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FLASH ALERT: HIGH RISK OF RETALIATION BY IRAN FOR THE KILLING OF GENERAL QASEM SOLEIMANI

FLASH ALERT: HIGH RISK OF VIOLENT RETALIATION BY IRAN AGAINST THE US, ALL WESTERN GOVERNMENTS, AND THEIR INTERESTS IN RESPONSE TO THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF ISLAMIC REVOLUTIONARY GUARD CORPS’ QUDS FORCE MAJOR GENERAL QASEM SOLEIMANI.

January 2021 | CTG CENTCOM Team


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT for the United States (US) and all Western countries including all relevant government agencies, military forces, diplomatic officials, citizens, and citizens in the Middle East, in particular Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other countries not aligned with Iran. The current CTG threat matrix indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that Iran will conduct retaliatory attacks that may include the following:

  • Rocket and mortar attacks

  • Suicide Bomber Attacks

  • IED/VBIED Attacks

  • Waterborne IED Attacks

  • Assassination & Kidnapping Attempts

  • Active Shooting Attacks

This assessment is based on an analysis of evidence that Iran has increased threats as the one-year anniversary of the killing of General Soleimani neared. General Soleimani was killed on January 3rd, 2020 and there have been tensions between Iran and the US since. These threats have included statements continuously made by senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei indicating that those responsible for the General’s assassination will receive revenge.


On Friday, January 3, 2020, IRGC Major General Qasem Soleimani was killed by a drone strike at the Baghdad airport, along with other Iran-backed militia figures. Quickly following the attack, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the IRGC, and other high-ranking Iranian officials vowed revenge on the killing. On Friday, January 8, 2020, Iran fired at least 10 ballistic missiles at the Ain al-Assad base in Iraq, the base housed about 1,500 US troops.[1] Since this missile attack, Iranian-backed militias have carried out attacks on the US. Embassy in Baghdad via rockets, which has led the US to pull diplomats and troops out of Iraq due to the rising tensions with Iran.[2] Given the recent attacks against the embassy, rocket attacks are very likely to continue and may even increase. Intelligence leaked by unnamed US officials in September of 2020 revealed that Iran’s government has considered carrying out an assassination plot against the US Ambassador to South Africa in retaliation to the killing of Soleimani.[3]



General Soleimani’s car after drone strike [4]


We assess that the primary targets for retaliation by Iran are likely to be US and other Western government embassies and military bases in the CENTCOM region, and foreign military bases that house U.S. troops. Other Western countries and Israel may be possible targets, with a focus on military and diplomatic targets. Due to collaboration between the US and Israel on other killings in Iran such as Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and potentially collaboration on the killing of Iran’s nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the US embassy in Israel may be at risk, as well as other industries that may have US-Israeli joint interests. Recently, the US sent B-52 Stratofortress Bombers to the Middle East, specifically the Persian Gulf. While the B-52 bombers avoided Iranian airspace, it was part of a 36-hour show of force mission and was the third time in six weeks that US B-52s had flown near Iran.[5] Though the B-52s avoided Iranian airspace, they are a potential target. While Iran is not known for attacks on civilian populations, the threat to civilians is a concern especially after the threat of attacking Haifa, Israel following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh. Western citizens in the Middle East are at risk, as well as in the US. Though there does not seem to be any current threats or risk, the Million MAGA March taking place in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021, is a possible soft target. This is based on the Million MAGA March being a pro-President Trump rally that draws big crowds and will require a high amount of law enforcement (local and federal) presence. Iranian officials have specifically said those in the US that is responsible for the killing of General Soleimani will be targeted. Local and federal law enforcement in Washington, DC should be on alert. Though Iran does not typically conduct attacks on civilian populations to advance its agenda, the psychological impact this would have on its enemies is considerable. Other soft targets may include mass transit points in the CENTCOM region, this is based on the recent airport bombing in Yemen that has been blamed on Iran by the Yemen government (Iran blamed Saudi Arabia).[6] Since Soleimani himself was conducting missions in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, they are all areas of potential targets and areas that the CENTCOM team will monitor including the terrorist and proxy groups that are based in these countries.


