November 23, 2022
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, one of the key priorities of the Iranian regime has been exporting its revolution abroad. Designated a sponsor of terror by the U.S. government in 1984, Iran is considered the “foremost state sponsor of terrorism,” providing “a range of support, including financial, training, and equipment, to [terrorist] groups around the world – particularly Hezbollah,” according to the U.S. State Department.
Tehran has used its proxy army of more than a dozen militias and terror groups across the Middle East with outposts around the world to help foment instability, carry out attacks, and expand the scope of the Islamic Revolution. Those groups, some with their own political parties to infiltrate or take over local governments, answer to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary body formed in 1979 to protect Iran’s fundamentalist regime. Its special operations unit, the elite Quds Force, has provided arms, training, and financial support to militias and political movements across the Middle East: Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Yemen.
Current U.S. sanctions have not significantly impacted Iran’s relationships with its proxies. The State Department estimated that Iran spent more than $16 billion on support for the Assad regime and its proxies between 2012 and 2020. And in 2020 alone, the State Department estimated that Iran funneled more than $700 million to Hezbollah.
Here’s a primer on more than a dozen proxy terror groups that have taken their orders from the Iranian regime, threatening civilian lives around the world.
Hezbollah (or Party of God)
Hezbollah, Iran’s terror proxy in southern Lebanon, maintains significant – and often controlling – influence over the Lebanese government. Founded during the Lebanese Civil War in the early 1980s among Lebanese Shi’a Muslims, the group carried out the devastating U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut in 1984 that killed 63, including 17 Americans. Hezbollah was established on the ideology of antisemitism. Its founding principles are rooted in the hatred of Jews, the elimination of a Jewish state, and the determination to deny Jews their right to self-determination or nationhood.
But while Hezbollah calls the Middle East home, it has established an extensive terror infrastructure in Europe along with terror networks in Latin America and Africa that enables it to carryout terrorist attacks on international soil. In addition to the attack on the AMIA Center in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85, Hezbollah bombed a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012 and attempted to carry out attacks on Israelis in Cyprus. Authorities have discovered Hezbollah safe houses throughout Europe, some of which were found to contain huge quantities of chemical materials used to manufacture powerful explosives. American Jewish Committee (AJC) has urged the European Union to designate all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
In 2016, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah explained that the organization’s budget, supplies, and weapons all come from Iran. Captured on tape, Nasrallah confirmed that the organization regards itself as a “soldier” of Iran’s supreme spiritual leader. Through its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Iran has used Syrian territory to supply Hezbollah with weaponry. Over the course of the last several years, Israel has repeatedly targeted Iranian arms shipments in Syria.
The terror group today presents an acute threat to Israel, with an estimated 150,000 missiles and rockets aimed at the Jewish state.
Hamas (or the Islamic Resistance Movement)
Hamas, or Harakat al Muqawama al Islamiyah, is a Sunni Islamist terrorist organization that operates as the de facto leadership of the Gaza Strip. Founded in 1988 during the First Intifada as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas set two long-term goals, articulated in its charter: the end to the Jewish state and the creation of an Islamic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Its more immediate goal is the “liberation of Palestine” and the “return” of the Palestinian people.
While its origins are with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has reportedly been funded, armed, and trained by the IRGC since the early 1990s. Hamas opened an office in Tehran in the 1990s. Despite its longstanding ties with Tehran, the Palestinian terror group has had a rocky relationship with the Islamic Republic in recent years. In 2012, Iran cut off funding to Hamas after it refused to support the al-Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War.
But Iran resumed financial assistance to Hamas in 2017. “Relations with Iran are excellent, and Iran is the largest supporter of the Izz ad Din al Qassam Brigades [Hamas’s military wing] with money and arms,” Yahya Sinwar, a senior Hamas military leader, said in 2017. In 2020, the U.S. State Department reported that Iran had provided more than $100 million annually to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Recently Hamas announced a rapprochement with Syria, with the renewed ties being brokered by Tehran and Hezbollah.
