Iran and Venezuela: The Alex Saab Trans-regional Influence Campaign to Increase Anti-US Sentiment in Latin America
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis with endnotes, click here to download the report as a PDF.
This report analyzes influence operations surrounding Alex Saab, an alleged financier and special agent to Iran for the Nicolás Maduro regime, between 2020 and 2022. This report will be of most relevance to companies, governments, and militaries with an interest in trans-regional Iranian influence operations and the broader threat landscape of influence operations in Latin America, as well as journalists and analysts following the Saab trial, which has recently been postponed.
Iran and Venezuela are very likely conducting an ongoing multiyear, multifaceted influence campaign surrounding the United States’s (US) extradition and imprisonment of Alex Saab, alleged financier and special agent to Iran for the Nicolás Maduro regime. Since 2019, Iranian and Venezuelan entities have sought to increase anti-American sentiment in Latin America through disinformation that claims the US is unjustly sanctioning, kidnapping, and illegally detaining Saab. We have identified the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of entities involved in the influence campaign, including official state-sponsored media outlets, social media influencers, proxies, surrogates, and political activists. We categorized the influence campaign into 4 distinct phases based on operational capabilities. Each phase represents asynchronous influence operations which, when combined, constitute the overarching Saab influence campaign:
- PHASE I: Alex Saab disinformation narrative initiation via social media surrogates in West Africa
- PHASE II: Nation-state amplification of the Saab disinformation narrative through Venezuelan and Iranian state-affiliated media organizations
- PHASE III: Saab disinformation narrative propagation via Iranian and Venezuelan proxies, surrogates, and third-party political activists
- PHASE IV: Expansion of Iranian and Venezuelan influence efforts beyond the Saab influence campaign
This campaign, which continues at the time of writing, highlights Iran and Venezuela’s multiyear development of a robust influence network that will likely be leveraged in order to advance future nation-state priorities.
- Venezuela is very likely conducting an influence campaign to assert socio-political pressure on US presidential administrations to negotiate with the Nicolás Maduro regime regarding the release of Alex Saab from US custody.
- Iran, which has benefited from Saab’s alleged activities to circumvent US sanctions, is likely using the campaign to amplify its anti-US narrative to Latin American target audiences.
- Iran’s state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) company is very likely using its Latin American-facing news agency, HispanTV, to amplify content promoting mis- and disinformation in support of anti-US narratives.
- Iran and Venezuela will very likely continue to use surrogate media organizations such as Fuser News and the Free Alex Saab Foundation to provide obfuscation and plausible deniability of state-sponsored anti-US influence operations.
- We assess that Iran and Venezuela will very likely layer physical influence actions, such as government-sponsored demonstrations, with digital actions such as recorded interviews, videos, social media engagements, and news stories in order to reinforce disinformation narratives in the lead-up to Saab’s trial.
- The Alex Saab disinformation narrative will also likely be used as a nexus to perpetuate generalized anti-US messaging to Latin American target audiences.
On July 25, 2019, The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Alex Nain Saab Moran (Alex Saab) for “involvement in a large-scale network of corruption to obtain valuable business contracts with the Government of Venezuela”. According to the designation, Saab faces US charges of money laundering through a Venezuelan government food subsidy program called the Local Committees for Supply and Production, along with a global network of front and shell companies. Saab, an alleged conduit of Hezbollah operations extending into Latin America, is a Colombian and Venezuelan businessman who has been wanted by Colombian law enforcement since September 2018 and has served as a law enforcement source for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Following Saab’s OFAC designation, he was appointed by Maduro as special envoy to Iran in April 2020, likely in an attempt to enable Saab to qualify for diplomatic immunity. As the US increased economic sanctions against Iran and Venezuela in early 2020, Saab allegedly facilitated a deal with Iran for Venezuela to purchase gasoline additives, parts, and technicians from Iran in exchange for Venezuelan gold. The gold, worth an estimated $500 million, was reportedly delivered to Iran on aircraft owned by OFAC-designated Mahan Air, which historically has “transported IRGC-QF [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force] operatives, weapons, equipment, and funds abroad in support of the terrorist group’s regional operations, and has also moved weapons and personnel for Hezbollah. This deal resulted in the delivery of 1.53 million barrels of Iranian gasoline and petrochemical components to the Maduro regime in May 2020, with both countries circumventing US sanctions. Saab remained a key facilitator to Iran on behalf of the Maduro regime until apprehended by US officials while traveling from Venezuela to Iran on June 12, 2020 on the Cape Verde island of Sal. Saab was extradited to the US on October 16, 2021, and currently faces federal charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Following the US detention of Saab in June 2020, a coordinated trans-regional influence campaign began using mis- and disinformation narratives to assert socio-political pressure on Nigerian and Cape Verde government officials to release Saab prior to US extradition. Following the extradition of Saab to the US in late 2021, the influence campaign began projecting mis- and disinformation narratives surrounding Saab through a variety of influence operation TTPs using state-sponsored media outlets, social media influencers, proxies, surrogates, and political activists. The influence campaign remains active at the time of writing, leading into Saab’s trial which has recently been postponed.
