‘Defending the home:’ Soldiers recall mission to thwart Iran drone attack

F-16 squadron commander explains to Israeli TV why he personally led strike in Syria on Iranian-backed cell; intelligence officer: ‘We were right… down to the last detail’

Illustrative: A Lockheed Martin F-16I 'Sufa' takes off during the Israeli Air Force flight school's 156th graduation ceremony. (Tsahi Ben-Ami/Flash 90)
Illustrative: A Lockheed Martin F-16I 'Sufa' takes off during the Israeli Air Force flight school's 156th graduation ceremony. (Tsahi Ben-Ami/Flash 90)

While many of the hundreds of Israeli strikes in recent years on Iranian targets in Syria have reportedly targeted armaments, on a slow summer day in late August Israeli Air Force pilots received a quite different mission.

Unlike many of the airstrikes in Syria attributed to it, Israel quickly took credit for the August 24 operation, which it said targeted a cell from the Quds Force of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that was planning to attack Israeli territory with explosives-laden drones.

“What is different about this strike from other operations the air force does in the theater is that… it was the thwarting of an [imminent] attack that was going to be carried out,” IAF Lt. Col. “Nun” told Channel 13 news in a segment aired Friday.

The network played audio recordings from the pilots in the air before and after the strike, which Nun, a F-16 squadron commander identified only by the Hebrew initial of his first name, said was carried out within 13 minutes of takeoff.

“I dropped four munitions,” a pilot can be heard saying.

A still from a video purporting to show an Israeli strike on Iran-backed forces in Syria on August 24, 2019. (screen capture: Twitter)

Nun himself led the mission, saying: “I think it’s my role as a commander to be at the head of an attacking force.”

He also recalled what he told his squadron following the mission.

“What we did that night and all the hard work we’re doing during the year is exactly for this moment – defending the home,” the pilot said.

The strike came days after what the Israel Defense Forces said was a failed attempt by the Iran-backed fighters to launch an explosives-laden drone into northern Israel from Syria.

At least five people were killed in the raid, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Israel identified two of those killed as Lebanese nationals Hassan Yousef Zabeeb, 23, from the town of Nabatieh, and Yasser Ahmad Daher, 22, of Blida, both of whom were Hezbollah members.

“We take the working assumption… that everyday the Quds Force is trying to advance an attack,” Lt. Col. “Yud,” head of the Quds Force branch in the research and analysis division of Military Intelligence, told Channel 13.

“It’s really like a roller coaster,” he said.

This satellite photo provided by private intelligence firm ImageSat International on August 25, 2019, shows the aftermath of an Israeli strike on a compound in the Syrian town of Aqrabah from which the Israeli military says Iran tried to launch explosive-laden drones into northern Israel. (ImageSat International)

Yud said his unit gathered intelligence on Zabeeb and Daher and learned of a villa in the Damasacus-area village of Aqrabah where they were staying.

“There all the preparations were carried out,” he said.

This intelligence was subsequently passed onto the IAF and Yud acknowledged having trepidations when transferring such information.

“Always. This is part of the game. We really need to be modest about our ability to describe things. Lots of times people think we know everything but there are probably lots of question marks,” he said.

He later recalled in the interview: “We were right, I must confess in this case, down to the last detail.”

Though based at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, Yud said his unit feels like it is on the front lines.

“Even though we serve at the Kirya, we feel like we’re with a helmet on our heads, also defending, doing the work that needs to be done,” he said.

Hassan Yousef Zabeeb, left, and Yasser Ahmad Daher, two Hezbollah members killed in an Israeli airstrike in Syria to thwart a plot to launch armed drones into Israel, seen flying to Iran from Lebanon in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Though that mission was over, Nun’s squadron remained on high alert after Hezbollah vowed revenge for the death of its two operatives, as well as for a strike attributed to Israel in a Beirut neighborhood that reportedly targeted key equipment for making munitions into precision-guided missiles.

The response came a week later, when on September 1 the terror group fired anti-tank missiles at a military jeep along the border.

A man holds the apparent remains of an anti-tank missile that was fired by the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, near the northern moshav of Avivim, September 1, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

No Israelis were hurt by the missile fire, shrapnel from which punctured a tire on the vehicle, which was carrying five soldiers.

Though that danger appeared to pass, Nun said Israel needed to remain alert against Iran and its proxies, particularly following the sophisticated joint-drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities last month that has been blamed on Tehran.

“We really can’t disparage them. It’s forbidden to us,” he said.

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