The US Treasury Department has designated five individuals involved in an alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, including Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Soleimani “oversees the IRGC-QF officers who were involved in this plot,” according to Treasury.
Another of the five is Abdul Reza Shahlai, an IRGC-QF officer who planned the Jan. 20, 2007 attack on US soldiers stationed in Karbala, Iraq. That attack left five US soldiers dead and wounded three others.
Shahlai, according to the Treasury Department, “coordinated the plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir, while he was in the United States and to carry out follow-on attacks against other countries’ interests inside the United States and in another country.”
Shahlai was previously designated by the Treasury Department in Sept. 2008. At the time, Treasury noted that he was a “deputy commander” in the IRGC-QF and planned “Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) Special Groups attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq.” One of the attacks he “planned” was the 2007 raid in Karbala, a daring and sophisticated operation in which Iranian-trained terrorists posed as American soldiers during an assault on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center. The assault team was reportedly trained in a mock-up of the center that was built in Iran.
In 2009, the Obama administration released two of the Iranian-backed terrorists involved in the Karbala operation. The brothers, Qais and Layith Khazali, were freed even though they were directly implicated in the attack. The release of the Khazalis was said to be part of a reconciliation effort inside Iraq.
However, US military officials told The Long War Journal that the Khazalis’ release was really part of a negotiation to free British hostages who had been kidnapped by Iranian proxies. Statements made by an Iraqi spokesman and other press reporting confirmed these suspicions.
In the summer of 2009, prior to Qais Khazali’s release but after Layith Khazali’s release, two Republican Senators questioned the administration’s policy. In a letter to President Obama dated July 1, 2009, Senators Jeff Sessions and Jon Kyl said they were “deeply concerned by recent news reports that suggest your administration may be negotiating directly or indirectly with terrorist organizations for the release of dangerous terrorist detainees.” The Senators argued that such negotiations were inconsistent with longstanding US policy, which prohibited negotiations with terrorists.
Qais Khazali was released several months later. The same day Khazali was released, on Dec. 30, 2009, British hostage Peter Moore was freed by Khazali’s Iranian-backed network.
Another senior Iranian-backed terrorist who was captured with Qais Khazali, Ali Musa Daqduq, remains in military custody in Iraq. Daqduq, a longtime member of Hezbollah, was tasked with organizing Iranian proxies in Iraq similar to the way Hezbollah operates in Lebanon. The Obama administration is reportedly weighing its options for trying Daqduq.
And Shahlai, who “planned” the Karbala attack, according to Treasury’s 2008 designation, has now allegedly plotted other major terrorist attacks. This time Shahlai’s plots were intended to be executed on American soil.
In orchestrating the putative plot against the Saudi ambassador, Shahlai relied on his cousin, Manssor Arbabsiar, who was arrested by US officials in September. Arbabsiar also worked with another IRGC-QF officer, Ali Gholan Shakuri, who is Shahlai’s “deputy.” Shakuri, who was one of the five Iranians designated by the Treasury Department this week, helped arrange funding for the plot and also “met with Arbabsiar several times to discuss the planned assassination and other attacks.”
Arbabsiar tried to hire members of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the assassination plot. Arbabsiar unwittingly contacted a DEA informant who he thought was a member of the cartel, but instead was working for US authorities. The informant helped authorities unravel the IRGC-QF’s plans. After Arbabsiar was arrested, authorities had him make several telephone calls to Shakuri, who repeatedly urged Arbabsiar to move forward with the planned attack.
According to the Treasury Department’s new designation, “Shahlai approved financial allotments to Arbabsiar to help recruit other individuals for the plot, approving $5 million dollars as payment for all of the operations discussed.” $1.5 million was allocated for the plot against the Saudi ambassador, leaving the bulk of the IRGC-QF’s funds for the remaining operations.
Press reports offer differing versions of just what these other operations may have entailed, including possible attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies either in the US or abroad.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.