Wave of Online Activism to #freeiraniansoldiers

Over the past three days, 11,000 people have liked the Facebook page “Free Iranian soldiers,” created by online Iranian activists after the militant group Jaish Al-Adl tweeted photos of five Iranian soldiers it has taken hostage.

Iran has tried to downplay the kidnappings in official media to project indifference to the group’s activities, but the crescendo of online activism grows by the day. A day after the pictures went public, and despite Iranian officials’ continued silence about the abduction, online activists launched both the Facebook campaign and created the Twitter hashtag #freeiraniansoliders.

Jaish Al-Adl itself uses social media widely to promote its terror activities, and despite being criticised for posting photos of children ready for the group’s military training, has proven more adept than other groups such as Jund Allah at exploiting online platforms.

The comments and tweets that have accompanied the Iranian campaign online have challenged the Islamic Republic’s claims of success in dealing with such clandestine attacks, demanding to know why a state that argues that it can hold its own against sea pirates has been unable to fend off a relatively smaller group near its own soil.

One critical post called out Iranian officials for their indifference to low-ranking soldiers: “Where is [Ali] Larijani, who says we should give our lives for Palestine? Who is this ‘we’? For those soldiers who don’t have money or connections, who’ve been stuck on the border, what have you done for them, you shameless freeloaders?”

Other commentators were concerned with the security differences for conscripted soldiers serving with the formal army as opposed to the Revolutionary Guards.  “The soldier who doesn’t have an active Basij card gets sent to the border,” complained one post.

But the vast majority of comments bitterly criticized the group carrying out the attack, Jaish al-Adl, for its near-fascist ideological stance, its stoking of Shia-Sunni sectarian tensions, and its cheap tactics of holding the most vulnerable hostage. “Even in chess there’s no glory in taking the pawns,” said one commentator.

Others sought to argue that Jaish al-Adl’s actions had little do with sectarian issues, while others said the roots of the tension lay in the Islamic Republic’s practice of targeting religious minorities. As long as they are executing religious minorities in such numbers, what we can we expect, asked one commentator. “Those people all have families who will want revenge.”

The group has demanded the release of 200 Baluch prisoners and the release of women detainees in Syria in exchange for the soldiers’ release.

The online campaign has been greeted warmly inside Iran by a wide range of media, and in particular conservative media, despite operating on social media networks that are filtered by the government.

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