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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Inside the Octopus: Unraveling Iran’s terrorist Quds Force

Filed under: Iran
Publication: Dore Gold Articles


This was not how the Quds Force, the elite division of the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for overseas operations, envisioned celebrating its third decade of existence. The string of attempted attacks last month which targeted Israelis in India, Thailand and Georgia exacted a greater cost than it derived benefit, but it also signaled to Israel and the world that the Iranian threat is not limited to missiles. The threat is everywhere.

If until now Western intelligence agencies were convinced that the Quds Force would be called into action only in the event of an Israeli strike against Iran, the Iranians proved that they are capable of carrying out terrorist attacks when they are least expected, with the goal of taking revenge for the assassination of nuclear scientists and deterring more attacks on its scientists. Western officials know that the mishaps in New Delhi, Georgia, and Bangkok were miraculous in nature. They also know that the next operation is already in the execution stages. The only remaining question is who will strike first in this game of cat and mouse. Will it be the Iranian terrorists, or the spy agencies that are after them?

As the initial reports began to emerge regarding attempted hits against Israeli diplomats in Tbilisi and New Delhi, officials began to speculate that Hezbollah was involved. The Shiite terror group has been seeking revenge for the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, and the anniversary of his death would be as good a time as any to strike. But the Mughniyeh killing was not the only significant event that occurred that week.

The day following the anniversary, Feb. 13, marks the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, an event that was celebrated in Iranian diplomatic missions worldwide. A day later, the Iranian terrorist attack was perpetrated in Bangkok. It was clear to all who exactly was responsible, for while Hezbollah is looking to carry out large-scale attacks that are usually carried out with car bombs, the Iranians prefer more pinpoint operations, less for show, more ‘intimate.’ As Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah vowed: “When we decide to avenge the Mughniyeh killing, Israel will know that it is us.”

Iranian officials believe that Israel is responsible for the assassination of its nuclear scientists. The string of attacks last month were a reflection of the consensus that had taken hold among Iran’s leadership in recent months: it was time to end the policy of restraint in the face of the assassinations. Implicit criticism was also being directed at Tehran’s domestic security agencies.

The killing of Professor Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, the fourth nuclear scientist to be assassinated, was apparently the last straw for the Iranians. From Tehran’s point of view, senior Israeli diplomats posted in missions worldwide are of equal stature to Iranian scientists. Hence the Iranians are eager to get their message across: We will take revenge by exacting a price that is equal in currency, and we will do it anywhere we see fit.

The magnetic explosive devices recovered from the crime scenes in Bangkok, Tbilisi and New Delhi were familiar to forensic experts who were searching for the fingerprints of the perpetrators. Dozens of targeted hits were carried out in similar fashion in Iraq within the last year, most of which involved affixing magnetic bombs to cars waiting at traffic intersections or traffic jams.

Following the wave of terrorist attacks, Iraqi security forces raided bomb laboratories run by Shiites supported by the Quds Force. The authorities discovered hundreds of kilograms of explosives and dozens of magnets that were to be used for stick-on bombs. “What happened in India, Georgia, and Thailand is part of the same pattern, the same bomb, the same laboratory, and the same factory,” noted Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe (Bogey) Ya’alon.

Instructions from the top

Deconstructing the Quds Force’s modus operandi lays bare the full extent of the potency of the terrorist octopus, where the most senior officials in the ayatollah regime order its tentacles into every corner of the world. Terrorist plans are not set in motion without the knowledge and approval of the security unit in the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s office (“Division 101”). The plans are brought up for discussion at the Supreme Council for National Security, which is charged with the important task of issuing recommendations for operations. From there, the plan is then handed to a special operations council.

This council is overseen by Khamenei himself, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the defense and intelligence ministers, the secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, and a representative of the Quds Force. The recommendations are then passed down to a subcommittee, which then determines who will be the agency charged with putting the plan into motion. It usually comes down to the Quds Force of the Intelligence Ministry. From this point, control over the planning stage is assumed by the division for special foreign operations. It is this body which ultimately chooses the tactics and the personnel that implements the plan.

