Late in the evening of January 2 2020, the United States announced that it had targeted and killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq in a major and dramatic escalation:
Iran confirmed the death of one of its most active military figures and vowed revenge against the United States. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a statement Friday that Soleimani’s death was “bitter” but that “the final victory will make life more bitter for the murderers and criminals.”
Iran’s defense minister, Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami, added that the attack would be met with a “crushing” response.
As United States President Donald Trump claimed without evidence that the airstrike (which was carried out without authorization from Congress) was necessary to stop “imminent and sinister attacks,” Iran’s foreign minister blamed the U.S. for the escalation:
The US' act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani—THE most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al—is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation.
The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 3, 2020
Further disinformation and obfuscation quickly followed from official channels such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC):
Breaking: Unconfirmed reports of ballistic missiles hitting largest US military base Ain Al-Assad in #Iraq & massive explosions, via IRGC Telegram channels.
— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) January 3, 2020
The rumor was spread within minutes on social media by freshly recalibrated influencer bots, paid and unpaid trolls, and the usual arrays of useful idiots — despite quickly being debunked by reporters and researchers alike:
— Aurora Intel (@AuroraIntel) January 3, 2020
The online skirmishes from Iran and its proxies mixed and melded with disinformation about Iran and its proxies online, further confusing and poisoning discourse even as many of the same people who just a few weeks previously were busily pushing known disinformation about Ukraine during Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings roundly praised Soleimani’s assassination:
Fox News host Sean Hannity’s guests Thursday night to discuss President Trump’s decision to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful leader of Iran’s external paramilitary Quds Force, included two prime architects of former President George W. Bush’s public case for invading Iraq in 2003, former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and chief strategist Karl Rove.
There’s a political argument raging in Washington over whether the assassination of Soleimani is more like former President Barack Obama’s killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan — one-and-done retribution for a man who ordered the death of thousands of Americans — or Bush’s region-destabilizing decision to topple Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Fleischer made the case that Soleimani’s killing should be welcomed like bin Laden’s, but his argument was complicated by his role promoting the Iraq War, and his prediction that lots of Iranians would “celebrate this killing of Soleimani” had uncomfortable echoes of his pronouncement, just days after U.S. forces swept into Baghdad nearly 17 years ago, that “the celebrations in the streets of Baghdad are the sights of freedom.”
Meanwhile, amidst the general confusion, American security experts are warning that a cyberattack against the United States is likely:
Iranian hackers have proved capable of cyberattacks that brought entire countries to their knees. In 2015, they caused a massive power outage in Turkey that lasted more than 12 hours.
“The attacks could be devastating,” said William Mendez, the director of the cybersecurity firm CyZen. “Imagine if financial transactions could not be completed or if the stock exchange was not operational because of a cyberattack. The ripples could be felt globally.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has announced it has deployed thousands more American troops to the Middle East in advance of any further escalation in the region.