Last week in these pages, we noted that more than 120 largely extremist and sectarian television channels in Arabic have captured a combined viewership in the tens of millions across the Middle East and North Africa. While the U.S. policy discussion focuses primarily on the role of social media in radicalization and recruitment, it is television that garners the largest audience in a region where a substantial portion of the population is illiterate and internet use lags behind much of the world. In addition to being a source of indoctrination and incitement themselves, the channels provide critical content to social media, where clips from the shows are ubiquitous. They also provide a platform for some TV clerics, enabling them to build up a vast fan base online and create a recruitment pipeline.
In the second installment in our series on jihadi television, we examine the damaging influence that one Shi’a channel has on Iraq. Al-‘Ahd, a 24-hour network headquartered in Baghdad serves as the official broadcast of Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iran-backed Shi‘a militia. Dubbed “resistance media” by its management, Al-‘Ahd promotes a message of Shi‘i supremacism, incites violence against Iraqi minority communities and foreigners, and serves generally to advance the cultural and political agenda of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A look at its content and impact, Iraqi government policies toward the broadcast, and the state of efforts to mitigate its negative effects serves to highlight the problems the United States and its allies would face in any attempt to counter jihadi television.
The name Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) refers to the prophesied battalion of young men who will rise in Iraq shortly before the return of the 12th Imam, whereupon they will welcome him and cleanse the world of injustice. Disaffected elements in Moqtada al-Sadr’s Al-Mahdi Army formed the militia in 2006, in response to al-Sadr’s decision to reach a political accommodation with the U.S.-led occupying forces in Iraq. Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq claims credit for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, the abduction of several Westerners, and the assassination of rival Iraqi political figures. Funded, trained, and commanded by the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s “Quds Force,” General Qasim Soleimani, the group aims to promote the Iranian revolutionary model of governance, evict Western and especially U.S. diplomats and installations, and undermine its political rivals.
The militia also targets Iraqi civilians: During the country’s 2006-07 civil war, it participated prominently in the lethal campaign to purge Baghdad’s Shi‘a neighborhoods of Sunnis as well as Shi‘a who rejected its ideology. Over the past two years, moreover, thousands of its followers have joined Lebanese Hizballah to fight in Syria on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
In 2014, Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq joined the group of militias collectively known as the “Popular Mobilization Forces,” which the Iraqi government, with U.S. encouragement, had assembled to combat ISIS. By dint of their alignment with a cause supported by the international community, both the militia and its political wing, “Al-Sadiqun,” enjoy enhanced power and legitimacy in Iraq—which in turn augments Al-‘Ahd’s importance and prestige.
Though reliable survey data on its audience is unavailable, Iraqi journalists familiar with the media landscape estimate that between five and seven million Iraqis tune in to Al-‘Ahd—out of a population of 36 million—primarily in Baghdad and Shi‘a-majority southern Iraq. Its focus on local issues, coupled with the use of Iraqi dialect in most programs, suggests that although the network is accessible throughout the Arab world via the carrier Nilesat, Iraqis make up the majority of the viewership. But some programming also speaks to Shi‘a communities and militias in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, earning the network modest followings in these countries, too.
The Arabic name Al-‘Ahd means “The Covenant.” It is a reference to the prophecy that the Shi‘i 12th Imam will re-emerge from occlusion to lead a war against the enemies of the sect and bring about the end of days. The word is also the name of a morning prayer for the welfare of the hidden Imam: Worshippers reaffirm their loyalty to him, and ask God to make him reappear and rectify the iniquity that dominates the planet.
Al-‘Ahd programming serves both to promulgate the ideology of Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq as well as expand the celebrity and influence of its leadership. The star of the network is Qays al-Khaz‘ali, Secretary General of both the militia and its political bloc in Parliament. Trained as a cleric in Najaf and a guerrilla fighter in Tehran, Khaz‘ali has been personally implicated in the kidnapping of U.S. soldiers and raids on U.S. Army units inside Iraq. The U.S. Army arrested him on charges of terrorism in 2007, but subsequently released him in a prisoner exchange for Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq -detained British national Peter Moore. Also prominent in the channel’s lineup are preachers Muhammad al-Safi, Ja’far al-Ibrahimi, and Habib al-Kadhimi, along with writer and journalist Wajih Abbas, the former Tehran bureau chief for the Iraqi government’s al-Iraqiya network.
Programming on Al-‘Ahd consists of religiously inflected political speeches by its chief, sermons by the clerics, a political talk show hosted by the journalist Wajih Abbas, and spiked news and human-interest coverage of Iraq and Shi‘a communities region-wide. The content tends to revolve thematically around five arguments.