The Quds Force (“Jerusalem Force”) was founded in the 1980s and is charged with exporting the Islamic Revolution to foreign lands. It is headquartered in Tehran, housed in the same building that was once home to the U.S. Embassy. The force includes an intelligence branch, a financial branch, an instructional division, a political wing, a sabotage department, and a special operations division that oversees operations worldwide. The force fields some 3,000 agents, with a nucleus of 1,000 Iranian and foreign intelligence officers. It is these individuals who man the force’s international cells.

The Quds Force’s stated mission is “to export the principles of the revolution and [perform] special operations.” This is a wide mandate that includes support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad; activating terrorist networks and agents trained in sabotage; providing military and financial support to Islamist opposition organizations in Muslim countries; and operations against the Iranian opposition in exile. The Quds’ personnel are carefully chosen from an elite crop of soldiers and officers who serve in the Revolutionary Guards and who espouse a militant ideological line.

The outfit is held in high regard by the Iranian leadership, it is essentially the regime’s pride and joy. As such, it is the beneficiary of extensive government resources. It is also included in the decision-making process on sensitive national security and foreign policy issues. The commander of the force is appointed by Khamenei, who keeps close tabs on him through his representative in the Revolutionary Guards, Ali Shirazi.

Shirazi, who assumed his post in 2008, has already made numerous promises regarding an Iranian response in the event of an attack on the country’s nuclear installations. “Iran will burn Tel Aviv and every U.S. vessel in the Persian Gulf,” he has said.

Ahmad Vahidi, the Quds Force’s first commander, is Iran’s defense minister today. Vahidi provided input when it came to planning the terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in the 1990s, most prominently the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in July 1994 which killed 85 people and injured 330. He is wanted by Interpol. To this day, nobody has managed to get their hands on him.

For the last 14 years, the Quds Force has been commanded by Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, a man known to be one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s closest associates. The 55-year-old Suleimani was born into a family of poor agrarians in a town not far from the holy city of Qom. In his youth, he enlisted in the Revolutionary Guards, amassing the bulk of his military experience during the Iran-Iraq War. It was during this conflict that he met Ahmadinejad, and the two grew close.

Ahmadinejad consults his old friend Suleimani on sensitive operational matters before seeking the approval of his superior, Khamenei. Michael Hayden, who headed both the CIA and the NSA, ranked Suleimani as second on his list of the top seven “most powerful defenders and offenders.” The only individual to top Suleimani on the list was China’s defense minister.

It remains unclear how the Quds Force’s recent setbacks [arrests of agents in India, Thailand, and Azerbaijan] will impact the its high command. Observers in Iran recently predicted that Suleimani would step down from his post in 2013. His deputy, Brig. Gen. Ismail Kahani, is considered the likely successor. Kahani, a man in his 50s, has occupied a number of positions within the Revolutionary Guards intelligence apparatus and has also been involved in the war on drug smuggling from Afghanistan. In a special pamphlet issued by Khamenei to mark the Iran-Iraq War, he noted that Kahani was one of eight war veterans who went on to take up significant posts in the Iranian leadership.

Kahani is considered more reserved and less charismatic than his commander. The two men are almost never seen together at events, perhaps due to security precautions in the event of an attempted assassination. Suleimani has been known to make impromptu appearances at various memorial sites and commemorative events, though he is normally in civilian dress and surrounded by bodyguards.