Figure 1: Timeline overview of significant events surrounding the indictment, arrest, extradition, and pending trial of Alex Saab (Source: Recorded Future)
Analysis of Events in the Influence Campaign
We used the Recorded Future Diamond Model for Influence Operations framework to analyze various types of influence operations, including but not limited to disinformation, fake news, propaganda, and political interference. We also used the DISARM framework, formerly known as the AMITT framework, throughout the report to describe and understand influence operations. We identified 4 distinct phases of influence operations supporting the Alex Saab influence campaign. The following sections detail each of these campaign phases, including specific narratives, influencers, audiences, infrastructure, and capabilities from Saab's detention in June 2020 to August 2022.
PHASE I: Narrative Initiation via Social Media Surrogates
We assess that the first phase of the Alex Saab influence campaign likely originated in West Africa through a private public relations firm, a private digital marketing company, a nonprofit organization, and multiple social media influencers in January 2021. The geographic region and timing of the surge in social media mentions correspond to Saab’s physical location in Cape Verde, Africa. We assess coordination likely took place between individuals affiliated with the Venezuelan government and the private companies identified below. Coordination efforts very likely focused on causing Venezuelan target audiences (government officials, citizens, and the general public) to engage with West African target audiences (Nigerian and Cape Verdean government officials, Nigerian and Ghanaian citizens, and the general public) on social media. The mechanism used to cause this interaction was almost certainly having West African social media influencers tag Venezuelan government officials on their social media posts. This influence conduit was very likely created to apply socio-political pressure on the Nigerian and Cape Verdean governments to release Alex Saab before his extradition back to the US.
Nigerian Influence Network and Social Media Surrogates
Following the US detainment of Alex Saab, a social media influence operation was likely initiated in January 2021 by employees of a Nigerian public relations firm, Alpha Reach, and UK-based nonprofit Digital Good Governance for Africa (DIGA). The operation began with the recruitment of social media influencers/surrogates in Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. These social media influencers/surrogates “received a Saab campaign briefing document produced on the letterhead of Digital Good Governance for Africa” asking them to produce social media posts in support of Saab, almost certainly in order to increase negative public opinion surrounding court proceedings in Nigeria and Cape Verde, the African island nation where Saab remained under house arrest awaiting extradition to the US.
Alpha Reach recruited an estimated 40 Nigerian influencers to participate in the influence operation; the influencers had a total of more than 1 million social media followers. Each influencer was added to a WhatsApp group to coordinate and synchronize social media posts and was paid approximately $6.50 to $15, presumably per post. Participants were expected to post twice a week using #FreeAlexSaab and tag prominent social media accounts including Venezuelan government officials as well as Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Senegalese government and business platforms, celebrities, and activists. From January to February 2021, over 1,500 social media accounts that posted the #FreeAlexSaab hashtag were disabled due to inauthentic behavior.
Figure 2: A screenshot of a social media post from a likely Nigerian influence operation participant challenging the Cape Verde government, using the #FreeAlexSaab hashtag, and tagging Venezuelan government officials (Source: Social Media)
Astroturfing in Ghana
Throughout June 2021, PromoCoreGH, a digital marketing company that reportedly provided public positioning services on social networks, published a social media post advertising their services. The social media post showed the social media influencers the company used to promote digital media campaigns contracted by third parties. PromoCoreGH, assessed to formerly be located in Accra, Ghana, utilized over 50 social media influencers to generate what would appear as naturally developed online social movements, but were actually fabricated posts in support of a client’s influence campaign (an influence technique known as astroturfing). Several of the identified influencers actively supported the Alex Saab disinformation narrative, alleging that Saab was illegally detained and posting hashtags such as #LetAlexGo, #ReleaseAlex, #TheProxyPolicy, #FreedomToBeHeard, and #IllegalHouseArrest as well as memes and videos rallying for Saab’s release from Cape Verde custody. The Recorded Future® Platform indicates that the domain promocoregh[.]com was registered on May 17, 2021; the domain is no longer active as of this writing.
