Three teams of Delta Force operators peered through their scopes from concealed locations at Baghdad International Airport last January, waiting for their target: Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander. Disguised as maintenance workers, the operators had secreted into position in old buildings or vehicles on the side of the road.
It was a cool, overcast night and the southeast side of the airport had been shut down on short notice for a military training exercise — or so the Iraqi government was told. The three sniper teams positioned themselves 600 to 900 yards away from the “kill zone,” the access road from the airfield, setting up to triangulate their target as he left the airport. One of the snipers had a spotting scope with a camera attached that livestreamed back to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where the Delta Ground Force commander was based with support staff.
Long-range marksmanship involves contesting with a variety of environmental factors, including wind, but the Delta teams didn't rely on guesswork. A member of the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG), an elite Kurdish unit in northern Iraq with deep links to U.S. Special Operations, helped them make the wind call from down range.
The flight from Damascus, Syria, finally landed after midnight on Jan. 3, 2020, several hours behind schedule. Three U.S. drones orbited overhead. As the plane taxied off the runway, toward the closed-off portion of the airfield, one of the Kurdish operatives disguised as ground crew guided the aircraft to a halt on the tarmac. When the target stepped off the airplane, Kurdish CTG operators posing as baggage handlers were also present to positively identify him.
Soleimani had just arrived at Baghdad International. The Iranian general and his entourage loaded into two vehicles and drove toward the kill zone, where the Delta Force snipers lay in wait.
The two vehicles, one containing Soleimani, pulled out into the street to leave the airport. The three Delta Force sniper teams were ready, safeties rotated off on their long guns, fingers resting gently on their triggers. Above them, the three drones glided through the night sky, two of them armed with hellfire missiles.
In the six hours before Soleimani boarded his flight from Damascus, the Iranian general switched cellphones three times, according to a U.S. military official. In Tel Aviv, U.S. Joint Special Operations Command liaisons worked with their Israeli counterparts to help track Soleimani’s cellphone patterns. The Israelis, who had access to Soleimani’s numbers, passed them off to the Americans, who traced Soleimani and his current phone to Baghdad. (The Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.)
Members of the secretive Army unit known as Task Force Orange were also on the ground in Baghdad that night, said the military official, providing “knob turners” — close-range signals intelligence experts — to help home in on Soleimani’s electronics for the tactical portion of the operation.
As the two vehicles moved into the kill zone, drone operators fired on the motorcade. Two hellfire missiles crashed down on Soleimani’s vehicle, obliterating it in the street. The driver of the second vehicle stepped on the gas to escape. The driver made it about 100 yards before slamming on the brakes when a Delta Force sniper engaged, firing on the vehicle. Just as the vehicle ground to a halt, a third hellfire missile struck, blasting it apart.
It’s now been over a year since the Jan. 3 killing of Soleimani, who was widely considered second only to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself in the Iranian government hierarchy, and the consequences of that strike are still unfolding. Yet many of the details behind the events leading up to his killing are shrouded in secrecy.
This article, based on interviews with 15 current and former U.S. officials, reveals new details about the Soleimani strike and the Trump administration’s long-running deliberations about killing the Iranian general and other top Iranian officials and proxies. It depicts an operation that was more sophisticated, and with a broader list of people potentially targeted for killing, than was previously known. And it describes previously unreported threats to U.S. officials in the aftermath of the strike.
For better or worse, the Soleimani killing was one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the Trump administration, with effects that will reverberate for years to come and likely shape the strategic environment President Biden now faces in the region. In audio that leaked in April, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said the Soleimani strike was more damaging to Iran than if the U.S. had destroyed an entire Iranian city. And according to a former senior CIA official who was in favor of the killing, it was “as dramatic a reshaping of the Middle East as we’ve seen in 50 years, and it happened in a matter of hours. It was a game changer.”
