Truth behind killing of Iran scientist

Top nuclear expert was killed by the Mossad, who used a one-ton remote-controlled gun smuggled into Iran piece by piece over eight months, the JC can disclose


The Iranian nuclear scientist who was shot dead near Tehran in November was killed by a one-ton automated gun that was smuggled into the country piece-by-piece by the Mossad, the JC can reveal.

The 20-plus spy team, which comprised both Israeli and Iranian nationals, carried out the high-tech hit after eight months of painstaking surveillance, intelligence sources disclosed.

The Tehran regime has secretly assessed that it will take six years before a replacement for top scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is fully operational.

Meanwhile, Israeli analysts have concluded that his death has extended the period of time it would take Iran to achieve a bomb from about three-and-a-half months to two years — with senior intelligence figures privately putting it as high as five years.

The disclosures come as the JC gives the fullest account yet of the assassination that made headlines around the world and significantly degraded Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, 59, known as the “father of the bomb”, lost his life in a burst of 13 bullets as he travelled with his wife and 12 bodyguards in Absard, near Tehran, on 27 November last year.

Neither his wife nor any of his security team were harmed in the attack, which was carried out using a hyper-accurate automated weapon in order to protect civilians from collateral damage.

Since Fakhrizadeh’s death, speculation has been rife about his killers, with no intelligence agency claiming responsibility for the murder. The circumstances of the killing have also been shrouded in mystery, with wild reports wrongly blaming a team of 62 gunmen.

Now the JC can confirm that Israel’s feared spy agency was behind the hit, which was carried out by mounting the killing device in a Nissan pickup.

The bespoke weapon, operated remotely by agents on the ground as they observed the target, was so heavy because it included a bomb that destroyed the evidence after the killing.

It was carried out by Israel alone, without American involvement, the JC has learnt. US officials were only given a “little clue, like checking the water temperature” prior to the attack, according to top international intelligence sources.

The audacious operation, which humiliated the Tehran leadership, succeeded partly because Iranian security services were too busy watching suspected political dissenters, sources said.

Jacob Nagel, one of Israel’s most senior defence officials who acted as Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, said: “The Mossad had documents proving that Fakhrizadeh had worked on several nuclear warheads, each one able to cause five Hiroshimas.

“He was serious. He still meant to do what he planned. So someone decided that he had had enough time on earth.”

LONG READ: Death from Mossad's hyper-accurate gun

By Jake Wallis Simons, Deputy Editor

When Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s “father of the bomb”, perished in a hail of bullets on the outskirts of Tehran in November, the assassination stunned the Iranian regime and made headlines around the world. But three months on, key questions remain unanswered.

Nobody even knows how the 59-year-old nuclear scientist was killed. Initial reports suggested he was gunned down by armed men; later, a Revolutionary Guards official blamed a “satellite-operated” gun using artificial intelligence.

Quite where such a device had come from, and how it had been set up, remained unexplained. To this day, nobody knows whether the operation was a snap move or had been planned for months. And despite many theories, no one knows exactly why he was killed.

Uncertainty also hangs over President Trump’s role in the hit. Some analysts argued that he was making his mark before leaving office, while others denied American involvement.

Most importantly of all — despite widespread speculation that Israel was responsible — nobody has pinned down the identity of those behind the killing.

Until now. Today, the JC can confirm that the hit was carried out by Mossad, Israel’s feared intelligence service. And in the most complete account of the operation yet published, we can reveal for the first time the answers to the questions that have eluded the world.

To understand the need for such a high-profile and high-risk operation, the plot must be traced back to the night of 31 January 2018, to a bleak commercial district on the outskirts of the Iranian capital, and a blinding flash of light inside a darkened warehouse.

That was the start of one of the most significant intelligence coups carried out by Mossad in recent times. After a year of surveillance, spies stole a vast archive of Iran’s nuclear secrets, using torches that burned bright at 2,000C to free the documents from 32 giant safes.

Starting with the black ringbinders containing the most vital information, the agents spirited away 50,000 pages of documents and 163 CDs containing the full details of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme.

Today, the nuclear archive — which Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled in a famous address at the Israeli Defence Ministry in 2018 — is housed in a forensically-secure unit at a secret location in Israel. Sources confirmed that the Jewish state is now using the intelligence it contained to persuade the Biden administration, via the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Tehran cannot be trusted to abide by the terms of any nuclear deal.

“We will base our arguments this time on pure intelligence, not politics,” an Israeli source said. “It will be cleaner to do that.” The secrets would not be new to the Americans, the source clarified, but Israeli officials would be offering their own interpretation and emphasis.

Earlier this month, the Mossad convened a meeting of its Brigadier-Generals to decide how to stop the US from entering another flawed nuclear deal that would only empower Iran. Israel believes that the 2015 Obama agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), disastrously allowed Tehran to keep its nuclear programme intact, pausing it but not dismantling it. And it allowed the regime to siphon money to its numerous proxy militias as soon as sanctions were lifted, subjecting the region to years of havoc.

The archive suggested that Iran had failed to respect the terms of Obama’s bargain. Fast forward to 2021, and Israel hopes that it will convince Joe Biden not to repeat the errors made by his old friend, and maintain some semblance of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on the theocracy.

