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IS Propaganda Increasingly Targeting Iran And Its Sunnis

Afghan security forces escort alleged Islamic State fighters being presented to the media at the police headquarters in Jalalabad on May 29. They included one Iranian citizen.
Afghan security forces escort alleged Islamic State fighters being presented to the media at the police headquarters in Jalalabad on May 29. They included one Iranian citizen.

The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has recently expanded its campaign to recruit Iranians and disseminate its message to Persian speakers.

In late March, IS published a rare video in Persian in which it called on Iran's Sunni minority to rise up against the Shi'a-dominated Iranian establishment. The video was dismissed by Iran's state broadcaster as "nonsense" and an attempt by the group to cover up mounting losses in Iraq.

Since then, IS has published four issues of its online propaganda publication Rumiyah. Rumiyah, whose title means Rome in Arabic in an allusion to prophecies that Muslims would conquer the West, is already published in several languages, including English, Russian, French, and Indonesian.

Iran has deployed senior military advisers and thousands of "volunteers" in the past six years to help regional ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad battle an armed insurrection that includes IS and other Islamist fighters as well as groups supported by Turkey and the United States.

IS advocates a radical Salafi version of Sunni Islam and regards Shi'a as heretics, and controls parts of Iraq and Syria under what it describes as a "caliphate."

Iran has also been active in the fight against IS in Iraq, where the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has reportedly advised Iraqi forces and is helping mobilize Shi'ite militias.

Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have said that their efforts will prevent IS from advancing onto Iranian territory. Officials in Tehran have warned that they would take "decisive" action if IS militants came within 40 kilometers of its borders.

"IS has published translations of selected essays and statements in Farsi [Persian], but this appears to be the first time it published Rumiyah in translation," Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), tells RFE/RL.

But he notes that the group has been publishing Persian written materials and subtitled videos since 2015. Winter says the video and the Persian editions of the magazine "seem to be a logical progression in what was already happening."

The first edition of Rumiyah in Persian includes an article detailing why the group's violent ideology regards the killing of unbelievers as "halal" and a form of worship. The second issue features a bloody knife on its front page and gives tips about how to successfully kill unbelievers with a knife. The content of the magazines appears to be straight translations from Rumiyah's earlier editions.

Finding An Audience?

IS's online propaganda has been a key aspect of its strategy to attract new members or sympathizers and spread its message of terror worldwide. It has recruited thousands of followers from all over the world to travel to Syria and Iraq and inspired individual acts of violence elsewhere, frequently targeting large crowds.

The degree of the success of the propaganda among Iran's Sunnis is difficult to gauge. Analysts have suggested that the group's ideology holds little appeal for Sunni Iranians, who are estimated to compose 5-10 percent of a total population of 81 million and are routinely discriminated against or harassed.

"Salafism and Persian culture are like oil and water, they don't mix," says Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group. "Violent extremism is more a product of instability than its primary driver, and is due more to radicalization during crises than beforehand. None of these conditions apply to Iran, which is both stable and has strong state institutions."

Vaez adds that "groups like IS exploit disorder," adding, "There might be discontent within Iran's Sunni community, but that's not quite the same as disorder."

The relatively high turnout among Iran's Sunni-populated regions in the May 19 presidential and local elections, from 60 to 90 percent according to official figures, suggests to some that extremist propaganda falls largely on deaf ears.

IS Recruits From Iran

Yet some reports and increased warnings by Iranian officials suggest that the extremist group has managed to recruit among Iranians.

In June 2016, Iranian news sites quoted an unnamed "informed source" as saying that authorities had arrested 18 people who were using the highly popular Telegram app to recruit new members.

"Eighteen top [IS] managers of Telegram channels inside the country have been identified and arrested. Some of these people ran groups with hundreds of members," the unnamed source was quoted as saying. The exact time and location of the purported arrests was not clear.

In August 2016, the commander of the Iranian ground forces said that IS had recruited members from the Western province of Kermanshah. "They recruited some in Naft Shahr and Ghasr-e Shirin and western regions," Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan said, adding that two IS members had been killed in clashes with security forces. "They had been trained and had suicide vests."

The same month, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi said that authorities had prevented 1,500 young Iranians from joining IS.

Iranian authorities have also claimed that they have thwarted several planned "terrorist" operations in public places in Tehran and other cities.

Last week, authorities in Afghanistan's eastern province of Nangarhar, where IS has reportedly been active, issued a video in which a man claimed he was from Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province and had joined the group via Telegram, which is believed to have millions of users in Iran.

"In the name of God, I am Yasser from Iran, from West Azerbaijan. I joined Daesh via the app Telegram," the young man said, using a common but controversial label for IS.

He claimed an unspecified number of Iranians had joined the group in Nangarhar. Shortly afterward, Afghan lawmaker Hazrat Ali said that about a dozen IS fighters are active in that region.

"The information I now have says 10 or 12 Iranians are operating in the region comprising the homeland of the Shinwari tribe, such as Achin district," Hazrat Ali, a member of the lower house of the Afghan parliament, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on May 30. "In the past, the number of Iranian fighters in [IS] exceeded 100, but I am not sure about where they went or what happened to them."

RFE/RL could not independently verify his claim.

Winter says Iranians among IS ranks are often forgotten about, even though, according to his research, they are relatively well represented in IS's suicide-operation statistics.

A report Winter authored for The Hague-based International Center for Counterterrorism (ICCT) claims that seven Iranians carried out suicide operations in Iraq and Syria from December 2015 to November 2016.

"Iranian fighters are rarely, if ever, featured in IS video propaganda, so it is only in suicide bomber eulogies that they come up -- and these images usually go under the radar because there are so many of them. It is not possible to know what language they speak," Winter says.

Vaez calls IS a "serious threat to Iran,... but not a homegrown one, given the limited appeal of its ideology within the country's Sunni minority."