U.S. forces launched a secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen the same day that the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Iraq’s capitol, The Washington Post reported on Friday.
Four U.S. officials told the Post that the military executed a strike to target Abdul Reza Shahlai — a Yemen-based financial backer and high-ranking member of Iran’s Quds Force — but the unsuccessful mission did not kill him.
The effort came the same day that the Trump administration went ahead with the drone strike to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds.
Administration officials have since defended the move — which has ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran — saying intelligence suggested that Soleimani was plotting a “large-scale” attack that threatened U.S. Embassies, among other American facilities.
The missions, when shown together, appear to reflect a larger operation from the administration on the Iran regime than previously disclosed.
U.S. officials would not offer many details on the strike against Shahlai other than the mission remains highly classified, that it was authorized around the same time that Soleimani’s was, and that it was not successful.
“If we had killed him, we’d be bragging about it that same night,” a senior U.S. official told the Post.
The State Department in early December offered up to $15 million for information on the financial activities, networks and associates of Shahlai, who is accused of directing attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, providing weapons and explosives to violent Shiite groups, and planning the 2007 attack against U.S. forces in Karbala, Iraq, that killed five service members and wounded others.
Shahlai was also identified as the mastermind and financier behind a 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. The plot was disrupted with the arrest of the man hired to carry out the assassination.
The unsuccessful mission against Shahlai makes the administration’s argument for targeting Soleimani — who officials claim posed an imminent threat to U.S. lives — far more muddled.
It is unclear what imminent threat the Yemen-based Shahlai would have posed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has previously said that the administration targeted Soleimani because the Iranian general was preparing attacks that posed an “imminent” threat to U.S. lives without going into precise detail.
The U.S. has had its hand in the Yemen civil war, which began in 2015 and pits the Iranian-backed Houthis against a Saudi-led coalition for control of the country.
The U.S. conducts airstrikes in Yemen to target al Qaeda and ISIS affiliate groups and has also provided limited, noncombat support to the Saudi-led coalition, sharing intelligence and military advice.