The Strike That Killed Iran's Top General Was So Secret Even U.S. Spy Satellites Were Kept in the Dark

It was the end of an otherwise unremarkable Thursday in January for service members stationed at the U.S. complex at Baghdad International Airport. But just minutes after midnight, Hellfire missiles broke the quiet as they rained down on a far corner of the sprawling site known as BIAP.

"It was like, 'oh s--- we got struck,'" an active member of the U.S. armed forces who was stationed at the airport told Newsweek. The member's named is being withheld because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the incident.

Iraqi personnel also scrambled in response to the shocking, mysterious strike on "one of the safest roads we have here in the capital," as one Iraqi official described it to Newsweek. But not far from where both military and civilian flights had been operating as usual, two vehicles were left smoldering on a road along the eastern stretch of the airport.

"It was surreal," the Iraqi official, who was not authorized to speak with the media, later told Newsweek.

Both U.S. and Iraqi personnel on-site considered the strike to be yet another episode of rogue rocket fire by local Katyusha-wielding militias that are opposed to the Pentagon's prolonged presence in the country. But the strike would set Washington and Tehran on a course like no other in their four-decade feud.

"We had to take our posture and then, we're watching Al Jazeera on the news 10 minutes later and...it wasn't what we thought it was," the U.S. service member said.

What had happened was that an advanced MQ-9 Reaper drone killed Iran's Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces militia second-in-command Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and others dedicated to the Iran-aligned Axis of Resistance.

The killing of Soleimani was conducted in such secrecy that few knew about the plans. It was so hidden that not even the U.S. military's own spy satellites, often referred to as "national technical means," or NTM, were aware of its position. One U.S. intelligence source who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Newsweek that there was no GPS track on the MQ-9 Reaper as it made its way toward Baghdad International Airport, nor was there any indication of its flight provided to radar systems tasked with identifying friendly aircraft.

iraq, baghdad, international, airport, soleimani, strike
A picture taken on January 4 shows the site where top Iranian Revolutionary Guard Major General commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces deputy chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed along with eight others in a U.S. strike the day before, outside the international airport road in the capital Baghdad. Knowledge of the U.S. operation was heavily restricted, leaving those on the premises caught off guard. ALI CHOUKEIR/AFP/Getty Images

Speculation over the casualties mounted immediately, although a Popular Mobilization Forces spokesperson and a senior Pentagon official revealed to Newsweek the identities of Soleimani and the other men killed. The deaths, experts said, necessitated the use of resources beyond those of the U.S. military, explaining why troops on the ground were caught off guard.

"Clearly this was an operation that was highly compartmental," Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a retired career officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, told Newsweek. I suspect that there were absolutely very few people involved."

Included in the inner circle of informed individuals were the ambassador, the CIA station chief, the senior-most general in Iraq and possibly the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Directorate for Intelligence and Directorate for Operations, referred to by the military as J2 and J3, respectively.

"I'd be surprised that more than maybe four, five people max in Iraq were aware of this because you could imagine if it leaked you'd never get another chance," Wise said, adding that only—if stationed in Iraq—the weaponeers themselves were additionally involved in an operation kept so close to the vest.

The only comparable undertakings in recent memory were the raids against Islamic State militant group (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi months earlier in October and Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden back in 2011. These operations involved entirely different circumstances that necessitated their own levels of secrecy among even the most elite among U.S. officials, making the killing of Soleimani entirely unique in how it was carried out and who was told beforehand.

Wise said he suspected that the operation was conducted by the Pentagon, but he didn't rule out the role of the CIA, which also operates the MQ-9 Reaper, a staple of U.S. drone warfare across Asia and Africa.

James G. Zumwalt, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who now authors books on defense issues and heads a security consulting firm, suspects both the Pentagon and the CIA had a hand in the operation.

"My opinion is that there were puzzle pieces involved in pulling this off that necessitated both the CIA and DoD provide their piece by performing certain responsibilities accordingly," Zumwalt told Newsweek. "The real danger to the operation's success—again my opinion—is that there is a certain danger whenever the left hand does not let the right hand know what is about to happen."