Figure 3: A screenshot of a social media post from a likely Ghana influence operation participant encouraging the Cape Verde government to release Alex Saab, using the previously identified #FreedomToBeHeard hashtag (Source: Social Media)
Table 1: Recorded Future Diamond Model for Influence Operations: PHASE I, Narrative Initiation via Social Media Surrogates
PHASE II: Nation-State Amplification of the Narrative
Approximately a month following the likely initiation of the influence campaign through social media surrogates in West Africa, Venezuela hosted a concert in support of Saab that provided a psychological action to elicit a response from traditional media organizations and social media users, increasing exposure to the disinformation narrative. In addition to the concert, other responses to the influence narrative included pro-Saab graffiti that appeared in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, providing Iranian and Venezuelan state-owned media organizations opportunities to increase the amplification of the Saab disinformation narrative while continuing to leverage disseminated content from identified West African social media influencers.
Venezuelan Government’s Official Concert
As the #FreeAlexSaab hashtag continued to be exploited on social media platforms, on February 20, 2021, in the midst of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the Venezuelan government officially sponsored a public concert to support Saab in Caracas’s Diego Ibarra Plaza. The concert was used to amplify disinformation surrounding Alex Saab’s arrest with claims that US detention of Saab was an “international blockade on the Venezuelan government”. Attendees were reportedly given bags of food from Salva Foods, a company closely tied to Saab, as encouragement to participate in the event.
Figure 4: A screenshot of a disinformation video developed by Venezuelan state-sponsored media company teleSUR, which shows drone footage of the February 2021 concert and was henceforth posted on YouTube (Source: Telesurenglish.net)
Graffiti in Caracas
In February 2021, graffiti with the hashtag #FreeAlexSaab and stenciled pictures of Saab’s face started to appear on Caracas’s main streets. Many physical posters were hung throughout the city, containing phrases such as “The people are with Alex Saab” and “Freedom for Venezuela’s diplomat, fighter and compatriot”. Reporting indicates most Venezuelans were unaware of Saab and his arrest during this period. Following news coverage of the concert and the appearance of the graffiti, mainstream news outlets began publishing articles on Alex Saab. Venezuelan state-sponsored teleSUR, Iran’s state-owned IRIB’s Latin America-facing subsidiary HispanTV, and pro-Hezbollah Al Mayadeen news networks continue to include images of Alex Saab graffiti in reports about Saab’s ongoing prosecution.
Figure 5: A screenshot of Venezuela’s teleSUR article in July 2021 displaying Saab-related disinformation graffiti in downtown Caracas, Venezuela (Source: Telesurenglish.net)
Figure 6: A screenshot of Iran’s HispanTV article from November 2021 recycling a picture of Alex Saab graffiti dated February of 2021 (Source: HispanTV)
Figure 7: Screenshots of pro-Hezbollah Al Mayadeen articles published April 2022 (picture on the left translation: “Freedom now for the diplomat Alex Saab patriot and fighter”) and July 2022 (picture on the right translation: Spanish expression for “We are all [with] Alex Saab”) (Source: espanol.almayadeen.net)
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh Public Statement
During a press conference on August 16, 2021, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh denounced the US extradition of Saab, stating it violated “all accepted principles governing the work of diplomats around the world, and can be a dangerous innovation in international law and relations between countries”. The following day, Venezuela’s teleSUR published a disinformation article titled “Venezuelan Diplomat Alex Saab Is a Prisoner of War, Iran Says”. On October 16, 2021, Alex Saab was extradited to the US, which attracted international news attention and amplified disinformation surrounding Saab across Iranian and Venezuelan state-owned and sponsored media outlets, proxy and surrogate media affiliates, and social media influencers.
Table 2: Recorded Future Diamond Model for Influence Operations: PHASE II, Nation State Amplification of the Narrative
PHASE III: Narrative Propagation via Proxies, Surrogates, and Political Activists
Throughout the duration of the Saab influence campaign from approximately November 2021 to present, we have identified specific groups and individuals with varying degrees of connection to state-sponsored media organizations that are likely central participants in the dissemination of mis- and disinformation surrounding Saab. These individuals and groups provide central nodes for analyses of the ongoing influence campaign, but do not represent the totality of the Saab mis- and disinformation network.