Disguised as U.S. Troops

Basic training for Quds Forces combat troops ranges from three to nine months. It takes place in three main facilities: the Imam Ali Base near Tehran, which is used as the primary training ground for foreign terrorists; an installation used by the police counter-intelligence unit (the Iranian equivalent of the Shin Bet) at the Wali-I-Assar Base in Shiraz; and the “Jerusalem Operation” College in Qom, which is tasked with training enlistees in the spiritual and ideological sphere. Other specially tailored training facilities are used to prepare armed groups from foreign countries, particularly those in Hezbollah and Shiite organizations in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

A special division of the Iranian Foreign Ministry is responsible for arranging transportation for Quds Force conscripts. Part of their duties includes manufacturing passports in order to make foreign travel easier as well as covering their tracks. Upon completing their course, the new agents leave Iran via a neutral country and resume usage of their original passports that were issued in their native lands. Most of the agents are sent on months-long missions to Afghanistan and Iraq to gain experience in field operational work. They usually travel under the guise of Iranian construction workers.

The Quds Force Operational Branch is divided up into regional divisions, with each division responsible for a separate geographical entity.

The force’s intelligence headquarters, which is responsible for overseeing activity in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel (or “Palestine,” as they like to call it), are based in Damascus. It operates under the command of Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who frequently shuttles from Beirut to Damascus using his diplomatic passport. After the outbreak of demonstrations throughout Syria last year, the Quds Force divided its operations pertaining to Lebanon, naming another general, Ibrahim Jabri, to oversee activities there. Jabri is the top Iranian official responsible for providing assistance to Bashar Assad’s efforts to suppress the rioting as well as the deployment of Iranian forces to help protect Iranian and Hezbollah installations throughout Syria. 

Cooperation with Syria takes place on a number of levels, including finance, building international ties, intelligence sharing, recruiting of activists, running training bases, weapons smuggling, joint operations, and terrorist attacks. The Lebanon-based apparatus has an advanced sabotage division that deals with car bombs and sophisticated explosive devices that can be embedded in small objects, like cell phones or transistor radios.

The Quds Force operations branch is headed by Gen. Hamed Abduli. In the last 20 years, this outfit has organized a number of hits on government officials, journalists, and exiled Iranian oppositionists. Among the operations which it is allegedly behind are the murder of Qazim Rajawi in Geneva in 1990; the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires; and the 1991 assassination of Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.”

The head of the Quds Force division for special foreign operations is headed by Gen. Abdel-Raza Shakhlahi. This division includes Unit 5000, which is very similar to the Mossad’s Caesarea division. It is a small unit that is well-trained in assassinations, kidnapping, and special operations. Its people are not concentrated in one area but are rather deployed in numerous secret hideouts. These cells have been activated in Western countries, but in recent years the division has concentrated mainly on assassinations of Iraqi government officials. Its engineers and saboteurs have been aided by the knowledge they amassed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with assistance from their colleagues in Hezbollah. In 2007, one crew belonging to Unit 5000 dressed up as American soldiers, raided a NATO base in Karbala, and killed five soldiers.

Close to Hezbollah 

Most of the Quds Force’s activities in foreign countries are undertaken with close cooperation from the Iranian intelligence apparatus. This apparatus, which underwent a re-organization in 1984, employs close to 15,000 people tasked with gathering intelligence and surveillance of government officials, lecturers, and religious clerics worldwide.

It is commanded by Omed Haider Musalhi, a native of Isfahan who completed a master’s degree in international law and who once served as Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards. The 56-year-old Musalhi took up his current posting over two years ago, yet he has already managed to clash with Ahmadinejad over a controversial appointment that he made.

Another agency that has partnered with the Quds Force is the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence office, which answers directly to Khamenei. This 2,000-man outfit is tasked with intelligence gathering in Muslim countries. Since October 2009, it has been headed by Hussein Taib, a cleric and former disciple of Khamenei during the revolution in 1979. He most recently served as the coordinator of Revolutionary Guards operations in the Khamenei’s office.

Hezbollah is considered a natural partner for Quds Force operations. The cooperation between the two organizations runs through Unit 2800, which is responsible for Shiite affairs in Lebanon, as well as the special operations division, the department that works opposite Hezbollah’s terror operations apparatus. Both agencies have liaisons tasked with coordinating their respective operations and joint ventures.

