The Biden administration secretly warned Iranian officials on January 3rd of an imminent terrorist attack by ISIS militants in the city of Kerman that killed over 80 people just hours later, a US official revealed on Thursday. Despite the rare warning between adversaries, Iran was unable to prevent bombers from detonating explosives at a crowded mosque and hospital.
Details of the US Terror Warning
According to the unnamed official, the US government learned from intelligence sources that ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) militants were plotting attacks on “sensitive sites” in Kerman. This information was quickly passed along to Iranian officials through the Swiss Embassy which handles communications between the US and Iran.
While the locations were not explicitly given, the mosque and hospital that were bombed had previously been targets of domestic terrorist groups inside Iran.
|Timeline of Events
|January 3, 9:00 am EST – US intelligence detects terrorist plot
|January 3, 10:30 am EST – Warning message sent to Iran via Swiss Embassy
|January 3, 1:15 pm EST (5:45 pm local) – ISIS bombers detonate explosives in Kerman
It remains unclear what specific actions Iran took after receiving the terrorist threat warning from the US. Iranian security was unable to prevent the bombers from entering crowded areas and detonating their payloads that killed over 80 people initially.
International Reaction to the Foiled Terrorist Plot
Several countries and international organizations have commended the US for taking the unusual step of warning Iran privately about the imminent attack. A spokesperson for the United Nations called the threat notification “a constructive act that promotes trust and goodwill between all members of the global community.”
The tip-off has also led some policy experts to suggest that backchannel talks on reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal may have played a role. One analyst from the Brookings Institution told the Wall Street Journal:
“The passed warning shows a willingness by both sides to share vital intelligence that saves civilian lives. It will build momentum for the ongoing negotiations over restoring the Iran Deal.”
However, hardline officials in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps condemned the failure to act on the US warning effectively. The commander of the elite Quds Force paramilitary unit said:
“The Americans only notified us to humiliate Iran and show we cannot protect our own cities. Their support for ISIS is well-known.”
Domestic political opponents of President Raisi also pointed fingers, claiming the government was distracted by the nuclear talks instead of focusing on national security.
ISIS Revenge Attack for Killing al-Qaeda Leader
In claiming responsibility for the deadly bombings, ISIS said it was in retaliation for Iran’s reported role in the US special forces raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri last August.
Iran has allowed members of al-Qaeda to live under restricted conditions inside the country since 2001. In videos after the Cairo bombing, ISIS militants berated Iran for colluding with their ideological enemies in the US.
An ISIS spokesperson cited in a statement published on Telegram channels:
“The Islamic State will continue bloody attacks inside the Iranian snake pit until it pulls all support for the apostate Taliban government and cuts ties with the Great Satan America.”
While still under investigation, the twin suicide bombings bear the hallmarks previous ISIS terrorist attacks. Backpacks loaded with ball bearings and C4 plastic explosives were detonated by young male volunteers seeking martyrdom.
Ongoing ISIS Insurgency in Eastern Iran
The suicide bombings come as Iran continues to battle a years-long Sunni insurgency in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan near the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While no group claimed responsibility in the immediate aftermath, previous attacks have been orchestrated by Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice). Since forming in 2012, Jaish al-Adl has carried out over 200 attacks against Iranian security forces and civilians.
| Terrorist Groups Threatening Iran | Primary Area of Operations | Ideology
| Jaish al-Adl | Sistan and Baluchestan province | Sunni jihadist, Ethnic separatist |
| ISIS-Khorasan | Central/Eastern provinces | Salafi jihadist |
| Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz | Khuzestan province | Ethnic separatist |
The conflict stems from discrimination against the Baloch ethnic minority who adhere to Sunni Islam in the predominantly Shia country. Jaish al-Adl and allied groups demand independence for the region or at least greater political autonomy from Tehran.
While not claiming the Kerman attack, Jaish al-Adl hailed the deadly bombings on its official Telegram channel. They expressed hope sophisticated ISIS militant networks would join forces with Baloch insurgents to widen the guerrilla war against Iranian security infrastructure.
Concerns Over Stability of Raisi Government
The stunning breaches of security also come at a perilous time domestically for the authoritarian government headed by President Ebrahim Raisi.
Ongoing protests over women’s rights have raged for over 4 months since the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police. The regime’s violent crackdowns on the mainly young female demonstrators has sparked international condemnation.
To divert attention from the protests, hardliners pushed for accelerating Iran’s nuclear program – leading to the breakdown of negotiations with world powers. As economic conditions worsen due to US sanctions, clandestine attacks by ethnic separatists and ISIS militants could further destabilize the unpopular Raisi government.
Likelihood of Future Terrorist Attacks
According to private intelligence firm Stratfor, the twin bombings in Kerman were sadly not an isolated event. Their regional security analyst said:
With several active insurgencies and terrorist groups, Iran will continue facing threats from Sunni radicals seeking to exploit instability. Unless minority rights and economic opportunities are improved, conditions will remain ripe for more mass casualty attacks.
Due to the opaque nature of the Iranian regime, the effectiveness of security services is difficult to accurately gauge. While penetration by terrorist cells into major urban centers indicates glaring security failures.
Their ability to secretly warn the US of al-Zawahiri’s location shows Iranian intelligence maintains impressive global surveillance capabilities. However, the warning tip-off itself may have provoked ISIS into hastily launching the revenge attack before losing their window of opportunity.
While tentative diplomatic progress has occurred, lasting direct cooperation with the US against militant groups like ISIS remains elusive if tensions persist over Iran’s nuclear program and regional proxies.
Olive branches such as the terror warning may open paths for enhanced backchannel coordination on vital security issues though while larger geopolitical disputes linger.
What Comes Next
In the aftermath of the deadly terror attack alarm bells are sounding over Iran’s vulnerability to non-state armed groups able to penetrate deep into the heart of the country undetected.
Embarrassing intelligence failures for the regime will likely result in senior security officials being replaced for their negligence.
Potentially dozens of suspected ISIS members have been rounded up since the bombings. Iranian prosecutors may push for public trials and executions like those that followed the 2017 twin terrorist assaults by ISIS in Tehran.
For the Revolutionary Guard consolidating domestic security will take precedence over external operations aimed at the US, Israel and regional rivals. Potential opportunities exist for western diplomats to deescalate tensions if Iran’s foreign policy focus shifts inwards during this turbulent period.
However, the Supreme Leader and other ruling clerics will likely blame foreign enemies for supporting the attacks to crush rising democratic opposition. This could actually accelerate aggressive policies in the nuclear arena and cyberspace to rally patriotic support behind the regime.
Ultimately only by addressing the pressing grievances of minority ethnic groups sidelined from power and economic opportunity will Iran achieve lasting security from terrorist violence exploiting their just causes.
Outside supporters of Baloch separatists may consider carefully if enabling militants outweighs hopes for liberation. And as for regional foes – curbing provocations that play into the ruling clerics’ narrative aids the brave protesters aiming to transform Iran through unity and peaceful defiance of repression.
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