Scientist’s High-Tech Killing
Israel assassinated a top target in Iran from 1,600 kilometers away.
Iran’s top nuclear scientist woke up an hour before dawn, as he did most days, to study Islamic philosophy. That afternoon, he and his wife would leave their vacation home on the Caspian Sea and drive to their country house in Absard, east of Tehran.
Iran’s intelligence service had warned him of a possible assassination plot, but the scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, had brushed it off. Israel had wanted to kill him for at least 14 years. But there had been so many threats that he no longer paid them much attention. Mr. Fakhrizadeh wanted to live a normal life. Disregarding the advice of his security team, he often drove his own car instead of having bodyguards drive him in an armored vehicle. It was a breach of protocol, but he insisted. So shortly after noon on Friday, November 27, he slipped behind the wheel of his black Nissan Teana sedan, his wife in the passenger seat, and hit the road.
Since 2004, when the Israeli government ordered its foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, it had been carrying out a campaign of sabotage and cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment facilities. It was also eliminating the experts thought to be leading Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Since 2007, it had assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists and wounded another. Most worked directly for Mr. Fakhrizadeh on what Israeli officials said was a covert program to build a nuclear warhead. Israeli agents had also killed the Iranian general in charge of missile development and 16 members of his team. In 2009, a hit team was waiting for Mr. Fakhrizadeh in Tehran, but the operation was called off at the last moment. The plot had been compromised, the Mossad suspected, and Iran had set an ambush.
This time, Iranian agents working for the Mossad had parked a blue Nissan Zamyad pickup truck on the side of the road connecting Absard to the main highway. Hidden beneath construction material in the truck bed was a 7.62-mm sniper machine gun. Around 1 p.m., the hit team received a signal that Mr. Fakhrizadeh, his wife and a
team of armed guards in escort cars were about to leave for Absard.
The assassin took up his position, calibrated the gun sights, cocked the weapon and lightly touched the trigger. He was peering into a computer screen over 1,600 kilometers away.
The news reports from Iran that afternoon were contradictory. A team of assassins had waited for Mr. Fakhrizadeh to drive by, one report said. Residents heard a big explosion followed by gunfire, said another. A social media channel affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps reported a gun battle between Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards and as many as a dozen attackers. Several people were killed, witnesses said.
One of the most far-fetched accounts emerged days later. Several news organizations reported that the assassin was a killer robot, operated by remote control. Iranians mocked the story as a transparent effort to minimize the embarrassment of failing to protect one of the country’s most closely guarded figures.
But there really was a killer robot. This story of what happened that afternoon is based on interviews with American, Israeli and Iranian officials, including two familiar with the planning of the operation, and statements Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s family made to the Iranian news media.
The operation’s success was the result of failures by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, extensive planning and surveillance by the Mossad, and an insouciance bordering on fatalism on the part of Mr. Fakhrizadeh. It was also the debut of a computerized sharpshooter with artificial intelligence, operated via satellite and capable of firing 600 rounds a minute. The remote-controlled machine gun now joins the combat drone in the arsenal of high-tech weapons for targeted killing. But unlike a drone, the machine gun draws no attention in the sky, and can be situated anywhere, qualities likely to reshape the worlds of security and espionage.
‘Remember That Name’
Preparations for the assassination began after meetings in late 2019 and early 2020 between Israeli officials, led by the Mossad director, Yossi Cohen, and high-ranking American officials, including President Donald J. Trump. Israel had paused the sabotage and assassination campaign in 2012, when the United States began negotiations with Iran leading to the 2015 nuclear agreement. Now that Mr. Trump had canceled that deal, Israel wanted to resume.
In 2018, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, showed off documents stolen from Iran’s nuclear archives. Arguing that they proved that Iran still had an active nuclear weapons program, he mentioned Mr. Fakhrizadeh by name several times. “Remember that name,” he said. “Fakhrizadeh.”
The American officials briefed about the assassination plan in Washington supported it, according to an official who was present at the meeting. Both countries were encouraged by Iran’s tepid response to the American assassination of Major General Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military commander killed in a drone strike with the help of Israeli intelligence in January 2020.
The surveillance of Mr. Fakhrizadeh intensified. As the intelligence poured in, the challenge came into focus. Aware that Mr. Fakhrizadeh led Israel’s most-wanted list, Iran had tightened his security. His security details belonged to the elite Ansar unit of the Revolutionary Guards. They accompanied his movements in convoys of four to seven vehicles.
