According to a detailed report by the New York Times, the top Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who officials believe was working to build Iran a nuclear weapon, was killed in a remote-controlled ambush by Israeli Mossad agents in November 2020. The report includes interviews with Israeli, American, and Iranian sources

 

Fakhrizadeh and His Importance for Iran’s Nuclear Program

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was born in the Iranian city of Qom in 1958 and joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Fakhrizadeh received his Bachelor of Science in nuclear physics from Shahid Beheshti University in 1987. He later earned a master’s degree at the Isfahan University of Technology and a Ph.D. in nuclear radiation and cosmic rays.

Although Fakhrizadeh was a member of the Imam Hossein University (IHU) faculty beginning in 1991, the CIA, in an assessment conducted in 2007, believed that this was essentially a “cover position” to hide his true work. 

The UN asked to interview Fakhrizadeh in 2007 as part of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) probe into Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, but the Iranians refused to make him available. He was considered a key figure in Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Tehran then provided some information regarding Fakhrizadeh’s work which the IAEA said is “not inconsistent with its findings.”

His work on getting Iran a nuclear warhead got him on the radar of both the CIA and the Mossad. As early as 2004, the Israeli agency began an active operation to stop Tehran from realizing that goal. Mossad conducted a series of sabotages and cyber attacks on the Iranians’ nuclear enrichment facilities. It also conducted targeted assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists. In total, using a variety of methods, Mossad killed the IRGC general in charge of the missile development program and 16 program scientists.

It is believed that Fakhrizadeh was targeted for assassination as far back as 2007. Mossad was planning a hit in 2009. The team conducting the assassination was in place but the operation was called off as the Mossad feared an ambush, the New York Times’ report said. However, Fakhrizadeh grew increasingly lax about his own security, as he had been subject to assassination rumors for several years and had taken to driving his own unarmored vehicle. 

In 2018, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented evidence gained by Mossad operatives of the Iranian intention to build a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu mentioned Fakhrizadeh several times. “Remember that name… Fakhrizadeh,” Netanyahu told the cameras. He had never left the Israeli radar.

Fakhrizadeh ambush assassination
The scene of the ambush and the bloody aftermath of the assassination. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

The US Elections Affect the Operation

In late 2019 and early 2020, meetings between Israel and the U.S. moved into overdrive as the Mossad accelerated plans for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. The head of the Mossad at the time, Yossi Cohen, met with high-ranking American officials, including then-U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel.

The Israelis were concerned that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was not going well for President Trump. Israel was worried that a Biden administration would return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), thus allowing Iran to realize its nuclear weapon goals. Therefore, the plans of taking out Fakhrizadeh accelerated.

The Israelis decided they had to act before the change of administrations in Washington. Netanyahu and Trump were known to see eye-to-eye on issues such as this. According to the New York Times’ report, American intelligence officials briefed on the operation supported it. 

Both countries’ intelligence agencies were buoyed by what they saw as a “tepid response” to the U.S. targeted assassination of Quds commander MG Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 in Iraq. 

Meanwhile, Iran was increasing Fakhrizadeh’s security. His detail was part of the Ansar unit of the Revolutionary Guard and was heavily armed and well-trained. Their communications were sent via encrypted channels. The accompanying motorcades masked Fakhrizadeh’s movements in convoys of four to seven vehicles, changing the routes and timing frequently to block possible attacks. His car, which he insisted he drive himself, was rotated among four or five vehicles at his disposal.

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While the Israelis had used various assassination techniques in earlier operations, for this operation they decided to attempt using a remote-controlled Belgian FN MAG machine gun in a fixed position. 

 

An Assassination Plan From the Future 

With time running out in 2020, the Mossad decided to pair the FN MAG machine gun to an advanced robotic apparatus. The system was similar to the Sentinel 20 manufactured by the Spanish defense contractor Escribano, according to officials quoted in the Times’ report. 

