In this in-depth series, Simon Schofield charts the career of one of the most notorious and feared intelligence operatives of the last century. Starting at humble beginnings, he explores the wars Soleimani fought across five continents, his death at the hands of an American drone pilot, and what his successor is likely to do with the political and strategic inheritance his predecessor has bequeathed to him.
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“There are four things every man has more of than he knows: sins, debts, years, and foes”. So goes the Persian proverb, and this could have no greater resonance than in the life of Qassem Soleimani, a man whose luck ran out very suddenly on the 3rd January 2020.
Days after being named by US Journal as one of the top ten powerful advisers in the world with the potential to shape 2020, General Soleimani strode confidently down the steps from an Airbus A320 airliner. The plane bore the livery of the Syrian private airline Cham Wings and had ferried him from Damascus to Baghdad, arriving three hours later than initially scheduled. It was gone midnight by the time the plane touched down and the General was tired, having zig-zagged from Tehran to Damascus, then from Damascus to Beirut to discuss coordination of Shia military forces in Iraq with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, only to fly onward to Baghdad again via Damascus.
Soleimani was in Iraq on important business, having been given the job of personally delivering the Islamic Republic of Iran’s response to a message sent from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, through Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the Iraqi Prime Minister, who was acting as mediator. The two rival Islamic powers were locked in a cold war for regional hegemony and this latest round of talks, brokered in Iraq at the behest of United States President Donald Trump, was intended to deescalate tensions.
The General’s boots crunched sand and dust as they stepped onto Iraqi tarmac. A familiar face greeted him on disembarking. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was the grim commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, a militia established in 2003 to attack the Saddam Hussein regime and, subsequently, the occupying Western forces. An Iraqi by birth and an Iranian by marriage, Muhandis had long been a friend to Tehran, having even worked in 1983 with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to bomb embassies in Kuwait of countries that supported Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. Muhandis had merged his militia into the conglomerate known as Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), of which he was now their Deputy Chairman. Grinning at the new arrival, Muhandis embraced his old friend like a brother, which, in many senses, he was. After exchanging brief pleasantries, the militia leader and his small welcoming party swiftly dealt with their guests’ luggage. They whisked the General and his entourage away in a discreet convoy of two cars, a Hyundai Starks minibus and a Toyota Avalon sedan driven by Muhandis’s close adviser and personal driver, Mohammed Redha.
General Soleimani was confirmed as being among the dead on identification of his distinctive red carnelian ring, which still adorned his finger in death. The 8th Century Shiah Imam Jafar al-Sadiq proclaimed that red carnelian, what he called aqiq, brought the wearer safety whilst travelling.
Their destination was Muhandis’s Baghdad home in the heavily fortified Green Zone. The two men knew how to keep a low profile: travel only in small groups, using unmarked cars and commercial airlines so as not to risk drawing unwanted attention. Today, however, their tradecraft would not protect them; their operational security had been compromised. Gliding around 50,000ft above the two vehicles were a pair of MQ-9 Reaper drones. Whilst the General’s eyes felt heavy and were drooping at this late hour, two lidless eyes stared down at him, tracking their quarry. It was well-known that Mohammed Redha only ever drove Muhandis around, and it was equally well-known that the only guest Muhandis ever personally received at Baghdad International Airport was General Soleimani. At 12:47am, barely 10 minutes after the air brakes had slowed the plane to a halt on the runway, the first rocket was fired. The munition struck the minibus, which burst into flames, immediately killing its ten occupants, including General Soleimani’s son-in-law (a member of the IRGC); a member of Lebanese Hezbollah (who happened to be the son-in-law of infamous Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh), and a number of PMF personnel.
A second rocket narrowly missed the Toyota, which had taken evasive manoeuvres, striking the road and leaving a crater in its surface. The third rocket struck true, killing Redha, Muhandis, and Soleimani, turning the vehicle into a twisted, unrecognisable wreck, only identifiable as a car by what was left of the wheels.
In a twist of fate attributable, perhaps, to poetic justice, a career spent operating from the shadows projecting Iranian power across the globe was abruptly terminated by a projectile launched remotely from an undisclosed location: likely somewhere in the Nevada desert, half a world away from its target. Ultimately, the phantom general, who always appeared to be both everywhere and nowhere, was fatally struck down by an anonymous drone pilot, simultaneously delivering sudden death from 50,000 feet above Soleimani’s unsuspecting head whilst sitting over 7,000 miles away. General Soleimani was confirmed as being among the dead on identification of his distinctive red carnelian ring, which still adorned his finger in death. The 8th Century Shiah Imam Jafar al-Sadiq proclaimed that red carnelian, what he called “aqiq”, brought the wearer safety whilst travelling.
