Iran's Qods Force commander involved in plot to kill Saudi ambassador
Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Qods Force. Click image to view.
The commanding general of Iran's Qods Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has been accused by the US government of being involved in the recently disclosed plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on US soil.
Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani "oversees the IRGC-QF [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force] officers who were involved in this plot," the US Treasury Department stated in yesterday's terrorism designation that identified four other Qods Force officers involved in the plot. The Justice Department indictment does not explicitly name or charge Soleimani.
The other men named in the designation include Hamed Abdullahi, "a senior IRGC-QF officer who coordinated aspects of this operation"; Abdul Reza Shahlai, Abdullahi's deputy, "who coordinated the plot" and undertook "to carry out follow-on attacks against other countries' interests inside the United States and in another country"; and Ali Gholam Shakuri, Shahlai's deputy, who met with and provided money to Manssor Arbabsiar, the man assigned to direct the attacks. Arbabsiar himself, who is Shahlai's cousin, was also named in the designation and identified by Treasury as being a Qods Force officer. Only Arbabsiar and Shakuri were indicted by the US Justice Dept., however, for their roles in the plot to carry out attacks in the US. Arbabsiar is currently in US custody.
While exact details of Soleimani's role in the terror plot have not been disclosed, the Justice Dept. indictment said Shakuri had informed Arbabsiar that Soleimani was aware of the plot and supported it. Shakuri had also told Arbabsiar that Soleimani was willing to meet with him.
While some Iran analysts have speculated that the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador and conduct other attacks may be "a rogue operation launched by zealots within the group," as reported by The New York Times, Soleimani's involvement makes this theory highly unlikely. Soleimani is one of the most powerful IRGC generals in the country; he reports directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader. Khamenei, in turn, has ordered Soleimani to direct Iran's operations against the US in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Afghanistan and the Ansar Corps
In August 2010, the US Treasury Department added two senior Qods Force officers to the list of designated global terrorists for their activities in directing operations in Afghanistan. General Hossein Musavi and Colonel Hasan Mortezavi were designated "for their roles in the IRGC-QF's support of terrorism" and for providing "financial and material support to the Taliban."
General Musavi is the commander of Qods Force's Ansar Corps, the Iranian command that is assigned to direct military and influence operations in Afghanistan. The Ansar Corps was established by Soleimani, and is headquartered in Mashad in northeastern Iran.
Musavi's "responsibilities include IRGC-QF activities in Afghanistan," the Treasury noted. "As Ansar Corps Commander, Musavi has provided financial and material support to the Taliban." Colonel Hasan Mortezavi was described as a senior Qods Force officer who "provides financial and material support to the Taliban."
Several Taliban commanders based in western Afghanistan have stated that they have received weapons, cash, and training from Iranian forces. Taliban commanders and units train inside Iran to conduct attacks against NATO and Afghan forces. In addition, al Qaeda operatives are also known to receive support from the Ansar Corps; Mashad is a transit point for al Qaeda operatives en route to Afghanistan.
US commanders have accused Iran of directly supporting the Taliban. On May 30, 2010, former ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal said that Iran is training Taliban fighters and providing them with weapons.
"The training that we have seen occurs inside Iran with fighters moving inside Iran," McChrystal said at a press conference. "The weapons that we have received come from Iran into Afghanistan."
ISAF has targeted Iranian-supported Taliban commanders in at least 14 raids in western Afghanistan between June 2009 and February 2011, according to Coalition press releases compiled by The Long War Journal (note: ISAF inexplicably stopped reporting on raids against Iranian-supported Taliban commanders in early February 2011; queries to ISAF on this subject went unanswered). ISAF officials have directly linked Qods Force to several of the Taliban commanders.
Iraq and the Ramazan Corps
Qods Force's Ramazan Corps has been crucial in supporting various Iraqi Shia terror groups. The Ramazan Corps helped anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr create the Mahdi Army, which has battled US and Iraqi forces in central and southern Iraq. Qods Force helped the Mahdi Army establish itself along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. An Iraqi intelligence official claimed that some Mahdi Army fighters were sent to camps in Lebanon that were run by Suleimani and Imad Mugniyah, the Hezbollah terror master who was killed in Syria in early 2008. Sadr also admitted that his fighters trained with Hezbollah.
Musa Ali Daqduq, a top Hezbollah commander, was recruited by Qods Force to aid the Mahdi Army. Daqduq met and coordinated with top level Qods Force leaders, according to the US military. Daqduq is currently in US custody for supporting terror groups in Iraq.
Qods Force has been directly implicated in the murder of five US soldiers. One of the men designated yesterday, Abdul Reza Shahlai, and Akram Abas al Kabi, a senior Mahdi Army leader who now commands the Mahdi Army offshoot and Iranian-backed Asaib al Haq, or League of the Righteous, were designated as terrorists for their roles in the January 2007 assault on a base in Karbala that led to the kidnapping and murder of five US troops.
In the aftermath of the attack, General David Petraeus, then the commander of US forces in Iraq, brushed aside claims that the Karbala attack was carried out by rogue elements of Qods Force.
"I do not know of anything that specifically identifies how high it goes beyond the level of the Qods Force, Commander Soleimani," Petraeus said. "Beyond that, it is very difficult to tell -- we know where he is in the overall chain of command; he certainly reports to the very top -- but again, nothing that would absolutely indicate, again, how high the knowledge of this actually goes."
Iran and al Qaeda
In addition to supporting terror groups in Afghanistan and Iraq, Soleimani maintained a direct link to the top tier al Qaeda leaders and also sheltered top al Qaeda in Iran for years.
In September 2008, Soleimani communicated with Ayman al Zawahiri, now al Qaeda's emir, through Sa'ad bin Laden, Osama's son, after the deadly attack on the US embassy in Yemen. Sa'ad had entered Pakistan's northwest to meet with Zawahiri to pass along a message from Soleimani sometime in early September of that year, according to Mike McConnell, the former Director of National Intelligence. Sa'ad, his brother Hamza, and other senior al Qaeda leaders are known to routinely travel back and forth between Iran and Pakistan.
Zawahiri spoke directly to Soleimani, a senior US intelligence official told The Long War Journal. "Zawahiri was concerned that the al Qaeda-manned militia fighting on the side of the government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels might threaten Iran's interests in Yemen," the official said. The Yemeni government swelled the ranks of the militia by inviting Arabs willing to fight the Shia Houthis in the north.
After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Soleimani's Qods Force provided shelter under the guise of detention to top al Qaeda leaders. Members of the families of both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri sheltered there for years, as also did top al Qaeda leaders, including Saif al Adel, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, Abu Hafs al Mauritani, and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith.