The New York Times

The New York Times 3 Feb 2020

We Tracked Iran's Covert Military Unit on Social Media, Here's What We Found

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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.


President Donald Trump escalated his war on social media companies Thursday, signing an executive order challenging the liability protections that have served as a bedrock for unfettered speech on the internet (May 28)
President Trump: "I'm signing an Executive Order to protect and uphold the free speech and rights of the American people. Currently, social media giants like Twitter receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they are a neutral platform, which they are not."
In the Oval Office, Attorney General Bill Barr voiced support for President Trump's executive order on regulating social media companies.
Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee breaks down President Donald Trump's executive order, and calls for more regulation of social media companies.

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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.

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