Figure 8: Map of Iranian and Venezuelan media organizations involved in the Saab disinformation narrative; descriptions provided below (Source: Recorded Future)
Proxies: HispanTV (Iran) and teleSUR (Venezuela)
Recorded Future analysts, in the context of influence operations, use the term “influence proxy” to refer to third parties, whether state or non-state actors, who engage in influence activities with limited attribution to the sponsor as a means to achieve the supporting state’s objectives. We identified at least 2 proxy organizations actively participating in the Alex Saab disinformation campaign: HispanTV (Iran) and teleSUR (Venezuela).
Iranian proxy media organization HispanTV is a subsidiary of Iran’s state-owned IRIB. HispanTV provides a platform for IRIB content to reach Central and South American target audiences and has used the name “Nexo Latino” (Latin Nexus) on social media platforms. Pablo Jofre Leal has been identified as a contributing journalist for HispanTV covering Saab. Leal also writes for the other proxy identified, teleSUR, and he participated in the Free Alex Saab Foundation Webinar, which is analyzed further below. Bashar Barazi, who has spoken out against US detainment of Saab and appeared on the Free Alex Saab Movement’s social media in July 2022, also writes for HispanTV. Barazi was formerly an editor for the Syrian state-sponsored Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) and his writing has previously been published by pro-Hezbollah outlet Al Mayadeen.
Approved under Hugo Chávez, teleSUR was founded in 2005, at which time the head of Venezuela's Ministry of Communication and Information discussed its purpose as a tool for information integration efforts within the region. The government of Venezuela is responsible for approximately 70% of teleSUR’s funding, with additional funds historically coming from Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. The company is headquartered in Caracas, Venezuela, and provides terrestrial and satellite news services as well as a news website and multiple social media platforms. Following Saab’s detainment in Cape Verde, teleSUR has produced and broadcasted disinformation on telesurtv[.]net as well as on associated social media platforms alleging that Saab was kidnapped by the US. Pabro Jofre Leal is recognized by teleSUR as a contributing author, with approximately 10 teleSUR stories published about Saab in the past year.
Surrogates: SegundoPaso, The Free Alex Saab Foundation, Fuser News, Venezuela News, and Al Mayadeen
The nation-state and proxy media organizations previously mentioned are likely using the following surrogate organizations to produce, share, and amplify mis- and disinformation surrounding Saab to obfuscate and maintain plausible deniability of state-sponsored anti-US influence operations. Recorded Future analysts, in the context of influence operations, use the term surrogate to refer to a non-nation-state entity that performs specific functions to assist in the accomplishment of the nation-state’s objectives. Surrogates provide capabilities that the nation-state does not have, or does not desire to employ, while remaining non-attributable to the nation-state.
Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) states: “SegundoPaso produces content on a wide variety of social, political, cultural, health and religious topics, according to the needs of the Latin American peoples”. SegundoPaso publishes anti-US content, including an ongoing podcast produced by Dr. Angel Rafael Tortolero, senior research professor at Venezuela’s Universidad Nacional Experimental Rómulo Gallegos (UNERG), who actively contributes disinformation to the Alex Saab influence campaign. SegundoPaso is likely being used by Iran as a platform to project anti-US sentiment to target audiences located in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. We identified Pablo Jofre Leal as a SegundoPaso contributing author.
The Free Alex Saab Foundation
The Free Alex Saab Foundation, also identified as The Free Alex Saab Movement, has organized events, maintains a website, and engages on multiple social media accounts including YouTube. The Recorded Future Platform indicates that the certificate for the domain freealexsaab[.]org was registered November 30, 2021, which is also likely the organization’s approximate founding date.
As a central entity in the Saab influence campaign, the Free Alex Saab Foundation continues to actively disseminate information in support of the principle disinformation narrative alleging the US is unjustly sanctioning, kidnapping, and illegally detaining Saab. This past year, the Free Alex Saab Foundation coordinated a #FreeAlexSaab Webinar held on February 10, 2022, in which HispanTV journalist Pablo Jofre Leal was a participant. The Free Alex Saab Movement also coordinated a conference held at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (February 14, 2022), arranged an event in Caracas with Saab’s wife Camilla Fabri (March 24, 2022), attended the Worker’s Summit of the Americas in Mexico (June 10, 2022), and participated in protests against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Spain (June 27, 2022). A video of HispanTV’s Bashar Barazi appeared on the Free Alex Saab Movement’s social media on July 29, 2022. During the video, Barazi amplifies the disinformation narrative, claiming the US is illegally detaining Saab and requesting automatic release.
