|Figure : Photo of those executed by Hizballah and posted to social media.|
On October 8, 2013, the news website, NewLebanon.info released a video claiming to show members of Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shia Islamist Hizballah, executing what appeared to be wounded men they pulled from the back of a van. The slain men were reported to be Syrians, possibly captured rebels.
The video caused controversy with the public and activists alike in Lebanon, Syria, the broader Middle East, and the West. Hizballah has been silent on the issue, but one spokesman said the organization would address the issue. Despite accusations Hizballah had pulled-off the killings, along with audio recordings demonstrating the executioners with Lebanese accents talking about Iranian Revolutionary religious concepts (an important underpinning for Hizballah’s ideology), there was still enough plausible deniability available for Hizballah and other Shia militia groups to argue they had no part in the killings.
Nevertheless, after analyzing Shia militia social media pages, I did come across the proverbial, “Picture worth a thousand words” in relation to the execution video: A photo featuring the same men who had been killed in the grainy execution video, were in fact the dead men in another photograph. This picture was uploaded to a prominent pro-Shia militia Facebook page which promotes the “Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah” (“The Islamic Resistance”). This term regularly describes Iranian-backed Shia Islamist groups with militia apparatuses established in Iraq and Lebanon. It was also of a higher definition than the video recording. Adding to the photograph’s credibility was the fact that it was posted on October 1, 2013; Seven days before the video was released.
One of the dead men, the first to be dragged from the van in the video and wearing visible red boxer shorts is in the photograph. Another man, in a white T-shirt covered in blood, was summarily executed in the video. For the photo, he was placed in the pile of the other dead. The man in the striped sweater was taken out of the van at 0.48 and was then shot in the head twice. His destroyed cranium is easily spotted in the photograph and the video.
|Figure : The man in the red boxer shorts. (video capture)|
|Figure : The black shirted man lying dead over the legs of the man in the red boxer shorts. (video capture)|
|Figure : The killed man in the white blood-stained T-shirt. (video capture)|
|Figure : The dead and executed men lying in the same position as the hi-res photo above. (video capture)|
When one follower of the page asked why such a graphic image needed to be posted, the admin responded, saying this would be the fate for anyone who wishes “to abuse Sayyida Zaynab”. Another outspoken member of other pro-Shia militia Facebook sites responded that the dead bodies were the result of, “self-defense”.
The admin for the page claims to be located in Tehran, Iran and the page he administers says it is based in Iraq. The administrator is also a prominent poster of graphics which promote the cause of Iraq’s Kata’ib Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and Lebanese Hizballah—all Iranian-backed suppliers of foreign Shia fighters to Syria. These graphics have been widely circulated in these circles, suggesting a more formal link between the administrator and these organizations.
After processing around eighty Facebook pages (posts from August 15th-October 23rd ) which promote pro-Shia militia in Syria material, only this Facebook page posted the photograph. When measured against more directly controlled Assad groups on social media, the same photo could not be found. Most interesting was the lack of any type of watermark which would demonstrate the photograph was taken from another website or source.
However, photographs of the executed had circulated elsewhere prior to the release of the video and to this particular photograph posted on Shia militia social media. On September 23, 2013, the same dead men were part of a post placed online by Bousla.net. At that time, it was claimed they were part of the Salafi rebel organization, Liwa’a al-Islam, and were ambushed in the rural East Ghouta region outside of Damascus. Furthermore, it was reported in the article that elements of Liwa’a Zulfiqar, a Syrian based Shia militia whose fighters primarily come from the aforementioned groups in Iraq, and work in conjunction with Lebanese Hizballah, led the attack. Elsewhere, on LiveLeak, the pictures were republished and it was added that the executed individuals were, “near jordanan border the place where the cia saudi arabia and jordanian intelligence finance and train rebels [sic]”.
|Figure : Three of the photos published by Bousla.net which clearly showing the executed men in the video.|
Most intriguing about the video and photo posts in news media (as opposed to social media), were the two sources to which this material was leaked. Both market themselves as “independent” Lebanese (as opposed to Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, or other Arab outlets) news providers, have little original content, and do not have much of a share of an already packed Lebanese media market. Ironically, Bousla.net, the original poster of the images of those executed in the video, published a piece claiming the video was a fabrication and that Lebanese Hizballah had no role in the killings. Bousla.net also drew no connection between the original photos and the video.
The dates these photographs were posted, their higher resolution (when compared to the video), the source(s) which published the information, and the utilization of the same bodies, conclusively establish that a Shia Islamist militia—most likely involving Hizballah, was behind the killings. The publishing of the photographs and the leak of the video of the killings further symbolize a new and carefully coordinated social and traditional online media campaign to show Syria’s rebels that Iranian-backed groups will resort to brutal means to win in Syria.