Fifty-Five Hours of Risk: The Dangerous Implications of Slow Attack Attribution

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. The article was originally posted to the website of the Modern War Institute at West Point. 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.