CTEC Newsletter 2: February 2021

Extremist use of irony, the US's problematic re-designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, and Iranian efforts to shape narratives about Azerbaijan.

Hi everyone, CTEC Research Lead Alex Newhouse here! It’s been a long time since we published the first newsletter, but we’re excited to finally send out the second one. In this newsletter, we tackle the use of humor and irony by right-wing extremists; the controversial move in the final days of President Trump’s term to re-designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism; and an interesting look at possible collaboration between an Azerbaijani dissident and the Iranian regime.

You’ll notice a couple of formatting changes: we have started tagging each story with one of our five focus areas to make it clearer how each topic fits in with what we do at CTEC.

Thanks to all who’ve subscribed already; please sign up if you haven’t yet, and I promise we’ll be working on increasing the cadence and highlighting more excellent student and staff voices. As always, if you’re interested in any of the topics or writers, feel free to contact me directly at anewhouse@middlebury.edu.

Online Extremism: The Use of Irony by the Far Right

by CTEC Graduate Research Assistant Sean Kitson

Far-right extremists rely on irony and edgy humor to radicalize and recruit individuals online and in the real world. The weaponization of comedy acts in favor of extremist movements via several pathways. Namely, it provides an opportunity to spread otherwise taboo subjects and viewpoints through more digestible and accepted modes, and it acts as an in-group identifier and unifier of those already inside fringe communities. 

Humor is used by the in-group as a bonding tool for those who "get" the joke. It also operates as a tool to attack the out-group to provoke a response—offensive humor used by the Right aims to attack the Other while concurrently giving the in-group justification to act victimized by any backlash. Through comedy, masking extremist ideology allows a degree of deniability, as it is "just a joke" not meant to be taken seriously. This form of comedic gaslighting allows these extremist ideas to flourish.

Provocation in the form of humor creates definitive lines between the in-group (far-right communities) and out-group (anyone who doesn’t “get it”). This humor is used to act as an identifier and work to keep the victims of these veiled attacks outside of their community. For many young adolescents, humor operates as an act of rebellion. Teenagers seeking to fight against the status quo, who picture themselves as free speech advocates, elicit a strong reaction for their use of highly charged, stigmatized, and offensive language and imagery, while also having an excuse to pose as the victim of any backlash. As a result, they strengthen their resolve and ideology while again normalizing extremist viewpoints.

The flag of Kekistan is an example of this provocation. A fictitious country created by 4chan users, Kekistan’s flag directly parallels the flag of Nazi Germany, and it can be found across far-right gatherings and rallies. The Kekistan flag even flew on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, during the Capitol Insurrection. Its proximity to Nazi iconography is meant to spark revulsion and disgust, even while its bearers insist that any similarities are coincidental and it is merely meant as an elaborate joke.

Fascistic tropes are littered through the Far Right’s brand of comedy. Jokes targeting ethnic groups and minorities often reveal more profound extremist beliefs. A popular example of one of these ironic actions is the “OK” hand sign, which was purposefully hijacked by 4chan trolls to trick the media into treating it as a white power symbol. Over time, real far-right groups began using it as an identity marker, thus strengthening its association with extremism. However, the sign obviously has a much longer and more innocent history than its recent co-opting by extreme communities, and much of the public still does not know its new context. This confusion is the point: by exploiting gray areas given by satire and irony, far-right extremist rhetoric has been able to flourish online and do so with little effective resistance.

Violence and humor are an unlikely but increasingly deadly duo. When violent far-right actions occur, memes and irony often follow. The movement's actions and ironic language have become inseparable. The Christchurch massacre of 2019 is an unfortunate example of the pseudo-ironic ideology of the online Far Right transforming into real-world action. Littered throughout the killer's manifesto are references, jokes, and memes only those on the online Right could understand and appreciate. However, for those less versed in online rhetoric, the document is meant to confuse and mislead. The killer tactically implemented the many layers of irony, such as setting traps to stoke tensions by referencing famous mainstream conservative voices like Candace Owens.

