The US operation that killed one of the symbols of Tehran reflects superb intelligence capabilities. From cyber to agents within the Quds Force – the intelligence infrastructure behind the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani. Also: from silent acceptance to limited response – Iran’s options for vengeance. Commentary
The tension between the USA and Iran reached a peak on December 17, 2019 following the rocket attack staged by a Shi’ite militia force against the US base known as K1 near Kirkuk in Iraq. One US citizen was killed in the attack and several US servicemen were wounded. As an immediate response, the US Air Force staged air strikes against positions of the militia that had staged the rocket attack.
In response to the US attack, demonstrations were held opposite the US embassy in Baghdad. US intelligence analysts believe that the demonstrations were held through the sponsorship and encouragement of the Iranian Quds Force. At that time, President Trump, in a clear and unequivocal (albeit not foretelling) message, promised that the USA was responsible for the security of its citizens and servicemen and would not allow anyone to harm them.
President Trump noted, and not for the first time, that Iran was the party operating, backing, financing and training the Shi’ite militia forces in Iraq, and that Iran will be held directly responsible for any harm inflicted on US civilians, servicemen and assets.
Three days later, Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) boarded a flight from Syria that delivered him to Baghdad Airport. He was travelling with a five-man delegation that included the deputy commander of the parent organization of the pro-Iranian militia forces, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, and senior Hezbollah operatives, including the son-in-law of Imad Moughniyeh (formerly the head of Hezbollah’s military arm, eliminated by IDF in February 2008).
Having disembarked the aircraft, the members of the delegation boarded two vehicles that waited for them at the airport. On their way, the vehicles were engaged by four missiles launched by two Unmanned Airborne Vehicles, which destroyed the vehicles, killing everyone in them, including the legendary commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.
Soleimani, a close confidant of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, was a man of action, a multitalented person possessing a creative mind and a manipulative way of thinking, which he utilized to initiate and execute countless Iranian covert and intelligence operations. In 2010, Ali Khamenei described him as “The Living Shaheed” for his contribution to the national security of Iran and the IRGC.
Iran is greatly indebted to Qasem Soleimani and his activities, and some observers predicted a bright political future for him in Iran, including the position of president. In media interviews, Soleimani denied this, but the guiding hand of fate of the USA brought about his demise. According to the claims of the US media and sources close to the White House, the targeted killing was executed at a critical time, while Soleimani was planning and preparing to stage a series of terrorist attacks against US objectives, in response to the American attacks in Iraq.
Real-Time Monitoring Capabilities
The targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani was no trivial matter. He had conducted himself covertly under the watchful eyes of the US, western and Israeli intelligence services. Soleimani understood the potential of intelligence collection and the threat he was under. The American operational success – having him killed while he was travelling in a convoy – reflects superb intelligence capabilities, which included identification and tracking of his movements in real time.
The intelligence required in order to stage such an operation calls for the ability to pin-point the position of Soleimani or some other member of his group, along with accurate knowledge of the places where he intends to stay, his flight schedule, plans and timetable. These intelligence capabilities include, on the one hand, basic, infrastructure intelligence capabilities enabling the US agencies to monitor, track and study his movements over a period of years (including the studying of univalent marks of Soleimani’s identity, like his voice). On the other hand, the intelligence capabilities required include the ability to identify and spot his position in real time and identify his intentions (for example, his destination, his travelling companions and the means he uses to travel between destinations).
Such intelligence is gathered over a long period of time, using a diversified range of resources, the most notable of which are SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) systems, which enable the user to identify, track and pin-point the positions of cellular telephones (everywhere and from anywhere around the globe), and associate their numbers to their owners. The capabilities of the SIGINT systems enable the user to listen to actual conversations and produce intelligence from the contents.
Other resources most likely employed by US intelligence include cyber collection and attack tools, which may have been employed against the computer and information systems of the IRGC, to collect intelligence about the IRGC generally and about Qasem Soleimani in particular.
The Hand of Fate, or Extensive Preliminary Planning?
Another aspect of the extensive range of American intelligence collection resources may have been the existence of agents operated by US intelligence over a long period of time within the ranks of Quds Force, the Shi’ite militia or in Syria. Such agents may have been aware well in advance of the expected arrival of Soleimani in Baghdad, and could have reported this to their American runners.
