It took fifty-five hours and twenty-five minutes for a news organization to publish an authoritative public attribution of the Islamic State’s dual suicide bombings in Kerman, Iran, which killed at least ninety people on January 3. During that time, at least one Iranian high official openly blamed Israel for the attacks and called for reprisal attacks, and in the immediate aftermath some American reporters simply repeated Iranian accusations, offering little further investigation into the originators. In the meantime, the Islamic State’s claim to the attacks was questioned and debated broadly.
These rhetorical reactions to the bombings in Kerman are understandable. Amid shifting political and military relationships, it may be increasingly difficult to quickly and reliably identify the perpetrators of an attack. With the greater prominence of proxy organizations used to do the biddings of vengeful states, reliably identifying an attacker’s identity also may be harder. And public officials, news organizations, and commentators can be quick to apply existing paradigms to their attack analysis (intelligence analysts call this “anchoring”). Although the Sunni Islamic State has previously attacked its Shiite Iranian nemesis using similar tactics, Tehran’s close focus on the current Israel-Hamas fight might have anchored it to its inaccurate attribution.
But understandable or not, a delay in accurate attack attribution can give attack originators, or other spoilers, valuable time to redirect blame and to instigate tragic reprisals. Fifty-five hours is an extraordinary window of time for these kinds of malign influence operations. The Russians, for example, are well known for their historical misattribution efforts—creating timely false pretext for acts of violence ranging from the 1939 Winter War to the current war in Ukraine. Their recent influence operations in the United States offer a fairly clear picture of their effective synchronization of offline and online operations, meant to propel Americans’ online sympathies into physical action. Their instigation of physical protests around the 2016 US presidential election is by now legendary.
In the context of current Middle East tensions, it’s easy to imagine the outcome of an open Israeli attack on Iranian civilians. Civilian deaths would almost certainly provoke a reprisal attack, perhaps escalating Iran’s current proxy war and enabling hawkish new Iranian relationships against Israel and other shared enemies. The United States would not be immune to new violence, and instead would likely be drawn into a more complex security dilemma—a choice between commitment to a long-term ally and commitment to open regional warfare. Disproving false claims of such an attack—quickly—is essential to avoiding misdirected violent escalation.
While the United States was not the target of the Islamic State’s physical attacks in Kerman, it was a target of intentional information releases, and the United States’ narrative vulnerability was on full display. Immediately after the attacks, a notorious US-based social media account claiming expertise in open-source intelligence alleged that the supreme leader of Iran ordered the Iranian military to stand down, and the posting attracted nearly seven hundred thousand views by the end of the first day, with thousands of likes and reposts—demonstrating the uncritical acceptance of unchecked information. Meanwhile, anti-Israel accounts on social media were quick to conflate Israel’s actions against Hamas with Israel’s purported attacks in Kerman, and the posts remained online even after Islamic State attribution. Furthermore, op-eds by activist anti-Israel publications like Tasnim News and the Tehran Times appeared after the attack, blaming Israel and the United States for the bombings. Posts like these are the kernels of misinformation from which deliberate disinformation campaigns can be grown.
The informational risk accompanying a physical attack may be more problematic now than ever for the United States. The US government’s recent experimentation with counter-disinformation capabilities, such as the abortive Disinformation Governance Board and the increasingly imperiled Global Engagement Center, show that an influential faction of American politics strongly rejects these kinds of efforts. Without an effective capability to reduce the impact of malign influence, the United States often relies on its intelligence community as a source of information assurance during threats of violence and other high-risk contingencies. But the intelligence community, too, is increasingly distrusted by the American public.
Assuming that its foreign adversaries’ recent violent threats are to be taken seriously, and that the likelihood of a direct attack against the United States is, if not on the rise, at least significant enough to warrant serious attention, the United States has an urgent mandate to prepare effective cognitive defenses. Foremost among these is the ability to quickly and accurately attribute attacks to their originators, and to deliver that information to the public through a trustworthy vehicle. A fifty-five-hour delay invites disaster.
J.D. Maddox is a former intelligence advisor to the secretary of homeland security. He has also led influence activities as a Central Intelligence Agency branch chief, a deputy coordinator of the US Global Engagement Center, and a US Army psychological operations team leader. He frequently speaks and writes on topics of national security and captured his views of influence operations in the New York Times article, “The Day I Realized I Would Never Find Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.”
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Mehr News Agency (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International)