While fascism remains heavily stigmatized by mainstream society, comedy is not. Incorporating fascist, racist, and other fringe beliefs into comedy has allowed far-right extremist rhetoric to proliferate across social media and the internet. The weaponization of irony poses a significant yet complex threat, as the Far Right has hidden behind the veil of free speech and claims to be unfairly victimized by censorship. It is thus crucial for anyone engaging with online discourse not to take it at face value: deep analysis and care are necessary to comprehend the purpose and content of the memes and messages being strategically wielded to mainstream extreme beliefs.

Threat Financing and Sanctions: The Controversial Re-Designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

by CTEC Fellow Julie Huynh

Even while the House of Representatives was voting on articles of impeachment and the closing days of his presidency loomed, Donald Trump nonetheless continued to institute significant—and controversial—policies. Of these policies, one in particular attempted to undermine a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s foreign policy: on January 11, 2021, the Trump administration put Cuba back on the Department of State’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Cuba will once again join ranks with North Korea, Iran, and Syria on this blacklist. 

This decision reverses the Obama administration’s signature policy move, championed by then-Vice President Biden, to remove Cuba from the list in 2015, which it had been a member of since 1982. It could hamper President Biden’s future efforts to continue thawing relations with Cuba, as he has previously expressed his desire to ease economic and travel restrictions in the hopes of re-normalizing relations during his administration.

President Biden will be facing a US-Cuba diplomatic scene that has undergone significant upheaval since President Obama left office. The Cuban economy has taken heavy losses from COVID-19 and U.S. sanctions. Moreover, Cuba has recently wielded widespread influence in Venezuelan politics, helping support Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and “allowing [Maduro’s] regime to consolidate its grip on power in defiance of demands for free and fair elections.” He is currently wanted by the U.S. Department of State on charges of drug trafficking and narco-terrorism; the U.S. Department of State is offering a reward of up to $15 million for any information related to him. 

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the official reason for the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism is based on Cuba’s harboring of fugitives wanted by the U.S. The most high-profile case involves Assata Shakur who, to this day, remains the first and only woman designated as a terrorist on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list (where she is listed by her previous name, “Joanne Chesimard”). Cuba has also refused Colombia’s extradition request for the 10 leaders of the National Liberation Army, a Marxist rebel group, who planted a bomb in 2019 at a police academy in Bogota, killing 22 people and injuring 87 others. They continue to live in Havana under Cuban protection. This final decision was the culmination of Trump's hardline stance on Cuba, which has earned him praise from some Cuban Americans and other voters in Florida, but comes with serious consequences: It reverses Obama's efforts to move on from the two nations' 20th century tensions; Obama’s policies were seen as productive moves to help the Cuban economy and society recover from decades of strict embargos and sanctions. Moreover, it will continue to hamper U.S.-Cuba relations when Biden takes office.

This move has met strong opposition within the U.S. One U.S. diplomat with experience on U.S.-Cuba issues said, “Cuba’s presence on that list really made a mockery of the list itself—there simply was not a good argument to be made that Cuba actually sponsored terrorism.” He likens the move to “one more example of [Trump] trashing the hotel room on the way out the door.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) agreed, stating, “This blatantly politicized designation makes a mockery of what had been a credible, objective measure of a foreign government’s active support for terrorism. Nothing remotely like that exists here. In fact, domestic terrorism in the United States poses a far greater threat to Americans than Cuba does.”

