By Behnam Gholipour
December 10, 2019
An armed group with a history of cracking down on civil unrest played a key role in crushing the November protests in Iran – and the majority of the Iranian public know nothing about it.
Since the protests against the increase in gas prices spread across Iran on November 16, the secret group NAKHSA, the Persian acronym for “Spontaneous Forces of Islamic Lands,” published photographs on social media of its armed members being deployed to crack down on protesters in Tehran and at Amir Kabir University, where students led the protests. The group has announced that it was also deployed to Malard in Tehran province.
The photographs only give a glimpse of the anti-protest operations carried out by the group in Iranian cities. So what do we know about this unknown military organization? When was it created, for what purpose and by whom?
NAKHSA itself says that it was established in 2009 with the aim of stopping street protests “for the stability and the strengthening of the regime” [Persian link]. A branch of the organization was set up in Syria by Mostafa Sadrzadeh after the civil war broke out there in 2011. Sadrzadeh was born on September 10, 1986 in the city of Shushtar in Khuzestan province and joined the paramilitary Basij Organization after his religiously devout family moved to Tehran. In 2013, under the pseudonym of Seyyed Ebrahim, he was appointed as the active commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria – a unit of Afghan immigrants recruited to defend the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad – in late 2015. A video (in Persian) shows Sadrzadeh declaring he is a member of NAKHSA and had come to Syria to fight. Sadrzadeh was killed in the outskirts of Aleppo in autumn 2015.
It is reported that the Islamic Republic persuades Afghan Shia refugees to join the brigade and fight in Syria by promising them a monthly salary and residency permits for all members of the soldier’s family.
The Founders of NAKHSA insist “it is not an organization but a way of thinking and an ideology that proclaims that Islam does not recognize any borders and in all affairs it unconditionally obeys the Supreme Leader Imam Khamenei.”
Iran’s Student News Network (SNN), which is affiliated with the paramilitary Basij Organization, stated in November 2016 [Persian link]: “NAKHSA…are those passionate and fervent warriors who say that they are wholeheartedly devoted to Ali Khamenei and Commander Ghasem Soleimani [commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force] and claim they have gone to Syria to fight [ISIS], independent of any organization and without expecting any compensation.” It adds: “They are an arm of the Revolutionary Guards’ cyber force and its members are active in exposing and hacking anti-Islamic Republic and anti-religious channels.” NAKHSA communicates via a number of Telegram channels, including “Pure Jihad” and “We will strike Haifa with missiles,” and has a membership of about 30,000 people.
Resistance, Response and “Spontaneity”
SNN spoke to “Meghdad,” an administrator of NAKHSA’s main Telegram channel. “At first, NAKHSA was supposed to be ‘autonomous forces’ but then we said we have a leader and ‘autonomous’ does not make any sense, so we named it ‘Spontaneous Forces of Islamic Lands,’” he says. He says NAKHSA members were committed to fighting to protect Islamic lands, “but when they did not open the door for them they entered by climbing through the window. We want to spread this idea of resistance among young people: if tomorrow an enemy country takes action, we must respond to it in a comprehensive manner even before military forces enter the arena.”
Meghdad claims that NAKHSA forces have fought shoulder to shoulder with Lebanese Hezbollah forces, Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades who have sworn an oath of loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria. In the first year of the Syrian civil war, he says, “we went to Syria on our own. By establishing some connections it was easy to acquire arms and get into the war…In all fronts, boys of NAKHSA fight under the banner of recognized military entities [but] they get there [using] their own money. Of course the people have helped a lot [but] we have tried to preserve our spontaneity.”
Meghdad says the group’s social media activities began when the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked in January 2016. Since then, its accounts have been blocked in Iran six times [Persian link]. According to him, the accounts are managed by the “Union of Haifa Admins,” all of who have “jihadi accounts.”
Since NAKHSA is a secret military organization, Meghdad refuses to disclose who supports the group, how it has managed to arm itself and how it has been able to fight in other countries and participate in the crackdown on protests in Iran.
The claims by NAKHSA, however, are disputed by some of the same forces that it claims are its brother-in-arms, including the so-called “Defenders of the Shrine” and the Fatemiyoun Brigade fighting in Syria under the command of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force. They say that NAKHSA’s list of martyrs killed during the group’s operations is actually a list of soldiers killed while fighting for the Fatemiyoun Brigade. NAKHSA, they say, has never been in the battlefield.
An Iranian commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade has even referred to members of NAKHSA as “con artists” and “liars.” In a video, the commander also cites the arrest in Iran of a senior NAKHSA commander going by the alias “Abu Hor.” In the summer of 2016, it was reported that Abu Hor, a deputy commander of Imam Ali Battalions, part of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, and three others had been arrested in Mashhad on charges of “fraud,” “forgery” and “extortion” [Persian link]. Mashhad’s prosecutor Hasan Heydari announced that the four men were running a website that claimed to register people to fight in Iraq and Syria, and the Revolutionary Guards discovered that the site had been used to extort money from people after they registered and had given the site detailed information about themselves.
Even though judiciary officials have announced that members of NAKHSA are swindlers, extortionists and forgers, reports say the force is still active in Iran. If so, who is protecting and supporting them?
Who are the members of this shadowy and armed group? Why are their identities not publicly known? Why do they, like intelligence, security and military organizations, operate in secret? They have been directly involved in suppressing protests inside Iran and operate in other countries as well, but they are unknown to most Iranians, who are likely to see them as a frightening entity.
Plainclothes agents are regularly seen during crackdowns on protesters. NAKHSA, an armed but unofficial organization, appears to have the same brief, apparently operating separately from any military, intelligence, security or executive institutions. These institutions do not have to take responsibility for NAKHSHA’s actions, but, at the same time, they use its efforts to advance their goals.