fb-pixel Skip to main content

On day US forces killed Soleimani, they launched another secret operation targeting senior Iranian official in Yemen

WASHINGTON — On the day the US military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, US forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to US officials.

The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four US officials familiar with the matter.

The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.

Advertisement



US military operations in Yemen, where a civil war has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, are shrouded in secrecy. US officials said the operation against Shahlai remains highly classified, and many declined to offer details other than to say it was not successful.

Officials at the Pentagon and in Florida were monitoring both strikes and had discussed announcing them together, had they gone well, officials said.

‘‘If we had killed him, we’d be bragging about it that same night,’’ a senior US official said, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a classified military operation.

Another senior official said the two strikes were authorized around the same time and that the United States did not disclose the Shahlai mission because it did not go according to plan. The official said Shahlai may be targeted in the future, though both countries have signaled an interest in deescalating the crisis.

The rationale for the Trump administration’s decision to kill Soleimani has come under scrutiny in Congress, with House lawmakers approving a resolution on Thursday to restrict the president’s authority to strike Iran without congressional approval.

Advertisement



Defense and State Department officials said the strike against Soleimani saved ‘‘dozens’’ if not ‘‘hundreds’’ of American lives under imminent threat. The strike against Shahlai potentially complicates that argument.

‘‘This suggests a mission with a longer planning horizon and a larger objective, and it really does call into question why there was an attempt to explain this publicly on the basis of an imminent threat,’’ said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at the Brookings Institution.

The Trump administration views Shahlai as a particularly potent adversary.

Commander Rebecca Rebarich, Pentagon spokeswoman, said the Defense Department does not discuss ‘‘alleged operations’’ in the Middle East. ‘‘We have seen the report of a January 2 airstrike in Yemen, which is long-understood as a safe space for terrorists and other adversaries to the United States,’’ she said in a statement.

The State Department offered a $15 million reward last month for information leading to Shahlai and the disruption of the IRGC’s financial mechanisms. The announcement said that Shahlai is based in Yemen and has a ‘‘long history of involvement in attacks targeting the US and our allies, including in the 2011 plot against the Saudi ambassador’’ at an Italian restaurant in Washington.

US officials have alleged Shahlai, born around 1957, is linked to attacks against US forces in Iraq, including a sophisticated 2007 raid in which Iranian-backed militiamen abducted and killed five Americans troops in the city of Karbala.

Advertisement



In a news conference last year, Brian Hook, the special representative for Iran, said the United States remains ‘‘gravely concerned by his presence in Yemen and potential role in providing advanced weaponry of the kind we have interdicted to the Houthis,’’ who continue to battle a Saudi-led coalition for control of Yemen.

Iran has provided support and training to the Houthi rebels in their battle against a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional foe.

It is unclear why the operation did not succeed. The State Department and White House declined to comment.

The operation targeting Shahlai occurs as the United Nations presses for a political solution to the war in Yemen, which began in 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition launched its campaign against the Houthi rebels. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government has struggled to regain the upper hand against the Houthis, allowing a massive humanitarian crisis to fester in which tens of thousands of Yemenis have died of fighting, deprivation, or disease.

US officials believe that Iran has steadily expanded its support to the Houthis, placing what they say is a small number of Iranian operatives in Yemen to advise the rebel campaign. Experts say a larger number of Lebanese Hezbollah personnel are also helping the rebels.

The Trump administration has showcased apparent Iranian weapons that have been intercepted or recovered in and around Yemen as proof that Iran is arming the Houthi rebels, including sophisticated missiles used to target Saudi Arabia.

Experts say the Saudi-led coalition has dramatically reduced the tempo of its airstrikes against Houthi targets in recent months as the Yemeni rebels have largely halted their missile attacks into Saudi Arabia.

Advertisement