U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and FBI Director Robert Mueller announce a plot was foiled involving men allegedly linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and to bomb the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Israel in Washington at a news conference October 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

October 11, 2011

Qods Force Terrorist Plot in the U.S.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force—the organization overseeing Iran’s global terrorist activities and reporting directly to Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei—has been plotting a mass-casualty attack on American soil targeting Saudi Arabian interests. The Iranian officials involved in planning the attack include the commander of the Qods Force Qassem Soleimani and two deputies Hamed Abdollahi and Abdul Reza Shahlai.  

Timeline of Qods Force Terrorist Plot in the U.S.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced today that authorities recently arrested one of the two perpetrators in the plot, U.S.-based dual Iranian-American citizen Manssor Arbabsiar, and that Arbabsiar admitted to receiving direction and funding from senior Qods Force officials in Iran. Following trips to Iran where he met Qods Force officials, Arbabsiar hired and paid an undercover Drug Enforcement Agency informant he thought was a Mexican drug cartel member to assassinate Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al Jubair. The initial target of the foiled plot was the ambassador, but the investigation indicates that the Qods Force-directed assassination attempt was one in a series of future planned attacks. U.S. officials involved in the case have cited the Israeli and Saudi Arabian embassies in Washington, D.C. and Buenos Aires, Argentina as future targets of the terror network. 

The network behind the plot included: Arbabsiar; Arbabsiar’s Iran-based cousin who is an unnamed “high-ranking member” of the Qods Force; an Iran-based member of the Qods Force named Gholam Shakuri who served as the cousin’s deputy and one of Arbabsiar’s interlocutors in Iran; and a third unnamed high-ranking member of the Qods Force. The DOJ also noted that Shakuri told Arbabsiar “that an individual whom Arbabsiar understood to be the leader of the Qods Force…was aware of what Arbabsiar was doing.” Designations from the U.S. Treasury Department indicate that the unnamed officials cited in the criminal complaint include the head of the Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, who reports directly to Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei.  

The Qods Force has repeatedly engaged in terrorist activities against American and allied officials, service members, and civilians. The significance of this plot cannot be overstated: the Iranian government is now attempting to carry out terrorist attacks on American soil. The initial target of the assassination plot was the Saudi ambassador, but the guidance given to the operatives would have resulted in a mass-casualty attack in a public restaurant in the nation’s capital with subsequent attacks in the future. Iran has been at war with the U.S. for decades; the regime, advancing on a path toward nuclear weapons, is now bringing that war to the American homeland.   

Timeline: Qods Force Terrorist plot in the U.S.

Early Spring 2011: Abdul Reza Shahlai (Iranian Official 1 in the DOJ complaint) approaches his cousin, Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen with dual Iranian citizenship living in Corpus Christi, Texas, to carry out a kidnapping plot against Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al Jubeir. Shahlai is a deputy in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF), previously designated by U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for his involvement in a January 20, 2007 attack against U.S. soldiers stationed in Karbala, Iraq. Arbabsiar tells Shahlai that he has contacts in the United States and in Mexico, some of whom he believes to be narcotics traffickers.

May 24: Arbabsiar travels between Texas and Mexico to meet with an FBI confidential informant (CS-1 in the DOJ complaint) posing as a member of the Zetas Mexican drug cartel. Arbabsiar inquires whether CS-1 has any knowledge of explosives and explains to CS-1 that he is interested in assaulting the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. CS-1 claims he is proficient with C-4 plastic explosives.

May 30-June 23: Arbabsiar travels internationally, departing from Houston, Texas. Destination(s) for Arbabsiar’s international travel are not included in the complaint’s timeline; however, the complaint specifies that Arbabsiar traveled to Iran after his initial May 24 meeting with CS-1 in Mexico. While in Iran, Arbabsiar meets with Gholam Shakuri, an IRGC-QF officer and deputy to Shahlai, “routinely on a one-one-one basis” and also with Hamed Abdollahi (Iranian Official 2 in the DOJ complaint), a senior IRGC-QF officer. During Arbabsiar’s meetings in Tehran, the following is discussed:

1. Arbabsiar has located a cartel member in Mexico to carry out the assassination plot.

2. The plot could involve “numerous” civilian casualties.

3. The assassination plot is given code-name “Chevrolet.”

4. A $100,000 down-payment for CS-1 is approved.

5. Arbabsiar is told that IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Soleimani (Iranian Official 3 in the DOJ complaint) is aware of the plot, and Arbabsiar can meet him in the future.

