Fifteen current and former American officials revealed to Yahoo News the details of the Trump administration’s covert plan to eliminate Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, in an air strike near Baghdad airport in January 2020.
Three teams of Delta Force operators were at concealed locations at Baghdad International Airport last January, waiting for their target. Disguised as maintenance workers, the operators had secreted into position in old buildings or vehicles on the side of the road.
The three sniper teams positioned themselves 600 to 900 yards away from the “kill zone,” the access road from the airfield, setting up to triangulate their target as he left the airport. One of the snipers had a spotting scope with a camera attached that livestreamed back to the US Embassy in Baghdad, where the Delta Ground Force commander was based with support staff, said Yahoo News.
A member of the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG), an elite Kurdish unit in northern Iraq with deep links to US Special Operations, helped them make the wind call from down range.
The flight from Damascus, Syria, finally landed after midnight on Jan. 3, 2020, several hours behind schedule. Three US drones orbited overhead. As the plane taxied off the runway, toward the closed-off portion of the airfield, one of the Kurdish operatives disguised as ground crew guided the aircraft to a halt on the tarmac. When the target stepped off the airplane, Kurdish CTG operators posing as baggage handlers were also present to positively identify him.
Soleimani had just arrived at Baghdad International. The Iranian general and his entourage loaded into two vehicles and drove toward the kill zone, where the Delta Force snipers lay in wait.
The two vehicles, one containing Soleimani, pulled out into the street to leave the airport. The three Delta Force sniper teams were ready, safeties rotated off on their long guns, fingers resting gently on their triggers. Above them, the three drones glided through the night sky, two of them armed with hellfire missiles, reported Yahoo News.
In the six hours before Soleimani boarded his flight from Damascus, the Iranian general switched cellphones three times, according to a US military official.
In Tel Aviv, US Joint Special Operations Command liaisons worked with their Israeli counterparts to help track Soleimani’s cellphone patterns. The Israelis, who had access to Soleimani’s numbers, passed them off to the Americans, who traced Soleimani and his current phone to Baghdad.
Members of the secretive Army unit known as Task Force Orange were also on the ground in Baghdad that night, said the military official, providing “knob turners” — close-range signals intelligence experts — to help home in on Soleimani’s electronics for the tactical portion of the operation.
As the two vehicles moved into the kill zone, drone operators fired on the motorcade. Two hellfire missiles crashed down on Soleimani’s vehicle, obliterating it in the street. The driver of the second vehicle stepped on the gas to escape. The driver made it about 100 yards before slamming on the brakes when a Delta Force sniper engaged, firing on the vehicle. Just as the vehicle ground to a halt, a third hellfire missile struck, blasting it apart.
At the White House, discussions about killing Soleimani picked up during the summer of 2018, around the time the administration formally announced it was withdrawing from the Obama-era nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran as part of its “maximum pressure” strategy. But by this time, National Security Council planners were looking toward the Pentagon’s special operations units, and not CIA paramilitaries or their proxies, to carry out the strike, revealed Yahoo News.
Things took a more serious turn by mid-November 2019. With tensions heating up across the region, NSC officials received “the call from the top that they needed to make sure options were in order” for killing Soleimani around that time.
“We were tracking Soleimani pretty closely, and there was a tendency for him to travel somewhere and some very bad things to happen to the US,” recalled Victoria Coates, then the deputy national security adviser for the Middle East, according to Yahoo News.
A small group of people that included, along with Coates, started meeting regularly to discuss potential options for killing the Iranian general. These plans were sent to Trump’s desk after a rocket attack by Iranian proxies killed a US contractor in northern Iraq in late December 2019, said former senior administration officials.
The death of a US citizen at Iran’s hands was a red line for Trump, and helped solidify the decision to kill Soleimani, according to the former officials.
As zero hour approached, in Washington, DC, a small group of top officials, including Coates, gathered in the Situation Room to prepare for the strike. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo watched from the Pentagon.
Trump, who was hooked up by audio link to the Situation Room, kept track of the events from Mar-a-Lago with national security adviser Robert O’Brien, said Yahoo News.
In a later speech to Republican donors at Mar-a-Lago, Trump described listening to military officials during the killing, who were monitoring the operation via “cameras that are miles in the sky,” according to audio of the talk, which was later leaked to CNN and the Washington Post.
“‘They’re together sir,’” said Trump, recounting the military officials’ description. “‘Sir, they have two minutes and 11 seconds.’ No emotion. ‘Two minutes and 11 seconds to live, sir. They’re in the car, they're in an armored vehicle going. Sir, they have approximately one minute to live, sir. 30 seconds. 10, 9, 8 ...’ Then all of a sudden, boom.”
“‘They’re gone, sir,’” Trump recalled the official saying.
Not mentioned by Trump was one critical detail. After the strike, according to two US officials, a Kurdish operative disguised as an Iraqi police officer walked up to the wreckage of Soleimani’s vehicle, snapped photographs and quickly obtained a tissue sample for DNA confirmation before walking away and vanishing into the night.