Operationally, however, the archive meant something else. As soon as Israeli analysts opened those black ringbinders back in 2018, they knew that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was destined — to use Mossad slang — to “depart”.

“It contained original documents ordering the concealment of the nuclear programme, many of them in Fakhrizadeh’s handwriting,” a source said.

“Analysts realised they were looking at his ink, his fingerprints, his pressure on the paper as he wrote. He was the one who was behind the deception.

“Fakhrizadeh was the father of everything we found in the archive. All was under his command, from the science and the secret sites to the personnel and know-how. He had led an operation to hide it from the world. From that point, it was just a matter of time.”

The assassination plot went live in March 2020, as the world was preoccupied with the Coronavirus threat. A team of Israeli spies was dispatched to Iran, where it liaised with local agents.

The group was comprised of more than 20 operatives, a large number for such a complex and risky mission. A meticulous surveillance operation was launched. “The team built up an extremely detailed, minute-by-minute plan,” said a source. “For eight months, they breathed with the guy, woke up with him, slept with him, travelled with him. They would have smelled his aftershave every morning, if he had used aftershave.”

The decision was made to kill the scientist on the road leading east out of Tehran to the exclusive country retreat of Absard, where he owned a villa.

The team knew that Fakhrizadeh travelled there from Tehran on Fridays. “They knew his daily route, speed and timing, and they knew exactly which doors they would use to get out,” a source said.

The JC has confirmed that the assassins did indeed use a sophisticated remote-controlled gun, with a small bomb built in to allow it to self-destruct (though contrary to Iranian claims, it was not “satellite operated”).

Including the explosives, the bespoke device weighed one ton, and was smuggled into Iran in small pieces over several months. Then it was assembled and installed inside a Nissan pick-up truck, which was parked by the side of the road.

On 27 November, Fakhrizadeh was travelling with his wife in a black Opel saloon, in the midst of a convoy carrying 12 bodyguards. Unbeknownst to them, a team of Israeli spies was on the ground, watching their every move and waiting to operate the gun from a distance.

When the car passed the designated spot, they pressed the button and the hyper-accurate weapon opened fire. Thirteen bullets hit Fakhrizadeh head-on, while his wife, who was sitting 10 inches away, was not harmed.

Iranian authorities claimed that the scientist’s security chief was struck by four bullets as he threw himself across his boss. But sources close to the operation said this was untrue. Not a single one of Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards, nor anybody aside from the scientist, was killed or injured, the JC can confirm.

“There were several ways to operate but this one was the most accurate,” a source said. “It was the most elegant way to make sure that the target will be hit, and only him. The objective was to avoid harming anyone else.” Claims that gunmen moved in to finish the scientist off were inaccurate, the source added.

As the Mossad team made its escape, the one-ton weapon blew itself up, adding to the confusion at the scene. “Thank God we got all our people out and they didn’t catch anyone. They didn’t even come close,” one of those familiar with the operation said. “Their security was not bad at all, but the Mossad was much better. It was a major thing that happened, a dramatic operation.”

The impact of the assassination was so profound that it surprised even the Mossad top brass. “Israel had a big team there, including Israelis, and it was a big embarrassment for Tehran,” a source said. “The regime was humiliated and devastated. Even the Mossad was surprised by the huge impact.

“The machine was quite an impressive thing. There was a team on the ground as well, which made it quite complicated. But it had to be done and it was worth it.”

The source disclosed: “It has hit the Iranians hard. Tehran has assessed that it will take six years to find a replacement for Fakhrizadeh. Israeli analysis has now put the breakout time (the period it would take Iran to finalise a nuclear bomb) at two years. Before Fakhrizadeh departed, it was about three months.”

And two years is a conservative estimate. Senior Mossad figures privately believe that the breakout time is closer to five years, the JC can reveal. The source added: “The Americans were not involved. It was absolutely an Israeli operation, door to door. It was not political, it was a matter of security. It had nothing to do with Trump or the US election. It happened after Biden was elected.

“But Israel did give the Americans a little clue — not to the level of asking for the green light, more like checking the water temperature. Just like they had notified us before killing (Iranian Brigadier-General Qasem) Soleimani.”

Further assassinations were planned for the future, the source said, though nothing on the same scale as Fakhrizadeh or Soleimani. “Yes, the Mossad may have plans for further departures,” the source said. “We need to keep the pressure on. Israel will keep on fighting, for sure. We have already created big holes in Al Qaeda and the (Iranian special forces) Quds force.” According to Mossad analysis, Iran is responsible for 80 per cent of the threats facing the Jewish state. And there is no doubt that whatever approach the Americans take with Iran, Israel will “defend itself by itself”.

“Our main strategy for leverage over the United States is to present our 2018 intelligence to the IAEA,” a source said. “But if it doesn’t work, we will act. The US won’t love it, but we will keep our sovereignty and fight every existential threat.Many Al Qaeda and Iranian personnel have departed, and now Fakhrizadeh has departed. That has made a big difference.

“But if the situation becomes critical, we will ask nobody for permission. We will kill the bomb.”

