TAMPA, Fla. — Iran-backed rumors the US is supplying the Islamic State group not only led to shots being fired at a US helicopter, but they are so stubborn the commander of Iran's Quds Force believes them, a senior special operations official said Tuesday.
That Iranian commander, Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force, has fully bought into the narrative, the official said. Soleimani, a powerful figure, was deployed by Tehran to help Iraqis coordinate the fight against the Islamic State group.
"I can tell you the Quds force commander believes we are re-supplying Daesh — truly believes it," Brig. Gen. Kurt Crytzer, deputy commander for Special Operations Command Central, told reporters. Daesh is another name for the Islamic State group.
Beyond one persistent rumor, the issue reflects the US' difficulty producing messaging that counters the narrative and ideology of the Islamic State group, which has proven adept proliferating its message via social media and attracting foreign fighters.
"We have a continuous problem in effectively countering the narrative and consistently struggle in the [information operations] realm," Crytzer said, speaking at the Special Operations Industry Conference on Tuesday. "We need to find solutions that allow us to more effectively contest for the [information operations] battlespace
Crytzer lamented that the Islamic State and its sympathizers have used smartphones and Twitter to respond quickly to events and advance its agenda. For instance, the Islamic State could turn the death of a bomb maker in an accidental explosion into a US attack — "an automatic [propaganda] opportunity for them, and we have nothing to counter it," he said.
To add insult to injury, a group calling itself the Cyber Caliphate embarrassed US Central Command (CENTCOM) when it briefly hacked its Twitter account in January.
In his remarks Tuesday, Crytzer explained that Special Operations Command Central learned through intelligence reports that the motivation for the shots were fired at a US helicopter was the rumor the US was supplying ISIS.
Crytzer called the narrative, "easily believed by many, it's not just the poor and uneducated." "When narratives like that go unchecked, it sets the conditions for bad things to happen like that," he said.
The story may be undermining the trust between Iraqi allies and their special operations advisers. In at least once instance, advisers were asked by Iraqi troops, "Why are you doing that," Crytzer said.
In October, the US Defense Department acknowledged that a bundle carrying small arms meant for Kurdish forces went astray. Though an Islamic State video shows its forces handling the bundle, the Pentagon maintained it was destroyed from the US but planned to investigate.
The Iranian news agency Fars carried a report in February that Iraqi popular forces in Al-Anbar shot down a US helicopter carrying weapons for the Islamic State group. The report, mostly sourced to members of the Iranian parliament, cited various examples of Western aid to the Islamic State and claimed Iraqi forces shot down two British planes carrying weapons to the Islamic State group.
US Central Command is starting to mount an effort to respond, led by Rear Adm. James Malloy, CENTCOM's deputy director of operations. Its purpose is "to improve how proactive and effective they are … bring proactive and with how quick they can be to counter narratives," Crytzer said.
"This is a very powerful ideology, this is not going to be easy, and there are true believers, and we've got to get into the fight to counter the message for those who have not been influenced," he said. "It's not going to be easy."
Thus far, efforts to counter the rumors were coordinated between the Defense Department and State Department. In general, the US tends to operate at a slower pace.
"With us, we're being truthful, we're trying to be deliberate so that there aren't missteps," Crytzer said.
On the panel, Crytzer and other regional officials from Special Operations Command appealed to the industry crowd to produce a technological solution that would help.
Army Brig Gen. John Deedrick, Special Operations Command Korea, said the Defense Department and other US agencies could be using big data analytics to monitor Internet chat room or social media traffic to preempt problems.
"We are just starting to fully realize how much can be scoped from that, and how we can get ahead of the narrative or at least see a trend line starting to develop," Deedrick said.