Not surprisingly, the Cuban government has also denounced this decision. Soon after the news broke, Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla tweeted, “We condemn the hypocritical and cynical designation of #Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, announced by the US. The political opportunism of this action is recognized by all who have an honest concern about the scourge of terrorism and its victims.” He similarly tweeted on December 30, 2020,  “I denounce the move of Secretary of State Pompeo to include #Cuba in his list of state sponsors of terrorism and pander to the anti-Cuban minority in Florida. #USA guarantees refuge to terrorist groups that act against Cuba from its territory.” Cuban President Manuel Díaz-Canel also stated on December 31, 2020, “We condemn a unilateral, absurd, hypocritical and unjust maneuver of the US administration to include Cuba in their list of state sponsors of terrorism. This administration protects terrorist groups acting against #Cuba. #LivingCuba” His tweet includes a link to a news article that echoes his sentiment, calling the punitive measures instituted by the US government during the Trump administration as an “unjust and absurd decision” that has drawn “global rejection” and “unilaterally denigrates the integrity of Cuba.” 

President Biden has already signaled his administration’s intention to aggressively undo President Trump’s strictest policies; for example, he will once again allow remittances and increased travel between the U.S. and Cuba. However, Biden also faces obstacles, including more resistance in Congress than Obama faced as well as the lengthy process to delist Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list. In the meantime, sanctions will continue to disproportionately harm those most vulnerable: normal Cuban citizens.

Asymmetric Conflict: Is a Prominent Azerbaijani Exile Secretly Collaborating with Iran?

by MIIS and CTEC alum Eric Westphal

Gurban Mammadov is a prominent Azerbaijani lawyer and human rights campaigner living in exile in London. He is also the founder of AzeriFreedom Online Media Services, which includes a YouTube channel named AzerFreedom TV. Much of his content has been highly critical of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled the country since 2003 following the death of his father. However, despite his public work, a previously leaked document suggests there may be another side of Mr. Mammadov that is not quite as above board.

In early December 2019, various Farsi-language outlets associated with the Iranian opposition began circulating a memo classified “very confidential” alleged to have been sent on October 23, 2019, from the Iranian embassy in London to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran. On that same day, Gurban Mammadov reportedly met with unidentified officials at the embassy. At the meeting, an agreement was reached that required Mammadov to interview Iranians that would not speak in a way that was deemed harmful to the Iranian regime. In exchange, Mammadov would be paid £3,000 monthly from the embassy’s consular affairs account. The memo also celebrated Mammadov’s work “defending the lost rights of Azerbaijan’s Shi’a brothers.”

In response to the leak, the Iranian embassy in London’s Twitter account issued a strongly worded denial of its veracity. In it, they claimed that the document was fabricated to harm bilateral relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. The tweet also claimed that the document contained numerous typographical errors and did not adhere to the principles of administrative correspondence within the ministry.

However, when the memo was compared to a previous memo from the Iranian embassy in London regarding the seizure of the Grace 1 tanker that Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif publicly tweeted in August 2019, it became clear that both have identical letterheads and follow the same general formatting. Both documents are also stamped with the seal of the Iranian embassy at the bottom of the page. Likewise, both documents use similar verbiage at various points. Though this does not definitively prove the authenticity of the document, it does lend credence to the theory that the Iranian embassy was doing damage control to try and mitigate the fallout from the leak. Moreover, effectively co-opting a prominent Azerbaijani opposition figure certainly seems consistent with the Iranian regime’s foreign policy goals.

It should be noted that there is a close strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and Israel, the Iranian regime’s mortal enemy. In addition to purchasing oil from them, Israel is one of the leading suppliers of arms to Azerbaijan. These arms include the drones that were instrumental in Azerbaijan’s military success during the recent conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. There has also been talk in the past of Israel planning to use Azerbaijani airbases to conduct airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Assuming this document is genuine, it offers genuine insight into how the Iranian regime is attempting to shape the digital narrative for an audience that is based primarily in a neighboring country. Also, it sparks questions about whether Mammadov might be cooperating more extensively with the Iranian regime. For instance, if he is willing to accept money and operate as an Iranian asset, it seems within the realm of possibility that he is also serving as a human intelligence source for the regime. Though much remains unknown, this episode offers a fascinating glimpse into the shadowy world of Iranian covert influence.