These assessments are based on the fact that since the killing in January 2020, Iran has escalated the threat of revenge, echoing a “definite” plan.[7] Iran is very active in the CENTCOM region through different proxy groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Since Iran has targeted US military personnel already, US forces should be prepared to defend against attacks in the coming days and weeks. US officials have already warned that “the threat streams are very real” and the most concerning that they have seen, citing specifically that leaders of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have met with Quds Force leaders and that a “fair amount of advanced conventional weapons” has flowed over the border from Iran into Iraq.[8]


While there has already been an increase in resources and personnel in the region, as can be seen with the B-52 bombers, personnel should continue to be on alert and prepare for any attacks that may occur. Towards the end of November, the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and its carrier strike group were sent back to the Persian Gulf amid rising tensions with Iran following the assassination of Fakhrizadeh. While the ship was not sent back for any specific threat, the deployment of the ship ensured US forces had sufficient capability available to respond to any and all threats, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.[9] Recently, the Pentagon decided to send the ship home. The ship is the only Navy aircraft carrier operating in the Middle East; sending it home is a move that reduces US firepower in the region in an effort to ease tensions. While President Trump’s goal has been to reduce the number of troops in the Middle East, with the increase in threats coming from Iran, this move makes the US and our allies more vulnerable. The fact that the B52 bombers and the ship were sent to Iran to deter any potential attacks and the recent decision to send the ship home, shows that there could be a split in the Department of Defense (DoD) on how big of a threat to strike from Iran is in the closing days of President Trump’s presidency. This split also comes after President Trump tweeted, “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,” adding, “We hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq.”[10] The potential split in the DoD could also be an added threat that makes the US more vulnerable to attacks as troops may be getting conflicting directives. Threats against the US will most likely continue, whether there is a successful attack or not, and if Iran is unable to conduct a relevant directed attack they may seek to find vulnerabilities in US security wherever they may occur. Overall, the US and the global community can expect less rationality or specificity with Iran’s future attacks but the above mentioned have the highest risk based on previous attacks.


CONCLUSION


CTG assesses that the current threat of retaliatory attacks by Iran, the IRGC, or Iranian proxies is HIGH. Our analysis indicates that increased violence against US military personnel by Iran in the CENTCOM region as a whole with emphasis on existing arenas of conflict such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq, is HIGH given the fact that such aggression has been ongoing and increasing for a long period of time following the assassination of General Soleimani. Additionally, the probability of attacks targeting all Western governments and Israel remains HIGH. There is a MEDIUM-HIGH probability that Iran will seek to conduct attacks against civilian populations, whether US-based or Middle East-based.


All diplomatic and military personnel and their families as well as citizens and businesses of Western countries should be on high alert for any suspicious activity that may indicate an imminent attack. Operational (OPSEC) and personnel (PERSEC) security measures should be increased and remain on high alert in the near future.


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] The Aftermath Of Iran's Missile Attack On An Iraqi Base Housing US. Troops. NPR. January 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/pictureshow/2020/01/14/796219386/the-aftermath-of-irans-missile-attack-on-an-iraqi-base-housing-u-s-troops

[2] US. to withdraw some Baghdad embassy staff as tensions with Iran and its allies spike. The Washington Post. December 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iraq-baghdad-embassy-tensions-iran/2020/12/02/79141136-34c3-11eb-9699-00d311f13d2d_story.html

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

[4]US kills Iran general Qassem Suleimani in strike ordered by Trump” by Boaz Guttman Flickr licensed under Public Domain.

[5] Iran Escalates Threats as Anniversary of Soleimani Strike Nears. Military.com. December 2020. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/12/31/iran-escalates-threats-anniversary-of-soleimani-strike-nears.html

[6] Yemen Claims 'Iranian Experts' Present at Airport Attack, Iran Blames Saudis. Newsweek. December 2020. https://www.newsweek.com/yemen-claims-iranian-experts-present-airport-attack-iran-blames-saudis-1558322

[7] Ibid, 4.

[8] Bracing for a possible Iranian-linked attack in Iraq, US. officials warn ‘the threat streams are very real’. Washington Post. December 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2020/12/30/us-iran-military-tensions/

[9] Carrier Nimitz Returns to Gulf as Iran Makes Threats. Military.com. November 2020. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/11/29/carrier-nimitz-returns-gulf-iran-makes-threats.html

[10] US to move aircraft carrier Nimitz out of Mideast amid Iran tension. Navy Times. December 2020. https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-military/2020/12/31/us-to-move-aircraft-carrier-nimitz-out-of-mideast-amid-iran-tension/#:~:text=US%20to%20move%20aircraft%20carrier%20Nimitz%20out%20of%20Mideast%20amid%20Iran%20tension,-Robert%20Burns%2C%20The&text=WASHINGTON%20%E2%80%94%20The%20Pentagon%20has%20decided,with%20Iran%2C%20officials%20said%20Thursday.


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