Missions that are quasi-military in nature are jointly carried out in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip. Recently, authorities in Kuwait uncovered a spy ring comprised of agents working on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards intelligence apparatus, the Quds Force, and Hezbollah. Seven suspects who were detained revealed that as part of their work, they were assigned to recruit operatives to the Revolutionary Guards. The head of the ring was found to have maps showing American military bases in Kuwait, advanced means of communication, and $250,000.

Another division that wields a great deal of clout is the North African Affairs Unit (Division 6000), responsible for overseeing activities in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Gambia, and Nigeria. The division’s headquarters are in Sudan. This is the division that was responsible for activating Mahmoud Yosef Ahmed Mansur, the man who headed the Hezbollah spy ring uncovered in Egypt in 2009. Mansur was arrested in a safe house located 100 meters from the Iranian embassy in Cairo. During the riots that raged in Cairo last year, this division helped Hezbollah extricate its operatives from the jail near Cairo by providing fake Syrian passports and smuggling them into Sudan and back to Lebanon.

In Sudan, the Quds Force runs training camps for new African recruits. After undergoing practical and theoretical instruction, they are sent to train in real combat areas, including South Sudan, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip.

The Iranian embassy in the Nigerian capital Abuja has been frequently used by the Quds Force. In 2004, an Iranian diplomat was arrested by local authorities after he was seen taking photographs and surveying the Israeli embassy building. In 2010, Nigerian security forces discovered 13 containers filled with weapons that were smuggled from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and unloaded at Lagos. These arms were destined for Gambia, whose president and a Lebanese partner run a company that procured the weapons. A subsequent investigation yielded numerous arrests as well as more manhunts against additional suspects, including two senior officials in the Quds Forces, one of whom is the commander of Division 6000. These two men found diplomatic asylum in the Iranian embassy in Nigeria.

Four months later, the division commander was smuggled out of the country in the plane that carried the Iranian foreign minister who was dispatched to Abuja to extricate him. The commander was recently spotted in Venezuela, where he is now in charge of the South American arena. This affair exposed the fact that Iran’s embassy in Gambia was a forward base for the Quds Force, which used it to smuggle arms through West Africa. Gambia subsequently expelled Iran’s entire diplomatic staff.

Another division in the Quds Force is tasked with overseeing the agency’s activities in the Arabian Peninsula – Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Somalia. From its headquarters in the western Iranian city of Bushehr, the order was given to kill the Saudi ambassador in the U.S. in late 2011. It also appears that this was where the planning for an attack on the Israeli embassy in Washington took place. An American of Iranian origin with a criminal record was recruited for this mission, as was his cousin, a senior operative in the Quds Force foreign operations unit. They sought to recruit assassins from a Mexican drug cartel in exchange for a supply of drugs estimated to be worth $1.5 million. The head of the ring, Gen. Golam Shakuri, is in direct contact with Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah. The two men coordinate joint activities in the Arabian Peninsula.

The pin on the American grenade 

Iranian intelligence’s decision to choose New Delhi as the site to commit a terrorist attack – one in which Tal Koren-Yehoshua was wounded – was hardly an obvious one. Tehran’s relations with India are strong, and they are vital to Iran. The Iranians have an extensive infrastructure in the country. But the juicy bits of intelligence gathered about the Israeli embassy were apparently worth the risk of damaging ties with New Delhi, particularly since it entailed the use of subcontractors to carry out the attack. These subcontractors were supposed to cover the ayatollahs’ tracks.

National Security Council chief Ya’akov Amidror met with a number of Indian defense chiefs in India this past week and provided them with damning proof that ties Iran to the attack.

The investigation in India led to the arrest of an Indian Urdu journalist, Mohammad Kazmi, who in recent years has worked for the Indian department of Radio Tehran as well as the Iranian student news agency. Kazmi was recruited in February of last year, enticed by thousands of dollars for which he was to serve as the liaison between local youths and Iranian intelligence agents in New Delhi. These agents were welcomed in his home and even used his car to carry out surveillance on Israeli embassy vehicles.

