Last week, near the town of al Batha in Iraq, a truck heading north on the main road between Basra and Baghdad was hit by an explosive device.
People here are fairly used to such attacks: footage of bombed out trucks burning on dusty and bumpy Iraqi roads circulate on social media every week. But this one was a bit different.
Shortly afterwards a newly-formed front group for Iran-backed militias calling itself the Companion of the Cave claimed responsibility for the attack, issuing a statement on Telegram that appeared to quote the BBC drama series, Peaky Blinders.
"We did it, and we are not afraid of the consequences. The highway to the south is closed to the US troops by order of the Islamic Resistance," the statement said.
“We won't stop our rocket and explosive attacks. When the enemy and their servants increase security measures, our teams will keep embarrassing those servants with our new and sophisticated methods and weapons,” said another message from the group posted a week later, aiming threats at local authorities.
While Shia militias and pro-Iranian Revolutionary Guard accounts have used Game of Thrones-themed posts on social media in the past, including an Instagram battle between Qasem Soleimani and Donald Trump, quoting Peaky Blinders – an award-winning BBC show about a criminal family from Birmingham – is a new one.
It is part of their attempt to appeal to young people, Philip Smyth, an expert on Shia militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told VICE World News.
"There was a whole series of posts around Game of Thrones themed social media posts like 'the winter is coming’ for the American forces in Iraq, [to] try to demonstrate that they are youthful, and they understand popular culture, and they can tap into that and reuse it, that has been one of their big things,” he said.
Several fronts with names like Rab Allah (God's Lads), Ahbab Allah (God's Beloved), Al-Zelm Al-Khashnah (Tough Dudes) and Abu Jeddaha (Lightermen) are specifically known for their use of fire and burning down their opponents' buildings. The groups' activities aren't only limited to military operations, but organising rallies against rival political blocs, setting fire to liquor stores and beauty salons while also assassinating women rights activists, journalists, and academics.
In recent years US troop numbers have been reduced to 2,500 in Iraq and they have started to hand over their bases to Iraqi forces.
As the threat of Islamic State has been pushed back to pockets in rural areas, American forces are confident enough in the local troops to contain the small remnants of the Jihadi groups.
But Iraqi groups like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Haq have vowed vengeance for the deaths of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis in a US drone strike in early 2020 in Baghdad airport, and since intensified their attacks on the US diplomatic and military installations in Iraq.
Iran-backed militia groups fought foreign troops periodically from the US-led invasion until 2011, but the divided paramilitary groups made a comeback during the heights of the war against the Islamic State in 2014. Gathered under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the militiamen played an instrumental role on the ground alongside the other Iraqi military units. The groups flourished and even managed to form a strong coalition inside Iraq’s parliament and play a key role in the government since 2018.
It’s not just Game of Thrones or Peaky Blinders that the militia quote in order to appeal, says Smyth.
He says that the militiamen use economic hardship to appeal to the Iraqi masses. "They try to convey that the evil US economy is actually controlling and destroying everything in Iraq, and we are not getting a fair share out of it, and the only way we can fight back is through this wonderful youth group that promotes pure moral values and would fight back anyone who besmirches the Iraqis and the Shia militias," he said.
Former spy chief and current Prime Minister, Mustafa Kadhimi – tasked with delivering an already delayed early election – has so far has made little progress in gaining any control over pockets of the Tehran-backed groups' outposts all over the country, which operate under directions shared with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces.
There were over 40 such attacks by militias only in the first quarter of this year; the most striking were the 14 rockets fired at a US base near the Erbil international airport that caused the death of a civilian US contractor and wounded six other people, a region relatively safe and far from reach of the Shia militias territories.
In February, US President Joe Biden’s administration took its first action against the group’s affiliates in Syria with an airstrike that destroyed “multiple facilities” according to the Pentagon.
"Not every claim of an attack is true, but the message they want to convey is that there are multiple groups that can target the US troops not only in Baghdad but in Basra, Babil and even Erbil. It is that whole kind of modelling that says, 'we run the show' here, and we can do it not only just attack on daily basis, but in a coordinated effort, and no one can do anything about it," added Smyth.