But, he said, "I think it was imperative to limit information access only to those who needed to know."

"For example, although highly unlikely, what if a U.S. or Israeli spy, unknown to the bad guys, was invited by Soleimani to join him in the ride to his destination? There had to be absolute clarity as to whom the two occupants in the car were, which was provided by someone at the airport who witnessed Soleimani depart," Zumwalt added. "Absent that knowledge, it is doubtful the strike would have gone forward."

The CIA declined Newsweek's request for comment on its role in the operation. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

qassem, soleimani, iran, ceremony, islamic, revolution
Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani attends celebrations marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 11, 2016, in Tehran. The annual ceremony was the first to take place since Iran signed a multilateral nuclear deal with major powers including the U.S., which walked away from the agreement in May 2018, imposing strict sanctions that have antagonized ties between the two. AFP/Getty Images

Soleimani was an enigmatic figure, cherished at home even by many critics of the Islamic Republic he fought and ultimately died for. His decades-long career at the helm of the Quds Force was devoted to establishing an international network of mostly Shiite Muslim militias that targeted U.S. troops, killing what the State Department estimated to be more than 600 U.S. soldiers after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Soleimani and partnered militias also played a crucial role in battling Sunni Muslim militants such as ISIS.

The Iran-Iraq War veteran spent much of his life on the frontlines and over the years increasingly abandoned his fondness for covert movement to embrace his public figure. Defying a United Nations Security Council travel ban, Soleimani paid visits to friendly fighters across Iraq, Lebanon and in Syria, where a Baghdad-bound Cham Wings flight would prove his last venture.

That January night, shortly after Newsweek's article was published, President Donald Trump tweeted an image of the U.S. flag, hinting at a high-profile hit, not unlike his nighttime tweet months earlier teasing the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a raid in Syria. The following morning, the president officially acknowledged the operation in Baghdad.

"The United States has the best military by far, anywhere in the world. We have the best intelligence in the world," Trump said. "If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran."

Questions about the operation, however, linger. Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, a retired Marine corporal, told Newsweek that neither the point of origin nor which branch of the U.S. government owned the drone that killed Soleimani were revealed when the Trump administration briefed members of Congress after the top-secret strike.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle spoke out after the controversial, closed-doors session, which lasted about 75 minutes and many felt lacked sufficient detail. Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah told reporters at the time that the meeting was "probably the worst briefing, at least on a military issue, I've seen in nine years I've been here."

iraq, protest, soleimani, muhandis, deaths
Mourners wave flags of Iraq and the Popular Mobilization Forces as they carry portraits of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces deputy chair Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Kadhimiya, a Shiite Muslim pilgrimage district of Baghdad, on January 4. Their deaths at the hands of a U.S. drone strike led Iraqi lawmakers to vote in favor of withdrawing foreign forces from Iraq. SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Congressional reaction was strong enough to fuel a rare invocation of the War Powers Resolution that attempted to limit the president's ability to conduct additional operations against Iran, which retaliated days after the assassination with a salvo of missiles that injured more than 100 U.S. troops at an Iraqi base. The 1973 act only witnessed two prior successful votes, both against the Trump administration's support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen against rebels known as Ansar Allah, or Houthis, who are accused of receiving Iranian assistance.

More than two months later after Soleimani's death, the administration's explanation that the controversial Iranian icon was planning an "imminent attack" on U.S. personnel and/or interests has yet to be elaborated upon. The attack immediately strained U.S.-Iraq relations, ties now further tested by recent Pentagon airstrikes that targeted an Iran-backed militia but reportedly killed Iraqi soldiers, police and a civilian at another airport in the holy city of Karbala.

For many Iraqis, the strike at Baghdad International Airport remains a grim milestone in their relationship with the United States, a country that has acted there unilaterally for decades.

"As an Iraqi, it was extremely unfortunate for the strike to take place there on our soil, without our authorization," the Iraqi official told Newsweek. "Nevermind who was struck, it was the why, the when, the where and the how."

"America is supposed to be our ally, they are supposed to be different from Iran, that strike showed that they are no different than the Iranians," the official added. "They are simply using Iraq."