Analysis: Iran’s propaganda game inside Iraq

Screenshot from a “Revenge of Muhandis Brigade” video showing an alleged attack on an American helicopter with a surface-to-air missile.

Several new Shia militias have emerged in Iraq since March that claim to have targeted American forces and American-contracted companies. Most of these groups, however, have produced claims with scare, inconsistent, or incorrect details – and little to no visual evidence to corroborate them. 

This influx in supposed militias inside Iraq is likely a propaganda game being played by Iran and its allies to create political cover for anti-American activities in the country for more established groups. It also may serve to create a narrative of a far-reaching movement that is opposed to the presence of American troops.  

In March, the first of these groups emerged to claim responsibility for a rocket barrage of Camp Taji, an Iraqi military base that hosts American and other coalition troops. This outfit, League of the Revolutionaries (LoR), would go on to directly threaten US forces in Iraq and threaten attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Ostensibly the most legitimate of the newly created groups, LoR released one of these messages as a video statement from its spokesman while another video utilized footage taken from a commercial drone. But since early April, the group has been dormant. 

On April 9, another militia called “The People of the Cave” published a statement and video claiming responsibility for attacking a logistics convoy supplying American forces in the country in Salahaddin Governorate the day prior. 

In the video, a vehicle was seen driving at night alongside what appears to be a military convoy. Moments later, an explosion occurred against one of the semi-trailers.

But researching the date and location given in the video, only attacks attributed to ISIS were reported that day, which throws into question the validity of the group’s claim. 

The next day, a statement issued by a previously unknown group called “The Fist of Guidance” threatened to kill the American and British ambassadors to Iraq. But the logo utilized by the group in its statements is a carbon copy of the logo used by Saudi Hezbollah, which casted doubt on the group’s legitimacy. 

The threat to act against the ambassadors never materialized, which suggests the group behind the publication may never have intended to carry out their threat. If indeed the threat was never intended to be carried out, it is reasonable to believe the objective of the statement was then for the purpose of propaganda against American and British officials in the country. 

On May 15, another previously unknown group calling itself “The Second 1920 Revolution Brigade” published two videos of attacks against logistics convoys supplying American forces. But several inconsistencies were found in their claims. 

For instance, one statement read “targeting of a weapons cache belonging to the American occupation on Monday, February 5, 2020, at 7:00pm in the province of Babylon.” But the date described fell on a Wednesday, not a Monday as stated in the video. The date for its second claim, “Saturday, February 10, 2020,” was also incorrect as that date fell on a Monday.

Furthermore, there were no local reports about an attack on either of the dates provided, which brings the authenticity of the videos further into question. 

Most recently, a group calling itself the “Revenge of Muhandis Brigade,” also emerged to claim a few attacks on American forces. The group is named in reference to the slain leader of the Hezbollah Brigades and deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. 

In the first video released by the group, the alleged militia claimed to have fired a Strela surface-to-air missile at an American Chinook helicopter south of Baghdad on April 17.

The second video showed a purported katyusha rocket barrage on Camp Victory, another Iraqi military base hosting US troops, on May 6. 

While the rocket barrage has been confirmed, no independent reports have could be found regarding an attack on a Chinook in the claimed vicinity. 

Behind the propaganda campaign

These newly founded groups are likely part of an extensive propaganda campaign orchestrated by Iran and its allies against the United States in Iraq. 

Almost all of these new outfits utilize logos similar to that of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, showing a degree of transparency that these units are part of Iran’s network.

Most of the new groups also brand themselves as part of the “Islamic Resistance,” a popular moniker used by Iran-backed groups across the Middle East.

Some groups, like LoR and the Revenge of Muhandis Brigade, are indeed likely fronts for more established Iranian-proxies in the country.

Iran, through its IRGC and its network, has a long history of utilizing front names to claim more sensitive attacks around the world – especially in Iraq.

For example, in 2006 a group calling itself the “Ahl al Bayt Brigades” kidnapped American soldier Ahmed Kousay Altaie. The ‘Ahl al Bayt Brigades” was later identified as a front for Iranian proxy Asa’ib Ahl al Haq (AAH). 

One year later, another AAH front, “Islamic Shia Resistance,” kidnapped five British citizens from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad. Four of them were later executed in captivity, but the last was freed in return for the release of AAH’s leader, Qais al Qazali.

In utilizing these fronts to claim new attacks against US forces, Iran and its network can achieve plausible deniability and lessen the risk of increased tensions with the United States.

At the same time, other alleged militias that have recently sprang up are possible fabrications meant to create a narrative of a large movement opposed to the presence of American troops.

By creating this image, Iran can help further sow distrust and confusion against US troops in Iraq as well as portray to outsiders that their presence is largely opposed. In both cases, this furthers Iran’s goal of ejecting the US from Iraq.  

And with the rate at which these militias are popping up, more are likely to emerge in the near future. 

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