News of Soleimani’s death may have shaken the world, but plans to kill the Iranian general date back to the early days of the Trump administration. Not long after Mike Pompeo took the helm of the CIA in 2017, he assembled a select group of agency leaders, including from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Mission Center and its paramilitary Special Activities Center. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how to “take Qassem Soleimani off the board,” said the former senior CIA official.
The CIA officials, who wanted to hide the U.S. hand in any such operation, discussed various possible plans for killing Soleimani, recalled this former official. That same year, Pompeo at National Security Council meetings also broached the subject of killing Iran’s top military brass, as part of a potential leadership decapitation strategy. The plans, which would have involved the U.S. military, were resisted at the time by other NSC officials, some of whom worried about the legality of such actions.
Others, however, welcomed the new aggressiveness. Pompeo’s “blue sky” approach to Iran was liberating after the more restrictive Obama era, said the same former official. “Pompeo said, ‘Don’t worry about if it’s legal; that’s a question for the lawyers,’” recalled this source. CIA officials considered the discussions particularly serious because they knew how close Pompeo was to the president, said the former agency official. The CIA subsequently undertook highly compartmentalized planning for covert plans to kill Soleimani. (Neither Pompeo or the CIA responded to a request for comment.)
At the White House, discussions about killing Soleimani picked up during the summer of 2018, around the time the administration formally announced it was withdrawing from the Obama-era nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran as part of its “maximum pressure” strategy. But by this time, NSC planners were looking toward the Pentagon’s special operations units, and not CIA paramilitaries or their proxies, to carry out the strike.
Still, there was resistance from within the Defense Department. The president “wanted options, but they were always watered down” by the Pentagon, recalled Victoria Coates, then the deputy national security adviser for the Middle East. Killing Soleimani was one of them, said Coates, but “the Pentagon always equated it to nuclear war, and said there was going to be a backlash.”
Things took a more serious turn by mid-November 2019. With tensions heating up across the region, NSC officials received “the call from the top that they needed to make sure options were in order” for killing Soleimani around that time, recalled Coates. “We were tracking Soleimani pretty closely, and there was a tendency for him to travel somewhere and some very bad things to happen to the U.S.”
A small group of people that included, along with Coates, national security adviser Robert O’Brien; deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger; Robert Greenway, the senior director for the Middle East; Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran; Keith Kellogg, Vice President Pence’s national security adviser; Chris Miller, the NSC’s top counterterrorism official, started meeting regularly to discuss potential options for killing the Iranian general. These plans were sent to Trump’s desk after a rocket attack by Iranian proxies killed a U.S. contractor in northern Iraq in late December 2019, said former senior administration officials.
The death of a U.S. citizen at Iran’s hands was a red line for Trump, and helped solidify the decision to kill Soleimani, according to the former officials. Officials at Joint Special Operation Command gave NSC officials four choices for killing Soleimani: they could use a long-range sniper shot; employ a tactical team on the ground to attack his vehicle; orchestrate an explosion using a targeted yield improvised explosive device; or set up an airstrike to kill the Iranian leader, according to the current military official and a former administration official. Officials settled fairly quickly on the airstrike option, to the surprise of those at Joint Special Operations Command. Questions of where to kill Soleimani — in Iraq or elsewhere in the region — ultimately took up more discussion time than the best way to do it. (Special Operations Command declined to comment.)
Though basically supportive of the idea of killing Soleimani, some CIA officials worried about the larger Iranian response. The CIA wasn’t “afraid of the Iranians,” but believed the killing “could create more problems than it solves,” recalled a former agency official.
“The concern was on a bigger scale,” said the former official, namely that the Quds Force would try to “kill members of the Saudi or Emirati royal families,” launch “attacks on oil infrastructure, or “foment coups” in the region after Soleimani’s death. Some CIA officials believed that the administration was trying to force an Iranian escalation, which would then allow the U.S. to strike back even harder against Tehran, said this person.
Even if the goal wasn’t escalation, the operation was, in fact, potentially much more ambitious than taking out a single general. There was a “whole list of folks” the U.S. military had developed plans to kill, said former acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, who was the top NSC counterterrorism official in the immediate leadup to the Soleimani strike. The operation that killed Soleimani was “a decapitation approach to take down as much as they could,” said Miller, who supported the action.
Miller, who was about to take over a senior position at the Pentagon on the night of the strike, told Yahoo News he was unaware of the precise number of senior Iranian military and intelligence operatives who were targets that evening. “Other options were being considered and attempted” on the night of the Suleimani killing, said a former senior administration official, but the fluidity of the situation meant the precise list of targets shifted throughout the evening.
Indeed, the U.S. tried to kill the Quds Force’s top commander in Yemen, Abdulreza Shahlai, the night of the Soleimani strike, said several U.S. officials (The Shalhai strike was first reported by the Washington Post.) Shahlai had long been of interest to U.S. officials, going back to his days running the ratlines from Iran to Iraq in the 2000s that helped supply Tehran’s proxies with bomb-making equipment that killed hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. More recently, Shahlai was overseeing Iran’s efforts to covertly supply its Houthi allies in Yemen with weapons, said a former senior CIA official. Shahlai survived, but “his days are numbered,” said Miller.
Shahlai wasn’t the only other target that night. American commandos also launched two separate capture or kill operations against Iranian military proxies in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Forces, said the U.S. military official, apprehending one individual, while the other eluded U.S. operatives. (Miller told Yahoo News that while he was unaware of these specific operations, administration officials had previously discussed “snatching” members of proxy militias in Iraq to “use as trade bait” to coerce them to dial back their paramilitary activities.) Several targets were also slated to be struck in Syria that evening, said one U.S. official, but were called off for unclear reasons.
While some former U.S. officials and analysts consider the decision to kill Soleimani and Shahlai as essentially opportunistic, former Trump administration officials strongly contest this view, pointing to intelligence they say shows that Soleimani was plotting a wave of imminent attacks, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Yemen, according to four former senior administration officials. The “threat was different” than in the past, said Miller. “They were going deeper into their playbook.” Soleimani “was actively developing plans to conduct imminent attacks targeting American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” said Greenway, the former senior NSC Middle East official.
In general, however, intelligence reporting on Iranian threats was often inconclusive, says a former senior intelligence official. How best to interpret the Iranians’ moves “was a near continuous discussion point at the NSC” during the Trump administration, recalled Michael Mulroy, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and an ABC News contributor. “Just because we know they have a plan to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be executed. And we were always bringing up our own plans — how many contingency plans we have to attack pretty much everybody and anybody.”
The justification for the killing was well-substantiated, but “highly classified,” said a former senior administration official, with NSC officials going “through a lot of legal hoops” to get approval for the operation.
Former officials declined to elaborate on how they knew the Iranian attacks were actually imminent, or describe the precise list of targets. But in leaked audio from Mar-a-Lago, President Trump suggested that U.S. officials had captured Soleimani on some sort of audio surveillance or intercept. The Iranian general was “saying bad things about our country,” Trump told Republican donors. “He was saying things like, ‘We’re going to attack your country, we’re going to kill your people.’”
Capturing Soleimani’s voice on audio was a relatively rare occurrence, and would have been considered an intelligence coup — particularly if he was discussing planned attacks, said former CIA officials. The CIA and the NSA have gone to extraordinary lengths to compromise the electronic devices and communications of Iranian leadership and their associates, say former intelligence officials — spending what some officials estimated is “hundreds of millions” of dollars over the years on associated programs. It’s a “massive effort,” said a former senior CIA official. (The NSA declined to comment.)
