TAMPA — Iranian-fueled rumors that the U.S. is arming the Islamic State, or ISIS, with weapons have resulted in at least one instance where anti-ISIS fighters fired on U.S. forces. Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, the most important military leader in Iran, and a man with tremendous influence over Iran’s activities in both Iraq and Yemen, believes the rumor fully according to a key U.S. special operations forces commander in Iraq.
Army Brig. Gen. Kurt Crytzer, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Central, revealed the concern at a conference on Tuesday when he spoke about “intelligence reports that we’ve gotten that members [of the anti-Islamic State coalition] were firing on helicopters because they thought we were supporting Daesh.” He later clarified “there was an incident; this was one specific incident where we had certain intelligence.” He did not say when this had occurred. In the fall of last year, Iranian state media began to report that the U.S. was aiding the Islamic State, an assertion based, in part, on a video from the militant group. The video, from October, shows Islamic State militants rifling through a cache of American-supplied grenades and other small weapons. Also in October, the Pentagon acknowledged that a shipment of weapons dropped from the air and intended for Kurdish forces had wound up in the hands of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State is often referred to derogatively as Daesh by military leaders and anti-ISIS groups in the region.
The idea that the United States is effectively arming the Islamic State is a popular rumor, particularly on Iranian State-run media, but the extent of individuals who believe that mistruth reaches to the highest echelons of Iranian society, according to Crytzer.
“The Iranian Quds Force commander absolutely believes we’re supplying Daesh,” Crytzer told Defense One. “He’s not trying to play on it. He actively believes it.”.
The strength and persistence of the idea that the United States is arming its own enemy matters for two reasons. It makes the job of working with partners in Iraq, including Shia militia over which Iran holds tremendous influence, much harder.
“When narratives like that go unchecked, it sets the conditions for bad things to happen,” said Crytzer, at a National Defense Industrial Association event in Tampa, Florida. U.S. special operations commanders have had an increasing number of interactions at training facilities to prepare anti-Islamic State fighters. The issue has come up and not in a good way.
“A couple of my [Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha] have been questioned by guards at the gate asking, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Crytzer said.
The second reason why the strength of the rumor worries the U.S. commander has to do with future ramifications for the entire region. Iran-watchers often discuss Suleimani as the next president of Iran (following the 2017 election), a prospect that writer Reza HaghighatNejad highlights for IranWire.
“Over the last year or so, Suleimani has enjoyed greater media attention, lending the theory [of his presidency] more credibility than ever before. Back in 2013, he did not appear on any surveys listing the top 10 public figures in Iran, but now he comes top of the list alongside President [Hassan] Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif,” notes HaghighatNejad. “Looking at the trajectory of his media presence shows that hardliner media and politicians have invested in this narrative, and Suleimani has to some extent engineered it himself… For now he is playing a very important role: encapsulating what many in the country believe Iran needs, a strong leader with solid devotion to the regime, the Supreme Leader and the project of pushing Shia Islam into the wider world.”
Future events in Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere could change on the basis of one man—and millions of his countrymen—believing that the United States and ISIS are the same.
“Our adversaries are constantly ahead of us in the [information operations] realm…” Crytzer said.
In a room full of arms dealers, each bringing increasingly elaborate pieces of equipment to dangle in front of U.S. military buyers, Crytzer’s needs were simple: better detection equipment for improvised explosive devices and some means to track and stomp out ISIS propaganda and rumors before troops get killed.
“We need to find solutions that allow us to more effectively contest for the ideological battlespace … My question to you, is how can we use technologies to counter the messages of Daesh and militia groups and others to more effectively?” he asked.