On October 26, gunmen opened fire at the Shia shrine of Shah Geragh in the Iranian city of Shiraz, killing and injuring dozens of people. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack shortly afterwards (arabi21.com, October 26). This was the third major attack inside Iran in recent years for which IS claimed responsibility. However, the way both IS and Iran dealt with the attack raised critical questions about the complexities of Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East.
Iran is clearly the main Shia powerhouse in the Middle East. Despite years of Sunni-Shia violence across the region, especially in neighboring Iraq and in Syria, where Iran has been fighting to support the Alawite Shia president Bashar al-Assad, Iran has experienced few attacks on its own territory. However, the Shiraz attack occurred in parallel with a major political crisis in Iran. Public protests have spread across the country since the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman, in police custody. She had been arrested for not abiding by the strict head and body covering rules imposed by Iran’s Islamist government since 1979 (iranintl.com, October 26).
The Shiraz attack also came as a reminder of how important it is to have a closer look at the propaganda used by parties of Middle Eastern conflicts. Ambiguity around some aspects of the attack and both IS’s and Iran’s propaganda have caused confusion. This article highlights the controversy regarding the conflicting messages surrounding the Shiraz attack within the context of the different positions about Iran held by IS and its rival, al-Qaeda.
Ambiguity on IS’s Claim of Responsibility
The first IS claim of responsibility for the Shiraz attack appeared on the group’s semi-official Amaq media agency. However, the language of this first claim was starkly different from IS’s usual anti-Shia language because it used the neutral term “Shia” instead of the derogatory term “Rawafidh” or “Rafidha,” which means “rejecters” and is what most jihadists and other anti-Shia ideologues usually use (i24news.tv, October 26). The shrine was also described with a neutral term like “Marqad,” which simply refers to a tomb.
The condemnation and hatred that jihadists in IS and al-Qaeda hold against the Shia notion of glorifying and honoring shrines is also part of the Sunni Salafi faith. A shrine in jihadists’ frame of reference is usually described as a “Ma’abad,” which means a “temple” in a way that equates it with non-Muslim houses of worship. After the Amaq claim, IS’s second statement on the Shiraz attack was fully consistent with IS’s own and other jihadists’ typical anti-Shia language. The contrast between the language in IS’s first and second claims leads to confusion about the nature of IS’s Shiraz attack.
Analyzing the language is critically important in this context. Parties to conflicts in the region are known for their controversial propaganda strategies that employ misinformation and disinformation through the use of language. Iran and its allies in the Middle East have long employed conspiracy theories to accuse the U.S of working with Sunni jihadist groups like IS or any group that opposes the Iranian government. Iran, meanwhile, also accused IS of launching the Shiraz attack itself, but it placed it in a wider context that included accusing the U.S, foreign powers, and Iranian protesters of being involved in destabilizing Iran through the Shiraz attack (sputnikarabic.ae, November 8).
Explaining the Initial Contradictory Statements
The reason behind IS’s initial contradictory statements is most likely the immense pressure under which the group is operating. As a result of the U.S-led campaign in Syria and Iraq between 2014-2019, the group has lost all the territory it once controlled in those two countries. It also lost many of its commanders, media operatives, and foot soldiers. IS media platforms might have suffered the results of these depleted resources.
As for Iran, its government is well known for promoting its own conspiracy theories which are essential in its discourse. In its propaganda, there is always some kind of a pact between all its perceived enemies despite their differences. The funeral for those who were killed in the Shiraz attack was a government-orchestrated demonstration against the West and the anti-government protest movement with very little condemnation paid to IS at all. The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Hussein Salami, addressed the crowds and condemned the U.S, UK, Israel, and Saudi Arabia for conspiring against Iran. (almayadeen.net, October 29).
In the context of Iranian domestic affairs, the Shiraz attack also occurred on the culturally significant 40th day after the death of Mahsa Amini. That day presented another opportunity for protesters to revive their movement around the symbolic cause of Amini and, more broadly, women’s rights. Some in the protest movement did not put it past the Iranian government to employ such an attack as part of its own strategy to repress the protests. The government, for example, has described the protesters as agents of a U.S and Western conspiracy (alaraby.co.uk, October 27). Considering the ongoing protests sparked by Amini’s death, it seems Iran could not use the Shiraz attack to rally its Shia majority population behind the government. Conservative hardliners, however, control almost all branches of government. Their main strategy to deal with protests has been to simply use force and intimidation.