For example, Israeli intelligence at one point tipped off the CIA about a courier for Soleimani who would travel outside Iran to pick up clean phones for the Quds Force leader and his inner circle, recalled a former intelligence official. The CIA got wind that the courier would visit a specific market in a Gulf country to procure these devices, and sprang into action. The agency executed a complex supply chain compromise, installing spyware on a set of phones that were seeded into the marketplace used by Soleimani’s courier.
The gambit worked, said the former official, and the courier purchased at least one bugged phone that was then used by someone who was often in the same room as Soleimani. But because Soleimani and other Iranian leadership would often rotate their devices, and employ other measures to avoid being surveilled, successes of this sort were fleeting, said former officials. Soleimani, and the Quds Force more broadly, were “premier at operational security and vicious about protecting it,” said the same former CIA official.
Given the CIA’s long history of tracking Soleimani — and the Pompeo-led discussions about eliminating him — the decision to use special operations forces rather than agency operatives to oversee the killing led to some “hard feelings” at Langley, which had been almost entirely marginalized from the planning process, said former officials. Agency officials felt “cut out” of the decision making, says a former senior CIA official, who was told the agency “had other options” that were “more discrete.”
But the administration’s compressed timeline for killing Soleimani likely precluded the CIA’s plans from being viable, if indeed they were viable. “Conspiracy is hard, and it takes a lot of time to do it right,” said the former senior official.
Senior NSC officials had extensive discussions about overt and covert options for killing Soleimani, and settled independently on the recommendation that the strike be carried out overtly, said Coates, the top NSC official for the Middle East at the time of the operation. While “the Pentagon was worried about being blamed,” says Coates, “my perspective was, we’re going to be blamed anyway,” so “if the president is going to take action this dramatic, you kind of need to own it.”
President Trump, however, may have had different calculations. A covert strike by Joint Special Operations Command was “doable all the way to the end,” said a former senior intelligence official familiar with discussions preceding the killing, but “the thing that pushed Trump over the top was for him to take credit for it,” said this person. He “wanted it for his reelection.” (A spokesperson for the former president declined a request for an interview on his behalf, citing the classification of the operation, and did not respond to a written request for comment).
Though the administration had settled on an overt strike, military planners were still thinking through contingencies. Fearful that the drone strike might fail, they decided that they still needed snipers on the ground as a backup, a U.S. official said. If Soleimani got away, the Quds Force leader was likely to further unleash his proxy armies across the Middle East on American assets and interests.
In late December 2019, Delta Force operators and other special operations members began filtering into Baghdad in small groups. Kurdish operatives, who played a key role in the killing, had already started infiltrating Baghdad International Airport by that point, going undercover as baggage handlers and other staff members. The complex operation required a “significant deployment of personnel,” said the U.S. military official, who declined to specify a precise number. It was “the most sophisticated prep the department has done” in counterterrorism operations, said former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller.
As the Delta Force operators and their Kurdish allies positioned themselves at the Baghdad airport, in Washington, D.C., a small group of top officials, including Kellogg, Coates, Greenway, and Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, gathered in the Situation Room to prepare for the strike. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo watched from the Pentagon.
President Trump, who was hooked up by audio link to the Situation Room, kept track of the events from Mar-a-Lago with national security adviser O’Brien, who had quietly cut short a Christmas vacation in Palm Springs, Calif., to fly to Florida. Officials wanted the president to keep his schedule as normal as possible, so as not to indicate anything was underway.
In the Situation Room, officials anxiously monitored audiovisual feeds beaming in real-time data on the impending strike. “At that point, you’re just holding your breath,” recalled Coates. The feeling was akin to watching “a touchdown pass in the air,” hoping it would be caught, said another official present.
In a later speech to Republican donors at Mar-a-Lago, Trump himself described listening to military officials during the killing, who were monitoring the operation via “cameras that are miles in the sky,” according to audio of the talk, which was later leaked to CNN and the Washington Post.