The first is that Sunnis today are collectively guilty for the killing of 7th-century Shi‘i patron saint Ali and his sons, Hasan and Husayn. In this clip from December 2014, for example, Sheikh Ja’far al-Ibrahimi draws from Shi‘i historical tradition to explain why Sunnis today are “Husayn killers” like their ancestors:
The second argument is that humanity as a whole stands with Shi‘i Islam and rejects Sunni contempt for its tenets. Clerics repeatedly assert that people of all religions revere the Shi’i sect and the central figures of its history, and stand with the Shi‘a in the face of the Sunnis’ rejection of their faith. Saying as much serves to embolden radicalized Shi‘a, encouraging them to justify that their armed struggle against Sunnis as somehow sanctioned by the international community. Witness, for example, this clip from May 2015, in which the leader of ‘Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq, Qays al-Khaz‘ali, invokes the will of humanity to explain why all Iraqis, regardless of their sect, should raise the banner of Shi‘i Islam:
The third argument is that the Iraqi state is illegitimate. Though Iran-backed Shi‘a dominate the government, Al-‘Ahd programs nonetheless disparage the state and its institutions as corrupt and failing, while presenting the Iranian revolutionary model as superior. In denouncing the state and calling for its demise, the network supports the objective of keeping the government weak and dependent on Tehran. Consider, for example, this clip from April 2015, in which Asa’ib al-Haq leader Qays al-Khaz‘ali threatens to bring down the Iraqi government:
The fourth recurring contention on Al-‘Ahd is that Western cultural influence in all its forms is repugnant and should be violently rejected. The sentiment is on dramatic display in this clip from February 2015, in which Sheikh Muhammad al-Safi calls on Shi‘a to “act” against the celebration of Valentine’s Day in Iraq. A large group of his followers subsequently attacked a public celebration of the holiday in Najaf. We have retrieved iPhone footage of the attack captured by an onlooker, an excerpt of which follows the clip of the sermon:
Finally, the network makes it absolutely clear that critics of ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the “Popular Mobilization Forces” should leave Iraq or face the militia’s wrath. Public affairs programs on the network target Iraqis and others who dare to disagree with ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq or the alliance of militias it has joined. In this clip from April 2015, for example, talk show host Wajih Abbas calls for the expulsion of Reuters Baghdad Bureau Chief Ned Parker, following a Reuters report which Abbas dubs “offensive to the Popular Mobilization Forces”:
As a result of the segment, Parker received death threats and fled the country. (The clip from Wajih Abbas is followed by a brief American TV news report about Parker’s flight.) The talk show host’s case against Parker is particularly revealing: It betrays the militia’s desire to block Western media coverage of Iraq, which ought to raise alarm about the consequences of enlisting Iran-backed militias to fight ISIS.
Building on these five contentions, other broadcasts make the case for marginalizing Sunnis generally from public life. Sermons about Islamic history, for example, argue that corrupt behavior by Sunni politicians is not an aberration but rather stems from the inherent corruption of the Sunni creed. And spiked political discussions typically portray all Sunnis as supporting ISIS, implying that all of them are legitimate military targets.
Al-‘Ahd is only one of numerous Shi‘i channels broadcasting from Baghdad and owned by strong political elements in the country. The list also includes Al-Ittijah, Al-Furat, Al-Ghadir, Biladi, and Karbala. These channels’ owners range from the leadership of the al-Husayn shrine in the Shi‘a holy city of Karbala to former Iraqi Prime Ministers Ibrahim al-Ja’fari and Nuri al-Maliki. Though the channels have many Sunni counterparts in the region, all Sunni Islamist channels have been shut down in Iraq.
In theory, all Iraqi broadcasts are governed by a non-partisan Communications and Media Commission (“CMC”), which has a mandate to revoke the license of any outlet that promulgates hate speech. The CMC has acted on this mandate to close numerous pan-Arab and Sunni Islamist channels—but so far, no Iraqi Shi‘a channels. (The Baghdad office of the Kuwaiti Shi‘i channel Anwar-2 was temporarily closed in 2013 but has since resumed operations.) In 2014, in response to accusations of a double standard, the CMC moved to close former Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Ja’fari’s Biladi. An order of closure was issued by the CMC and upheld by the Iraqi courts—but the station chief ignored the order, and Iraqi police declined to enforce it.
Several international organizations, including the United States Institute of Peace and the Denmark-headquartered NGO International Media Support, have partnered with Iraqi civil actors to raise awareness about the dangers of incitement. An outcome of this work, the “Iraqi Media House,” serves as a watchdog by monitoring broadcasts for hate speech. In building a vocabulary to explain and diagnose the problem, projects like Iraqi Media House are important: They encourage young Iraqi journalists to promote civil discourse through their own writing and broadcasting—and may possibly, over time, build public pressure in Iraq for new policies toward the extremist channels. In the short term, however, these achievements appear unlikely to alter the tenor of Shi‘a Islamist broadcasting, given the powerful political and military forces that back the channels.
In sum, Al-‘Ahd is a major force in Iraqi politics and culture. Beyond directly inciting acts of violence, the worldview it propagates to a vast audience damages the country’s internal cohesion and security, and limits the effectiveness of any effort at mitigating—let alone ending—sectarian warfare in the region.
In order to respond to the challenges posed by a channel like Al-‘Ahd, U.S. policymakers should take three critical factors into consideration.
- First, Iran’s government of clerics pays for Al-‘Ahd’s operating budget, and the network—together with the other Iraqi channels it also supports—serves as a component of Iran’s strategy of intervention in Arab lands. Therefore any attempt to counter Iranian influence must include a plan for countering, weakening, or potentially shutting down these channels.
- Second, as noted above, Al-‘Ahd’s parent militia, Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq, enjoys enhanced legitimacy in Iraq for having joined the group of private armies that the Iraqi government assembled, with U.S. approval, to combat ISIS. But U.S. policymakers must understand that the militias have done more to strengthen ISIS than to undermine it: In inciting violence against all Sunnis in a state already dominated by Shi a, they promote the Sunni view that there is no viable alternative to ISIS.
- Finally, Iraq’s Shi‘a-dominated power structure enables Al-‘Ahd and other channels like it to broadcast with impunity, and will not address the problem on its own. Indigenous attempts to hold the government’s media oversight board to its own standards have proved ineffective. The United States should give much higher priority to this issue in its bilateral relationship with the government of Iraq.
Channels like Al-‘Ahd drive the sectarian polarization that is tearing the Middle East apart and spreading chaos throughout the world. If the United States and its allies do not recognize the danger these channels pose and take proactive steps to address it, the situation is certain to deteriorate further.