A report from Iran sheds light on a nationwide network of cyber operators used by the regime to crack down on dissent.
The Basij in Iran has in recent years invested heavily in internet and cyber operations against the perceived enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A nationwide network called the ‘Shabab’ network was launched six years ago. According to the Farsnews website, associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the network consists of 44,000 points of contact in cities and villages across Iran. These ‘centers’ are located in mosques, schools, or facilities maintained by the Basij and the IRGC.
Basij personnel, under the supervision of the IRGC, have over the last two years been holding workshops in ‘online soft war’ and ‘cyber attacks’ at these facilities, seeking to locate and recruit new talent in relevant areas. The course available is known as the ‘Shabab education course.’ Its organizers are seeking individuals with abilities in the field of IT, hacking, software development and computer programming. The most promising individuals are then recruited to work on a professional basis.
Who are the individuals recruited? They are individuals aged 18-25, often not from particularly religious backgrounds and not particularly religiously observant themselves. The main purpose of this project is to locate anti-regime social media users in every city and location across Iran, in order to neutralize them. According to testimony from Iranian citizens, social media profiles maintained by individuals connected to the Shabab network engage in building up thousands of followers, and then post anti-regime messages, noting which of their followers also post such messages. They will then engage in one on-one online interactions with these individuals, before reporting them to the authorities. There is evidence that the one-on-one conversations are sometimes recorded, and then this is used to pressure the individual in question to avoid arrest by cooperating with the authorities to incriminate others.
Young people arrested for holding parties in Teheran have also avoided charges or custody by agreeing to cooperate with the authorities.
The focus of the authorities on the internet has increased over the last year, because of the increase in anti-regime demonstrations across the country. Teams have begun to track users through Farsi hashtags, seeking to find the sources encouraging Iranians to take part in protests. The regime is particularly concerned about users of the popular messaging service ‘Telegram.’ Sources also confirm efforts by the Iranian authorities to locate anti-regime elements in Iranian communities in surrounding countries, including Turkey, northern Iraq, and the UAE,and to approach them, sometimes using subterfuge:
According to the testimony of one female Iranian citizen resident in Istanbul : ‘While resident in Istanbul, I went to an Iranian restaurant in Taksim. I was approached by two men who asked me about living as an Iranian in Turkey. They told me they had been to the Israeli consulate to complete paper work for going to Israel. And if I want, I could be in contact with them and prove that I had engaged in activities against the Iranian regime, and they would show me how to do the next steps for going to Israel. I refused. A few weeks later I heard from another Iranian that pro-regime Iranians are trying to find Iranians interested in going to Israel to work against the regime, and that they will then report their names to the authorities.’