The information regarding Soleimani’s intentions and whereabouts may have reached US intelligence by chance, in real time, and the Americans may have taken advantage of his chance arrival in Baghdad in order to attack him. At the same time, if one were to connect the military situation in Baghdad with President Trump’s threats, it would be reasonable to assume that the US attack and the killing of Qasem Soleimani indicate that the Americans had possessed both infrastructure and real-time intelligence.
The diplomatic and political pressure, both foreign and domestic, exerted on President Trump pursuant to his failure to respond to the security-related events that had taken place in the Persian Gulf, in Iraq and in Syria over the last year, and finally – the attack against the US embassy in Baghdad, which constituted the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” had probably led to Trump’s decision to have Soleimani killed. The killing was intended as a warning sign to the Iranian regime and as a symbol of US strength. It was also intended to etch into the consciousness of everyone concerned the intelligence and military potential of the USA and the fact that President Trump’s threats do carry weight significance.
Accordingly, the availability of relevant intelligence and the presidential decision to go ahead with the targeted killing were the trigger for an aerial operation, which took advantage of the first opportunity that Soleimani had entered an area where the US Air Force could operate freely, under no threat of any air-defense systems (as in the case of Syria and Lebanon).
One would be hard-pressed to assume that the killing of the Iranian national hero, the Shaheed, General Qasem Soleimani, will go down quietly, with no response. Even as these lines are being written, and as Soleimani’s extensively-documented funeral in Iran draws to a close, news and gossip reports have started to pile up, indicating raised alert states in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and the amassing of Shi’ite militia forces in these territories, all itching to launch missiles (including missiles to be launched into Israel).
It is difficult to predict the response of Iran, a seasoned chess player, but several possible courses of action may be estimated, nevertheless. The primary unknown issue is the extent of Iran’s willingness to bring about a belligerent escalation vis-à-vis the USA, in view of the deterrence recently established by President Trump, who threatened a US attack against Iran proper in the event of an Iranian response.
One possible course of action for Iran may be a covert one – staging cyberattacks against US and Israeli websites and infrastructures, like power, energy, transportation and water supply infrastructures. This course of action will not expose the Iranian perpetrators and will make it difficult for the USA to prove that Iran was behind the attacks, so US response is expected to be limited.
Another possible course of action for Iran to “punish” the Americans while avoiding a direct confrontation with them will be to attack targets in Israel or in the territories of other countries that are friendly to the USA (like Saudi Arabia and Egypt). The Iranians estimate that these countries will not respond, or that they will stage low-intensity responses against Iran, so as not to initiate a military escalation. Iran will not stage these attacks directly. Instead, Iran’s proxy organizations, like Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen or the other Shi’ite militia forces employed by the Quds Force will stage the attacks.
Any other course of action Iran may opt for will lead it into a confrontation with the USA, which might lead to a large-scale military conflict.
Some offensive courses of action which Iran might opt for while understanding the balance of power between Iran and the USA are listed below.
- Terrorist operations, like attacks against US assets and infrastructures outside US territory, in places like Oman, South America, Asia and elsewhere around the globe, where the Quds Force has covert infrastructures.
- Attacks against US military or civilian targets in Iraq (or in the countries of the Persian Gulf) by ballistic missiles or “Meshkat” cruise missiles.
- “Noisy” (overt) attacks against military or civilian vessels in the Straits of Hormuz or the Persian Gulf by armed naval vessels, shore-based missiles or unmanned, “Kamikaze-style” surface vessels.
- Covert attacks against military or civilian vessels in the Persian Gulf, in the expanses of the Arabian Ocean, in the Red Sea or in the Mediterranean by midget submarines (launched by “innocent” merchant ships) or by commando operations.
Another strategic consideration regarding the Iranian response involves the defensive cooperation Iran can expect to receive from its two partners – Russia and China. During the last week of December 2019, a four-day strategic naval exercise was conducted by Iran, Russia and China, in which the participants practiced joint offensive and defensive scenarios.
Russian and Chinese assurances to provide joint protection to Iran against a US attack could have a significant effect on the Iranian response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani. The above notwithstanding, and in an attempt to offer an optimistic viewpoint, Iran may realize that any action it may choose to initiate will drag it, and the world, into a campaign out of which it would emerge severely beaten, and may therefore choose to avoid any military response for the killing of Qasem Soleimani.