June 23: Arbabsiar lands via airplane in Mexico after travelling internationally.

Late June-Early July: Arbabsiar meets with CS-1 and explains that, during his time abroad, he has held a series of meetings with his associates in Iran. Arbabsiar tells CS-1 his associates in Iran have described operations for CS-1 and CS-1’s associates during their meeting, including the assassination of the Saudi Ambassador.

July 14: CS-1 and Arbabsiar discuss the following while meeting in Mexico:

1. CS-1 needs four men for the assassination plot, and payment of $1.5 million. The Saudi ambassador is to be the main target before any other attacks are to be executed.   

2. $100,000 is sent to the house of an associate of Arbabsiar. The money is to be a down-payment for the assassination plot against the ambassador; however, Arbabsiar explains to CS-1 his desire to transfer the money in installments rather than in a single payment. The money is to be transferred to an account of CS-1’s choosing.

3. CS-1 inquires about Arbabsiar’s cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai. Arbabsiar describes his cousin as a “big general in the army” who works “in other countries for the Iranian government.”

4. CS-1 confirms with Arbabsiar that the assassination will move forward.

July 17: CS-1 and Arbabsiar meet again in Mexico and discuss the following:

1. CS-1 confirms with Arbabsiar that the Saudi ambassador is the target by showing him a photograph of the ambassador.

2. Arbabsiar instructs CS-1 to avoid killing bystanders when executing the assassination plot, but to continue the operation even if civilian casualties are likely to occur. When CS-1 observed that there could be more than one hundred civilian casualties and that U.S. senators may dine where the attack is likely to occur, Arbabsiar responded “no big deal” and “no problem.”

3. Arbabsiar informs CS-1 that his associate is not paying from his pocket, and “has the government behind him.”

4. Shakuri meets with Arbabsiar in an unspecified location to provide him with additional funds. 

July 20: Following the July 17 meeting, Arbabsiar flies out of Mexico to Iran for a meeting with Shahlai.

August 1: $49,960 is wired from a foreign bank account into the bank account provided by CS-1 (“UC Bank Account” in the DOJ complaint), a down-payment for the assassination plot.

August 9: The second and final half of the $100,000 down-payment for the assassination is wired to UC Bank Account from a foreign entity.

August 11: CS-1 confirms with Arbabsiar via telephone that the entire $100,000 was received.

September 2: Arbabsiar confirms with CS-1 via telephone that further payment will be made to the informant for additional terrorist attacks following the assassination of the ambassador.

September 12: In a phone call between Arbabsiar and CS-1, Arbabsiar confirms that the assassination plot is to be a test run, which if successful, will lead to future assignments for CS-1.

Late September: While back in Tehran, Arbabsiar meets with Shakuri, who warns Arbabsiar that he will be responsible for himself if he travelled to Mexico. Shakuri instructs Arbabsiar to call him after he arrived in Mexico so Shakuri could confirm Arbabsiar’s safety.

September 20: Arbabsiar agrees to fly to Mexico and act as collateral while the assassination operation is underway.

September 28: Mexican authorities deny Arbabsiar entry to the country, and he is returned to JFK Airport in New York City, his flight’s origin. Federal authorities arrest Arbabsiar at JFK. Among his confiscated items are $3,900 in U.S. currency, “a sum of Iranian currency,” U.S. and Iranian passports, and a travelling itinerary for an October 2011 flight departing Mexico with a final destination of Iran.

October 5: Following his arrest, Arbabsiar, under the supervision of federal agents, calls Shakuri to confirm that the assassination plot is moving forward. Arbabsiar tells Shakuri that CS-1 wants more money for the plot, which Shakuri rejects. Shakuri instructs Arbabsiar to execute the plot as quickly as possible.

October 7: Arbabsiar places another phone call to Shakuri, explaining that CS-1 wants more money, in addition to the $100,000 that has already been paid, before carrying out the assassination. Shakuri responds that he will seek approval from his superiors. Shakuri reminds Arbabsiar of his agreement to travel to Mexico to serve as a guarantee for full payment for the assassination.

October 11: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller announce the arrest of Arbabsiar and reveal details of the plot. U.S. Treasury OFAC designates Hamed Abdollahi and Gholam Shakuri and updates the designations of Shahlai and Soleimani, who had been previously subject to OFAC sanctions.