Iran-linked website targets Georgia’s ethnic Azerbaijani community with anti-West content
Iran-based website aimed at ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia publishes narratives supporting Russia and Hezbollah
Ahlibeyt.ge, a Georgian online religious magazine written in the Azerbaijani language, frequently publishes articles critical of the United States and NATO. Ahlibeyt.ge is run by the Ahlibeyt Cultural-Educational Society, a branch of Ahlul Bayt World Assembly (ABWA), an Iranian organization engaged in public diplomacy “to implement the Iranian claim to leadership over all Shi’a communities in the world.”
The DFRLab found that the website targets Georgia’s ethnic Azerbaijani community with narratives that are anti-West and pro-Russia. For example, the website describes Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “special military operation,” amplifying Russia’s preferred terminology to minimize the war. The website also amplified the Kremlin talking point blaming the United States and the West for provoking a “crisis” in Ukraine. Ahlibeyt.ge also recycled a well-known Kremlin disinformation narrative that claimed the US supported Islamic State militants. Some of the reports also promoted cooperation with Hezbollah.
The ethnic Azerbaijani community is the second largest ethnic group in Georgia and constitutes six percent of the country’s population. Public opinion polls conducted in December 2022 demonstrated that support for Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration is the lowest among ethnic minorities. The polling also revealed that ethnic minority settlements have the most favorable attitude toward the Russian government.
The information environment for Georgia’s ethnic minorities is under-researched. Existing studies are inconsistent, and a lack of historical materials makes it difficult to analyze changes over time. Most public opinion polls measure the cumulative attitudes of “minority settlements.” The Caucasus Barometer database suggests that the opinions of ethnic Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian Georgian citizens differ in some instances. According to the 2019 public opinion poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute, television remains the primary source of information in minority settlements. In addition, the prominence of informal sources (family members, colleagues, neighbors, and friends) is higher than in other parts of the country. The DFRLab also analyzed how ethnic Azerbaijani minorities in Georgia consume news on Facebook and found that the most popular Azerbaijani pages do not echo the anti-West narratives promoted by the Kremlin.
The DFRLab began investigating Ahlibeyt.ge’s role as a source of anti-West narratives after ethnic Azerbaijani youth noted its activities during a training session in Marneuli, which is home to a large Azerbaijani population. Participants stated that the website spreads anti-West disinformation narratives and pro-Iran content. Throughout the course of the DFRLab’s research, we spoke with three activists from the region who shared similar concerns about Ahlibeyt.ge. According to the activists, the Ahlibeyt Cultural-Educational Society is a major organization operating in Marneuli, which, alongside other pro-Iranian religious organizations, targets the ethnic Azerbaijani minority through social-economic and education projects. They added that an Iranian-influenced interpretation of Islam is increasingly reflected in the community’s daily lives. For example, they noted an increasing number of families commemorate important dates in the life of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
While Ahlibeyt.ge and its Facebook page have low online interactions, analyzing the content is important to understand how it presents the West, the war in Ukraine, and Iran. This is especially relevant considering that informal sources are a significant source of information in minority settlements.
Ahlul Bayt World Assembly
Ahlul Bayt World Assembly (ABWA) is an organization established in 1990 by Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Khamenei appointed Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri as ABWA’s first secretary general.
Wilfried Buchta interviewed Taskhiri for his book, Who Rules Iran? Taskhiri said that ABWA attempts to attain supremacy “over all Islamic groups active in the areas of culture, propaganda, economics, society, and politics via peaceful propaganda and persuasion, and to implement the Iranian claim to leadership over all Shi‘a communities in the world.” Buchta writes that ABWA has serious ambitions for leadership over Shi’a communities outside Iran, noting the organization holds influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan.
In a 2015 testimony to the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Scott Modell, then managing director of the Rapidan Group and a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, said ABWA was “ostensibly set up to promote Iran’s revolutionary ideology overseas and to serve as a link between the Iranian clerical establishment and foreign Shia clerics. However, ABWA has also served as an effective cover for assisting with intelligence gathering; spotting and recruiting foreign students; and moving money and materiel destined for Quds Force (and MOIS [Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security]) operations.”
In addition, various reports have raised concerns about ABWA’s connections to Hezbollah, as individuals linked to militant group are listed among ABWA’s governing bodies. For example, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah is a member of ABWA’s Supreme Council. Similarly, Hassan Akhtari, once described as “the operational father” of Hezbollah, served as the fourth Secretary-General of ABWA.
According to ABWA’s website, the organization has branches in ninety countries, including Georgia.
