Russian intelligence sources have claimed that Michael D’Andrea, head of CIA operations in Iran and who orchestrated the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, was killed in a US spy plane downed in Ghazni, Afghanistan.
The plane with US Air Force markings reportedly served as the CIA’s mobile command for D’Andrea, who earnt several nicknames including: Ayatollah Mike, the Dark Prince, and the Undertaker. He is one of the most prominent CIA figures in the region, appointed head of the agency’s Iran Mission Centre in 2017. Under his leadership, the agency was perceived to take a more “aggressive stance toward Iran”.
The Taliban claimed to have shot down the plane but have yet to provide evidence, whilst the US has denied the claim but has acknowledged the loss of a Bombardier E-11A plane in central Afghanistan. Graphic images online have already circulated purportedly showing some of the charred remains of those on board.
Afghan authorities initially claimed the plane was a state-owned airline, but this was denied by the company, Ariana. Helicopters have been brought down before by the Taliban, but they are not believed to have the capabilities required to bring down a high-flying aircraft.
It has been speculated that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) may also have a hand in the incident, especially as anti-aircraft support has previously been given to the Taliban. Additionally, the Afghan Shia Fatimyoun Brigades, who are trained by the IRGC, also have a presence in the country.
An exiled Iranian journalist who has written previously for the hard-line Javan daily newspaper suggested the IRGC was involved, tweeting: “The American Gulfstream plane was downed in Afghanistan by the Taliban. They say that intelligence officers were on board. This report has not yet been confirmed, but if it is, it is possible that the issue of Iran will also emerge in this case.”
Another Iranian journalist who writes for Mashregh newspaper, described as having close links to IRGC, tweeted not long after the news broke out: “We will attack them on the same level as they are attacking us.”
Soleimani’s successor as head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, has established ties in Afghanistan going back to the 1980s. Additionally, the chief commander of the IRGC, General Hossein Salami, warned that no American military commanders will be safe if the US administration continues to threaten Iranian commanders.
D’Andrea, who is reportedly a convert to Islam, doing so in order to marry his Muslim wife, who is from a wealthy family from the Mauritius of Gujarati origins, having met on his first overseas assignment in East Africa, one of the senior directors of her family’s company Curumjee Group, has been speculated to provide cover for CIA operations.
He also oversaw hundreds of drone strikes, which according to The New York Times “killed thousands of Islamist militants and hundreds of civilians”. D’andrea is credited with being the mastermind behind the CIA’s notorious “signature strike” used to kill people based on their behaviour, not identity, subsequently used to determine someone’s guilt or likelihood of being a terrorist.
He was central to the post-9/11 interrogation programme and ran the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Assassinations and torture were central to his approach. He also oversaw the hunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and was involved in the assassination of Hezbollah member Imad Mughniyah in Damascus, Syria.