Pro-Iranian terrorist propaganda network uncovered on Twitter

The internet operation is an effort by Iran or pro-Iranian groups to export their ideology
Tropas de la Guardia Revolucionaria de Irán marchan en un desfile militar en Teherán

AP/EBREHIM NOROOZI  -   Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops march in a military parade in Tehran

Introduction

The Israel-based Online Antisemitism Task Force has identified more than 1,000 accounts that share or amplify pro-Iranian propaganda on Twitter. Most of the accounts are still online.  Support for Islamist terrorist organisations and anti-Semitism are an integral part of the tweets. Experts from the Berlin-based International Institute for Education and Research on Anti-Semitism (IIBSA) call for better monitoring of hate speech and incitement to terror that undermine social media.

Background

OSINT analyses of anti-Semitic tweets revealed a large number of accounts whose names were created following a particular logic: 15 randomly generated numbers and letters with different capitalisation. These accounts - hereafter referred to as "RCAs" (Randomized Character Accounts) - appear at first glance to be typical Arabic accounts: they include mostly political commentary, sports sagas or religious quotes. 

Upon closer inspection, a different pattern becomes apparent: more specifically, our team discovered messages glorifying suicide bombers, mass shooters or - more often - organisations such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Hamas, Hezbollah, Ansar-Allah (Houthis), Kata'ib Hezbollah (Iraqi Hezbollah); messages calling for the assassination of US or Gulf leaders; messages extolling Jewish genocide and military propaganda in general. 

After close examination of at least 50 of these accounts, a specific operational scheme could be discerned: all of these accounts share posts in support of the Iranian regime and its proxies. There are currently at least 800 documented accounts, based on a basic Twitter search.  Not only do these accounts have similar political leanings, but they were also - overwhelmingly - created in 2020 (a small number of them were established in 2019). This could be indicative of a broader operational plan, pursued by Iran or pro-Iranian groups, dedicated to exerting influence, maintaining political support and shaping the narrative. 

El líder supremo de Irán, el ayatolá Alí Jamenei
AFP PHOTO/HO/KHAMENEI.IR - Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Provenance and categorisation

The use of methodological tools, i.e. observation protocols, data/pattern extraction, micro-analysis and constant comparison and juxtaposition, revealed that the two main groups appear to be Palestinians associated with Islamic Jihad and Hamas, as well as Yemen through the Ansar-Allah movement (which aims to overthrow the Yemeni government and assume political and military leadership). Another notable source country is Iraq, which is home to a plethora of different Shia/Iranian militant and political groups, such as Kata'ib Hezbollah, Al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī (Popular Mobilisation Forces), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (it should be noted that the above groups are actually Iranian, but operate predominantly in Iraq and occasionally in Syria). Lebanon also plays an important role, with a myriad of pro-Hizbullah accounts in support of Nasrallah and/or other terrorist leaders. There are also numerous accounts directly or indirectly affiliated with Egypt and some Gulf countries, as well as dozens of 'propaganda-light' accounts, which do not particularly incite or celebrate violence, but support and reinforce accounts that do. 

The operation described above is - in all likelihood - a concerted effort pursued by Iran or pro-Iranian groups to export their revolutionary ideology and expand (or maintain) their influence in almost every corner of the Middle East region.

Content varies between religious propaganda, political propaganda and, occasionally, sports or current affairs. Accounts have been found dedicated to the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and even some Gulf countries. The accounts are always in Arabic, and their publications are almost exclusively religious with respect to the paramilitary umbrella of the Iranian government, more specifically the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). The inferences drawn are listed below, sorted by country.

El presidente de Irán, Hasán Rohaní
REUTERS/KEITH BEDFORD -Iran's President Hassan Rohani
Palestinian influence

In Palestine, numerous accounts have been detected, more than 47 linked to Hamas, around 100 belonging to Islamic Jihad and 21 affiliated to the Youth Media Center. In addition, more than 45 "Semi Prop" accounts have been detected. 

Semi Prop' accounts are essentially accounts that do not explicitly post or support violent imagery or propaganda, but openly reinforce accounts that do. The goal of these accounts is to make bold and violent accounts more popular, as well as to capture the attention of people who would be less interested in aggressive content. By providing a conceptual buffer, these accounts can reach a wider audience, including moderates or individuals, who would be less susceptible to propaganda material. Many of these accounts post content that could be considered violent, but to a lesser extent than accounts marked in red.

Since the start of the campaign, 10 accounts have been removed. Most of the accounts that have been suspended openly violated Twitter's terms of service and mostly included explicitly violent content, such as videos of IDF soldiers being stabbed, lynchings, assassinations, rockets and/or general militant propaganda.

Militantes de Hamás enmascarados ondean sus banderas nacionales durante una protesta en la ciudad de Gaza
AP/ADEL HANA - Masked Hamas militants wave their national flags during a protest in Gaza City
Violent extremism content

Many of the stories marked in red in the RCA are seemingly innocuous, but there is a common visual pattern and systematic references to specific individuals, i.e. leaders of terrorist groups such as the PLFP, PIJ or Hamas, as well as perpetrators of recent or past terrorist attacks. The thematic continuum also includes 'martyrs', suicide bombers, stabbers, hijackers or even leaders who were targeted for assassination. 

