The Killing of Gen. Qassim Suleimani: What We Know Since the U.S. Airstrike

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised retaliation. The U.S. moved to send more troops to the Middle East. And a deluge of threats on social media.

President Trump said Friday afternoon that the airstrike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the powerful Iranian commander, was ordered “to stop a war” and prevented attacks on Americans.

“Suleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” he said, speaking to reporters from his resort in West Palm Beach, Fla. “We took action last night to stop a war, we did not take action to start a war.”

Mr. Trump said the United States is not seeking regime change in Iran, but called for Tehran’s “aggression in the region” to immediately end. He also warned Iran against retaliating, saying, “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.”

He added, “that in particular refers to Iran.”

The airstrike directed by Mr. Trump dramatically ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran, and Iran’s leaders quickly promised retaliation for the general’s killing.

Around the time of the overnight strike, a Special Operations unit based in the United States boarded transport aircraft bound for the Middle East, one Defense Department official said.

The deployment of the elite Army Rangers was the latest to the region. This week, the Pentagon readied 4,000 troops based at Fort Bragg, N.C., for a similar security mission to Kuwait. They are to depart in the coming days, joining 750 troops already deployed, officials said.

“The brigade will deploy to Kuwait as an appropriate and precautionary action in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities,” a Department of Defense spokesperson said.

General Suleimani, a powerful strategist who represented Iran’s influence across the region, was killed by an American drone at Baghdad’s airport, in an attack that had been authorized by President Trump.

Iraq’s Parliament planned to hold an emergency session over the weekend to address the airstrike, which Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called “a brazen violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and a blatant attack on the nation’s dignity.” A powerful Iraqi militia leader was also killed.

The strike, regarded by analysts as perhaps the riskiest American move in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, threatened to inflame hostilities across the region.

Iran’s United Nations ambassador, Majid Takht Ravanchi, called the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani “an act of war,” and vowed that it would be met with “revenge, a harsh revenge.”

“Last night, they started a military war by assassinating, by an act of terror, one of our top generals,” Mr. Takht Ravanchi said during an appearance Friday on CNN. “We cannot just remain silent. We have to act and we will act.”

Asked if Iran would act militarily, Mr. Takht Ravanchi said: “That’s for the future to witness.”

In the hours after the American strike, thousands of pro-Iranian social media accounts went to work.

Accounts on Twitter and Instagram tagged the White House with death threats and posted images of President Trump with a severed head and coffins covered in the American flag, alongside the hashtag Operation Hard Revenge.

It was not clear whether the activity was the work of actual accounts or state-backed bots, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. But they tweeted pro-Iranian, anti-American content at a rate of 3,000 tweets every 45 minutes, according to New York Times data.

The social media activity may just be an opening salvo, experts said.

Iran may begin a digital campaign of cyberattacks and disinformation in retaliation for General Suleimani’s death, they said. Tehran’s most likely target, the experts added, would be the American private sector.

Over the past year, Iranian hackers have taken aim at Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. They have also targeted telecom companies, infrastructure systems and more than 200 oil, gas and heavy machinery companies around the world.

The hackers have “developed the ability to disrupt critical infrastructure and they already have the ability to wipe data,” said James A. Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. “But they’ve gone well beyond that now. The question is what services — pipelines? dams? — will they target now.”

Iran is still not “at the top of the league” of countries with the ability to cause widespread destruction via cyberattacks, Mr. Lewis and other experts said. But Tehran is much further along than American officials gave it credit for in 2009, when a classified intelligence assessment concluded that it had the motivation to inflict harm, but lacked the skills and resources to do so.

Since 2010 — when an Iranian nuclear facility was the target of a joint American-Israeli cyberattack — Tehran has embraced such attacks as part its strategy of “asymmetrical warfare.” While Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps may never match the West in conventional warfare, its specialized teams have learned how much destruction they can cause to vulnerable systems, according to American intelligence assessments and private security researchers.

Over the past five years, American officials and cybersecurity experts have tracked Iranian hackers as they have significantly advanced their capabilities beyond wiping data to sophisticated attacks on financial networks, internet infrastructure, energy companies — and, even more disconcerting, sites like the Bowman Dam in Westchester County and the Energy Department’s Idaho National Engineering Laboratory near Idaho Falls.

“They now have the ability to do serious harm,” Mr. Lewis said. “As the conflict with the U.S. continues, they’re going to be tempted. Expect to see a lot more testing of how far they can get into company networks, universities, federal networks and smaller government networks in towns and cities.”

An apparent airstrike hit a convoy belonging to a medical unit of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces near the town of Taji north of Baghdad early Saturday, killing at least four people, according to an official with the force.

The bodies were charred and not immediately identified, but were not believed to include senior leaders.

A United States military spokesman said he knew of no new American military action in Iraq.

Iranian leaders issued strident calls on Friday for revenge against the United States after the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in an overnight airstrike at the Baghdad airport.

His death is a considerable blow to Tehran, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for retaliation and for three days of national mourning.

“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands,” the supreme leader said in a statement.

Iran’s security body also pledged to avenge General Suleimani’s killing in the “right place and time,” saying it had reached a decision on how to do so.

The American strike spurred mass displays of public mourning by Iran and its network of allies across the Middle East. Iranian officials said the general’s body would be taken on a funeral procession around Baghdad, and that a funeral would be held for him in Tehran on Sunday.

On Friday, Mr. Trump posted on Twitter about the strike, saying that General Suleimani “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more … but got caught!” Read more 

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