Following the U.S. drone strike that resulted in the death of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force (“Jerusalem Force”) of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a select group of Palestinian dignitaries attended his funeral. One of the few non-family members honored with eulogizing Soleimani was Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who lauded him as “Jerusalem’s own martyr.” Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziad Al-Nakhleh also paid his respects. Subsequent to the funeral, Haniyeh and a high-level Hamas delegation met with Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani. The participation of these terrorist leaders in Soleimani’s funeral signals the longtime destructive role that Iran plays throughout the region and worldwide.
Soleimani’s Al-Quds Force (AQF) was initially formed a year after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution as the Organization of Liberation Movements, a unit of the IRGC. Its mission was to fulfil the late ayatollah’s declared goal of exporting the Iranian Revolution in order to “liberate Jerusalem.” Reflecting the central role that the AQF plays in Iranian military and foreign policy, as commander of the unit Soleimani reported directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not to the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards. It is also a demonstration of the official sanction and support for its activities that the IRGC-AQF receives from the highest level of the Iranian leadership.
Among the AQF’s first recruits were Lebanese and Syrian followers of Khomeini’s ideology who established Hezbollah. Since then the AQF has been responsible for having trained thousands of operatives from Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Additionally, it has long provided logistical support for such organizations, including providing weapons and explosives, training in terrorist tradecraft and cooperation in executing attacks. Throughout the Middle East, AQF has further expanded Iran’s hegemony by similarly funding, training and equipping Iraqi Shi’i militias, providing arms, financial support and training to the Taliban, and military advisers and weapons to the Houthis in Yemen.
From their earliest days, organizations trained by the Al-Quds Force have targeted Jews and Israelis. Hezbollah initially targeted Lebanese Jews in the mid-1980s and went on to carry out suicide-bombing attacks against Israeli military installations and personnel in Lebanon. By the early 1990s, AQF together with Hezbollah trained leaders of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in executing suicide-bombings, thereby exporting such attacks to Israel. The tactic of such bombings was employed internationally by AQF and Hezbollah, causing the destruction the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992, killing 29 and injuring 242. Two years later, two Jewish communities in Latin America were targeted by Hezbollah suicide bombers assisted by the IRGC-AQF. Argentinian Jews were murdered in the AMIA attack in Buenos Aires that killed 85 and wounded more than 300 people. Just 24 hours after the AMIA attack, 21 Panamanians, including 12 prominent Jewish businessmen, were killed aboard a commuter flight by a Hezbollah suicide bomber.
Since his appointment as commander of the AQF in 1998, Soleimani extended the scope of attacks beyond the Middle East and Latin America to Jews and Israelis on a global scale, spanning the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa. Over the past decade, a series of foiled and attempted attacks were carried out by the IRGC-AQF together with Hezbollah targeting Israeli diplomats, including a 2011 plot to bomb the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. Additional incidents targeting Israeli diplomats in 2012 encompassed a bombing in India that resulted in the injury of an Israeli diplomat’s wife, an attempted bombing of an Israeli diplomat’s car in Georgia and a failed plot in Thailand. Other incidents the same year included foiled plans to attack Israeli diplomats in Turkey, in Kenya and a separate plot to attack Israeli interests in South Africa.
Failing in their attempts to target Israeli diplomats, the AQF and Hezbollah turned their sights on Israeli tourists and Jewish communal institutions. In 2012, they carried out the bombing of a tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing five Israelis and the Bulgarian driver. During that same year, the AQF and Hezbollah conducted surveillance in preparation for attacks on Israeli tourists in Cyprus and on a synagogue in Bulgaria. Another plan to attack Israeli interests in Nigeria was foiled in 2013. A year later, a Hezbollah operative was arrested in Peru before he was able to carry out his mission to target the Israeli embassy, Israeli tourists and Jewish communal institutions.
In recent years, Hezbollah has set its sights on preparing for attacks on U.S. soil. In 2017, two operatives were arrested in New York for carrying out surveillance activities on behalf of Hezbollah. One of them, Ali Kourani, conducted surveillance of Israeli military personnel located in New York, as well as of John F. Kennedy International Airport, and U.S. military and law-enforcement targets. The second operative, Samer El-Debek, was arrested for conducting surveillance of the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Panama, and for seeking to identify security vulnerabilities at the Panama Canal. Kourani received “sophisticated military training” from Hezbollah, and El-Debek was charged with receiving “extensive bomb-making training” by Hezbollah. In 2018, Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar and Majid Ghorbani—two agents from an unidentified branch of the Iranian government—were arrested after Doostdar conducted surveillance of Israeli facilities, a Chabad House in Chicago and an Iranian opposition group in Washington. Both pleaded guilty.
Ghaani, who was appointed almost immediately after Soleimani’s demise, vows to “continue down martyr Soleimani’s path as firmly as before.” As such, the international community, Israel and Jews worldwide must take note of the Iranian leadership’s declared intentions to march in Soleimani’s murderous path. Iran’s establishment of the Al-Quds Force and its unwavering support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad demonstrates the primacy of its longstanding official state policy to target Jews globally. To ensure our future security, we must learn from Iran’s long-term activities and take its leadership’s genocidal exhortations at their word.
Yehudit Barsky is a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy and has written extensively on Middle East terrorist organizations and anti-Semitism.