After ISIS attacked Iran, journalists pushed false flag theory
Hamid Badakhshan walked into the Shahcheragh Shrine in Shiraz and murdered 15 worshippers with a gun last week. He was shot, and died in Iranian police custody. ISIS claimed the attack as part of its broader sectarian war on Shi’a Islam.
The reaction to the attack was eerily reminiscent of the early Syrian civil war, or Iran’s 1979 revolution. People mistrusted the official line about unfolding violence, with good reason. But as more facts emerged, conspiracy theories served to obscure more than illuminate. Foreign journalists, instead of acting as a check on speculation, indulged in it themselves.
Given the circumstances, many Iranians doubted the ISIS claim in the Shahcheragh attack. Officials and regime supporters had immediately taken advantage of the tragedy to blame Iran’s insecurity on the ongoing popular uprising. And there are precedents for the Iranian government egregiously lying in public, including its misinformation and obfuscation around the shootdown of Flight PS752 two years ago.
The evidence for a false flag at Shahcheragh, however, was circumstantial and weak. Opposition outlet IranWire scrutinized a government propaganda graphic about the massacre. The image file’s metadata appeared to show that it was made before the attack, which could be evidence of foreknowledge, or a computer time zone error. IranWire also noted contradictions between two different alleged ISIS propaganda claims floating around.
ISIS eventually released a tape and photos of “Abu Aisha al-Umari” taking an oath of allegiance to the group, in front of the ISIS flag. He was the same Hamid Badakhshan photographed at the scene of the attack. Barring an unimaginably sophisticated conspiracy, the imagery proves that ISIS was the culprit. It is unclear why the militants took so long to release prerecorded footage. Perhaps they were waiting for Badakhshan’s “martyrdom” to be confirmed.
Of course, it is still possible that Iranian authorities failed to stop the attack out of gross negligence or depraved cynicism. In a democracy that is accountable to the public, terrorist attacks lead to inquiries and investigations into the security services, and officials are often removed for their failure to protect citizens from violent threats. The Islamic Republic’s rush to politicize the tragedy instead is a bad enough indictment of the system.
Foreign media had already skipped straight to the false flag theory. BBC reporters, who usually take a measured and neutral tone, went from simply reporting Iranians’ suspicions to putting “weight” behind the idea that the attack was “staged.” A correspondent for The Economist called the false flag theory “reasonable speculation.” The Critical Threats Project, an American think tank, declared it “very unlikely” that ISIS was “directly involved.”
“‘IS attack’ in #Iran happens while many Iranians are protesting against the regime. Today marked 40 days since the killing of #MahsaAmini in custody,” one BBC reporter tweeted. “IS suddenly emerged in Syria during the uprising against Assad shifting the world’s focus to the militants! Same scenario?”
It’s worth reviewing the history of al-Qaeda and ISIS in the Syrian civil war.
In December 2011, car bombs exploded outside of Syrian intelligence offices. A few weeks later, a suicide bomber blew up a bus full of riot police responding to a protest. The attacks killed dozens of civilians and injured hundreds. It was a major escalation in the still-early stages of the uprising. Official news sources blamed al-Qaida.
The Syrian opposition unanimously declared the attacks to be false flags by pro-regime forces. The New York Times reported that neither the government nor the opposition had conclusive proof for their side of the story. Even the Obama administration hinted at state involvement, stating that the bombing showed the Syrian security forces to be “thugs who at times appear to be operating outside state control.”
The Syrian government claimed to be fighting terrorists in the guise of protesters, and mysterious bombing attacks against the authorities would bolster that narrative. Damascus had the means, motive, and history of ruthlessness to kill its own people in false flag operations.
Except that al-Qaida really was behind the attacks. Jabhat al-Nusra, the militant group’s local branch, eventually claimed responsibility for the police bus bombing with a detailed video. Although more questions surround the earlier intelligence office bombing, U.S. government officials believe that it was also the work of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Over time, the Syrian opposition went from denying the presence of al-Qaida to accepting Jabhat al-Nusra as a partner to the rebel coalition. Even as some revolutionaries were suspicious of Jabhat al-Nusra’s political project, its fighters entrenched themselves on the ground and pushed the rebellion in a religious direction. Wary of repeating pro-regime talking points, many foreign observers seemed uncomfortable talking about this dynamic, until the rise of ISIS from within the ranks of al-Qaida made it impossible to ignore.
Critics of the Syrian opposition took vindication from later events. They claimed that the uprising was sectarian from the start, and the phrase “moderate rebels” turned into a punchline even for hawkish U.S. politicians. Yet much of the Syrian opposition genuinely did not want (and still does not want) the social vision that Jabhat al-Nusra was offering. The scary truth is that revolutionary violence is uncontrollable and puts good people in impossible positions.
Similarly, Iran’s 1979 revolution began as a broad popular uprising including liberals and leftists, before Islamists took control of the situation, installing the current Islamic Republic.
And that revolution came with its own false flag conspiracy theories. In 1978, arsonists burned down Cinema Rex, killing hundreds of moviegoers. While the monarchy blamed revolutionary terrorists for the attack, many Iranians believed it was a monarchist false flag. Decades later, Iranians have started to come around to the conclusion that the revolutionaries indeed started the fire.
Iran in 2022 is neither Iran in 1979 nor Syria in 2011. The current situation is unprecedented — as those other two revolutions were — which is why it demands careful attention to the facts. The most dangerous escalations moving forward may come from actors that no one regards as a threat yet.
After all, Islamists are not the only people in the world capable of violent accelerationism or vicious purges. There is nothing uniquely Iranian, Syrian, Middle Eastern, or Islamic about these dynamics.
Reporting critically on uprisings is always a difficult undertaking. American journalists instinctually identify with the underdog. No one wants to be seen punching down at people rising up against a repressive police state. In cases of uncertainty, the moral (and professional) risks of erring too close to a foreign government’s line seem much higher than those of erring too close to its opponents.
Yet fidelity to the truth is even more important in revolutionary situations. People facing grave dangers need reliable information. So do outside actors trying to help the situation. And if self-appointed opposition leaders cannot distinguish between fiction and reality — or between their party line and facts on the ground — it suggests that they are not up to the life-and-death decisions that revolutions call for.
IranWire’s editor told CNN that “in a chaotic, angry situation it’s impossible to expect every member of the public to try and fact check, especially if those exaggerated reports have roots in the reality.”
This is correct, which is why journalists, academics, and activists on the outside bear such an important responsibility. For better or for worse, English-language media is considered the global gold standard for accuracy. People in isolated societies with restrictions on the press are especially reliant on it. Those with the privilege to fact check must provide solid reporting, not speculation based on wishful thinking.