Nevertheless, the components were heavy, weighing about a ton. Further, there remained two big logistical issues, namely how to get the components in of Iran and on what to mount the weapon and robotic apparatus to.

The Mossad broke down all of the components of the system into their smallest parts and secretly smuggled them into Iran piece-by-piece. There, Iranian operatives working for Mossad secretly pieced them back together. 

They built the system into the bed of a Zamyad pickup truck, which is a common sight in Iran. The system had several cameras pointing in multiple directions. These were mounted on the truck to give the Mossad operatives, who were 1,000 miles away, a clear view of Fakhrizadeh’s motorcade, security detail, and the surrounding area. They then packed the truck with explosives so it could be destroyed after the hit, erasing all evidence. 

However, firing a machine gun mounted on the bed of a truck, even a parked one, will cause the machine gun to shake after each shot’s recoil, changing the trajectory of subsequent rounds. The 1.6-second delay caused by the satellite uplink to the Mossad command location could also affect the accuracy of the weapon. Therefore, to account for these factors, the robotic system utilized Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).

To pinpoint the motorcade and positively identify that Fakhrizadeh was driving the car, Mossad placed another planted car with surveillance cameras nearby.

Finally, the ambush location was chosen because of a speed bump that would cause the motorcade to slow down. This would allow the Mossad team to positively identify Fakhrizadeh.

 

Fakhrizadeh Does Not Heed His Security’s Warnings

On the day of the assassination, Iranian security details tried to dissuade Fakhrizadeh from traveling. Reportedly, his son acknowledged this. It was also claimed that Iran even knew the location of a possible attack but didn’t know the timing. 

Nevertheless, Fakhrizadeh was stubborn and insisted on traveling to his vacation villa in Absard, where elite Iranian government officials have villas. He also insisted on driving his own unarmored car with his wife. Despite protests by his security detail, they were not allowed in his vehicle and had to follow behind.  

Around 1530 hours local time, his motorcade reached the U-Turn where the surveillance vehicle positively identified the driver as Fakhrizadeh. As the vehicles turned down Khomeini Boulevard, his advance team zipped ahead to clear his villa, leaving the scientist more exposed. 

The convoy slowed down for the speed bump near the parked Zamyad truck. A stray dog began crossing the road. The Mossad opened up the machine gun, which fired a short burst of fire, hitting the front of the car below the windshield. The car swerved and came to a stop.

Adjusting the sights, the hit team fired another burst, hitting the windshield at least three times and Fakhrizadeh at least once in the shoulder. He quickly exited out of the car and crouched behind the open front door.

A third burst fired three more rounds which tore into his spine. He collapsed on the road. His wife seated beside him was untouched. She ran out and cradled his head in her hands.

His first security detail member arrived with a weapon in his hand but was confused and looking for targets. Then the Mossad blew up the truck. The explosives were supposed to disintegrate the weapon and robotic apparatus to stop Iranian officials from piecing together the operation. Instead, the explosion launched the entire apparatus far into the air, destroyed but still majorly intact. 

 

Confusion in Iran

Fakhrizadeh funeral
The funeral for Fakhrizadeh held in Tehran. (Wikimedia Commons)

The first reports emanating from Iran were widely wrong. 

The first erroneous report said that a team of assassins had waited alongside the road for Fakhrizadeh to drive by. Residents heard a big explosion followed by intense machine gunfire, said another.

Another report stated that a truck exploded ahead of Fakhrizadeh’s car, then five or six gunmen jumped out of a nearby car and opened fire. 

An IRGC social media channel reported an intense gun battle between Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards and as many as a dozen attackers. Several people were killed, witnesses said. 

A report that emerged a few days later saying that Fakhrizadeh was killed using a remote-controlled machine gun was mocked by Iranian citizens as it directly contradicted the official IRGC story of a pitched battle between security members and an assassin squad. 

Lapses in security protection, mainly caused by the decisions and actions of the principal himself were the major cause of the assassination’s success. If Fakhrizadeh had been in the backseat of an armored vehicle, the assassination would have probably failed.

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