Notably, the vast majority of accounts showing overt support for militant organisations focus primarily on Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), an Iranian-affiliated militant organisation in Gaza. There is also widespread support for Hamas, but to a lesser extent than for PIJ, within the RCA group. In addition, there is a recurring sequence of tweets and graphics, used mostly for commemorative purposes (terrorist attacks, deaths of notable terrorist leaders, etc.), while certain hashtags have a higher than normal representation of accounts using them. 

Currently, there is a large-scale PR campaign about the hunger strike of a senior PIJ official; the vast majority of accounts use the same photos, graphics, hashtags and symbolism when tweeting about him, in an effort to reinforce the "us versus them" narrative, inflame a long-dormant hatred and create massive waves of popular opinion.

Miembros de la fuerza paramilitar Hashed al-Shaabi (Movilización Popular), ataviados con máscaras, participan en un desfile militar en la ciudad de Basora, en el sur de Irak
AFP/HUSSEIN FALEH -Members of the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force, wearing masks, take part in a military parade in the southern Iraqi city of Basra
Content of the Youth Media Centre

Common influence: "Palestine Technical College" كلية فلسطين) التقنية)

Many accounts are loosely affiliated with the 'Youth Media Centre', a Hamas-led front used for propaganda purposes and supposedly voicing the concerns of Gaza's younger generation. At the same time, a large number of accounts also appear to be students who attended the 'Palestinian Technical School' (كلية فلسطين التقنية) , which could suggest that there is an organised social media structure using the students of this school for PR purposes. 

They are commonly referred to as the "Digital Media Students" and their profiles post similar content. While not necessarily under Iran's direct control, these accounts are most likely overseen by Hamas, as both the "Youth Media Centre" and the "Palestinian Technical School" are under the aegis of Hamas. These accounts often devise hashtags and trending media campaigns. Recently, they were part of a large social media campaign called "Block Palestine" (#محاربة_المحتوى_الفلسطيني ) against Facebook's alleged censorship of pro-Palestinian content.

Finally, it is worth noting that subcategorisation has been possible in relation to tweets "with children, "in support of terrorist leaders", "in honour of martyrs or attackers".

Militantes de la Yihad Islámica palestina participan en una concentración militar, para conmemorar el primer aniversario del asesinato del comandante del grupo Baha Abu al-Ata en un ataque a su casa
PHOTO/ASHRAF AMRA/APA IMAGES vía ZUMA - Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants take part in a military rally to mark the first anniversary of the assassination of the group's commander Baha Abu al-Ata in an attack on his home.
Influence Iraq

A high number of accounts have also been detected in Iraq, 89 with violent extremist content, 10 "Semi Prop" and 15 others have already been deleted.

The case of Iraqi accounts is peculiar not only because there is a plethora of splinter groups in Iraq, but also significant foreign influence at all levels. In terms of the role of these accounts in Iraq, there is support for the Iranian political and military apparatus, as well as posts glorifying Iranian-affiliated militias and movements. 

Due to the nature of the current political situation in Iraq - widespread violence, a failed government, a factional/competitive leadership structure, etc., there is less need for 'SemiProp' accounts to make accounts with greater incitement appear legitimate. The growing desperation in Iraq and the lack of trust in political procedures provide an excellent opportunity for extremists to increase their influence on the population, so no effort at concealment is necessary. The narrative that is propagated is largely religious, portraying Iranian leaders as pious servants of God, while cultivating an anti-Western and anti-Israeli discourse that acts as a political rallying and mobilising force. 

There is also much content that falls within the realm of violent militancy, which is widely touted as the only way to free oneself from "US imperialism" and "Wahhabi influence". The overall aim of these narratives is to convince Iraqis to support the various Hezbollah affiliates in Iraq, as well as other Shia militias associated with the "Popular Mobilisation Forces". Individuals include the leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the famous fighter, Abu Azrael.

Miembros de la 13ª Brigada "Liwa al-Tafuf" de las unidades musulmanas chiíes iraquíes Hashed al-Shaabi (Unidades de Movilización Popular) llevan una pancarta que muestra al ayatolá Ali Husaini al-Sistani durante una ceremonia de graduación en un centro de formación en la ciudad central iraquí de Karbala
AFP/MOHAMMED SAWAF - Members of the 13th "Liwa al-Tafuf" Brigade of the Iraqi Shi'a Muslim Iraqi Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units) carry a banner showing Ayatollah Ali Husaini al-Sistani during a graduation ceremony at a training centre in the central Iraqi city of Karbala.
Influence Yemen

In Yemen, 171 accounts with extremist and violent content have been detected, 44 "Semi Prop" and 21 others have already been deleted. Not all account profiles necessarily display the violent and extremist symbol, but almost all show the leaders behind the movement.

The conflict in Yemen has roots going back to the Arab Spring uprisings of the early 2010s and beyond. The Houthi insurgency has existed since the early 2000s, but it was only in 2012 that a wave of protests forced Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after ruling the country for 22 years. 

