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FLASH ALERT: HIGH RISK OF ATTACKS AT UNITED STATES EMBASSIES, CONSULATES, MILITARY BASES, AND OTHER

February 25, 2021 | CTG CENTCOM Team


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT for the United States (US), including all relevant government agencies, military forces, diplomatic officials, citizens, and citizens in the Middle East, specifically Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Current CTG threat matrix indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that Iranian-proxies in Syria and Iraq are likely to retaliate against the US for the February 25 airstrike in Syria against Iranian-backed militia structures. A likely target for a retaliatory attack is the US Embassy in Baghdad. This assessment is based on previous retaliatory strikes in Iraq against US embassies and military sites by Iranian-backed proxies and the high amount of Iranian interests in Syria. This is the first airstrike aimed at Iranian interests in President Biden’s administration. During President Trump’s administration, when there were military actions aimed at Iranian interests, Iran vowed revenge. Typically this revenge takes place through proxy groups. The CTG threat matrix also indicates there is a MEDIUM-LOW PROBABILITY Russian forces may be involved in any retaliatory attacks. This assessment is based on Russian interests in Syria that may have been affected by the airstrike in combination with a growing relationship between Russia and Iran. This assessment is also based on the conflict between the US and Russian forces in Syria recently.


On February 25, 2021, the US military struck a site in Eastern Syria used by many Iranian-backed groups such as Kait'ib Hezbollah and Kait'ib Sayyid al Shuhada.[1] The strike was aimed at a small cluster of buildings near the Al-Qa’em crossing in the countryside of Al-Bokamal in the Deir Ezzor region at the Syria-Iraq border which is frequently used to smuggle weapons and fighters.[2] At least 22 fatalities have been reported in addition to the destruction of “multiple facilities.”[3] The strike is the first known military action under President Biden and comes after multiple rocket attacks on US forces in Iraq in the last two weeks.[4] It is unknown if the site is linked to the rocket attacks themselves but it is likely the site is operated by the groups responsible for the attacks or their allies. According to the Department of Defense (DoD) Press Secretary, Iraq was involved in collecting intelligence and investigating the rocket attacks, which directly helped the US pick the target for the attack.[5] Given that this is the first known military action under President Biden and this action targets Iranian interests, it shows that President Biden and the DoD are taking attacks against US personnel in the region very seriously. The DoD reported that the US consulted ally forces and tried to take diplomatic routes before conducting the retaliatory attack.[6]


Location of US Airstrike[7]


US military forces and diplomats have been targeted by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq frequently in recent months including rocket attacks against the US Embassy in Baghdad and Iraqi military bases housing US soldiers. In September 2020, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the US embassy in Iraq should the attacks continue and if the Iraqi government did not attempt to stop them. Some US troops were pulled out of Iraq, not only because of the threat of Iranian proxies but because of the broader draw-down in US troops across the CENTCOM region. Nevertheless, the embassy remains open.[8] Since the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a cycle of violence has been established between the US and Iranian forces.[9] These reciprocal strikes in Iraq, including the recent Kait'ib Hezbollah attack targeting the US embassy in Baghdad, further support the assessment that the US Embassy in Baghdad is a probable target for retaliation against the US military strike in Eastern Syria.[10]


The limited US presence in Syria, which is approximately 500 troops, along with a closed US embassy, makes Iraq a more likely target for attacks by Iranian-backed militias; comparatively, Iraq has about 2,500 US military personnel and an operative US embassy in Baghdad.[11] However, since attacks on government or military targets in Syria are less viable, there is also a heightened threat to civilian aid workers and journalists working in the country. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has confirmed four separate shipments of weapons from Iraq into Syria by Iran or Iranian Militias in the last month alone indicating that Iran has adequate weapons capabilities to target an adversary such as the US in Syria.[12] The arms proliferation into Syria by US forces has also been observed and reports indicate that the US has been building new military bases in northeast Syria, suggesting a redeployment strategy that could potentially increase attacks on military targets by Iranian proxies.[13] The new base, on the site of a former Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) base, reflects the ongoing partnership of the US and SDF in Syria and their proximity to one another, both in a strategic and physical sense. Therefore, CTG predicts that if Iranian forces do target the US in Syria, there is a MEDIUM-HIGH probability that SDF forces or infrastructure may become collateral damage which we assess would further exacerbate existing tensions in the Syrian conflict and distract efforts to suppress an ISIS resurgence.


