The Scientist and the AI-Assisted, Remote-Control Killing Machine

A protester holds an image of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during a demonstration outside Parliament in Tehran on Nov. 28, 2020, a day after Fakhrizadeh was killed.

Iran’s top nuclear scientist woke up an hour before dawn, as he did most days, to study Islamic philosophy before his day began.

That afternoon, he and his wife would leave their vacation home on the Caspian Sea and drive to their country house in Absard, a bucolic town east of Tehran, where they planned to spend the weekend.

Iran’s intelligence service had warned him of a possible assassination plot, but the scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, had brushed it off.

Convinced that Fakhrizadeh was leading Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb, Israel had wanted to kill him for at least 14 years. But there had been so many threats and plots that he no longer paid them much attention.

Despite his prominent position in Iran’s military establishment, Fakhrizadeh wanted to live a normal life.

And, disregarding the advice of his security team, he often drove his own car to Absard instead of having bodyguards drive him in an armored vehicle. It was a serious breach of security protocol, but he insisted.

So shortly after noon on Friday, Nov. 27, he slipped behind the wheel of his black Nissan Teana sedan, his wife in the passenger seat beside him, and hit the road.

The Scientist and the AI-Assisted, Remote-Control Killing Machine

A photo made available by the Office of the Iranian Presidency of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, second from the left, at an exhibition in Tehran on the country’s nuclear program.

Since 2004, when the Israeli government ordered its foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, the agency had been carrying out a campaign of sabotage and cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment facilities. It was also methodically picking off the experts thought to be leading Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

But the man Israel said led the bomb program was elusive.

In 2009, a hit team was waiting for Fakhrizadeh at the site of a planned assassination in Tehran, but the operation was called off at the last moment. The plot had been compromised, the Mossad suspected, and Iran had laid an ambush.

This time they were going to try something new.

Iranian agents working for the Mossad had parked a blue Nissan Zamyad pickup truck on the side of the road connecting Absard to the main highway. Hidden beneath tarpaulins and decoy construction material in the truck bed was a 7.62 mm sniper machine gun.

The news reports from Iran that afternoon were confusing, contradictory and mostly wrong. A team of assassins had waited alongside the road for Fakhrizadeh to drive by, one report said. Residents heard a big explosion followed by intense machine gunfire, said another.

One of the most far-fetched accounts emerged a few days later.

Several Iranian news organizations reported that the assassin was a killer robot and that the entire operation was conducted by remote control. These reports directly contradicted the supposedly eyewitness accounts of a gunbattle between teams of assassins and bodyguards and reports that some of the assassins had been arrested or killed.

Thomas Withington, an electronic warfare analyst, told the BBC that the killer robot theory should be taken with “a healthy pinch of salt” and that Iran’s description appeared to be little more than a collection of “cool buzzwords.”

Except this time there really was a killer robot.

Preparations for the assassination had begun after a series of meetings toward the end of 2019 and in early 2020 between Israeli officials, led by the Mossad director, Yossi Cohen, and high-ranking American officials, including former President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the CIA director, Gina Haspel.

Israel had paused the sabotage and assassination campaign in 2012 when the United States began negotiations with Iran leading to the 2015 nuclear agreement. Now that Trump had abrogated that agreement, the Israelis wanted to resume the campaign.

The Scientist and the AI-Assisted, Remote-Control Killing Machine

From left: Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Donald Trump, and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain, walk out to a balcony at the White House in Washington, during a signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords, Sept. 15, 2020.

In late February, Cohen presented the Americans with a list of potential operations, including the killing of Fakhrizadeh. The American officials briefed about the assassination plan in Washington supported it, according to an official who was present.

As the intelligence poured in, the difficulty of the challenge came into focus: Iran had also taken lessons from the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani — namely, that their top officials could be targeted. Aware that Fakhrizadeh led Israel’s most-wanted list, Iranian officials had locked down his security.

His security details belonged to the elite Ansar unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, heavily armed and well trained, who communicated via encrypted channels. They accompanied Fakhrizadeh’s movements in convoys of four to seven vehicles, changing the routes and timing to foil possible attacks. And the car he drove himself was rotated among four or five at his disposal.

Israel had used a variety of methods in the earlier assassinations. The first nuclear scientist on the list was poisoned in 2007. The second, in 2010, was killed by a remotely detonated bomb attached to a motorcycle, but the planning had been complex, and an Iranian suspect was caught. He confessed and was executed.