In life he was referred to as a ‘living martyr’, in death he was mourned as a cultural icon, sharp political operator, and war hero. Soleimani came from humble beginnings, but has cast a long shadow.
Soleimani’s funeral took the form of a number of ceremonies over three days. Ceremonies took place across Iran and Iraq from Baghdad; to the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf, to the major Iranian cities of Qom, Tehran, Mashhad, and Ahvaz. The actual burial took place in his hometown of Kerman, but had to be delayed because a stampede among the hundreds of thousands of mourners led to the deaths of 56 and injuries to a further 212. Attendance was reported by Iranian state TV as being over 7,000,000 strong in total, making it the second largest funeral in Iran’s history after that of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Mourners expressed the abyssal depths of their grief and then took to the streets to bay for vengeance, brandishing photos of their fallen hero and chanting “death to America” and “death to Trump”.
In life he was referred to as a ‘living martyr’, in death he was mourned as a cultural icon, sharp political operator, and war hero. Soleimani came from humble beginnings, but has cast a long shadow. As Commander of the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) elite unit for foreign intelligence gathering, special operations, and unconventional warfare, he and his legions have left footprints across the world, from the rugged mountains of Tajikistan; to the sprawling metropolis of Lagos, Nigeria, to the drug territories of Los Zetas in Mexico.
Who are the Quds Force?
Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the newly installed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini was suspicious of the armed forces, whom he believed still held loyalties to the deposed Shah. As such, the Ayatollah decided to establish a shadow military apparatus, loyal not to the nation or Government as such, but specifically to the Revolution and its theocratic ideology. So came into being the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Tellingly, the word ‘Iran’ did not feature in the organisation’s name for, as with most revolutionary ideologies, the plan was always to export the Revolution abroad. Indeed, in case there were any harbouring doubts about the scope of their ambition, there is a globe emblazoned across the IRGC’s crest.
Naturally, the task of exporting the Revolution and liberating Muslim lands could not fall to any merely ordinary cadre. The tip of the Revolution’s spear demanded nothing less than the most talented elite operators available. Thus, the Quds Force was established, named after ‘al-Quds’, the Islamic name for Jerusalem, as liberating al-Quds was a defining mission. Set up during the Iran-Iraq war, one of the Quds Force’s earliest operations was supporting and arming Iraqi Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein; this experience would be key to the unit’s future modus operandi.
Qassem Soleimani was born on 11th March 1957 in the tiny rural village of Qanat-e Malek in Kerman Province, which is geographically Iran’s largest province and famed for its dinosaur fossils, as well as its production of caraway and pistachios. So remote a settlement is Qanat-e Malek, that even as late as 2006 it had just 77 families residing within it.
From 1963, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi launched a raft of reforms known as the White Revolution, aimed at both modernising the economy and solidifying his political grip on Iran. One facet of these reforms involved offering cheap agricultural loans to farmers to encourage them to form cooperatives. The reforms largely failed to achieve their goals and whilst some farmers became wealthy landowners, notably the Shah’s own family, the Pahlavis, the majority of peasant farmers were left indebted and destitute. One such farmer, in a remote part of south-eastern Iran, was one Hassan Soleimani. Qassem’s father bought the dream the Shah was selling, only to see that dream evaporate, and for the loan he had taken out to become a millstone around his neck.
As soon as he had finished school, young Qassem departed for the provincial capital, Kerman City, where he worked first as a construction labourer and then as a contractor for the local water utility company to pay off his father’s debts. Not an overly zealous man in his youth, Soleimani spent his spare time weight training and, during Ramadan, attended sermons given by Hojjat Kamyab, a travelling preacher described as a ‘protégé’ of Ali Hosseini Khamenei, now Iran’s Supreme Leader. Soleimani later credited Kamyab as encouraging him towards ‘revolutionary activities’.
In 1979 the Islamic Revolution swept away the Shah and the machinations that had enriched him at the expense of people like Soleimani’s father. Suspicious of the military and eager to avoid a counter-coup, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini rapidly established the IRGC and the 22-year old Qassem Soleimani took up arms on their behalf with the zeal of the newly converted.