Moreover, since Russia—an ally of Iran—has also significantly expanded its presence in Syria, a US redeployment and increased Iranian attacks could further escalate tensions and lead to a worsening of the war. In recent years, the US military and Russia have had clashes in Syria. Most notoriously was the 4-hour long battle in 2018 where approximately 500 pro-Syrian government forces, mostly comprised of Russian mercenaries, attacked around 40 US forces personnel. About 200-300 fighters were killed but none of the 40 US personnel were harmed.[14] The idea of Russian and US forces colliding in Syria has been feared since the countries take opposing sides in the conflict. As both countries seek to exert influence in the Middle East, this could plunge them into direct conflict. Although there is a MEDIUM-LOW probability that the US strike on Iranian targets in Eastern Syria will prompt an imminent direct confrontation with Russia, it nevertheless plays into an ongoing power dynamic within the context of the Syrian Civil war which poses a developing and concerning threat to stability and security in the CENTCOM region.


Iran’s military and weapons capabilities—as well as strategic and geographic location—indicate Iraq and Syria are likely targets for retaliatory attacks against US interests. However, it is also true that US defenses will be particularly heightened both as a result of the Syria strikes as well as the ongoing targeting of the US Embassy and bases in Iraq. Therefore, there is a MEDIUM-HIGH probability that Iran and its proxies may seek to exploit security vulnerabilities of less obvious targets across the region. The growing number of Iranian proxies in Gulf states also provides a strategic advantage as such groups are well placed to target US interests there. In particular, US interests in countries such as Bahrain—which has seen a concerning rise in the presence of Iranian proxies as well as clandestine arms trade—may represent an attractive target to Iran and its proxies. The risk is further heightened by Bahrain’s inclusion in the Abraham Accords - a peace agreement between Israel and a number of Arab states. Therefore, such an attack may also be a symbolic strike against Israeli interests; Iran had openly vowed to avenge the killing of leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakrizadeh for which it blames Israel. CTG analysis following this assassination also indicated that Iranian actors consider the US complicit in Fakrizadeh’s killing.[15] Thus, the opportunity for Iran or Iranian proxies to strike two targets with one attack should not be undermined and all US and Israeli Embassies across the CENTCOM Region (particularly in Gulf states) should be especially vigilant and put additional security measures in place immediately.


US Embassies, overseas offices and other interests globally should likewise remain on high alert of Iranian retaliation. This assessment is underpinned by Iran’s intentions to strike potentially more obscure targets as was indicated by a leaked document which revealed the US Ambassador to South Africa had been an intended target for an assassination plot in retaliation for the killing of General Soleimani.[16] In addition, the planting of IEDs near the Israeli Embassies in New Delhi, India and Paris, France in January 2021 further support the assessment that Iran is probing its enemies for any vulnerabilities and will strike where and when it can. Although this may reveal Iran’s limited capacity to conduct more targeted and lethal attacks, any attack on US interests would be impactful. It would not only lead to further deteriorating relations between Iran and the US with potentially grave ramifications regarding nuclear negotiations but also, any attack against US interests could embolden and incite other Iranian groups and proxies to carry out attacks against the US. Therefore, it is vital that security measures are enhanced at US Embassies globally, and that heightened personal protection of Ambassadors and diplomats is in place.


CONCLUSION


CTG assesses that the current threat of targeted attacks against the US by Iran, Syria, and Russia is HIGH. It is the recommendation of CTG that security personnel protecting US embassies and interests in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, should be on high alert. Our analysis indicates that the risk to US embassies in Syria and Iraq and other interests overseas in nations where there is an established Iranian presence or Iranian militia activity is HIGH. We further consider the threat of violence to US civilians in the US, Syria, and Iraq a MEDIUM-HIGH probability. In addition, we anticipate that the threat of attacks against US Ambassadors and other diplomats globally is HIGH.


