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FLASH ALERT: HIGH RISK OF VIOLENT RETALIATION BY IRAN AGAINST ISRAEL, THE US, AND THEIR INTERESTS

November 2020 | CTG CENTCOM Team


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT to Israel and the US, including all relevant government agencies, military forces, diplomatic officials, and industries and economies invested with these countries, including but not limited, to aviation and tourism. The current CTG threat matrix indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that Iran will conduct retaliatory attacks for the recent assassination of its leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. This assessment is based on a comparative analysis of the reaction of Iran to the killing of General Soleimani in January 2020; the growing tensions between Iran and Israel and the US, as well as threatening statements made by senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) officials and Ayatollah Khamenei indicating that those responsible will face punishment.


On Friday, November 27, 2020, Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in an alleged assassination in Absard, in Damavand county, east of Tehran.[1] Initial reports indicate that Fakhrizadeh was targeted in his vehicle by armed gunmen and a Nissan Vehicle explosion during which he sustained a number of gunshot wounds of which he later died from in the hospital.[2] No nation or organization has taken responsibility for the killing, though Iran has indicated it holds Israel responsible. Israel has been accused of the assassination of four other Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012.[3] Based on the growing tension between Iran and the US over the past year, coupled with the close allyship between Israel and the US, particularly with regards to foreign policy in the CENTCOM region, we assess there is a high probability of retaliation against both Israel and the US.



Figure 1: Location of Attack [4]


We assess that the primary targets for retaliation by Iran are likely to be Israeli military targets, in particular, at locations close to the Israeli borders with both Syria and Lebanon. This assessment is based on the fact that Iran is very active in both of these locations both through the IRGC Quds Force as well as through terrorist proxy groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Therefore, further resources and personnel can easily be diverted to these locations in order to conduct attacks at the border. Furthermore, following the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 by the US, Iran’s retaliation took the form of targeted attacks against military personnel. Most notably, on January 8 the IRGC fired a number of ballistic missiles at Ayn al-Asad Airbase in Iraq which caused traumatic brain injuries among 110 US troops stationed there.[5] This retaliation occurred within days of Soleimani’s killing, therefore, Israeli and US forces should be prepared to defend against attacks such as this in the coming days and weeks.


Statements made by Iranian officials which loosely indicate US complicity in this attack elevate the threat posed to US military officials and locations in the CENTCOM region. For example, President Rouhani remarked that “the enemies are experiencing stressful weeks” and that “they are mindful that the global situation is changing, and are trying to make the most of these days to create unstable conditions in the region.”[6] This statement has been interpreted as making reference to the intention of President Trump to further damage relations between the US and Iran prior to Joe Biden taking over the White House in January 2021. The nature of the threat towards US interests is most likely to continue in a similar manner to attacks conducted in the months following the assassination of Soleimani in January. The Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, a branch of the Iraqi Military has been accused of conducting targeted attacks against US military bases in Baghdad and Erbil as well as attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone. Yet in October 2020, Khamenei ordered these attacks to cease.[7] It is very likely that attacks against US forces and interests in Iraq will continue now that Iran seeks revenge for the killing of its most prominent nuclear scientist.


Nevertheless, the threat to civilian populations remains a concern. 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. From strategic positions on the Israeli border, it is possible that the IRGC would target missiles over the border at Israeli civilian settlements. More likely, Iran would use its terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah or Hamas to conduct such attacks on civilians. Therefore countries should increase monitoring of these terrorist groups, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.


The threat to civilian populations is amplified after an article in the hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan was published calling for Iran to attack the Israeli city Haifa. The article directly called for an attack that “also causes heavy human casualties.”[8] Haifa is a popular tourist city and has both an active port used for trade and tourism such as cruises, as well as an airport. Targeting Haifa would not only cause psychological trauma to Israel but would damage the economy greatly. CTG recommends increased surveillance and security be installed at Haifa port and airport and that security officials remain vigilant to any potential attacks both from within Israel by malevolent actors, or via missiles targeting Haifa from across the border in Lebanon, Syria, or Palestine.


Aviation and tourist industries associated with Israel elsewhere in the CENTCOM region should also increase security. In particular, given the recent normalization agreements between Israel and a number of Arab states, brokered by President Trump, it is likely that targets associated with such relationships may be targeted in order to both impact the economies, industries, and civilian populations of such countries. Given that Israel is managing the COVID-19 crisis relatively well, travel and tourism may increase between Israel and Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates with which it has recently signed a normalization agreement and opened up travel. In addition, Saudi Arabia, which is rumoured to have entered into normalization discussions should remain on high alert in order to protect its interests and citizens as well as any US interests in Saudi Arabia from potential attacks. Though it is unlikely Iran would attack Saudi Arabia openly for fear of reprisals, it may do so through the arm of its proxy groups, the Yemeni Houthis who routinely target Saudi Arabia.


Beyond the CENTCOM region, we recommend that Israel and the US increase security for all diplomats and government officials. Leaked intelligence shows that Iran considered an assassination plot against the US Ambassador to South Africa in retaliation to the killing of Soleimani.[9] It is likely that, if unable to conduct more relevant directed attacks, Iran may seek to find vulnerabilities in US or Israeli security wherever they may occur.


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 Israeli and US military personnel by Iran in existing areas of conflict such as Syria, Iraq, and Gaza is HIGH given the fact that such aggression has been ongoing for a long period of time and the assassination of Fakhrizadeh has further angered Iran. Additionally, the probability of attacks targeting civilians, particularly in Israel, remains HIGH. There is a MEDIUM-HIGH probability that Iran will seek to conduct attacks against industries such as aviation and tourism linked with Israel, notably Arab states who have recently signed normalization agreements with Israel.


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] Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist, assassinated near Tehran, BBC, November 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-55105934

[2] Iran's top nuclear scientist killed in apparent assassination, state media reports, CNN, November 2020 https://edition.cnn.com/2020/11/27/middleeast/iran-top-nuclear-scientist-killed-intl/index.html

[3] Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist, assassinated near Tehran, BBC, November 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-55105934

[4] Connie Farrell, “Location of Attack” Google Maps

[5] More than 100 US troops suffered traumatic brain injury in Iran strike, military says, Guardian, February 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/feb/10/us-troops-brain-injury-iran-strike-military-to-report

[6] Mohsen Fakhrizadeh: What were the motives behind his killing?, BBC, November 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-55118140

[7] EXCLUSIVE: Iran's Khamenei ordered end to Iraqi attacks on US interests, Middle East Eye, October 2020 https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iran-khamenei-iraq-attacks-us-interests-end

[8] Iranian newspaper: Strike Haifa if Israel killed scientist, Politico, November 2020 https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/29/iran-strike-haifa-israel-killed-scientist-440975

[9] 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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