Figure 9: Screenshot of the Free Alex Saab Movement social media post featuring HispanTV journalist Bashar Barazi (Source: Social Media)
We assess that Fuser News is likely a surrogate media organization for the Venezuelan government. The Recorded Future Platform indicates the Fuser News domain (fusernews[.]com) was registered on September 9, 2021, during the ongoing Saab influence campaign. Multiple links to Fuser News articles are embedded within the Free Alex Saab Foundation website, and identical disinformation media content focused on the alleged US kidnapping of Saab appears on both Fuser News and freealexsaab[.]org. Fuser News has directly supported the distribution of Free Alex Saab Foundation content such as the #FreeAlexSaab Webinar mentioned above. Aníbal Garzón, a social media influencer and self-identified sociologist, communicator, and anti-imperialist, reported the suspension of both the Fuser News and Venezuela News social media accounts on July 29, 2022. At the time of writing this report, both the Fuser News and Venezuela News social media accounts remain offline; however, similar social media accounts titled Fuser News Agencia and Agencia Venezuela News (further analyzed below) remain active. The Fuser News Agencia account was activated in August 2022. Garzón has been a participant in events covered by Fuser News, such as the #FreeAlexSaab Webinar with Pablo Jofre Leal on February 10, 2022. Garzón’s anti-imperialist-themed social media posts have been shared by Nicolás Maduro as recently as August 8, 2022.
Figure 11: Screenshots of Garzón’s social media posts surrounding the suspension of Fuser and Venezuela News (left) and an anti-imperialist post shared by Nicolás Maduro (right) (Source: Social Media)
Similar to Fuser News, we assess Venezuela News to likely be a surrogate media organization operating on behalf of the Venezuelan government. The Recorded Future Platform indicates the Fuser News domain (venezuela-news[.]com) was registered on May 31, 2021, 4 months prior to the registration of fusernews[.]com, coinciding with the ongoing Saab influence campaign. Venezuela News continues to publish disinformation alleging the US kidnapped Saab, on venezuela-news[.]com as well as on associated social media accounts on multiple platforms including Agencia Venezuela News as mentioned above. On September 16, 2022, venezuela-news[.]com published an article and social media videos promoting the premiere of a documentary film titled “Alex Saab: A Kidnapped Diplomat”, which was aired on the Venezuelan State Television (VTV) channel and teleSUR, and was uploaded to YouTube by the Alliance for Global Justice (analyzed further below) on September 16, 2022.
Figure 12: Screenshot of venezuela-news[.]com article promoting the premiere of the Alex Saab documentary on September 16, 2022 (Source: venezuela-news[.]com)
Al Mayadeen, a pro-Hezbollah media outlet located in Lebanon, is very likely a surrogate media organization for the government of Iran. Articles authored by Pablo Jofre Leal and by Bashar Barazi have been published on Al Mayadeen’s Latin American-facing website. Al Mayadeen continues to publish disinformation surrounding the Saab trial, including claims that the US is using torture methods against Saab and that former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper knew Saab was a diplomat. Current US court filings by the DEA refute this, stating that Saab was an “active law enforcement source” and that his “failure to surrender to US authorities” resulted in the current charges.
We identified 3 political advocacy groups that very likely contribute to, and are reinforced by, the Saab influence campaign through the amplification of misinformation: the Alliance for Global Justice, Code Pink, and Spain’s United Left. These organizations and websites are unlikely to be deliberately organized elements within the Saab influence campaign. However, through shared political ideology, these political activist groups provide a mechanism of convenience for the Saab campaign to amplify corresponding misinformation in order to complement the overarching disinformation narrative, using the pre-existing communications infrastructure of each respective organization.
Alliance for Global Justice
The Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ) is a 501(c)(3) organization that describes itself as “anti-capitalist” and favoring a “multipolar” world order, which reportedly arose from the Nicaragua Network, an organization that supported the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. The Alliance for Global Justice website (afgj[.]org) maintains a web page titled “Join the Campaign to Free Alex Saab”, which contains an extensive compilation of multimedia surrounding Saab including links to multiple articles from various sources including teleSUR and freealexsaab[.]org. The Alliance for Global Justice website also features links to a corresponding YouTube channel that features the Alex Saab documentary film; as advertised in the video, the film was likely developed by the private marketing firm El Bunker located in Caracas, Venezuela.
