Prophet’s close companions and the first four successors. He was also the first male convert to Islam and the prophet’s son-in-law.

Ali remains a widely-quoted Muslim hero known for his compassion. He is famously quoted to have written to his Egyptian governor to rule with tolerance:

… Let the dearest of your treasuries be the treasury of righteous action… Infuse your heart with mercy, love, and kindness for your subjects… for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation.

Modern-Day Kharijites

There was a cross-sectarian unanimity that ISISI was a manifestation of the Kharijites (defectors), who assassinated Ali in AD 661. Puritanical Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al ash-Sheikh was among those who denounced ISIS as modern-age Kharijites.

Ali was of great symbolic importance to the fight against modern-day Kharijites. He crushed them when they first rebelled against and killed the third caliph Usman in the seventh century.

The Kharijites launched periodic military attacks against Muslims until they ceased to be a threat in the eighth century. They assassinated Ali in the year 661 before they were defeated.

The Shia clergy likened ISIS to the Kharijites and killers of Ali’s son, Hussain, and members of his family in Karbala for resisting Yazid, an unjust ruler. Shias to this day annually mourn Hussain’s and his family’s killings in the Islamic month of Muharram.

The clergy linked the fight against ISIS to the survival of true Islam that Hussain laid down his life for. This gave the anti-ISIS jihad a greater sense of purpose.

The fallen heroes in the war on ISIS were seen to embody the continuation of Hussain’s struggle. They regularly made their final journeys via his shrine in Karbala before they were laid to rest amid salutations for the Prophet and his family.

Pilgrims at the Karbala shrine were pitching in by stuffing money into boxes seeking donations to help ‘the popular voluntary forces against IS[IS]’ at the shrine

Cleric Syed Afzal al-Shami, whom we met in Karbala, credited the Sistani fatwa for success against ISIS. He underlined that Muslims were ISIS’s primary target and that the war alone would not defeat the group.

Abdul Mahdi Karbalai, Sistani’s representative in Karbala, explained to us how Iraqis were fighting the real jihad against ISIS. He referred to the Sistani fatwa and said it was issued to defend the country against indiscriminate barbarity.

There have been calls for calling groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida Kharijite rather than ‘Islamic terrorists.’ There is no dearth of theological arguments against terrorism in any form based on the sanctity of human life underlined in the Quran.

There never has been a more pressing need to emphasize this than now because of growing Islamophobia that has in part been fuelled by transnational terrorism.

Back From the Brink

Iraq appeared to have reached a point of no return when ISIS executed an estimated 1,700 Iraqi Air Force cadets, mostly Shia Muslims, at Camp Speicher near Tikrit in June 2014.

The massacre, one of the worst among ISIS’s many atrocities, deepened sectarian faultlines. It laid the ground for a possible entrenchment of the terrorist group as the Iraqi state collapsed.

It would have seemed far-fetched at the time to imagine the scenes of pan-Iraqi solidarity seen on the streets of Mosul three years later. Flag-waving civilians danced in the devastated streets amid chants of ‘by our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you, Iraq’, and calls for Shia-Sunni brotherhood as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS on July 10, 2017.

The unity Iraqis forged in the face of the existential threat is a lesser-known aspect of the defeat of ISIS. Not many anticipated what Iraq expert and the Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele described as ‘a national sense of urgency [among Iraqis] which overcame regional, ethnic and sectarian disputes.’

It was not easy. Even in March 2015, a year before the Iraqi army’s final push against ISIS, tensions ran high at a meeting of 16 tribal leaders gathered at Baghdad’s Babylon Hotel for reconciliation.

An important leader threatened to walk out at one point after local tribes were accused of being complicit in the Camp Speicher massacre. But the facilitators persisted with their efforts, and tangible results followed.

The Babylon Hotel meeting was organised as part of efforts supported by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) since December 2014 ‘to forestall a new cycle of killing.’

Iraqi facilitators, officials, peacebuilders, and NGOs led the talks to encourage engagements and counter calls for revenge. The USIP drew on earlier mediation experiences in Iraq and its experience of cultural norms and tribal traditions.

These efforts turned out to be crucial in facilitating the return of Sunnis to their homes in Tikrit, which they had fled for fear of reprisals once the city was liberated. Earlier, the al-Bu Ajeel and al-Bu Nasir tribes promised to turn over anyone found to have been involved in the massacre.


Determined bridge-building curbed the ‘powerful tribal impulse for revenge’, and defused calls for retribution. The engagements provided a template for reconciliation and helped build the understanding that both sides had suffered from ISIS’s terror.

It emerged that Sunnis protected many Shia cadets and shepherded them out of ISIS-held territory. The two sides held ISIS responsible for the atrocity without stigmatizing Sunnis as a whole and agreed to build a memorial to the massacre victims.

Against this backdrop, the Sistani fatwa swelled the ranks of anti-ISIS volunteer forces as he emerged as a key unifying figure. A year earlier, he issued a fatwa prohibiting the shedding of Sunni blood despite a wave of targeted attacks on Shias by al-Qaeda.

Iraq’s Shia clerical establishment worked hard at presenting a unified front, including inviting journalists from across the world to counter the sectarian projection of the anti-IS war.

That the origins of sectarianism in Iraq are relatively recent also helped. The recent turmoil in Iraq has been linked to specific governmental policies with their origins in the US invasion and occupation.

Iraq faced ethnic tensions prior to the 2003 invasion, but the then-ruler Saddam Hussain did not allow overt sectarianism to flourish. Sunnis and Shias led a fairly well-integrated existence, especially in urban areas. Nearly a third of marriages in Iraq were inter-sectarian, and the country had other thriving minorities.

Political affiliation was largely based on secular ideologies. Saddam’s socialist Baath regime had a significant Shia presence. Even the resistance to the US invasion was fairly broad-based during the early stages.

Divide And Rule

American diplomat Paul Bremer, who headed the post-Saddam Provisional Authority of Iraq, fell back on the colonial divide-and-rule policy to counter the broad-based challenge.

Sunnis accounting for around 40 percent of the population suddenly found themselves excluded from positions of power. The army that predated the Baath party was disbanded. Sunnis were purged from the military and bureaucracy in the garb of de-Baathification.

The policy of mandatory declaration of one’s sect for the issuance of documents, and the allocation of quotas in the governing council on a sectarian basis, pitted ethnic and religious groups against each other.

The success against ISIS’s evil ideology put a spotlight on a more nuanced understanding of Islam and its unifying heroes such as Caliph Ali who help the much-needed cohesion in fighting the menace that fed on identity politics.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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