Assassination of nuclear chief spurs allegations of science fiction capabilities and technologies
The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has sprouted countless theories and claims about the execution of the killing. While the hypotheses range from dozens of hitmen converging on the official’s car to exploding machine guns mounted on trucks, experts say the latest allegation made by Tehran authorities may be both the most outlandish – but definitely viable.
On Monday, Iranian media outlets quoted Ali Fadavi, the Revolutionary Guards’ deputy commander, as saying the November 27 killing of Fakhrizadeh was carried out by a remote-controlled machine gun, operated via satellite communication.
“No terrorists were present on the ground,” Fadavi said, referring to the assassins. “Martyr Fakhrizadeh was driving when a weapon, using an advanced camera, zoomed in on him … some 13 shots were fired … controlled by satellite.”
These supposedly science fiction capabilities, it’s all technically possible today. There are much more complex operations being carried out than a remote ambush
The top military official added that “artificial intelligence and face recognition were used” during the operation.
“This type of operation seems feasible. Definitely possible,” Dr. Eitan Shamir, former head of the National Security Doctrine Department in the Strategic Affairs Ministry and a senior research associate with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line.
“These supposedly science fiction capabilities, it’s all technically possible today. There are much more complex operations being carried out than a remote ambush,” he said.
Fakhrizadeh, said to be the founder and brains behind the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, was in the back of an armored car in the Tehran suburb of Absard last month when he was shot dead. He was accompanied by a convoy of three other vehicles and more than ten bodyguards. Three of his bodyguards were killed in the surprise attack along with the chief scientist.
Iran has since named Israel as the main culprit, while also fingering the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iranian opposition groups as minor participants in the assassination.
Dr. Liran Antebi, a research fellow and head of the advanced technology and national security program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, agreed that “generally speaking, we can infer from all the technological platforms in use by military organizations today that these capabilities are available.”
“Common sense tells us that if we know militaries use satellite communication extensively, and also remotely operate a slew of aerial weapons – drones, autonomous jets, etc. – then we can surmise that these capabilities can be combined and used on the ground,” Antebi told The Media Line.
Yet analysts insist on taking the claims made by the Revolutionary Corps with a grain of salt.
“Nothing is impossible in the world of tech, but If you ask me, this sounds like a complex operation executed by agents on the ground that disappeared without leaving any tracks. That’s much more logical than remotely operated automatic weapons,” Uzi Rubin, Israel’s pre-eminent missile defense engineer and the developer of the country’s first anti-missile defense system, told The Media Line.
“The complexity of doing this from afar, discerning between [Fakhrizadeh] and his wife and other passengers, and ensuring the desired target was killed – I just find it hard to believe,” says Rubin, now a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Nothing is impossible in the world of tech, but If you ask me, this sounds like a complex operation executed by agents on the ground that disappeared without leaving any tracks
Fakhrizadeh’s wife, who was sitting next to the nuclear scientist during the ambush, escaped uninjured, according to reports.
“There are still many loopholes in this theory, and its only one of many being circulated by Iran in order to make itself look better,” Shamir said, noting the embarrassment suffered by Tehran’s security forces after being so thoroughly exposed.
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“Why would the operators rely on [Fakhrizadeh] exiting his vehicle to check the diversion? And if they didn’t and they used armor-penetrating bullets to hit him while he was still in the car, that would require heavier machinery – how do you conceal that and carry it around in the center of Tehran? So, there are a lot of open questions,” he said.
Israel has so far refused to officially claim responsibility for the incident, as lawmakers and ministers have in recent weeks repeatedly dodged queries on the subject and agreed to only generally reiterate the country’s intentions of protecting itself from Iranian aggression.
For more than a decade, Jerusalem has conducted a persistent and clandestine campaign to sabotage Iran’s nuclear capabilities, according to myriad reports and intelligence officials. Several scientists and engineers have been gunned down in Iran, while nuclear sites and military complexes have been the victims of mysterious explosions, fires and cyber-attacks.
In January, another top Iranian official, Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, was killed on a Baghdad airport tarmac in a drone strike executed by the United States.
Regardless of what precise weapons were used in the latest ambush, the important issue at hand is the intelligence-gathering conducted prior to the execution, experts insist.
“To know where to place the machine gun, when the car passes, to know everything about his security detail. That’s the crucial part, not the technology,” Shamir says.
Whether or not Tehran’s claims of advanced weaponry, artificial intelligence, and hyper-accurate facial recognition software used in November’s assassination are true, the world’s battlefield is certainly headed in that direction, and has been for over a decade.
“We are definitely facing a future of autonomous warfare,” Antebi said. “We’re already seeing the world’s advanced militaries significant trending today toward remote-controlled combat, informed by artificial intelligence and algorithms. Even the tactical planning is done by computers and AI, with humans overseeing things.”
Last month, Britain’s Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Nick Carter said he expects 25% of the UK’s armed forces to be autonomous by the next decade.
When you know you’ve killed someone, it doesn’t matter if you’ve done it from the other side of the world or up close
Yet the seemingly “sterile” use of lethal force, without the need to send human beings into harm’s way, does have its downsides.
“This is still an act of killing, it’s not actually sterile,” Antebi stresses. “Studies have shown that operators of these machines suffer from PTSD and other disorders. When you know you’ve killed someone, it doesn’t matter if you’ve done it from the other side of the world or up close.”
The advanced systems’ price tag is another downside that has held back some countries from implementing autonomous weaponry for armed forces’ use.
“Ground-based systems are lagging behind the air-based autonomous weaponry,” Antebi concluded. “You also have to place these systems in the field, gather intelligence beforehand. There’s more to it than at first glance.”
Added Shamir: “The real “science fiction” scenario, is still on the concept level, I believe. We might get there someday, but it’ll take longer than we think.”
“They may have auxiliary robotic assistance, but we’re still going to see humans on the battlefield, and human sacrifice, for a long time, unfortunately,” he said.