Figure 13: Screenshot of the Alex Saab documentary film released on September 16, 2022 (Source: afgj[.]org)
Code Pink is a feminist antiwar 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2002 to protest US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. On September 15, 2021, the Code Pink movement held a protest in front of the Cape Verde Embassy in Boston, Massachusetts, to demand the release of Saab. Code Pink continued public demonstrations in support of Saab’s release through November 2021, holding a small demonstration in Chicago, Illinois, and then launching a petition advocating all charges be dropped against Saab in October 2021. Most recently, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, posted social media content about Saab’s “illegal arrest and imprisonment” on September 15, 2022. We expect Code Pink will very likely continue to coordinate demonstrations and deliver misinformation about Saab leading into Saab’s trial, which has recently been postponed.
Spain’s United Left
We also identified Spain’s United Left (Izquierda Unida) as a political advocacy group actively disseminating Saab misinformation. Sira Rego, a spokesperson for the United Left, is quoted within an article published by the Free Alex Saab Foundation website summarizing the organization's participation in anti-NATO protests in Spain on June 27, 2022. We identified likely attempts during these protests to falsely impose the Saab narrative on the United Left’s demonstration. Content published by Fuser News included images and videos of large crowds waving United Left flags and chanting anti-NATO themes unrelated to Saab, intermixed with individual interviews discussing Alex Saab. This technique of framing an unrelated demonstration as part of the Saab influence campaign was likely an attempt to manipulate the perception of the amount of current support for Saab’s release.
Figure 15: Screenshots from Fuser News YouTube video of anti-NATO protests in Spain on June 27, 2022 (left) intermingled with individual interviews about Saab (right) (Source: YouTube)
Table 3: Recorded Future Diamond Model for Influence Operations: PHASE III, Narrative Propagation via Proxies and Surrogates
PHASE IV: Expansion of Influence Efforts beyond the Saab Influence Campaign
As of September 2022, we identified 4 identical disinformation articles authored by Pablo Jofre Leal and published by Al Mayadeen, SANA, hispanTV, and SegundoPaso on “Washington and its destructive obsession with Venezuela”. These publications demonstrate the ability of Iran and Venezuela to deliver generalized anti-US messaging unrelated to the Saab disinformation narrative through the influence infrastructure described throughout this report. Based on this development, we assess that Iran and Venezuela will almost certainly continue to leverage the Saab influence infrastructure for additional influence efforts in the months to come. In particular, we assess that these networks are likely to deliver anti-West propaganda to Central and South American target audiences using state-sponsored media, proxy media organizations, and the aforementioned surrogates. Mis- and disinformation content produced by these entities will likely be shared and amplified by Iran’s influence network, which spreads from Iran, through the Levant, and into Latin America, creating trans-regional echo chambers of disinformation in support of Iran’s geopolitical ambitions.
Figure 16: Echo chamber example of 4 identical disinformation articles authored by Pablo Jofre Leal and published by Iranian proxies Al Mayadeen, SANA, hispanTV, and SegundoPaso
Senior officials within Venezuela’s opposition party led by Juan Guaidó have expressed fear that Maduro has adopted a new strategy of arresting Americans to pressure US President Joe Biden to release Alex Saab. In March 2022, President Biden successfully negotiated with Maduro for the release of 2 wrongfully detained Americans from Venezuelan custody. Despite the release of these 2 Americans, 3 additional Americans have been detained by Venezuela this year, adding to 8 other Americans that the US government believes are currently being wrongfully detained.
Iran and Venezuela will very likely continue the Saab influence campaign in hopes of pressuring the US toward a negotiation to exchange Saab, thus increasing amplification efforts through their influence networks ahead of Saab’s trial, with a new date for the trial yet to be confirmed. The Saab disinformation narrative will also likely be used as a mechanism to deliver and amplify generalized anti-US messaging to Latin American target audiences. The Saab influence campaign is an example of how Iran is expanding its ideological and political influence in Latin America through narrative warfare.
Sources used in this report include the Recorded Future® Platform as well as official government communications, social media, local and regional news sites, academic studies, and other open-source information.