U.S. Seizes Iran-Backed Militia Websites Spreading COVID Disinformation

The Department of Justice has taken down two websites used by the Iraqi Shi'ite militia group Kata'ib Hezbollah, an ally of Iran that regularly launches attacks against American and allies targets in Iraq.

The DOJ released a statement on Thursday noting it seized the "r-m-n.net" and "Almaalomah.com" websites on Thursday via a seizure warrant in the Eastern District of Virginia.

These sites were part of a wider Kata'ib Hezbollah network. The DOJ had already seized "Aletejahtv.com" and "Aletejahtv.org" in Arizona on August 31, 2020, and "Aletejah.tv" and "kataibhezbollah.com" on October 14, 2020 in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The websites were used to smear the reputation of the U.S. and even "included false information about COVID-19 designed to damage the perception of the United States in the minds of Iraqi citizens and to destabilize the region to the benefit of Iran," the DOJ said.

"The internet must not be used as a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations to promote violent extremism and spread their hateful rhetoric," said Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Kevin Kurland, performing the non-exclusive duties of the assistant secretary for export enforcement at the Bureau of Industry and Security, said agents "will use all of the tools at our disposal to protect American citizens, including our military service members, from terrorist acts of violence inspired and directed via online platforms."

"We will continue to aggressively disrupt Foreign Terrorist Organizations such as Kata'ib Hezbollah and their efforts to utilize U.S. cyber infrastructure to harm U.S. national security," Kurland added.

Kata'ib Hezbollah is one of the most prominent Iran-aligned Iraqi groups agitating against U.S. forces. Formed in 2003, its fighters fought against occupying American troops and gained prominence by uploading videos of such attacks online. The group was designated a terrorist organization and sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2009.

The war in Syria and Iraq's campaign against the Islamic State—both of which were supported by Iran—gave Kata'ib Hezbollah new opportunities to expand its ranks, arsenals, and influence.

The group has been at the center of recent U.S.-Iran tensions. Former President Donald Trump's administration targeted the group's headquarters with airstrikes in December 2019, prompting its fighters and supporters to storm and ransack the U.S.embassy in Baghdad.

The U.S. then retaliated by assassinating top Iranian commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. The drone strike that killed Soleimani also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of both Kata'ib Hezbollah and the umbrella Popular Mobilization Forces organization, which is dominated by Iran-aligned militias.

Iran later responded with ballistic missile attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting American troops, wounding more than 100. Trump decided against further escalation, helped by Iran's accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner above Tehran while on alert for U.S. retaliation.

More recently, the group was the target of President Joe Biden's first airstrikes in Syria. The attack on a checkpoint close to the Iraq border, was retaliation for an earlier rocket attack on Iraq's Erbil International Airport, which killed one civilian contractor and wounded several Americans.

Despite the strikes, U.S. officials believe that Kata'ib Hezbollah was behind another attack days later on the Ain Al-Asad airbase in Iraq's Anbar province. One American contractor died of a cardiac episode during the rocket barrage.

Kata'ib Hezbollah fighters in Baghdad in 2019
Iraqi Shi'ite fighters from the Iran-backed armed group Kata'ib Hezbollah march during a parade in Baghdad, Iraq, , on May 31, 2019. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images