We Tracked Iran's Covert Military Unit on Social Media, Here's What We Found
Before his killing, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran was everywhere. His persona is a clue into how the elite Quds Force he commanded operates.
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Before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike, Iranian general Qassim Suleimani was showing up everywhere — in Aleppo, Baghdad, Beirut, with Iran’s leader, with Iraq’s former prime minister. It wasn’t always this way. For years, Suleimani was an under-the-radar operator in the Middle East. He ran an elite military unit called the Quds Force. It’s an arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps that works to expand Iran’s influence in the Middle East using covert military and intelligence tactics. But in 2014, things started to change. The elusive commander was spotted in the public eye more often. We started seeing him with militias, on battlefields, at funerals. He even had his own Instagram. We combed through hundreds of images and videos, many of them propaganda from Suleimani’s early military days to his recent stint as a social media sensation. These appearances help paint a more complete picture of how the Quds Force operates, through a network of proxy forces, or local militias, along a key corridor that Iran calls the “axis of resistance.” It stretches through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Let’s start in Lebanon. These are rare images that appear to have been taken very recently. They show Suleimani with Hassan Nasrallah, who is the leader of Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militant group. Hezbollah is the archetype for how the Quds Force operates. They helped found the group and fund it to this day. This support fueled Hezbollah’s rise as a political party, and as a military threat to Israel, Iran’s archenemy. These are Hezbollah fighters posing with Iranian weapons. and here’s a video of Suleimani with a senior commander of Hezbollah. The group gives Iran a key foothold in the region, along this corridor we told you about. This photo from 2013 reveals just how strong the bond is between these two groups. It shows a prominent Hezbollah member at a funeral for Suleimani’s mother in Tehran. Two years later, that Hezbollah member died, and Suleimani himself made the trip to Beirut to pay his respects. He’s seen here praying at his grave. Now let’s look at how Suleimani took the Hezbollah playbook and mimicked it in Iraq. Here, too, sightings of Suleimani help tell the story. Here he is in 2015 with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of an Iraq-based militia called Kataib Hezbollah, also known as K.H. Over the last few years, the two were seen frequently together, and the bond is strong here, too, judging by this propaganda video. Similar to Hezbollah, K.H. is active in politics and helped push Iran’s interests in Baghdad. And it runs military operations. Suleimani’s team trains and arms them, and one of their main targets over the years has been American forces. We found propaganda footage of K.H. attacks on American bases in Iraq. And K.H. also joined the fight against ISIS, which Iran considered a major threat. In fact, Suleimani even shows up at victories against ISIS in Iraq. These were brutal campaigns, where civilians were often collateral damage. K.H. would later be seen during the recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. That episode led up to Suleimani’s killing, and the other senior commander to die in the attack was none other than K.H.’s leader: Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The next place we see Suleimani is Syria, the missing piece in Iran’s strategic corridor. The militias we just told you about, Hezbollah and K.H., here they are in Syria, fighting to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stay in power. Syria was also the only place we actually saw Iranian operatives besides Suleimani in action. Here, one of them describes how they train fighters in Syria. But this video wasn’t meant to be released. The footage was captured and leaked by Syrian opposition forces. Remember, it’s all part of the playbook. Iranian Quds Force fighters rarely appeared in any of the videos we found. They stay under the radar and do most of their work through proxies. But we still see Suleimani. Here he is near Aleppo in 2015. The eventual fall of Aleppo became a key turning point for Assad, with devastating consequences for civilians. One big winner in all this bloodshed was Iran, which kept its foothold in Syria. There’s another place on the map, Yemen, where Iran is active, but we don’t see Suleimani here. Why? Because Iran doesn’t want to be linked directly to the conflict. We do see other clues. These are Iranian weapons being used by a group called the Houthis. They’re fighting against forces backed by Iran’s great rival, Saudi Arabia. And Suleimani’s lack of public profile here tells us one final thing about the Quds Force: controlling whether they come out of or remain in the shadows is all part of their game.