Supplied by Tehran, Hamas has used the rockets and funding to launch several wars against Israel from its base in Gaza, including in 2008, 2009, 2014, and 2021, that each saw thousands of rockets fired toward Israeli cities and towns, resulting in dozens of civilian deaths. Hamas has also used Iranian know-how to help build its extensive network of “terror tunnels” throughout the Gaza Strip and underneath the Israel-Gaza border to carry out terror attacks.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (or Harakat al Jihad al Islami al Filistin)
Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) primary sponsor is Iran, which has provided the aforementioned funding, as well as training and weapons, the U.S. State Department reported in 2020.
Originally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, PIJ's co-founders later embraced Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s principles of jihad and the idea that Palestine must be liberated through armed struggle. This helped to usher in a close relationship between Tehran and PIJ that has seen the terror group become the second largest in the Gaza Strip behind Hamas.
Military and economic support includes bonuses for every terrorist attack against Israel and IRGC training. PIJ operatives, along with Hamas and Hezbollah, have been trained by Iran to use Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles for long-range rocket attacks against Israel cities and towns like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as well as to carry out suicide bombings.
Like Iran’s relations with Hamas, the PIJ and Tehran have encountered disagreements. Iran allegedly cut off funding to PIJ in May 2015 because the terror group did not support Tehran’s involvement in Yemen, where Iran has supported the Houthi rebels in the long-running civil war there. But that rift did not last long, and funding resumed in May 2016.
During the August 2022 escalation between Israel and PIJ that saw over 1,000 rockets fired on Israel in just over two days, the terror group’s leader Ziyad al-Nakalah met with Ali Akbar Velayati, the top advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in Iran ahead of hostilities in the Gaza Strip. In his meeting, Velayati stressed close ties, saying, “We have a close and serious relationship with the Islamic Jihad movement and the Palestinian resistance.”
Kataib Hezbollah (or Party of God Brigades)
Kataib Hezbollah is a radical Iraqi Shiite terror group formed in 2007 and trained and armed by the IRGC. In fact, the same U.S. drone attack that targeted and killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force in Baghdad in January 2020, also killed Kataib Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. He, too, had been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for committing acts of violence against Iraqi Security Forces and the U.S.-led coalition of nations that sent forces to fight, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Spain, and Poland.
The U.S. immediately designated his successor, Ahmad al Hamidawi, a global terrorist and imposed two additional rounds of sanctions on Kataib Hezbollah leadership.
With Iranian backing, Kataib Hezbollah carried out a string of attacks against U.S. forces and coalition allies in Iraq from 2007 to 2011 and from 2018 to 2020. According to a column by former U.S. diplomat Ali Khedery, the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah is responsible for “some of the most lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces throughout the [U.S.-led war in Iraq].”
In 2014, the terror group joined Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to fight ISIS, but still took orders from Tehran. “I will not shy away from mentioning the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran in terms of weapons, advising, and planning,” Muhandis said in 2018.
Asaib Ahl al Haq (or the League of the Righteous)
Asaib Ahl al Haq is one of Iran’s terror proxies that was created in 2006 to fight the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Trained, armed, and funded by the IRGC, it claimed credit for more than 6,000 attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq until the U.S. withdrew troops in 2011.
Rebranded as a “nationalist Islamic resistance movement,” Asaib Ahl al Haq joined the government-funded PMF to fight ISIS in northern Iraq. Still, it answered to Tehran. “It is no secret that Iran supports all the militias in this area and we are obviously one of them,” Qais al Khazali, the group’s leader, said in 2015.
In January 2020, the State Department designated Asaib Ahl al Haq a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It also listed Khazali and his brother, Laith al Khazali, as global terrorists. “AAH and its leaders are violent proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. “Acting on behalf of their masters in Tehran, they use violence and terror to further the Iranian regime’s efforts to undermine Iraqi sovereignty.”
Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba (or Movement of the Party of God’s Nobles)
Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba was established in 2013 to support Bashar al Assad in Syria against anti-regime rebels. In 2014, it joined the PMF to defeat ISIS. But its ties to Tehran endure. “We do not hide the fact that the technical and logistical support comes from the Islamic Republic,” Akram Abbas al Kabi, the group’s leader, said in 2015.
Al Kabi already had an international reputation before becoming the leader of Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba. Since 2008, he faced sanctions for conducting attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq.
