An elusive target
Since 2004, when the Israeli government ordered its foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, the agency had been methodically picking off experts thought to be part of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Despite several assassination bids, Fakhrizadeh was elusive. So, they decided to try something new. Iranian agents working for the Mossad had parked a Nissan Zamyad pickup truck on the side of the road connecting Absard to the main highway. Hidden beneath tarpaulins in the truck bed was a 7.62-mm sniper machine gun. Around 1pm, the hit team got a signal that Fakhrizadeh, his wife and a team of armed guards in escort cars were about to leave for Absard. The assassin, a skilled sniper, took up his position. He was nowhere near Absard, however. He was peering into a computer screen at an undisclosed location over 1,000 miles away.
Reports of a killing
The reports from Iran were confusing, contradictory and mostly wrong. While one reported about a team of assassins, another said a truck had exploded. A few days later, several Iranian news oufits reported that the assassin was a killer robot. Iranians mocked the story, except this time there really was a killer robot. The straight-out-of-science-fiction story of what really happened, published on NYT for the first time, is based on interviews with US, Israeli and Iranian officials, including two intelligence officials, and his family’s statements to media. The operation’s success was the debut test of a high-tech, computerised sharpshooter kitted out with artificial intelligence and multiple-camera eyes, operated via satellite and capable of firing 600 rounds a minute.
Time was running out
Preparations for the assassination began toward the end of 2019 and in early 2020 between Israeli officials, led by the Mossad director, Yossi Cohen, and high-ranking US officials, including President Donald Trump, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and the CIA director, Gina Haspel. Israel had paused the sabotage and assassination campaign in 2012, when the US began talks with Iran leading to the 2015 nuclear deal. Now that Trump had abrogated that agreement, the Israelis wanted to resume the campaign. In late February 2020, Cohen presented the Americans with a list of potential operations, including the killing of Fakhrizadeh. The US officials briefed about the assassination plan in Washington supported it, according to an official who was at the meeting. Both countries were encouraged by Iran’s relatively tepid response to the US assassination of Iran’s military commander Qassim Suleimani in January 2020. By the summer, it looked as if Trump could lose the US election. His likely successor, Joe Biden, had promised to reverse Trump’s policies and return to the 2015 deal. If Israel was going to kill a top Iranian official, an act that could start a war, it needed the assent and protection of the US. That meant acting before Biden could take office.
Programming a hit
Israel chose a special model of a Belgian-made FN MAG machine gun attached to an advanced robotic apparatus, according to an intelligence official familiar with the plot. But the machine gun, the robot, its components and accessories together weigh about a tonne. So the equipment was broken down and smuggled into the country piece by piece and then secretly reassembled in Iran. The robot was built to fit in the bed of the Zamyad pickup. Cameras pointing in multiple directions were mounted on the truck to give the command room a full picture. Finally, the truck was packed with explosives so it could be blown to bits after the kill. The AI was programmed to compensate for delay, the truck’s shake and the scientist’s car’s speed. Another challenge was to determine that it was Fakhrizadeh in the car. So, a decoy car with a camera to force a U-turn and get a clear image was stationed.
Shortly before 3.30pm, the motorcade arrived at the U-turn. Fakhrizadeh’s car came to a near halt, and he was positively identified. The machine gun fired a burst of bullets. It is not clear if these shots hit Fakhrizadeh but the car swerved and came to a stop. The shooter adjusted the sights and fired another burst, hitting the windshield at least three times and Fakhrizadeh at least once in the shoulder. The scientist stepped out of the car and crouched behind the open front door. According to Iran’s Fars News, three more bullets tore into his spine and he collapsed. The attack was precise, sparing Fakhrizadeh’s wife. The Zamyad truck exploded as intended so that no one could piece together what had happened. However, most of the robot equipment remained largely intact. The Iran Revolutionary Guards’ assessment – that the attack was carried out by a remote-controlled machine gun “equipped with an intelligent satellite system” using AI – was correct. The operation took less than a minute. Fifteen bullets were fired. The weapon now joins in the arsenal of high-tech weapons for remote targeted killing and might just point to the future of espionage.