After that debacle, the Mossad switched to simpler, in-person killings. In each of the next four assassinations, from 2010 to 2012, hit men on motorcycles sidled up beside the target’s car in Tehran traffic and either shot him through the window or attached a sticky bomb to the car door, then sped off.

Fakhrizadeh’s armed convoy, on the lookout for such attacks, made the motorcycle method impossible.

But a killer robot profoundly changed the calculus for the Mossad.

The organization has a long-standing rule that if there is no rescue, there is no operation, meaning a foolproof plan to get the operatives out safely is essential.

But a massive, untested, computerized machine gun presents a string of other problems.

The first is how to get the weapon in place.

The machine gun, the robot, its components and accessories together weigh about 1 ton. So the equipment was broken down into its smallest possible parts and smuggled into the country piece by piece, in various ways, routes and times, then secretly reassembled in Iran.

The robot was built to fit in the bed of a Zamyad pickup, a common model in Iran. Cameras were mounted on the truck to give the command room a full picture not just of the target and his security detail, but of the surrounding environment. Finally, the truck was packed with explosives so it could be blown to bits after the kill, destroying all evidence.

There were further complications in firing the weapon. A machine gun mounted on a truck, even a parked one, will shake after each shot’s recoil.

Also, even though the computer communicated with the control room via satellite, sending data at the speed of light, there would be a slight delay; what the operator saw on the screen was already a moment old, and adjusting the aim to compensate would take another moment, all while Fakhrizadeh’s car was in motion.

The time it took for the camera images to reach the sniper and for the sniper’s response to reach the machine gun, not including his reaction time, was estimated to be 1.6 seconds.

The AI was programmed to compensate for the delay, the shake and the car’s speed.

Another challenge was to determine in real time that it was Fakhrizadeh driving the car and not one of his children, his wife or a bodyguard.

The solution was to station a fake disabled car at a junction on the main road where vehicles heading for Absard had to make a U-turn. That vehicle contained another camera.

As the convoy left the city of Rostamkala on the Caspian coast, the first car carried a security detail. It was followed by the unarmored black Nissan driven by Fakhrizadeh, with his wife, Sadigheh Ghasemi, at his side. Two more security cars followed.

The security team had warned Fakhrizadeh that day of a threat against him and asked him not to travel, according to his son Hamed Fakhrizadeh and Iranian officials.

The Scientist and the AI-Assisted, Remote-Control Killing Machine

Memorials at Baghdad International Airport, Jan. 9, 2020, where Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military commander, was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike with the help of Israeli intelligence.

Iran had already been shaken by a series of high-profile attacks in recent months that in addition to killing leaders and damaging nuclear facilities made it clear that Israel had an effective network of collaborators inside Iran.

But Fakhrizadeh refused to ride in an armored car and insisted on driving one of his cars himself.

Shortly before 3:30 p.m., the motorcade arrived at the U-turn on Firuzkouh Road. Fakhrizadeh’s car came to a near halt, and he was positively identified by the operators, who could also see his wife sitting beside him.

The convoy turned right on Imam Khomeini Boulevard, and the lead car then zipped ahead to the house to inspect it before Fakhrizadeh arrived. Its departure left Fakhrizadeh’s car fully exposed.

The convoy slowed down for a speed bump just before the parked Zamyad. The machine gun fired a burst of bullets, hitting the front of the car below the windshield. It is not clear if these shots hit Fakhrizadeh, but the car swerved and came to a stop.

The shooter adjusted the sights and fired another burst, hitting the windshield at least three times and Fakhrizadeh at least once in the shoulder. He stepped out of the car and crouched behind the open front door.

According to Iran’s Fars News, three more bullets tore into his spine. He collapsed on the road.

Ghasemi ran out to her husband.

“They want to kill me, and you must leave,” he told her, according to his sons.

She sat on the ground and held his head on her lap, she told Iranian state television.

Hamed Fakhrizadeh was at the family home in Absard when he received a distress call from his mother. He arrived within minutes to what he described as a scene of “full-on war.” Smoke and fog clouded his vision, and he could smell blood.

“It was not a simple terrorist attack for someone to come and fire a bullet and run,” he said later on state television. “His assassination was far more complicated than what you know and think. He was unknown to the Iranian public, but he was very well known to those who are the enemy of Iran’s development.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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