Ahlul Bayt Assembly of Georgia
The ABWA branch in Georgia is known as the Ahlibeyt Cultural-Educational Society and is located in Marneuli. It was founded in 2001 by Sheikh Rasim Mamedov (spelled on the website as “Rasem Mohammadev”), who was educated in the Iranian holy city Qom. The organization was officially registered in Georgia in 2013. According to the organization’s website, Mamedov is ABWA’s representative in Georgia and the head of the Ahlul Bayt Assembly of Georgia (referring to the Ahlibeyt Cultural-Educational Society). In an interview with Modern.az, an Azerbaijani online news agency, Ramin Igidov, the Sheikh of the Administration of Muslims of Georgia, confirmed that Ahlibeyt is a branch of the Iranian Ahlul Bayt World Assembly. According to a 2012 working paper from the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI), Ahlibeyt has close ties to the Iranian Embassy in Tbilisi and receives informal financing from individuals and organizations associated with the Iranian government and religious circles. The organization denies receiving funds from the Iranian government.
In January 2023, ABWA’s current secretary general, Reza Ramezani, visited Georgia and held various meetings, including with the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Administration of all Muslims of Georgia. During the meeting with the religious leaders of the Administration of all Muslims of Georgia, Ramezani called for paying “special attention” to the family and blamed the West for “changing and distorting the concept of the family.” Ramezani voiced a similar message during his visit to the Ahlibeyt Cultural-Educational Society. Addressing the Women’s Union of Lady Zaynab, an organization operating under Ahlibeyt, Ramezani said, “We should all be aware that today the Western culture seeks to destroy the family and respect for women in human societies. We must be careful about this propaganda. Georgia is seeking membership in the European Union. Therefore, the country may be forced to follow the principles of Western liberalism in various fields, especially women. Emphasizing feminism and strengthening it is an influential factor in the destruction of the family and its traditional function. We have to be especially vigilant about this.”
The website Ahlibeyt.ge first launched in 2010. According to Ahlibeyt, “the purpose of the website is to accurately and impartially deliver religious and cultural values and events happening in the country and the world to the public through information.” While the domain’s registrant information is currently hidden, the 2015 WHOIS record names Rasim Mamedov, the founder of Ahlibeyt, as the website registrant. The record also lists two emails, including one sharing the first initial and the surname of Ramin Igidov, Sheikh of the Administration of all Muslims of Georgia. An islammedia.ge video report about the activities of Ahlibeyt in Georgia also named Igidov as the administrator of the website. According to the same video report, however, Ramin Aliyev has served as the website administrator since 2015.
The DFRLab conducted a search to identify other websites linked to the provided email addresses. In addition to Ahlibeyt.ge, there are seven other websites registered to the provided emails, two of which contain malware. Three websites, aile.ge, amag.ge, and bgmi.ge are registered by the Legal Entity of Public Law Administration of Muslims of all Georgia. The website almustafa.ge is registered by Al Mustafa University and is the website of the Georgian branch of Al Mustafa University, based in Qom, Iran. The website Aile.ge contains malware that redirects users to Haxbyq.com, which has pop-ups with malicious push notifications. The website Sualcavab.ge is infected with cloud malware. BGMI.ge is suspended and the remaining websites are no longer in operation.
|Almustafa.ge||Al Mustafa University|
The list of websites associated with the email addresses that registered Ahlibeyt.ge. (Source: DFRLab via WHOIS domain tools)
Analysis of Ahlibeyt.ge articles
The website Ahlibeyt.ge publishes in the Azerbaijani language and shares both religious content and news articles. The news section of the website is one of the most active sections.
The DFRLab reviewed the website’s news section to analyze content on the following topics: Russia’s war in Ukraine; the portrayal of the United States, NATO, and the West; the portrayal of Russian President Vladimir Putin; reporting on Iran; and the portrayal of Hezbollah. The DFRLab observed that coverage of these topics was favorable to Iran and Russia and unfavorable to the US and NATO.
The DFRLab found that Ahlibeyt.ge engages in selective reporting and shares several types of mis- and disinformation in order to manipulate their audience’s perception of certain topics. The website’s strategy is to share misleading content that contains elements of truth or partial truths, rather than fabricated content. Detecting misleading content can be a challenging task as it requires careful scrutiny to parse out the truth. The website shares misleading content in various forms, including official statements, unverified claims, and other forms of content that support anti-West and anti-US narratives.