Based on these threat assessments, CTG recommends that the US should ensure all embassies and other overseas offices are made aware of the current threat landscape so that precautions can be implemented. As a preventative measure, all US embassies globally should enhance security apparatus and increase patrols as well as personal and vehicle checks at all relevant sites. We further recommend heightened personal security for all employees of US embassies, especially for senior diplomats such as Ambassadors. The United Nations, the US, and other global powers should mediate where necessary to de-escalate tensions in the region.


CTG, and in particular the CENTCOM Team, will monitor the social media of Iranian leaders for any vows of revenge or denial of involvement in any attacks. The CENTCOM team will continue to monitor the situation and respond to any threats to US embassies, military bases, and other government forces, as well as anticipate any potential retaliatory attacks against Iranian-interests and proxies by the US which may further escalate conflict and exacerbate already heightened tensions between the two countries. The CENTCOM team will collect intelligence on any threats against US personnel in Iraq and Syria and write any necessary follow-up reports. Furthermore, the CENTCOM Team will continue to work closely with other CTG Regional and Speciality Teams in order to Detect, Deter and Defeat potential threats of Iranian retaliation against US personnel, infrastructure or interests wherever they may occur.



If any individuals are interested in learning more about security measures to protect their facilities and personnel, please contact The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) by Telephone 202-643-248 or email info@counterterrorismgroup.com

[1] US carries out air strikes in Syria targeting Iranian backed militia structures, CNN, February 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/25/politics/us-iraq-iran/index.html

[2] U.S. Airstrikes in Syria Target Iran-Backed Militias That Rocketed American Troops in Iraq, New York Times, February 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/25/us/politics/biden-syria-airstrike-iran.html?referringSource=articleShare

[3] Biden takes first military action with Syria strike on Iran-backed militias, BBC, February 2021https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-56205056

[4] U.S. Airstrikes in Syria Target Iran-Backed Militias That Rocketed American Troops in Iraq, New York Times, February 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/25/us/politics/biden-syria-airstrike-iran.html?referringSource=articleShare

[5] U.S. Conducts Defensive Airstrikes Against Iranian-backed Militia in Syria, US Department of Defense, February 2021 https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2516530/us-conducts-defensive-airstrikes-against-iranian-backed-militia-in-syria/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Al-Qa’em Iraqi-Syrian Border Crossing by Google Maps. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Iraqi-Syrian+Border+Crossing/@35.3275878,38.9837045,7z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x15466a8b9c6e7a83:0x6aeefdfbd94da0ac!8m2!3d34.3944717!4d40.9776158

[8] Trump administration warns Iraq it plans to shut U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after rocket attacks, NBC News, September 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/trump-admin-warns-iraq-it-plans-shut-u-s-embassy-n1241226

[9] Qasem Soleimani: US kills top Iranian general in Baghdad air strike, BBC News, January 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50979463

[10] Iraqi supporters of Iran-backed militia attack U.S. embassy, Politico, December 2019 https://www.politico.com/news/2019/12/31/us-embassy-attack-iraq-091585

[11] Civil War in Syria, Council on Foreign Relations, February 2021 https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/civil-war-syria Political Instability in Iraq, Council on Foreign Relations, February 2021 https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/political-instability-iraq

[12] After today’s attacks | Dare Iran use the recently-arrived weapons against US positions and bases in NE Syria?!, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 2021 https://www.syriahr.com/en/206644/

[13] US Forces Reportedly Building New Base in Northeast Syria, Voice of America, February 2021 https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/us-forces-reportedly-building-new-base-northeast-syria

[14] How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria. New York Times. May 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/24/world/middleeast/american-commandos-russian-mercenaries-syria.html

[15] FLASH ALERT: HIGH RISK OF VIOLENT RETALIATION BY IRAN AGAINST ISRAEL, THE US, AND THEIR INTERESTS, The Counterterrorism Group, November 2020 https://www.counterterrorismgroup.com/post/flash-alert-high-risk-of-violent-retaliation-by-iran-against-israel-the-us-and-their-interests

[16] Officials: Iran weighing plot to kill U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Politico, September 2020 https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/13/iran-south-africa-ambassador-assassination-plot-413831


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