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How did US drones find and target Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad?

Soleimani was well known for maintaining a low profile and moving with a tight security detail and yet the US had precise coordinates to bump him off.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft over Creech Air Force Base.
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft over Creech Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/Handout via REUTERS / Reuters)

A US missile strike killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani late Thursday, escalating the Washington-Tehran stand-off and inflaming regional tensions.

Two American MQ-9 Reaper drones fired missiles into a two-car convoy that was leaving the airport leaving Baghdad International Airport, killing Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, head of the Popular Mobilization Front, or Hashd al Shaabi, a notorious Iran-backed militia.

But the question remains, how did the US find Qassem Soleimani in the first place?

The New York Times reported that present and former American commanders and intelligence officials said the attack specifically relied on classified “informants, electronic intercepts, reconnaissance aircraft and other surveillance.”

But even according to a US Department of Justice declassified legal brief, the White House can order a drone strike on a target only ‘with near certainty’ of their presence.

The fact that the strike took place as the cars left the airport suggests that the drones were already in a ‘holding pattern’ in the skies, waiting for the moment to strike.

There are no operational US drone bases in the area, with only three drone bases having a history of making strikes in Iraq. Specifically, these are the Ali al-Salem airbase in Kuwait, al Udeid airbase in Qatar, or the Al Dafra airbase in the UAE.

Even if the drones took off from the closest airbase in Kuwait, that’s nearly 570 km of travel time to be made before his landing, and manageable for the MQ-9 Reaper drone, with a range of over 1800 km and a top speed of 480 km/h.

With all indications pointing to at least more than an hour and a half of preparation and flight, the odds are in favor of the drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani being part of an elaborate operation based on intelligence work.

The role of Israeli intelligence playing a role in finding Soleimani cannot be discounted. Israeli military mobilized on Friday, expecting an Iranian response, for no specific reason, while Netanyahu put a gag order in place forbidding senior government officials to speak on the assassination.

Tensions between Israel and Iran were at their highest prior to Soleimani’s assassination, following an alleged failed Mossad assassination plot that would have seen the use of 500 kg of explosives to kill the IRGC commander in September 2019 as he visited a memorial.

A Jerusalem Post article was quick to point out that Mossad would have taken credit for any role in his assassination, but more to the point, that the drone strike did not have the hallmarks of Mossad involvement. It was an American-styled operation.

Given that the US kept its British allies in the dark about the drone strike, it seems likely that the strike was ordered on the basis of last-minute information about his whereabouts. Intelligence sharing on strikes in Iraq is mandated by security arrangements including 400 UK troops in Iraq, and safety of UK ship ships through the Straits of Hormuz.

With the timing necessary to make the strike as he left Baghdad International Airport following the nearly two hours and 30-minute flight from Tehran or less from Syria or Lebanon indicates the possibility that an informant or embedded intelligence officer tipped off US intelligence once Soleimani had boarded his flight and was en route to Baghdad.

The fact that he was met on the tarmac by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, deputy commander of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq suggests a stronger possibility of a leak within Iraq as well.

Given the difficulty involved in identifying and confirming Qassem Soleimani’s presence or arrival, it is likely but remains to be seen whether the informant was in Iraq and had knowledge of his arrival, or was elsewhere and had news of his departure remains to be seen.

As the story unfolds, how will Iranian relations change if corruption, oversight or betrayal are found to be the reasons behind Soleimani’s death? (Source: TRT World)

A profile of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani

For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, the slain Gen. Qassem Soleimani widely represented a figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of U.S. pressure. A U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they traveled from Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning. The Pentagon said President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to take “decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing” a man once referred to by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “living martyr of the revolution.”

For the U.S. and Israel, he was a shadowy figure in command of Iran’s proxy forces, responsible for backing President Bashar Assad in Syria and for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.

Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani was said in his homeland to have grown up near the mountainous and the historic Iranian town of Rabor, famous for its forests, its apricot, walnut and peach harvests and its brave soldiers. The U.S. State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom. Little is known about his childhood, though Iranian accounts suggest Soleimani’s father was a peasant who received a piece of land under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi but later became encumbered by debts. After the success of the Iranian revolution against the Shah, he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in early 1980 which was founded by the order of Khameini in November 1979.

Solemani survived the horror of Iran’s long war in the 1980s with Iraq to take control of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, responsible for the Islamic Republic’s foreign campaigns. After the Iraq-Iran war, Soleimani largely disappeared from public view for several years, something analysts attribute to his wartime disagreements with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would serve as Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997. But after Rafsanjani, Soleimani became head of the Quds force. He also grew so close to Khamenei that the Supreme Leader officiated the wedding of the general’s daughter. As chief of the Quds Force, Solemani oversaw the Guard’s foreign operations and soon would come to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Soleimani’s popularity and mystique grew after American officials called for his killing. A decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but becoming as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.

Soleimani was declared a “terrorist and supporter of terrorism” by the U.S. He was among the Iranian individuals who were sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council resolution 1747. On May 18, 2011, the U.S. imposed more sanctions on him as he was accused of providing support and arms to the Syrian regime. Also, on June 24, 2011, an official statement by the European Union said that European sanctions were imposed on three Iranian commanders of the Revolutionary Guards including Soleimani for supporting the Assad regime in his suppression to the Syrian uprising.

The attention the West gave Soleimani only boosted his profile at home. He sat at Khamenei’s side at key meetings. He famously met Syria’s Assad last February together with the supreme leader — but without Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif being present, which sparking a momentary resignation by the top Iranian diplomat. Polling data routinely showed Soleimani rated more favorably than other public figures, according to the Center for International Studies at the University of Maryland. But Soleimani always refused entreaties to enter politics.

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