ANALYSIS: Tehran beware, the Mossad knows everything

By Norman T. Roule, who served in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for 34 years. From 2008 to 2017, he was National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I), responsible for US intelligence activities related to the theocracy

The Iranian nuclear archive that Mossad stole three years ago revealed extraordinary detail of Tehran’s covert nuclear weapons programme. But the reason for undertaking such a risky operaion to remove an adversary like Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is not justified by such past activities, but more likely concern of what he might do in the future.

Fakhrizadeh was known for his work on the nuclear weaponisation programme, and it is logical that he was killed to deny Iran this expertise.  We shouldn’t ignore, however, the possibility that he was working on other technologies at the same time, which might have also been perceived to be a strategic threat.

Fakhrizadeh was the sole, senior Iranian official to have managed a secret nuclear weapons programme. His work would likely have involved every aspect of project management, from overseeing the budget to looking after personnel. He reportedly enjoyed a rare level of access to Iran’s Supreme Leader and senior military officials. 

He also had a reputation of being able to fend off his bureaucratic adversaries, having the backing of the most powerful men in the country.  Iran has many nuclear scientists, but his experience made him unique. Whoever his successor turns out to be, they will be highly unlikely to enjoy his stature, bureaucratic clout, or access to such senior leaders.

Several challenges will confront Iran’s Supreme Leader, should he authorise a new weaponisation programme. First, Iran’s adversaries have demonstrated tremendous capacity and skill.

Recently, Iran has suffered heavy losses. First, it lost its most sensitive nuclear archive to Israel.  Then, the US killed Major-General Qasem Soleimani and his Iraqi accomplice, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a surgical operation in Iraq.  After that, in August, al-Qaeda leader Abu Muhammad al-Masri and his daughter were killed in another surgical attack in Tehran. Now they have suffered the death of Fakhrizadeh, their top nuclear scientist. 

In addition, Iran has claimed sabotage at its nuclear installation in Natanz, as well as at other facilities. These operations showed that Tehran’s adversaries apparently have strong intelligence and a capacity to neutralise hostile actors without risking civilian casualties. 

One can’t help thinking that such operations are meant to discourage other Iranians from similar hostile actions, or even from taking the place of the individuals killed in these attacks.

Also, the proven ability of foreign intelligence services to uncover Iran’s most sensitive secrets will likely cause Iran’s leadership to wonder whether they can keep a nuclear weaponisation programme secret long enough to reach completion.

It is hard to imagine that Iran’s leaders wouldn’t believe – with good reason – that such a programme would be discovered well before they had constructed a single weapon. At that point, Iran would risk a diplomatic disaster, and possibly a military strike by its adversaries.

Lastly, it may well be that the nuclear archive stolen by Mossad had no backup in Iran.  This information provided not only the details of how to construct a nuclear weapon, but equally importantly, which methods didn’t work. Such knowledge would have allowed Iran to save much time on any future effort. Without these insights and Fakhrizadeh’s memory of them, any future Iranian nuclear weaponisation effort will take far longer to develop.

Tehan’s response to Fakhrizadeh’s killing will require time.  They will likely need to conduct an internal security review, if only to try to ensure that any retaliation won’t be discovered. They will fear that anybody involved in planning retribution against the Israelis or Americans could meet a similar fate to Soleimani, Abu Mohammed al-Masri, and Fakhrizadeh.

ANALYSIS: Scientist was a marked man

By Jacob Nagel, Israel’s acting national security advisor under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

There are three stages to making a nuclear bomb. First, the fissile material must be produced, which in Iran’s case is uranium. Then comes weaponisation, which means shaping the material into a warhead. Finally, you need to attach it to the means of delivery, usually a missile.

From an Israeli point of view, denying Iran the bomb means dealing with all three of these stages. Some people say that the fire at the uranium enrichment site in Natanz, Iran’s largest such facility, in August, was caused by the Mossad. That would be disrupting the fissile material stage.

In terms of the third stage, Major-General Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian military chief who was killed by an American missile, was involved with funding the nuclear programme and the means of delivery. His departure was a big hole in organising the means of delivery of the bomb.

Fakhrizadeh’s specialism was in stage two, weaponisation. There is only a small number of experts in Iran who understand the weaponisation process — we’re talking double digits. He was the foremost of them. His departure has created a vital break in the chain towards a viable nuclear weapon.

But Fakhrizadeh was even more important than this. He was the head of the Iranian nuclear programme overall. As we learned from the archive stolen by Mossad in 2018, he was responsible for building a cover story, with dual-purpose projects in academia, industry and the civilian world, allowing Iran to cultivate the manpower and know-how necessary to build a bomb.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is about to submit a report detailing the residuals it recently found in four different sites in Iran, which is evidence of nuclear tests and experiments. All of this was Fakhrizadeh. That is the reason why he was ready to depart.

His death was a big blow to Tehran, especially following the blow of the death of Soleimani. Maybe more blows will be necessary.

It is certain that if Iran developed the bomb, it would be a problem for the whole world, including the UK. Israel especially cannot live with a nuclear Iran. So we will defend ourselves by ourselves, and in the process we are defending you, too.

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