“‘They’re together sir,’” said Trump, recounting the military officials’ description. “‘Sir, they have two minutes and 11 seconds.’ No emotion. ‘Two minutes and 11 seconds to live, sir. They’re in the car, they're in an armored vehicle going. Sir, they have approximately one minute to live, sir. 30 seconds. 10, 9, 8 ...’ Then all of a sudden, boom.”
“‘They’re gone, sir,’” Trump recalled the official saying.
Not mentioned by Trump was one critical detail. After the strike, according to two U.S. officials, a Kurdish operative disguised as an Iraqi police officer walked up to the wreckage of Soleimani’s vehicle, snapped photographs and quickly obtained a tissue sample for DNA confirmation before walking away and vanishing into the night.
Iran reacted with predictable fury to Soleimani’s killing, lobbing dozens of ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq. Though no one was killed, Pentagon officials later said more than 100 service personnel were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.
But the rocket attack was just a “slap in the face,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, and did not represent Iran’s full retaliation for the killing. U.S. officials and experts believe that Iran may eventually attempt a high-profile assassination of a senior U.S. official or a terrorist attack aimed at a U.S. facility.
Killing Soleimani covertly may also have led to some type of lethal Iranian response down the road, particularly if Iran were able to privately confirm the U.S. role. But the Trump administration’s decision to eliminate the Iranian general so brazenly forced Iran’s hand, says Mulroy, who served in the Pentagon from 2017 to 2019.
Mulroy says he wasn’t opposed to killing Soleimani, who “did enough to deserve this when Obama was president and quite frankly any time,” but he questioned the manner in which it was carried out.
“We’re obsessed with using drones and such, but there are lots of things we could have done to obstruct U.S. fingerprints,” Mulroy said. If the U.S. had declined to take credit for the operation, the Iranians “wouldn’t have felt the need for overt retaliation, and to shoot missiles at our embassy and military.”
Since the killing, Iran’s plans for revenge seemed to have multiplied. Last fall, U.S. officials picked up intelligence that Iran was plotting an assassination of the U.S. ambassador to South Africa. In January, U.S. officials intercepted communications between Quds Force operatives discussing a plot to attack Fort McNair, an Army base in Washington, D.C., and try and assassinate the Army’s vice chief of staff.
But Tehran almost certainly has more high-profile lethal targets in mind. By the end of the Trump presidency, there were “no-bullshit threats” by the Iranians regarding senior U.S. officials, said Miller, the former acting secretary of defense. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Kenneth McKenzie, the CENTCOM commander, Pompeo and Brian Hook, the administration’s top Iran envoy, were particularly targeted, said Miller. (The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.) While officials took Iran’s public threats of revenge seriously, the U.S also obtained an Iranian list from “sensitive sourcing” that named specific officials and the positions they held as potential assassination targets as revenge for Soleimani, said three former officials.
How to maintain security for these officials after they left government was “a subject of conversation at the highest levels” at the Pentagon, said Miller. In the administration’s final weeks, officials worried that the incoming Biden team would disregard the seriousness of these Iranian threats against Trump-era officials, said Miller. (“We take all appropriate security measures seriously but are not able to comment on intelligence issues,” said a White House spokesperson.)
Protective measures for some were quietly put into place. Tucked into the appropriations bill signed by President Trump in the final days of 2020 was $15 million set aside to provide protective services to “former or retired senior Department of State officials” who “face a serious and credible threat from a foreign power or the agent of a foreign power” because of the work they did while in office.
According to the provision, the justifications for who will receive protection are to be worked out by the secretary of state, in consultation with the director of national intelligence.
The language doesn’t name any specific officials, and the State Department declined to comment on the identities of those who might receive protection. But the provision was designed with two in mind, said two former officials: Pompeo and Hook, the administration’s top Iran envoy.
The money is “for Brian and Pompeo,” said a former White House aide. “The Iranians are a serious risk to those two.”
(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images, Ting Shen/Xinhua via Getty Images, Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP, Majid Saeedi/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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