On June 13, 2022, Suadad al-Salhy, a senior reporter for Middle East Eye in Iraq and a former correspondent for Reuters, checked her phone to find that three people had texted her a screenshot of a post on the social network Telegram. The post, on a channel run by a government-affiliated Iraqi paramilitary group, asked followers whether they were aware that Salhy’s sister was an opposition politician. It included images of the two women.
Salhy is Iraqi, and in 2004 covered the Battle of Fallujah and the American invasion. She is not easily frightened. But as Iraq changed in the years since, paramilitaries have taken prominent roles in the country’s economy, security, and government and operate with practical impunity. Since the end of 2019, paramilitaries are suspected to have been behind at least thirty-six assassinations, with activists and journalists as their primary targets. In November 2021, they went as far as to conduct a drone attack on Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi, an assassination attempt that was widely seen as retaliation for his attempts to bring a paramilitary “death squad” to justice.
Social media attacks can serve as a precursor. In May 2020 Hisham al-Hashimi, a renowned analyst of paramilitaries and terrorism, saw an uptick in posts targeting him. Just weeks later, on June 9, 2020, he was shot by two gunmen on the back of a motorcycle as he returned home.
Salhy’s sister is in fact a politician, and the two had kept their being related a secret to protect each other. Salhy did not want her sister to become a target because of what she had written; nor did she want her work to be associated with her sister’s political positions. Now the paramilitaries were letting them know that their relationship was not only understood but monitored. “It was just telling me they can reach me,” Salhy said. “And if they cannot reach me, they can reach my family.”
When Saddam Hussein ruled the country, from 1979 to 2003, the Iraqi media was controlled by the state; gaps in censorship came through smuggled cassette tapes or hidden satellites. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the media was flooded with different channels. “Iraqis went from having access to hardly any media at all, or state-run media, to…[being] spoilt for choice in terms of the types of media platforms that are available to them,” says Aida al-Kaisy, a media researcher and senior teaching fellow at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
She recently published a report with the London School of Economics, which showed that due to a lack of independent funding, Iraqi media channels are forced to rely on political actors for support. This meant, in essence, that instead of the one vector of propaganda that existed under Saddam, the media shattered into a multitude. When you turn on a TV in Iraq you choose which political party’s point of view you want to listen to. “They [the Iraqi public] understand how media is funded. They understand what that means in terms of narratives,” says Kaisy.
Telegram was created by the Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov in 2013, and it has quickly become a place for groups across the world to communicate among themselves.
Although it’s one of the world’s largest platforms, Telegram reportedly has only around thirty core employees. The Durov brothers are neo-libertarians, and Telegram is highly unregulated. On top of the normal messaging, it allows individuals or organizations to form channels where they can attract followers and communicate directly with mass audiences.
It is a media universe of bubbles, some big, some small. It is a vital tool for Ukrainian government communications. But it’s also a magnet for groups united by hatred. Far-right factions in the United States have already begun migrating to it.
Journalists in Iraq have learned that monitoring paramilitary Telegram groups often leads to scoops and sources from those that both loathe the media and are desperate for its attention—not least because, since the 2014 war against isis, many of those groups are now part of the government and have access to sensitive documents and information. When an Iraqi-extremist Telegram group publishes an information dump, it may well be true. “They attract your attention, gain your respect, and then they start manipulating you,” Salhy says.
The biggest channel Salhy follows is Sabereen News, which has 180,000 followers and is widely held to be run by the Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Under a bio that promises to “save you from nato’s lies if you join us <3,” and in front of a pale-green background filled with cartoons of cats and pizza, it seethes with the blend of “breaking” items, memes, rage-filled-troll humor, and clumsy pro-Russian propaganda that is becoming the hallmark of extremist groups the world over. It’s hard to stop scrolling. And the unreality is pervasive.
After protests broke out in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, Sabereen News began to send updates about a teenage girl who it said, without evidence, had been shot by American armed forces. To Salhy it seems clear that Sabereen News started stirring a different outrage as a distraction from the Iranian protests, where people have been demonstrating against the kind of government corruption and brutality militias do not want openly questioned.
Hamdi Malek, a paramilitary researcher at the Washington Institute, believes that Sabereen springs from an Iranian propaganda effort that began years ago when Iran funded the training of a host of media figures.
Malek says part of the function of channels like Sabereen News is to serve as an “intimidation campaign.”
In November 2021, after paramilitary supporters attempted to storm the Green Zone, the heavily guarded neighborhood in Baghdad that is home to the parliament and the American embassy, Sabereen News posted a message threatening the security officers who protected it. A different Telegram channel associated with another paramilitary group put out the names of seventeen security officers who it said had participated.
In late summer of this year, Salhy was in central Baghdad, waiting for her sister in her car, when a man came up to her window. He said, “Hello, how are you?” He then told her that he knew her work background. “We can reach you,” he said.
“Tell me when you decide to terminate me,” Salhy said, in an effort to laugh it off.
“Not now,” he said.
Pesha Magid is a CJR fellow.