The video seems to show a man dressed as a US soldier firing three shots into a copy of the Quran. It appeared online in September 2015, generating unusual interest in Russia, prompting strong criticism from the country’s Muslim community. According to an investigative report by the BBC’s Russian-language service, the footage was actually staged by St. Petersburg’s infamous “troll factory,” the Agency for Internet Studies.
In the controversial video, a dark-skinned man wearing a US military uniform tests a Russian-made Saiga 401K semi-automatic rifle by firing ten shots at a blue book written in Arabic, resembling the Quran. When only three bullets hit the target, the man behind the camera, using highly obscene language and speaking with an accent that does not sound American, says the weapon is inaccurate. The video, which is interspersed with grammatically incorrect captions, concludes with the statement, “This is one more prove that only American weapons are the best ever [sic].”
The same day that the video appeared on YouTube, it was also shared on the National Gun Forum, which hosts “discussion for proud gun owners.” There, a user named “Derr86” claimed that his friend was trying to dissuade him from buying a Saiga 410K because the weapon is “just a piece of crap.” Derr86 said his friend, “who’s a marine btw, Oorah!” also sent him the YouTube video featuring the man dressed as a US soldier testing the rifle on the Arabic book. Derr86 registered on the forum just ten days before this post, and he hasn’t been active since.
No one on the forum seemed to notice (or care) that the man in the video was dressed in US desert camouflage, which is widely available at specialty stores. The BBC also notes that the man wears an Ops-Core FAST Base Jump helmet, instead of a US military helmet. (The helmet, moreover, bears a patch reading, “INFIDEL STRONG.”) The YouTube account that posted the video is registered under the unusual name “Mayaese Johnson,” who on Google Plus claims to be employed at a high school in Moscow.
Elsewhere on Google Plus, the BBC reports, there are roughly another 50 accounts with the first name “Mayaese,” and many of those individuals also say they work at high schools in Moscow. Their Google Plus accounts are blank, created (it seems) to add “likes” to videos on YouTube, the BBC speculates.
On September 11, 2015, several still images from the video appeared on the anonymous Twitter account @ComradZampolit (which has more than 33,000 followers), and then on another even more popular account, @NovostiSPb (which has more than 81,000 followers). Both these accounts claimed that the soldier was shooting at the Quran, though the video never states this explicitly.
Нашел видео, где американец простреливает Коран.
Неужели, #Слёзы911 не научили, что нельзя играть с исламом? pic.twitter.com/jEihDNxwTL
— Замполит (@ComradZampolit) 11 сентября 2015 г.
Found a video where an American shoots up a Quran. Have they and all their 9/11 tears really not learned that you can’t play around with Islam?
The NovostiSPb Twitter account frequently shares links to the news site Nevskie Novosti, which newspaper reports and hacker leaks say is the creation of people tied to businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, who’s believed to have launched St. Petersburg’s “troll factory,” the Agency for Internet Studies. Within hours of these Twitter accounts drawing attention to the video, social communities on Facebook and Vkontakte shared the footage, too.
Three days later, the video started appearing on forums “popular among Internet trolls,” the BBC says, referring to websites like Maxpark, Dirty.ru, and YaPlakal, and on certain pro-Kremlin news sites, like Politonline.ru.
The first media outlet to draw attention to the video, the BBC says, was a website called People’s News, which is registered at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg—the same address as the Agency for Internet Studies, Russia’s infamous “troll factory.” According to the BBC’s sources, the agency rents several virtual servers in order to mask its online behavior. The BBC says it has a list of some of the IP addresses the agency uses, and the first IP address on the list, it so happens, was used to promote the Quran-shooter video on a forum based in Saratov.
The BBC even says it’s found a man who resembles the gunman in the video, having discovered his photograph by searching on Instagram for photos geotagged near 55 Savushkina Street. British journalists say the man, who works as a bartender in St. Petersburg, is friends with a woman who’s known to be employed by the “troll factory.”
He — and everyone else thought to work for the trolls—refused to speak to the BBC.
By Kevin Rothrock, Global Voices