The Houthis are members of the Shia sect of Islam. By getting involved in the Yemeni civil war, Iran saw an opportunity to promote its interests in a region where it has few friends, while thwarting efforts by Saudi Arabia, Tehran's regional rival, to consolidate its influence in the Arabian Peninsula. Part of Iran's strategy in Yemen has been to provide Houthi forces with weaponry, supplies, training and logistics, a strategy that fits Tehran's playbook for shaping political and security conditions in a favourable way. Providing material, financial and advisory support to indirect forces rather than direct engagement allows Iran to engage in regional conflicts with a degree of deniability. 

Indirect forces are used to influence political developments in certain areas while minimising the potential costs to Iran, and are arguably seen by the regime as a beneficial tool to achieve its foreign policy objectives. In this context, Tehran has mobilised its most important proxy group, Hezbollah. In Yemen, Hezbollah has extensively advised and delivered Iranian weapons to the Houthis. The Houthis' maxim is "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory for Islam". 

The Houthi slogan is often depicted on a red and green banner in Arabic. This report considers any account that posts this symbol or relevant material as supporting violent extremist content. Most accounts explicitly support senior Houthi officials, in particular leader Adbul Malik al-Houthi and his brother, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. While the content itself does not specifically call for violence against Jews, the ideology espoused by these individuals does. 

Seguidores armados de los hutíes caminan hacia una reunión en Saná, Yemen 6 de julio de 2020
REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH - Armed Houthi supporters walk to a rally in Sana'a, Yemen 6 July 2020
Influence Lebanon

In Lebanon, a smaller but notable number of accounts with violent extremist content have been detected, 67 in total, plus two "Semi Prop" and three others that have already been deleted. In the case of the Lebanese Republic, there are tweets celebrating violent acts against Israel, threatening Jews to leave Israel, quoting Nazi leader Goebbels and even secretly accusing Saudis of being Jews.

Hezbollah is a Shia political party and militant group based in Lebanon, where its extensive security apparatus, political organisation and network of social services have fostered its reputation as a 'state within a state'. Through Hezbollah, Iran exploits the weakness of the Lebanese state to fund a range of cultural, educational, religious and reconstruction projects aimed at justifying its presence and promoting its ideological and political agenda in Lebanon. Hezbollah's creation of parallel, quasi-state structures inculcates loyalty and patronage to Hezbollah and, by extension, to Iran, thus weakening the official structures of the Lebanese state and investing Hezbollah as a crucial power broker with the capacity to paralyse the Lebanese government. 

Related to this, there are numerous pro-Hizbullah accounts that accompany this influence. Most accounts feature Hassan Nasrallah, or the symbolic continuity of Hezbollah. Given that Hezbollah is so entrenched in Lebanese society and politics, Semi Prop's accounts are less necessary. The analysis considers any support for Hassan Nasrallah or Hezbollah's symbolism as support for violent extremism.

Una bandera de Hizbulá y un cartel con la imagen del líder en Líbano, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, aparecen en una calle, cerca de Sidón, Líbano
REUTERS/ALI HASHISHO - A Hezbollah flag and a poster with the image of the leader in Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, are displayed on a street near Sidon, Lebanon.
Pro-Iranian "umbrella" influencers

In addition, the analysis has detected influential pro-Iranian accounts outside organisations.  A total of 19 are of violent and extremist content, 10 "Semi Prop" and religious content, and 5 others have already been deleted.

With regard to these accounts, no specific location or political affiliation could be determined. They are a variety of messages related to Lebanon, Yemen, the Palestinians, Iraq and occasionally the Gulf States. These accounts remain significant because of their strong interaction with other influential accounts and their broad support for Iranian policies. Many of these accounts appear similar to those of other countries, but they do not tend to focus solely on a particular state and their subject matter is not fixed, so the term 'umbrella' is used to describe them. The 'semi-prop' aspect of these accounts often contains simple religious propaganda and/or political commentary.

Statements by the authorities responsible for the study

Kim Robin Stoller, President of the International Institute for Education and Research on Antisemitism: "The results are shocking. An in-depth analysis revealed not only the extent of the pro-Iranian terrorist propaganda network, with a reach of millions of people. It is also alarming that Twitter and other major tech companies do not remove this kind of incitement to terrorism and continue to provide them with a platform." "Big tech companies must start seriously removing content that incites terrorism and supports terrorist groups," says Kim Robin Stoller.

Eliyahou Roth, director of the Online Antisemitism Task Force, said that "Twitter and other social media must live up to their responsibilities. They provide a platform for terror. "If they decided to deal with incitement to terror and anti-Semitism in the same way they deal with nudity or fake news, we would see a different social media tomorrow," says Eliyahou Roth. He continues: "Our work with Facebook as a trusted partner on terrorism-related content has been very successful, and we hope that other social media will follow suit. Hate and incitement online is getting people killed, and if they do little or nothing, big tech companies should be held accountable!

Jacobo Salvador Micó Faus.

Researcher in anti-Semitism and Analyst in International Terrorism.

Coordinator of the Terrorism and Armed Conflict Area at Sec2Crime