The West’s relationship with General Soleimani and the Iranian Quds force has been chequered and been going on for many years. There is no doubt he and his organisation, has been responsible for the death and injury of hundreds of British, American and other allied military personnel and civilians over the years.
The excellent BBC documentary released last year, Shadow Commander: Iran’s Military Mastermind, quotes General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, as saying, “We saw Soleimani as a very capable, charismatic, skilled, professionally competent, diabolically evil human being.” The programme describes how components for the devastatingly efficient killing devices used by the Iranian backed, Sadarist Militias in Iraq, that killed so many – the EFP IED (Explosively formed Projectile, Improvised Explosive Device, the roadside bomb that devastated so many convoys), came from or through Iran and through Quds force networks controlled by Soleimani.
Yet during the same time we read reports of US intelligence operations buying chemical weapons, according to Bush and Blair that eventually never existed, from an unnamed individual in the Amara region of Iraq (under British control) to ensure they didn’t fall into the wrong hands. The operation was called Operation Averice. The BBC documentary was very clear, nothing moved without Soleimani’s Quds force knowledge, none of the commentary has identified the ‘seller’ or where the US taxpayer’s money, used to buy these chemical weapons, went? It is highly probable it found its way to Soleimani’s Quds force and additional investigations throw doubt on the numbers reported in the New York times. It is believed the actual number of chemical weapons purchased was significantly higher.
There has been little commentary or analysis of the second ‘commander’ killed in the US drone strike, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi who commanded the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah group. That group was hated by many across Iraq, was a designated terror organisation by the US and had been founded by Soleimani’s Quds and used to support the fight against ISIS in Iraq and support Bashar Al Assad’s fight against ISIS in Syria, but only in battles where US supported organisations were not engaged. Complex is an understatement. However, one has to ask over the years, what is the relationship the US and the West has had in any form with Soleimani and his Quds? We can safely assess US taxpayers’ dollars possibly went to them.
Soleimani’s influence, in keeping areas of the Middle East in a less than stable position with the proxy war in Yemen, where his proxy forces are the Houthi’s and are fighting a Saudi led coalition. Additionally, his proxy insurgency keeping Israel occupied with Hezbollah, a long-standing terror exporter and Hezbollah backed militias, is clear. What remains unclear is, charismatic that he was, ruthless and evil that he was, he was one man and will have groomed successors in his own image, to his own thinking, following his own doctrine. He is and was replaceable and has been replaced. We wait to see the cut of the cloth of his successor, but his first task will be planning revenge for the death of his old boss.
So, what will that revenge look like? There has been much speculation and increasing sabre rattling rhetoric with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, warning of “severe revenge” for the attack and referring to Soleimani as having been “martyred;” Khamenei had a close personal relationship with Soleimani. The US Presidents response on twitter was that the US will strike 52 Iranian sites “very fast and very hard” if Tehran follows through with its vow of revenge.
The first thing to recognise about the revenge planning is timescales. The Iranian culture is such that planning is looked at in multigenerational timescales, not the timescale a Fox News headline or Twitter post, lasts in people memories. That makes potential Iranian responses all the more concerning; they will carefully choose the time and the place, or times and places for their revenge.
The second thing to recognise is that this isn’t a diplomatic issue that can be talked away, this isn’t something that will be forgotten because it was one evil man in the Wests eyes, this isn’t something that a solution could be bought through easing of sanctions or the like. This is a matter of honour, and national honour for Iran. This is a matter of honour for the Shi’a people and the military and paramilitary forces of the Houthi’s and Hezbollah. The conflicts and instability across the Middle East is as much a wider Sunni, Shi’a historical civil war as they are for power in different countries, hence the Quds force involvement supporting the Shi’a fight. The role of the Quds force is the extension of Iranian influence outside Iran.
The hoisting of a red flag on Jamkaran Mosque, one of the one of the most significant mosques in the city of Qom in Iran, is a significant symbol of this. Red flags, to the Shiite population are traditionally used to symbolise both blood spilled unjustly and serve as a call to avenge a person who is slain. Tradition has it that they can only be lowered when that death has been avenged.