According the New Yorker, early on in his career as a young guardsman, Soleimani was deployed to West Azerbaijan province to help put down a Kurdish uprising against the recently installed revolutionary regime. Whilst Soleimani’s personal role in crushing this rebellion is unclear, the operation involved fierce fighting and the IRGC are believed to have killed upwards of 10,000 Kurds.
The Iran-Iraq War
Shortly thereafter, concerned that the Revolution would induce Iraq’s Shia majority to rise up, and sensing an opportunity to seize the role of regional hegemon for himself, Saddam Hussein’s troops spilled over Iran’s borders as the first shots of the Iran-Iraq War were fired. The Iraqi invasion prompted Iran’s leadership to redeploy the IRGC in order to drive the aggressors out of the country.
Soleimani was deployed to the front lines of the war with a simple mission: to supply his comrades with water. He is quoted as saying: “I entered the war on a fifteen-day mission, and ended up staying until the end.” This concern for his fellow soldiers became a hallmark of the precocious revolutionary’s modus operandi. As he climbed the ranks, he graduated to leading daring raids behind enemy lines and developed a reputation for bringing goats back for his comrades to slaughter. Radio Baghdad even branded him ‘the Goat Thief’, furnishing him with the beginnings of the bogeyman persona he would cultivate for the rest of life.
Not content with garnering a reputation for pilfering livestock, Soleimani also earned a second sobriquet courtesy of Radio Baghdad. A persistent legend surrounding the future-mastermind’s exploits claims that he once killed an Iraqi soldier, stole his uniform, slipped incognito into an Iraqi mess hall, ate dinner among Iraqi soldiers, and then casually strolled out again, returning to his own barracks in the dead soldier’s Toyota. Consequently Soleimani graduated from ‘Goat Thief’ to ‘Toyota Thief’, a mantle seemingly bestowed by fate, foreshadowing his violent end on the passenger seat of a Toyota Avalon.
During the course of the Iran-Iraq War, the Toyota Thief had been recognised as a soldier with leadership potential. In 1982, recently appointed IRGC Commander Major General Mohsen Rezaee decided to give him his first big break, promoting him to commander of the 41st Tharallah Brigade, which comprised Revolutionary Guardsmen of Kerman, his home province.
Whist Soleimani was taking his first steps on the ladder of command, the tides of the war had begun to flow in Tehran’s favour as a result of a combination of Iraqi fecklessness and Iranian recklessness. Iraqi troops, having grown lazy in patrolling their occupied territory, allowed the Iranians to build a road leading behind them. Launching a surprise attack, Iran was able to recapture the town of Bostan from the Iraqi forces using ‘human wave’ tactics, where thousands of Revolutionary Guardsmen charged the Iraqi lines, sometimes even without armour or air support. Victory at Bostan was purchased at the cost of at least 6,000 Iranian lives and the militarily successful, if ethically callous, ‘human wave’ approach would account for the appalling casualties that subsequent battles would report.
Nevertheless, from late 1981 onwards, Iraq was forced into permanent retreat and by June 1982, Hussein was suing for peace, offering a ceasefire and a full Iraqi withdrawal from Iranian territory. This proposal was considered by Iran’s Supreme Defence Council and hotly debated. Among those supporting the ceasefire were Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and President Ali Hassan Khamenei, now the Supreme Leader. This faction wanted to bring the war to a swift conclusion in order to consolidate the Revolution at home. Opposing this view were IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezaee and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was both Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) and Head of the Supreme Defence Council. This faction wanted to seize the opportunity and invade Iraq, remove Hussein, and in particular seize the city of Basra, both as a major Shiah city and as a key port and economic centre on the Shatt al-Arab.
Then, in June 1982, the Liberation Movements Unit of the IRGC held a summit in Tehran, inviting militants from Iran and the wider region. Whilst the precise agenda is unclear, the outcome of this convention was that attendees requested that Iran “form a Quds Force”. Later that day the Qom Seminary, Iran’s most important religious academy, issued a statement requesting volunteers to be deployed to Syria and Lebanon.
Formed ultimately with the objective of liberating al-Quds (Jerusalem) for the Palestinians, the Quds Force would serve as the eyes, ears, fangs, and claws of the Revolution beyond the Islamic Republic’s borders.
In the next instalment of the Legacy of Blood series, we will continue our exploration of the Soleimani story.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- The Iran-Iraq War (Pierre Razoux & Nicholas Elliott)
- Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic (Michael Axworthy)
- Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East (Kim Ghattas)
- All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Stephen Kinzer)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2020 reading list
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Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow and Acting Director at the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Cover Image: khamenei.ir