Kataib Sayyad al Shuhada (or the Masters of the Martyrs Brigade)
Kataib Sayyad al Shuhada was created in 2013 to support the Assad regime in Syria. But in 2014 it joined Iraq’s PMF to fight ISIS.
The oldest and most powerful of Iran’s proxies trained by the IRGC remains the Badr Organization. This terror organization was established in 1982 in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq. Badr returned to Iraq after Hussein was ousted by the U.S. invasion in 2003. In 2014, it joined the PMF and was a pivotal force fighting ISIS from 2014 to 2017. Similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon, it also has a political wing that has won seats in the Iraqi parliament.
Ansar Allah (or the Houthis)
With slogans like “Death to America, Death to Israel, Cursed be the Jews, Victory to Islam,” it should come as no surprise that Iran is behind the anti-government Houthi movement in Yemen. The group has received support from the IRGC since at least 2011. After a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015, Iran expanded training and arms shipments.
The Iranian-backed group was designated by the outgoing Trump administration as a terrorist organization in January 2021, but the decision was reversed under President Joe Biden.
The U.S. Navy has seized weapons shipments from Iran to Yemen bound for the Houthis. The Yemeni group has fired missiles and launched drones against neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; a Houthi missile and drone attack on Abu Dhabi in January 2022 killed three and injured six. The group has also threatened to strike Israel.
The Zaynabiyoun Brigade is the paramilitary group of Pakistani Shiites established and deployed to fight in Syria. Its 2014 creation revived ties between religious militants in Iran and Pakistan that predated the 1979 revolution. It has recruited Pakistani refugees living in Iran as well as from Pakistan’s tribal areas. It also has fought with the Assad regime’s forces in Syria.
In 2019, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released a statement that accused the Zaynabiyoun Brigade of exploiting Afghan and Pakistani refugee communities in Iran, depriving them of access to basic services such as education, and using them as human shields for the Syrian conflict .
Founded in the early 1980s by Afghan devotees of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Fatemiyoun Division is now made up of fighters recruited from among Iran’s Afghan refugee community. They have fought in the Iran-Iraq War and Afghan civil war, and were involved in the Syrian Civil War.
Along with the Zaynabiyoun Brigade, the U.S. sanctioned the Fatemiyoun Division in 2019 for supporting the Qods Force and engaging in human rights abuses in Iran. It claimed that Iran had coerced Afghan refugees, including children as young as 14, to fight in Syria or face imprisonment in Iran or deportation to Afghanistan.
Saraya al Ashtar (or the Al Ashtar Brigades)
Funded, trained, and armed by the IRGC, the Al Ashtar Brigades has claimed responsibility for more than 20 attacks in Bahrain, including a 2014 bomb attack in Al Daih that killed two Bahraini police officers and an Emirati officer; and another in 2017 that killed a security officer in Manama. The U.S. State Department has stated these terrorist attacks are part of a larger effort by Iran to overthrow Bahrain’s monarchy.
Al Ashtar is “another in a long line of Iranian-sponsored terrorists who kill on behalf of a corrupt regime,” Nathan Sales, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, said in 2018.
Saraya al Mukhtar
Saraya al Mukhtar is another Bahrain-based terror group sponsored by Iran and tasked with trying to overthrow the Bahraini government. Instead of targeting local police, Saraya al Mukhtar targets U.S. personnel in Bahrain and offers cash rewards for the assassination of Bahraini officials.
Hezbollah al Hejaz (or the Saudi Party of God)
Hezbollah al Hejaz was a cleric-based Shiite militant group and Saudi opposition movement founded in 1987 and aligned with Iran. It advocated violence against the Saudi regime and carried out several terrorist attacks in the 1980s.
In 2001, the U.S. sanctioned four leaders linked to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and wounded 372 when a truck bomb blew up the tower-style dormitory for U.S. Air Force pilots and staff.
In 2006, a U.S. federal court ordered Iran to pay $254 million to 17 families of Americans who died in the attack. The evidence “firmly established that the Khobar Towers bombing was planned, funded, and sponsored by senior leadership in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the court ruled. In 2015, Saudi authorities apprehended in Lebanon the mastermind behind the attack. Arrests are believed to have dissolved the group.