The third thing to recognise is that the Iranians will do very careful consequence management when it comes to revenge attacks. It is highly unlikely that regular Iranian forces will attack US or UK interests at sea or in the air. It is highly likely that Iranian cyber capabilities will target the west, but that will not be seen as sufficient ‘revenge.’ It is highly likely that Iran will covertly encourage, enable, facilitate terror attacks across the globe using proxy organisations and often without them knowing who is ‘encouraging and enabling them. None of this will point directly back to Iran but everyone will know who is behind it; I doubt it will cross the threshold for Trumps 52 targets.
The fourth thing to recognise is President Trump has a re-election campaign to run this year and that, with the impeachment trial going ahead, will split his thinking – Iran will be aware of that and will exploit it.
The final thing to recognise is that Iran has proxies with Hezbollah and the Houthis that it can use to carry out a spectacular or several spectacular revenge attacks and Hezbollah have a global reach! Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the drone strikes on Saudi Aramco facilities, saying 10 drones had been deployed in the attack in September last year. Would similar or more spectacular attacks from them or Hezbollah cross Trumps 52 target threshold?
The Iranians will have noted the Wests response to the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, the Russian ‘rebel’ downing of MH17 in 2014, the US response, or lack thereof in real terms, to the shooting down of a US RQ-4A Global Hawk in international airspace over the Gulf in June last year and more, and will carefully weave this into their revenge planning and who executes the inevitable spectacular ensuring sufficient plausible deniability to reduce the probability of crossing Trumps 52 target threshold.
Two things come out of this. The first is the revenge, when, not if, will have consequences for non-Americans and possibly civilians even though Americans will be targeted. The second is, the increased chaos and instability, especially in Iraq, compounded by the Iraqi parliament asking for US forces to leave Iraq, is now being exploited by the rump of ISIS and they are regrouping and growing in influence again.
Has the killing of Soleimani in this way made the world safer in any way, evil that was, the answer is no. Could it have been done differently and the same message of ‘we can’t let you continue to destabilise the region’ be sent to Iran, definitely.
This blog was written by Philip Ingram MBE, who experienced 13 service personnel killed by Solemani’s IEDs and other weapons when he was in Iraq, a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence. He is available for further analysis or comment.
Soleimani attack – an oh S**t moment for the world?
***Updated 03 1930Z Jan 20***
The US Secretary of Defense, Dr Mark T. Esper prepared a statement on 02 Jan 2020 outlining the concerns the US had for Iranian backed activities across the region in recent months. Citing concerns with actions in November and through December, the statement was released just after the US carried out an air attack on a convoy leaving Baghdad Airport in Iraq, killing General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds force and an Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, head of the Iranian backed Popular Mobilization Forces, amongst others.
The Iranian Quds force is part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), set up approximately 40 years ago, answering to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and separate from Iran’s conventional military who answer to the political government under Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani. The Quds force themselves are a secretive organisation responsible for irregular and overseas operations and Soleimani will have reported directly to the Supreme Leader, without consultation with the President. In essence, Soleimani is more important than Iran’s President.
So, what do we know? We know that the US and allied countries have been interested in Soleimani for some time and will have declared him as a ‘High Value Target’ and as such will have a constantly updated targeting pack against him, updated with new intelligence as it came in. That targeting pack does not automatically mean it is there to kill or capture him, but is continuously refined so any action, could be expedited in a timely manner.
Mark Esper’s pre-prepared statement cites a number of what in military parlance are tactical incidents, puts them into an operational framework and used that to explain a grand strategic action. That is the equivalent of using a Trident D5 missile to crack a nut – the nut will be vapourised, Soleimani was, however, there will be fallout from the immediate blast and shock wave, immediate damage from the radiation and then longer-term implications from the radioactive fallout!
It has to be said at the outset, that the Quds force have been responsible for many atrocities across the region resulting in the deaths of many Americans and innocent people. They are ruthless, capable and operate outside any legal or moral compass we would recognise in the West and have infiltrated many organisations across the Middle East and further. They are the main element enabling a proxy conflict with the Saudis in Yemen. Their wider destabilising influence has regional (operational) and global (strategic) implications that have been going on for too long. The Quds force are seen by many as a state-owned terror organisation, but they are so much more. They are a mixture between the Russian GRU, the CIA of the 1970’s, Mossad and a global terror organisation and have an influence and autonomy far beyond their size an Iran’s political and military needs.