With the recurrence of attacks on Iranian soil as exemplified by the Shiraz attack, Iran has become exposed to jihadists like its neighbors and the world. This development might increase the support of government loyalists, but it has also incensed government critics and the protesters. In recent years, Iranians have voiced their dissatisfaction with the government’s involvement in other countries’ conflicts, which required Iran to dedicate much needed resources to those foreign policy initiatives, while also having the potential of backfiring in the form of attacks inside Iran (alkhaleejonline.com, November 2, 2019).
Islamic State Sharpens its Anti-Shia Rhetoric
After the initial ambiguous IS statement, IS’s weekly newsletter, al-Naba, published a second statement that was consistent with IS’s and jihadists’ typical anti-Shia sentiment and terminology. The attacker was named as Abu Aisha al-Omari and the statement renewed allegiance to the IS caliph, despite the fact that his identity has remained unknown since the killing of the previous IS caliph in a U.S operation in Syria in February (i31.co.za, October 26). The difference between the first and second claim was possibly due to the immense pressure that IS has been under since losing its last territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq in 2019.
Different agents in charge of IS communications and propaganda could be operating in different countries and may lack training, vetting and discipline regarding the IS media vernacular. However, the fact that IS managed to launch its third attack inside Iran since 2017 provided the group with a significant morale boost regardless of the atypical language in the first claim (masrawy.com, October 27).
The Iranian government also presented its own more detailed version of the attack. The main attacker was reportedly a citizen of Tajikistan, who died of injuries he suffered during the attack. Another militant from neighboring Azerbaijan was also arrested and accused of being the main facilitator (arabi21.com, November 9). Further, the Iranian authorities arrested 26 foreigners after the attack for alleged destabilizing activities (aljazeera.net, November 7). However, government critics have highlighted the fact that the official story changed regarding how many people were exactly involved in the attack, where they came from, and how the main perpetrator died (alain.com, November 7).
Iran has been at the heart of the rivalry between IS and al-Qaeda in recent years. IS, for example, grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which itself emerged as a result of the sectarian complexities that increased after the U.S invasion of Iraq, and especially the disenfranchisement of the Sunni community and the domination of Iraq by Iranian-backed Shia factions. IS always considered both Iranian and Iraqi Shias as its main enemies and has played a major role in inciting sectarian violence by attacking Shia civilian targets in Iraq for years. Conversely, al-Qaeda, which was led by Osama Bin Laden and then Aymen al-Zawahiri, avoided going to war with Iran and targeting Shias and instead focused on attacking the West.
In 2014, the jihadist divisions became very clear when IS accused al-Qaeda of being too friendly with Iran (alraimedia.com, May 23, 2014). After the killing of al-Zawahiri in a U.S air strike in Kabul in August, al-Qaeda’s relations with Iran appear to have become even more complicated and even embarrassing from a jihadist perspective because potential successors of al-Zawahiri are believed to be living in Iran (al-Arabiya.net, September 9). Since its inception, al-Qaeda has focused on targeting the West and not the regional governments. However, sectarian violence in the region following the U.S invasion of Iraq has led more and more Sunnis to consider Iran the main threat. That means the most deprived within those Sunni populations will become the main recruitment pool for jihadist groups, and IS stands to benefit more than al-Qaeda from popular animosity against Iran.
With the attack in Shiraz, IS dealt a strategic blow to al-Qaeda because it has demonstrated that it is once again able to strike inside Iran, which al-Qaeda has never been able to do. Neither IS nor al-Qaeda have announced their new leadership and the likely successor to al-Zawahiri is rumored to be Saif al-Adel who has been living inside Iran since 2011. However, with a new focus on attacking Iran, IS has placed itself in a significantly better position than al-Qaeda to appeal to the most frustrated and deprived Sunnis in the Middle East who see Iran more than the U.S and the West as the main enemy.