The first nuclear scientist on Israel’s list was poisoned in 2007. The second, in 2010, was killed by a remotely detonated bomb attached to a motorcycle. In each of the next four, from 2010 to 2012, hit men on motorcycles sidled up beside the target’s car in Tehran traffic and either shot through the window or attached a sticky-bomb to the car door, then sped off. But Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s armed convoy made that impossible.
The planners considered detonating a bomb along the route, forcing the convoy to a halt so it could be attacked by snipers. That was shelved because of the likelihood of a gun battle with many casualties. The idea of a pre-positioned, remote-controlled machine gun was proposed, but there were logistical complications. The bulk of remote-controlled machine guns made them difficult to transport and conceal.
By summer, it looked as if Mr. Trump could lose the U.S. election. His likely successor, Joseph R. Biden Jr., had promised to return to the 2015 nuclear deal that Israel opposed. If Israel was going to kill an Iranian official, it needed to act before Mr. Biden took office.
Mr. Fakhrizadeh grew up in Qom, the theological heart of Shia Islam. He was 18 when the Islamic revolution toppled Iran’s monarchy. He had two dreams: to become a nuclear scientist and to take part in the military. He joined the Revolutionary Guards and rose to general. He earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Isfahan University of Technology.
“In the field of nuclear and nanotechnology and biochemical war, Mr. Fakhrizadeh was a character on par with Qassim Suleimani but in a totally covert way,” said Gheish Ghoreishi, who has advised Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Arab affairs. When Iran needed equipment prohibited under sanctions, Mr. Fakhrizadeh found ways to obtain it. “He had created an underground network from Latin America to North Korea and Eastern Europe to find the parts that we needed,” Mr. Ghoreishi said.
Most of Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s professional life was secret. When international nuclear inspectors came, they were told that he was unavailable, his laboratories off limits. Concerned, the United Nations Security Council froze his assets in 2006.
Iran had steadfastly insisted that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes and that it had no interest in developing a bomb. But investigators with the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded in 2011 that Iran had “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.”
Programming a Hit
The Mossad has a longstanding rule that if there is no rescue, there is no operation, meaning a plan to get operatives out is essential. Having no agents in the field tips the equation in favor of an operation.
But an untested, computerized machine gun presents other problems. 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. The machine gun, the robot, its components and accessories together weigh about a ton. So the equipment was broken down into its smallest possible parts and smuggled into the country piece by piece. The robot was built to fit in the bed of a Zamyad pickup, common in Iran. 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.
But a machine gun mounted on a truck will shake after each shot, changing the trajectory of subsequent bullets. Also, even though the computer communicated with the control room via satellite, there would be a slight delay: What the operator saw on the screen was a moment old, and adjusting the aim to compensate would take another moment, all while Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s car was in motion. The A.I. was programmed to compensate for the delay, the shake and the car’s speed.
As the convoy left the city of Rostamkala on the Caspian coast, the first car carried a security detail. It was followed by the unarmored black Nissan carrying Mr. Fakhrizadeh and his wife, Sadigheh Ghasemi. Two more security cars followed. If Mr. Fakhrizadeh had not insisted on driving himself, if he had been in the rear, it would have been harder to identify him. Shortly before 3:30 p.m., the motorcade arrived at a U-turn on Firuzkouh Road, where a fake disabled car contained a camera that positively identified him.
The convoy turned right on Imam Khomeini Boulevard, and the lead car then zipped ahead to the house to inspect it before Mr. Fakhrizadeh arrived, leaving his car fully exposed.
The convoy slowed down for a speed bump just before the parked Zamyad pickup truck. The machine gun fired a burst of bullets, hitting the front of the car, which swerved and came to a stop. The shooter adjusted the sights and fired another burst, hitting the windshield at least three times and Mr. Fakhrizadeh in the shoulder. He stepped out and crouched behind the open front door.
According to Iran’s Fars News, three more bullets tore into his spine. He collapsed on the road. The first bodyguard arrived from a chase car. He looked around for the assailant, seemingly confused. Ms. Ghasemi ran out to her husband. The blue Zamyad truck exploded.
The entire operation took less than a minute. Fifteen bullets were fired. Iranian investigators noted that none hit Ms. Ghasemi, seated centimeters away, accuracy that they attributed to facial recognition software.
“It was not a simple terrorist attack for someone to come and fire a bullet and run,” Hamed Fakhrizadeh, the scientist’s son, said later on state television. “His assassination was far more complicated than what you know and think.”