How Iran Conned the Internet Into Believing a Fake ISIS Story
The Islamic Republic’s propaganda organ spread a false story about women’s dress code in Mosul, Iraq. Yet many news outlets believed it.
An Iranian rumor has conned the internet into believing that ISIS banned the burqa at security checkpoints in Mosul, Iraq after attacks on militants by veiled women.
The claim proliferated everywhere from the International Business Times to Britain’s Daily Mail to the U.S. News and World Report and even Foreign Policy over the last few days, seldom mentioning the source of the speculation and often combined with a sputtering caveat that the terrorist group still requires mesh over eyes and gloves to keep hands covered.
Enshrining a strict dress code for women was one of the first things ISIS did after taking over cities. Women were instructed to wear loose-fitting black abayas over their bodies, gloves to hide their hands, and niqabs with an extra layer of mesh to obscure their eyes, or risk getting dragged in by the morality police.
But there’s no hard proof that the terrorist group has backtracked even somewhat on its mandate for extreme coverage for women. And the burqa—a sack-like garment with a mesh eye covering common in Afghanistan—has never been pushed by ISIS or popular in Iraq, despite the pale blue-clad Afghan women accompanying some articles. In fact, it seems that the entire tale originated with Iranian state media, in an attempt to make ISIS look weak, less pious, or to capitalize on the burqini panic sweeping Europe.
Iran Front Page reported on September 4 that a source from Nineveh, Iraq told the Iranian-owned Arabic-language Al Alam News Network that the militant group banned niqab and burqa-clad women from security centers. It noted that the change came after "some fully veiled women killed a number of ISIS commanders and members in the past months." Iran's Western-focused propaganda outfit, PressTV, followed up with a similar story on September 5. It noted the hypocrisy of the terrorist group having killed insufficiently-veiled women before. Both articles mentioned that the alleged ban comes amid the controversy over the burqini in France.
Rumors of the ban all track back to an Iranian sources and subsequent articles brought little skepticism. (IraqiNews.com mentioned that a veiled woman killed two fighters in Sharqat, but just said the terrorist group asked fighters to be more alert.) Some even refer to the all-female Al Khansaa morality police force in Raqqa as ISIS’s “female fighters”—they’re not—rather than a group that performs functions that men, for modesty reasons, cannot.
Rasha Al Aqeedi, a Mosul native and research fellow at the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai, said the Tehran connection immediately raised a red flag.
“I’m thinking, why would anyone in Mosul contact an Iranian agency,” she told The Daily Beast.
Still, claims about ISIS-held territories are understandably hard to fact-check. Citizen journalists and activists can face death for communicating with the outside world, let alone with rejectors like Shia Muslims in Tehran. The difficulty is doubled in Mosul, where ISIS cut off internet access this summer and where all online communications must take place in internet cafes.
Al Aqeedi checked in with a friend in Mosul, operating under strict precautions to avoid attracting ISIS scrutiny.
“We have to be very very careful about how we communicate,” she said. “It’s a coded language kind of thing.”
The friend told her the ban was bullshit.
“She said, ‘I see you through a very tiny plate,’” Al Aqeedi said, the metaphor referring to the mesh netting ISIS requires women to wear over their eyes. “It’s an all-women cafe, and still she has to have it [the niqab] on.”
No one in Mosul wears the garment properly termed as the burqa, Al Aqeedi said. Even the niqab, a full-face covering that leaves a slit for the woman’s eyes, had only recently gained a limited popularity, she said. (It has increasingly supplanted traditional head coverings in Muslim communities worldwide thanks in part to Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabi Islam.
“The Afghani thing, no one ever wore that,” Al Aqeedi said.
There have been periodic rumors of men dressed in niqabs attacking militants, she added, though they have never been confirmed. An ISIS attacker, however, used the same tactic to attack a Shia mosque in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, dressing as a woman and killing two men who confronted him outside the mosque.
The Iranian rumor said the change was in response to attacks on militants, but in ISIS’s twisted apocalyptic theology, death on the front lines of the Islamic State is something to be welcomed, despite widespread internet rumors that the militants believe those killed by women don’t go to heaven. "They love death more than your love of life," the group reminded the West in its new magazine, Rumiyah, or “Rome,” released this weekend.