Ahmad al-Mahmoud was bored.
Days had passed and not much interesting news was coming out of Iraq, his homeland, with respect to the war against ISIS. So he and a friend took to Twitter to create a little news of their own. From London, where al-Mahmoud lives, they invented a fake Iraqi village called Shichwa, which they claimed was situated just northwest of the holy city of Karbala and just vacated by ISIS, thanks to the martial prowess of the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Committees of Shia militias, which are leading the ground offensive against the Sunni terror group. They also doctored screen grabs from CNN and al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned outlet, purportedly showing Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer and other news anchors discussing the latest siege of Shichwa, complete with Photoshopped chyrons.
“We wanted to bait the militias,” al-Mahmoud, an Iraqi Shia who hates ISIS but is deeply critical of Baghdad and its outsourced war to sectarian paramilitaries, told The Daily Beast. “So my friend Firas and I said, ‘Why not invent a battle and a small village to see if the websites or social media of the government pick up the story, and this way we can assess how desperate they are.”
Except the spoof should have been obvious: Shichwa is actually the name in Arabic of a leather pouch—really more of a bladder—used by Iraqi peasants to churn milk into butter. One shakes a shichwa up for hours, after adding yoghurt.
“It’s a local slang term that non-Iraqis wouldn’t understand,” al-Mahmoud said. “We used the name as a joke and, funnily enough, enough interest gathered online because of the lack of general news out of Iraq. People started sending messages to Firas and me, either publicly or privately, asking for details about the battle or where the town is.”
Unsurprisingly, responses varied by country and ideological orientation. “Some in Saudi Arabia accused ISIS for deserting Sunnis in Shichwa, although we never said if the villagers were Sunni or Shia. Logically, they would be Shia as we said the village was very close to Karbala. Some Syrians took the same line. But what surprised us was that in 48 hours of running the gag, pro-government Iraqis and militia fans started tweeting the news that ISIS was escaping a pitched battle and that the Hashd were victorious and on the move.”
“Now after the glorious advance of the militias into Shichwa, the ISIS fanboys are now accusing each other of treason,” tweeted @mkubanji, a Hashd enthusiast. (He has since deleted the tweet, but al-Mahmoud sent The Daily Beast screen captures.) Another account, which translates in English as the somewhat menacing “Security and Penetration,” appeared quite earnest when he posted images of what he called “[b]ig celebrations in Karbala after the news of the freedom of Shichwa.”
One anti-ISIS Saudi was seriously alarmed. “Disaster: the Saudi Army must quickly mobilize to the Iraqi border and protect us from anything coming from Shichwa,” panicked @aceace2020. @omar1IQ, an Iraqi nationalist well aware of how butter gets made, ironically intoned: “Sadly, Shichwa is a hopeless case the enemy is surrounding it from everywhere,” and helpfully included a map shot of the bogus locale. @hassadovic zoomed out to show Shichwa abutting Tel Khather (the Yogurt Hill) and Tel al-Zibid (the Butter Hill).
Most of the people who fell for the joke were ordinary people, although al-Mahmoud says, pro-ISIS accounts joined in later when they picked up on the “Battle of Shichwa” hashtag and tried to hijack the debate over of the fate of a non-place.
The ISIS supporters were split, with those outside of Iraq not knowing what a cheese bladder was accusing al-Mahmoud of being a sahwat—a Sunni affiliated with the 2006 Awakening against al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s forerunner incarnation. Supports of the Hashd al-Shaabi, on the other hand, accused him of being a Shia fifth columnist. “After 48 hours, it took some effort to get people to stop tweeting about Shichwa. It probably didn’t help that we Photoshopped CNN and al-Arabiya screenshots showing news presenters talking about the battle that never was.”
At least one ISIS groupie joined in the fun, however. @Tntraaaq tweeted: “Ban Ki-Moon expresses his worry of the escalating situation in Shichwa. I am saddened that now he will be eating cheese and yogurt without sharing it with me.”