According to reports in the Indian press, the police have managed to accumulate sufficient evidence that proves Kazmi was in contact with an Iranian intelligence officer. There is also reported to be proof that Kazmi even met with the individual who affixed the explosive device to Keren-Yehoshua’s car. Kazmi was arrested 10 days after he returned home from a trip to Damascus. The identity of the man who planted the bomb is also known to Indian authorities. Details of the investigation were relayed to Amidror.

All of the other four Iranians who were part of the ring that plotted and carried out the attack left India the next day, although their identities are known to Indian authorities. One of them has already been arrested in Malaysia.

Due to its lax security arrangements and the porous border that it shares with neighbors like Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia, Thailand is also considered convenient ground for Quds Forces and Hezbollah activity. It is relatively easy to receive assistance from local residents in Thailand, and foreigners can rent homes or storage facilities without background checks or unnecessary hassles.

The Quds network that was exposed in Thailand following the attempted attack there last month set out for Bangkok from Tehran and Malaysia. Four members of the network were in their safe house in Bangkok when one of the explosive devices suddenly detonated. In the subsequent investigation, it emerged that the safe house was used as a weapons lab to manufacture stick-on bombs designed to detonate via remote control. The system was specifically tailored and installed by engineers who traveled to Thailand for this purpose.

During the terrorists’ attempted escape, one of them threw a grenade, inadvertently injuring himself in the process. The bag that he was carrying, his passport, and the statements he made during his interrogation led to the arrest of three others as well as the issuance of arrest warrants for two more cell members who managed to escape to Malaysia.

Each one of the six booby-trapped radio devices seized in the safe house contained between one-half and two kilograms of explosive powder as well as tiny, magnetic balls that allowed the bombs to be affixed to cars. Upon detonation, these balls also travel far and inflict extensive damage.

The devices were installed with a timing mechanism that was activated by a safety pin similar to those on U.S.-made grenades, an interesting technical detail given that this is an item that is not available commercially and can only be obtained at American military bases, or war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan where American forces operate.

Most of the component parts that make up the explosive devices are available for purchase on the Internet. They are usually bought at sites frequented by operatives who work for the Revolutionary Guards logistics branch. Similar items can be obtained by the Guards’ acquisitions and purchasing department, who usually operate through straw companies. The equipment is then sent to its destination via airmail or by boat. An Iranian intelligence officer or a Hezbollah operative would then wait for it at its final destination, where it is delivered to a safe house.

The devices that were discovered in Bangkok are similar to those that were found to have been used by terrorist organizations in the past. Libyan intelligence booby-trapped a portable cassette player which downed the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in 1988. In November 2010, Al Qaeda in Yemen tried to bring down a passenger plane by detonating a bomb planted in printer toners. They also sent booby-trapped toners to Jewish institution in the U.S. via airmail.

Malaysia is used for recruiting and directing Iranian agents and terrorists. It is a key transport conduit for terror networks who are assigned tasks in Bangkok and New Delhi. Thousands of Iranians have resettled in Malaysia, where they have built factories and companies. In addition, there are thousands of Iranian students who study there.

Iranians who travel to Malaysia are not required to produce a visa. It is no wonder that the Iranian embassy in Kuala Lumpur has become a key forward post for Iranian intelligence in central Asia.

Bombs for drugs

Turkey is also a convenient country for terrorist activity and weapons smuggling, primarily due to its geographic location as well as a sympathetic Muslim community. The Quds division in Turkey is also responsible for Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Armenia, and Georgia. Iran shares a land border with Azerbaijan that stretches for hundreds of kilometers. It is through this frontier that Iran smuggles terrorists and arms into Azeri territory, from whence they have access to Russia, Georgia, and Armenia. The religious and cultural ties as well as the familial connections that link the Shiite populations in the two countries also enable Iran greater freedom and ease in operating there.

