Monday marked a hundred days since unidentified gunmen assassinated Hisham Al Hashimi outside his house in Baghdad. The tragic loss of this foremost expert on radical groups, and an adviser to the Iraqi government, dealt a massive blow to the country’s academic, social and security institutions. Very few are spared the wrath of violent armed groups, whether they are non-state or state-sanctioned.
The world lost a historian who documented ISIS and the various extremist groups that preceded it (most if not all literature on these topics extensively source Al Hashimi’s works). Iraq lost a sociologist who understood and embraced his country’s complexities. A family lost a loving husband, father, brother and uncle. And many of us lost a good friend.
Aristotle once said: “A friend to all is a friend to none." Had he known Al Hashimi, he would have paused to reconsider his statement. If there was one thing Al Hashimi rejected, it was any ideology that would push human beings to kill one another. And yet, he made friends with anyone, whatever their world view was, so long as they did not resort to violence.
Iraqis come from diverse backgrounds and thinking, many of who may even be at odds with each other. But according to Al Hashimi, most Iraqis rejected, in particular, two extreme but influential ideologies: one that envisions an Islamic state and the return of the Caliph, and the other that calls for an Islamic revolution that eventually places entire states under the influence of a supreme leader. Both of these ideologies, however, espouse violence.
Al Hashimi did not believe a majority of Iraqis subscribed to either world view. And if he met an individual who did, and if he determined that that individual did not mean to physically harm someone else, then to his mind the angry rhetoric and sometimes empty threats amounted to little more than sound bites.
In Al Hashimi’s view, listening to and befriending people of all stripes and reconciling quarreling groups were the only ways to defeat extremists at both ends of Iraq’s unique political and identity spectrums. Maybe he was on to something. It is important to note that in the aftermath of his killing, only two groups of people rejoiced: those who were aligned with ISIS, and those who supported the militias backed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and believed to be the prime suspects in his murder.
Al Hashimi was of the firm belief that everyone was redeemable. He was an opponent of what is known today as “cancel culture”. Perhaps he projected the swirling dynamics of his own life's trajectory on to a people who have had to deal with the trauma of conflict since the conception of their nation. He found his greatest joy in reconciliation, and that is what he spent a significant amount of his final years working on. He helped turn foes into friends and paved the way for a more unified stance in tackling the many challenges facing the country.
Al Hashimi was an outspoken critic of corruption and kleptocracy but he was not an enemy of the state. In fact, he believed in gradual reform from within the system. Over the past six years, he served as a security adviser to Iraqi President Barham Salih. He engaged with the US Central Command stationed in the country, as well as leaders of the various militias, especially when the threat of ISIS foreshadowed all other problems.
His in-depth knowledge of the ISIS organisation served to understand the group’s blueprint. When it lost its territorial control, Al Hashimi wasted little time in warning about an imminent underground resurgence – just in case Baghdad failed to seize the opportunity provided by victory.
Another threat, meanwhile, was looming: the growing pains of the hastily formed Popular Mobilisation Forces, an Iranian-backed umbrella group of militias that the IRGC had infiltrated and dominated. The impunity of some factions within the PMF to commit human rights violations worried Al Hashimi. Living in Baghdad amid their increasingly reckless behaviour warranted caution, and he balanced criticism with sound advice in his dealings with these groups.
There was one occasion when he abandoned this cautious approach – during the anti-government protests that broke out in October 2019. He could not conceal his heartbreak following the loss of young lives in their hundreds. He grew more critical of government orders to crack down on these unarmed protesters, while trying to mediate between the activists and the few “adults” still remaining in the government's backrooms.
It was during these protests when we got a glimpse of Al Hashimi's empathetic side. He spent hours observing the discourse between protesters on social media. He praised their bravery but sent them private messages, dissuading them from making fiery statements that might endanger their own lives.
“People in Tahrir Square are broken today," one friend said in the aftermath of his assassination. "Though hundreds died here, it is like the killing of this one man has casted an unparalleled gloominess. All hope died with Hisham."
A hundred days later, large posters of Al Hashimi remain pasted on walls and tents at the iconic protest venue. Faith in Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who promised reforms and justice, has dwindled significantly. People on the streets know who the killers are, but they also realise that these culprits are more powerful than the justice system and perhaps even the government.
Over the past three months, many people have shared their personal memories of Al Hashimi. “How did he make time for all of us?,” journalist Alison Meuse remarked. This is true. Al Hashimi never left a question unanswered or a message unattended to. He seldom turned away anyone in need of advice or a sounding board. He had a brilliant mind but also a gentle soul. He was down to earth, which is a rarity among security analysts and experts.
Perhaps the most vital lesson for us to learn is his unmatched ability to listen, understand, forgive and befriend. In his view, even those who seemed hopeless deserved a chance
Al Hashimi left behind a treasure trove of writings that will no doubt shed light on some of Iraq and the region’s most pressing security concerns. Many of his works have yet to be published or translated. Friends and colleagues have pledged to make his papers and books accessible to larger audiences who did not get to know him.
He also left us with many fond memories, including lighter moments even as we discussed Iraq’s many ironies, complicated social compacts and delicious cuisines. There was never a dull moment with Al Hashimi. Perhaps the most vital lesson for us to learn is his unmatched ability to listen, understand, forgive and befriend. In his view, even those who seemed hopeless deserved a chance.
In 2016, amid all the anguish and confusion following the ISIS takeover of my hometown Mosul, a Baghdad-based journalist posted on Facebook that the only way to save Iraq was by bombing the city using chemical weapons. In his post, he described children as ticking time-bombs and viruses – were they to be brainwashed by the terror group into taking up their violent cause. I did not take kindly to the post. I was even upset that, rather than scorning him publicly, Al Hashimi reached out to him privately. “He is hurt and confused," he told me. "Words are only words. Talk to him. He would never accept killing civilians, Rasha. Befriend him."
Al Hashimi presumed the best in others, even actively seeking it from them. Only time will tell if that was a blessing or a curse.