It seems that Soleimani was tracked on a flight from Damascus in Syria to Baghdad whilst Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was tracked in a convoy going to meet his flight and pick him up. It is probable that they both were being tracked using human intelligence (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) with a degree of fidelity that gave their exact movements and planned movements to the US intelligence machinery allowing the targeting pack to be updated. Given the actions against the US embassy in Baghdad over the proceeding days, coordinated by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis militias, that targeting pack, and any options, would have been discussed at least daily.
The US will not have reacted without thinking through the implications and briefing those to the executive decision maker. The response to the downing of a US RQ-4A Global Hawk in international airspace by IRGC forces in June 2019 was measured and proportionate, designed to minimise any potential escalation. The response was a cyber-attack on Iranian air defence assets. The equivalent of a slap on the wrists.
However, given what was going on with the US Embassy, the deployment of troops from Kuwait to protect the Embassy, the deployment of additional troops from 82nd Airborne Division into the region to reconstitute a reserve the decision making process and review process will have been at the forefront of President Trumps mind. It is widely reported that President Trump gave the order personally and given the profile of the target that is what would be expected.
However, that does not necessarily mean it was the preferred option of the US military of diplomatic corps. President Trump is known for having premade up his mind before he speaks to his advisors, he has stopped listening to regional specialists and has ensured his inner circle of advisors are what can only be described as sycophants. He will have been running an emotional high from his concerns about the US embassy in Baghdad.
I am reminded of a UK General, just back from Afghanistan who I briefed weekly on Afghanistan intelligence matters. One brief indicated that the Taliban were changing their tactics from conventional military type attacks to more IED based attacks as they couldn’t sustain their casualty rate. The General ‘blew his top’ in public with me accusing me of inventing “defeatist intelligence reporting” and ordering me never to say such things again as he had been there, and he knew that would never happen. I do hope he has the moral courage to look the families of all those who died to IEDs and admit he was wrong, he never said it to me, and I didn’t stop my assessments from my intelligence enabled perspective, bollockings or not.
At this stage we do not know if President Trump properly listened to and took heed of wider fall out, or if he shot from the hip! A statement from the UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said “We have always recognised the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qasem Soleimani. Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”
This is a clear indication that the UK knew nothing of the attack beforehand, wants to show support to its ally the US and then run for the bunkers! Iran cannot and will not let this go. In a statement appointing Soleimani’s successor the supreme leader describes his death as “martyrdom of the glorious general,” in a previous statement announcing three days of mourning he said “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack.
It is probable that there will be several layers of retaliation; the immediate, a decisive act and then long-term actions, just like the Trident analogy I mentioned. The immediate will be to show strength and will probably happen just after the 3 days of mourning. It will be decisive act will be to send a clear message to the US that Iran will not stand back and do nothing and is likely to be spectacular in nature. Then we will possibly see a massive increase in proxy terror using AQ, ISIS and other organisations, often without their direct knowledge, as plausibly deniable outlets targeting terror at the US and its allies across the globe. Alongside we will likely see greater cooperation’s with the Russians and increasing activity in the proxy wars across the region including in Yemen.
A key question is, is the killing of this commander, evil that he is, going to make things safer for US troops, diplomats or other personnel within the Gulf region? To answer that it is worth asking if the threat comes from one man, and the answer clearly is no? The Quds force is approx 15,000 strong and as an organisation it is bigger than one personality. Soleimani has been replaced already, so the Quds Force activity will continue but now with greater murderous intent and a cause to seek revenge for. So, the killing of one man and his entourage in reality, has made the region and the world a more dangerous place for US interests and the interests of their allies. Mike Pompeo’s assertion that the US airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani was to disrupt an “imminent attack” could be true in the very short term however, his statement that Americans “are safer in the region” after the strike and demise of Soleimani is definitely not true.
Two things are certain, we don’t have the full picture and the world has suddenly become a less safe place.
This blog was written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence who has served in and studied the Middle East from a wider intelligence perspective. It will be updated as new information emerges.