Humanitarian? Youth worker? Or Iraqi warlords' PR man? Who is Haitham al-Mayahi?

Humanitarian? Youth worker? Or Iraqi warlords' PR man?
Who is Haitham al-Mayahi?
The Iraqi-American occupies a powerful position in Iraq, serving as a semi-official spokesperson for a notorious Iranian-backed Shia militia, while running a counter-extremism youth group, reports Austin Bodetti.
5 min read
13 September, 2017
The Badr Organisation is one of the most powerful armed groups in Iraq [Getty]
A 36-year-old Iraqi-American more comfortable in a suit than a military uniform, Haitham al-Mayahi is an enigmatic figure within American-Iraqi relations.

In the United States, he leads the US-Iraqi Youth Institute, whose mission statement advocates spreading "freedom in Iraq and the Middle East".

In Iraq, however, he markets himself as an adviser to the Badr Organisation, an Iranian-backed militia accused of war crimes, and as a liaison between the prime minister's office and Western humanitarians and journalists. With links to diplomats, politicians and warlords, al-Mayahi plays many complex, contradictory roles in Iraq's civil war.

Al-Mayahi came to the US as a refugee in 1997, his family fleeing Saddam Hussein's decade-long crackdown on Shia dissidents. He earned a bachelor's degree from Arizona State University in 2008 and a doctorate from Howard University in 2014. According to his LinkedIn profile, he founded his youth institute in 2009. An Iraqi diplomat mentioned that al-Mayahi began working with the embassy's cultural attaché to assist with outreach to Iraqi students in the US the same year.

In the 2010s, al-Mayahi's political persona began to evolve. He wrote an article arguing for the importance of Iraq's youth to the country's future for Mic in 2011 and left a comment in support of the Arab Spring in The Harvard Political Review in 2012. In 2014, he arranged a fundraiser to "support Iraqi orphans before Eid". Three months earlier, he had told The Washington Post: "Our goal is to build right-thinking youth who would never be lured into joining a terror group."

Al-Mayahi wanted to reconcile Shias and Sunnis so that they could fight the Islamic State group, but his links to sectarian militias undercut the credibility that he has built through activism and education.

On June 4, 2015, his US-Iraqi Youth Institute organised a conference in Dearborn, Michigan, home to a sizable Arab population. Though the gathering's stated goal was to denounce IS, it also served as an advertisement for the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation of mostly Shia anti-IS militias, many of which have killed American soldiers with Iranian complicity.
He's a person with the best interests of Iraq at heart
- Former US Colonel Michael Silverman

Attendees included Ahmad al-Assadi, an Iraqi parliamentarian and PMF spokesman; Michael Silverman, a former colonel in the US Army; and US Congress members Debbie Dingell and John Conyers. Conyers' and Dingell's offices in Washington ignored repeated requests for comment about what two elected American officials were doing at a conference defending the PMF.

Silverman would only say of al-Mayahi: "He's a person with the best interests of Iraq at heart."

Later that year, al-Mayahi told al-Arabiya that he and Silverman had developed a strategy to incorporate more Sunni tribesmen into the PMF. Silverman confirmed his 2015 dealings with al-Mayahi, but added that the strategy had never expanded beyond the planning stages.

The Arabiya article includes pictures of al-Mayahi with Representative Conyers and with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi warlord whom the US Treasury classified a "specially designated global terrorist" for his role in Kataib Hezbollah -a PMF militia that the State Department labelled a "foreign terrorist organisation".

Back then, al-Mayahi called himself "the US-based director of the international relations office [of the PMF".

"Just to let you know, I am not representing [the PMF]," al-Mayahi said of his current work. "I worked with them before." Instead, he now advises Hadi al-Ameri, leader of Badr, the largest PMF militia, and claims to coordinate between foreign humanitarians, Western journalists, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi - whose spokesman also failed to answer requests for comment.

Today, al-Mayahi only seems to be a front-man for Badr, trying to improve the militia's sectarian, violent reputation

"Haitham al-Mayahi does not hold an official or governmental title; you may consider him a representative of a particular NGO but not an Iraqi government official," an Iraqi diplomat who requested anonymity told The New Arab. "Al-Mayahi has nothing to do with the Prime Minister's office."

Today, al-Mayahi only seems to be a front-man for Badr, trying to improve the militia's sectarian, violent reputation in interviews with American, Arab and British newspapers. He even threatened Turkey on Badr's behalf. Outside a brief phone conversation, he dodged most of The New Arab's calls.

Dealings with Badr and having contacts with at least one operative of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, al-Muhandis, whom several countries have accused of anti-Western terrorism in Iraq and Kuwait, should be enough to warrant a federal investigation into al-Mayahi.

The FBI declined to comment but referred questions to the Justice Department, which also declined to comment.

Whatever the American government does, al-Mayahi's military and sectarian affiliations have undermined his claims of promoting humanitarianism and reconciliation. He told OZY Media that he has other priorities, however: "As you know, we are very busy with the last days of liberation."

Al-Mayahi seemed to miss the irony: though he had founded an NGO meant to discourage Iraqis from joining a terrorist organisation and just helped expel that organisation from Mosul, his efforts were helping recruitment for Kataib Hezbollah, another terrorist organisation, which had killed his American and Iraqi countrymen less than a decade ago.

Perhaps the one American best equipped to bring Iraq and the US together after decades of terrorism and war, al-Mayahi's actions have only torn his two homelands further apart.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.