For example, despite frequent reports on events in Iran, Ahlibeyt.ge did not cover the women’s rights protests that were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini. However, the website did report on a statement from Khamenei blaming the US for the riots in Iran.
The DFRlab observed that Ahlibeyt.ge framed Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “special military operation,” utilizing the Kremlin-favored term that attempts to minimize the war and disguises the invasion as a moral obligation. The website did not use the term “invasion” to describe Russia’s war in Ukraine. Google search results showed only one case in which Ahlibeyt.ge used the term “invasion” in relation to Ukraine: a report citing Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who said that describing the “operations” in Ukraine as an “invasion” was not correct. The website did use the term “war” several times in headlines, mostly when citing Iranian leaders commenting on the war in Ukraine. However, these articles also contained the term “military operation” and spread the pro-Kremlin narrative that the United States and the West are responsible for the war in Ukraine.
Ahlibeyt.ge’s articles published in the weeks and months following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine blamed the West for the “Ukraine crisis.” For example, an article reporting on a telephone conversation between Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Putin mentioned comments made by Raisi claiming, “NATO’s eastward expansion is a serious threat to the stability and security of independent countries in different regions and causes tension.” Another report was based on a statement by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, claiming that NATO provoked the crisis in Ukraine.
The DFRLab also analyzed how Ahlibeyt.ge portrayed Putin. The website attempted to claim that Putin has a positive attitude towards Muslims and described him as an ally of Muslims. The website reported on Putin eighty-four times; most instances were related to Islam. Ahlibeyt.ge cherrypicked its reports on Putin to promote pro-Muslim statements and used headlines to selectively highlight positive comments he has made about Islam.
While Ahlibeyt.ge portrays Putin as a Muslim ally, the website did not report on instances when Russian forces bombed mosques in Ukraine or Syria. In March 2022, the Russian forces shelled the Sultan Suleiman Mosque in Mariupol, which housed more than eighty adults and children. In October 2015, Russia was accused of bombing the Omar Bin al-Khattab mosque in Idlib, Syria. Russia denied the allegation, calling it a hoax, and shared images of a different mosque to claim the building was still intact.
Further, Ahlibeyt.ge also published several reports asserting that the US stole Syrian oil. The narrative largely originated from comments made by former US President Donald Trump, who said in 2019, “We are leaving soldiers [in Syria] to secure the oil. And we may have to fight for the oil…. I want to bring our soldiers back home. But I do want to secure the oil.” The Trump administration also approved a private US firm to develop oil fields in opposition-controlled Syria. However, the narratives amplified on Ahlibeyt.ge claimed that the US was smuggling oil from Syria and planning to invade parts of Syria to steal oil. The website also amplified a claim made by Syrian state media that alleged the US stole 120 oil tankers from Syria. The BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia debunked these claims.
Other articles on the website spread the narrative that the United States supports Islamic State terrorism. Ahlibeyt.ge shared statements from officials representing Iran, Turkey, Hezbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iraqi militant faction tied to Iran, claiming that the US funded and supported the Islamic State. One article cited Jawad al-Talabawi, a spokesperson for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, claiming that the United States was purposefully prolonging the war against the Islamic State. Another article cited the former speaker of Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, to claim that the US and CIA were behind the Islamic State.
The website also promoted Hezbollah positively. Some of the reports about Hezbollah claimed that the militant group is not a terrorist organization and promoted cooperation with the organization. Hezbollah has been on the US Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations since 1997. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, much of Hezbollah’s funding and political, diplomatic, and organizational aid comes from Iran. The State Department’s 2020 country report on terrorism estimated Iran’s support to the organization at $700 million. Hezbollah has participated in Lebanese parliament since 1992, though the pro-Hezbollah bloc lost its parliamentary majority in the 2022 elections.
The DFRLab’s analysis reveals that Ahlibeyt.ge targets Georgia’s ethnic Azerbaijani community with anti-West, anti-US, and anti-NATO narratives. Our investigation demonstrated that Ahlibeyt.ge rarely published fabricated content, instead focusing on biased reporting in favor of Iran and Russia and against the West. This observation is in line with Iran’s broader digital influence strategy, which, as noted the 2020 DFRLab report Iranian digital influence efforts: Guerrilla broadcasting for the twenty-first century, focuses on biased reporting to persuade as opposed to the Kremlin tactic of spreading outright fabrications.
Cite this case study:
Sopo Gelava, “Iran-linked website targets Georgia’s ethnic Azerbaijani community with anti-West content,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), April 27, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/04/27/iran-linked-website-targets-georgias-ethnic-azerbaijani-community-with-anti-west-content.