How the Islamic State's Global Propaganda Machine Amplified and Exploited the Iran Shrine Attack
On October 26, the Islamic State (IS) conducted an attack on the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz, killing 15 people and wounding at least 40. IS claimed the attack on the same day and said “let the rawafidh [rejectionists, a derogatory term for Shia Muslims] know that the companions [of the Prophet Muhammad] have descendants who inherit revenge generation after generation.” Shortly after, in its weekly al-Naba newsletter, IS threatened to execute further attacks inside Iran.
Iran is a top enemy of the Islamic State, and the recent attack was the first since September 22, 2018, when jihadists opened fire on a military parade in Ahvaz, killing 25 and injuring approximately 70 others.
On June 7, 2017, the Islamic State first attacked Iran with simultaneous operations involving two militant cells. The first cell was comprised of suicide bombers who struck near the mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini. The second group of gunmen assaulted the parliamentary building in Tehran.
More recently, on April 5, a man of Uzbek descent attacked the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran, and killed two Shiite clerics. The incident was described by the Iranian government as a “terrorist operation” on the influence of “takfiri.” Although the attack was never definitively tied to IS or proven to be inspired by the group, Islamic State social media and messaging application channels have since periodically celebrated the perpetrator and his actions.
The temple siege in Shiraz was a highly galvanizing event and a morale booster amplified by a global constellation of IS and pro-IS media outlets. Further, once IS published the photo and name of the attacker, Abu Aisha al-Omari, he became widely celebrated throughout the online Islamic State media and communications sphere.
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This report analyzes the official and pro-Islamic State propaganda releases and provides visuals from these productions to give an idea of just how diverse and global the related propaganda has been in terms of the media outlets producing the materials and the languages they used for original content creation and also translations.
Official Islamic State Propaganda About the Attack
The early details and narratives about the attack came from IS Central’s media apparatus. However, on the branch level, the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) produced a video that was partially about the shooting and also published translations of IS’s official claims.
An early statement released by Amaq News Agency after the attack stated:
Security sources in the Islamic State told Amaq Agency that an Islamic State fighter opened fire on what is called the "Shah Cheragh" Shi'ite shrine in Shiraz city in the Far region in southern Iran.
According to the sources, the fighter began his attack by targeting a number of Iranian policemen and guards of the shrine, killing and wounding many of them.
The sources added that the fighter raided the square of the Shi'ite shrine and began opening fire from his rifle toward crowds of Shi'ites inside, killing and wounding close to 20 and injuring dozens of others.
The Shiraz shrine attack notably made the cover of issue 362 of the Islamic State’s al-Naba weekly newsletter.
Additionally, the newsletter featured a full-page description of and an infographic about the attack.
The subsequent issue of al-Naba (363) featured a page-long editorial that exalted the shooter and described hatred of Shiite Muslims as “a historical religious enmity”, describing them as “no different from the Christians”.
The author(s) noted: “The Islamic State - by the grace of Allah the Almighty - is alone in fighting the Rafidah in Iraq, Sham, Jazirah, Yemen, and Khorasan, and in their stronghold and the birthplace of their evil, Magian Iran.”
Days after the assault and initial October 26 IS claim, the Islamic State put out its first official photo of the attacker and a video of him pledging allegiance to the group.
Propaganda boasting about the attack and stoking sectarian/religious animosity was likewise produced and disseminated by the Islamic State Khurasan Province. ISKP’s Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production, the branch’s propaganda outlet, released a 22-minute-long video praising the attack, promoting violence against Shiites, and highlighting Islamic State suicide bombings against these communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It should be noted that ISKP has long been criticizing and threatening Iran. Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, the group has scorned the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) for its “numerous meetings and visits … to the biggest enemies of Islam such as China, Iran, and Russia,” and chastised Tehran for actions such as sending foreign aid to Kabul. In a June article, while discussing the rocket attacks against Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, ISKP promised next “it will be the turn of China and Iran”, adding “the dark days of deadly attacks and bloodshed are knocking at … their doorsteps”. In ISKP’s “Eid Message”, they urged supporters to take up arms and conduct attacks inside Iran.
Pro-Islamic State Propaganda About Shiraz Attack
IS-aligned media groups flooded their communications networks with videos and images celebrating the operation, praising their martyr, threatening Iran, and calling for more such attacks. This includes numerous groups using a number of different languages.
The reaction to the shooting is striking, as it is very rare for an attack to inspire so much propaganda in such short order and from so many different sources. This speaks to the significance of the attack and the priority ranking of Iran as a target for the Islamic State organization and movement.
The following are promotional posters of pro-IS videos about the Shiraz attack:
Pro-IS media elements made many graphics and propaganda statements about the attack and expressed their hatred of Iran as an enemy:
Related Translations by Sub-IS Central and Pro-IS Propaganda Groups
The online Islamic State media and communications ecosystem is world-spanning and highly diverse. IS Central and its branches as well as pro-Islamic State groups and individual supporters all play a role in producing propaganda content, developing and boosting narratives, and reaching a global range of linguistic target audiences.
The following are samples of sub-IS Central media and pro-IS outlets acting as force multipliers in making official Islamic State releases accessible to supporters of various languages.
Iran is a top religious and political enemy of the Islamic State and is viewed as a power center of Shia Islam. The Islamic State’s grievances with Iran are highly sectarian but also include its backing of forces in Iraq and Syria that are fighting IS, its alliance with Russia (which the Islamic State views as the leader of the “Crusader East”), its relations with the Taliban, and more.
Jihadism expert Aaron Zelin told Militant Wire that the rapid, intense, and widespread propaganda reaction to the shooting — which reached levels rarely seen with individual attacks — is due in part to the fact that any third country/non-Wilayat/external attack tends to generate a great deal of hype. Despite being a top enemy of the Islamic State, Iran has proven highly difficult to attack. Zelin adds due to the fact IS has only been able to execute operations on Iranian soil three times, the rare and successful attack resultantly drew widespread attention from every corner of the global IS propaganda ecosystem.
The Islamic State’s declaration of Iran as a top-tier enemy and the rare intensity and volume of the worldwide reaction signals that IS will look to continue targeting Iran in the future. It also indicates that the Shiraz shrine shooting gave a tremendous morale boost to IS supporters all over the world. This provides a powerful incentive for further such IS action.