A golfer has various clubs in his bag from which to choose when playing — each designed a bit differently, with use determined by the ball’s location and the power of the golfer’s stroke. As Jan. 3, 2020 approached, the CIA was coordinating its effort to take out the world’s leading state-sponsored terrorist, Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani. It had to reach into its own “bag” of weaponry to select one that would best fit the circumstances of the operation planned.
Obviously, a lot more thought was exercised by the CIA in its weapon selection than the golfer typically exercises in his. Should the latter select the wrong club, he has additional shots to correct for it; the CIA usually has but one opportunity. This, plus consideration of the target’s location, caused the CIA to rely on a most unique weapon in targeting Soleimani.
The attack required not just satellite observation from above but also feedback from informants on the ground. Because Soleimani’s plane was arriving in Baghdad, it was important to have eyes on the ground confirming it was he who was deplaning. With assistance from Israel, the U.S. had networks in place to do so.
Much like in the 2015 film “Eye in the Sky,” in which terrorists also are eliminated, the principals involved in the Soleimani strike were able to watch much of the decision-making they implemented in real time, although never with the picture clarity the movie provided.
While it might have seemed like overkill, the U.S. had three drones airborne by the time Soleimani landed in Baghdad. We had learned a tragic lesson during the ill-fated 1980 “Desert One” rescue operation in Iran to extract U.S. embassy personnel held as hostages. When aircraft critical to the mission were destroyed by a self-inflicted wound, the operation had to be aborted. During the Soleimani operation, two drones could develop mechanical problems or be shot down, still leaving one to perform the mission.
Soleimani’s movements on the ground at Baghdad airport were closely monitored. The CIA knew he had entered a sedan along with another person — Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This was an unplanned stroke of luck for the U.S. Muhandis was a longtime Iraqi terrorist who led a proxy group for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps known as the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia. His group recently had killed an American contractor. Thus, the operation became a “twofer,” providing the opportunity to take out two terrorists at once. As the sedan sped away, other members of the Soleimani/Muhandis party scrambled into a van and followed.
The CIA knew the Soleimani strike could occur in an area where there might be civilians. The loss of a single innocent life would undermine the mission’s success. Thus, the agency required a missile of a non-explosive variety, one that could execute Soleimani while not endangering nearby civilians. Every effort had to be made to minimize collateral damage.
U.S. drones normally carry Hellfire missiles, armed with explosive warheads. However, the CIA also has in its inventory a special-purpose Hellfire missile, modified to carry an inert warhead. A Predator drone could launch this missile from an altitude of 22,000 feet, well outside the range it could be heard by the target. Called the Hellfire R9X, it contains a hundred pounds of metal, uniquely designed to punch through a vehicle’s rooftop, much like a meteor.
After penetrating the rooftop, the R9X transitions into a killing “blender.” It is equipped with six sword-like blades that immediately deploy and rotate, slicing and dicing through anything — human or not — with which it comes into contact. It is appropriately known within the CIA as the “Flying Ginsu.”
Thus, as photographs of the destroyed vehicle reveal, Soleimani and Muhandis were not killed in a fiery explosion; they were hacked to death in milliseconds. This is why no bodies, but plenty of body parts, were recoverable at the attack scene. Visible among these was Soleimani’s severed hand, recognizable by the distinct ring he always wore.
While the weak-kneed undoubtedly will lament the horrors of such a terrible death, it is doubtful Soleimani even knew what hit him. Based on the speed of the kill, death by a “warring” blender was almost certainly instantaneous. It was far more humane than the hangings and beheadings Iran conducts — a country responsible for more than half of all recorded executions in 2017.
The Flying Ginsu had to be utilized because, unlike Soleimani, who harbored no concerns about killing innocent victims, the U.S. did. Soleimani’s lack of concern extended to masterminding the deaths of countless innocent victims at home and abroad. His body count included hundreds of American soldiers. And he was back in Baghdad planning to inflict more death and destruction upon U.S. targets.
For Soleimani, the idiom “what goes around comes around” held true. He was a man who lived by the sword and, deservedly, died by it — never anticipating it would be a six-bladed one.
James G. Zumwalt is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He heads a security consulting firm named after his father, Adm. Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.