The Militia in the Living Room
April 1, 2016
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.