The head of a terrorist operation disrupted by Azeri authorities this month was Belgradash Dadasheb, who has been wanted by Azeri authorities for 18 years due to a series of murders, kidnappings, and weapons smuggling. Dadasheb was given shelter in the Iranian town of Ardabil, which lies not far from the Azeri border. In exchange, he was to have provided terrorist and smuggling services to Iranian intelligence in Azerbaijan and Iraq.

In August 2011, he met with a relative in Ardabil. During the meeting, he offered his relative a chance to kill two Chabad emissaries and the Israeli ambassador in exchange for $150,000. The mercenary gathered intelligence on the intended targets, including photographs of them and their vehicles, their work environments and routines, and their places of residence. In October, Dadasheb prepared a delivery of armaments for the relative, which included a sniper rifle, three handguns, and explosive devices. But the package was uncovered at the last minute by Azeri authorities who noticed it hidden on the side of the road.

A few weeks ago, Azeri authorities uncovered another local terrorist network. This network was recruited by Iranian agents who were operating in the Azeri capital under the guise of journalists working for the Fars television news agency. The weapons and arms were smuggled into the country from Iran. The terrorists who made up the network were instructed to carry out a series of attacks against Israeli targets in exchange for drugs.

The Iranian octopus extends to Bulgaria. In early January of this year, Bulgarian security agents discovered three booby-trapped suitcases that were placed on a bus scheduled to take a group of Israeli tourists from the Turkish border to the capital of Sofia and subsequently to a ski site. The bus driver said during his interrogation that the suitcases were put there the night before the trip while the bus was parked outside his home. The perpetrators left fingerprints that eliminated all doubt: they were working for Iranian intelligence.

Using embassies

Each and every one of the cities that were mentioned in recent months as being the scenes of attempted attacks on Israeli targets – Ankara, Istanbul, Tbilisi, New Delhi and Bangkok, and the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, through which the Bangkok attackers sought refuge and asylum – are also host to Iranian cultural centers.

Iran operates its cultural centers by using the diplomatic cover provided by its embassies and consulates in numerous countries that are home to large Iranian and Muslim communities, particular communities from Lebanon and Iraq. These centers are used to disseminate the ideas and principles espoused by the Islamic Revolution and to recruit local supporters, but they are also utilized as logistical infrastructures for intelligence operations.

Liaison offices that have been established in the vicinity of Islamic holy sites and whose job is to tend to the needs of Iranian pilgrims visiting these places have in effect become platforms for recruiting members to Iranian intelligence and terrorist organizations that enjoy its backing. These offices are active in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. The most important recruitment office is located in the “Dar al-Tawahid” hotel in Mecca. One of the recruiting officers is a man known as Nabil Mahzouma, a Palestinian who is well-known to Israeli security agencies. Mahzouma fled to Syria after he was wanted by the Israelis for numerous security violations.

The link between Iranian embassies and Iran’s terrorist and intelligence activities has endured for years. Nosratollah Tajik, the man who served as Iran’s ambassador to Amman until 2004, engaged in recruiting and fund-raising activities on behalf of the Quds Forces. Upon completing his diplomatic service, he moved to Britain and found work as a lecturer on Middle Eastern issues at Durham University, where he continued his dalliance with Iranian intelligence. In 2006, he was arrested at a hotel in London after being caught trying to complete a weapons deal that would procure arms for Hezbollah. He had no idea that his “buyers” were in fact American agents.

A few years ago, Gen. David Petraeus, who at the time was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, discovered that the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazmi-Kumi, was a member of an elite unit in the Revolutionary Guards that was aiding local militias in their war against American troops.

Bahrain recently expelled Iranian embassy officials from the capital of Manama after allegations surfaced that the ambassador and his secretary were responsible for running a spy ring in his country. Abu Dhabi also expelled three Iranian diplomats after they were revealed to be involved in a Revolutionary Guards spy ring.