IDF footage shows pro-Iranian fighters trying to launch armed drone at Israel

Army says Iranian-trained team in Syria attempted to launch explosive UAV from border town last Thursday, but Israeli troops ‘confused’ them and prevented the attack

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday released footage of what it said was a failed attempt by pro-Iranian operatives to launch an explosives-laden drone into northern Israel from Syria last Thursday.

Late Saturday night, the Israeli Air Force bombed a compound in central Syria that the IDF said was used by the pro-Iranian fighters as their base of operations, after they tried to launch attack drones a second time.

In the video from Thursday, four men can be seen carrying the lightweight aircraft as they walk through fields, which the IDF said was near the Syrian town of Erneh, across from the Israeli Golan Heights. The military refused to comment on what type of drone the Iranian operatives were using.

The military said it foiled the attempt to launch the unmanned aerial vehicle, but declined to specify how. IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the method was “not necessarily kinetic” and the army’s Arabic-language spokesman said in a tweet the army “confused” the pro-Iranian operatives, which appeared to indicate that a form of electronic warfare was used.

The army on Sunday said the failed drone attack was part of a plot by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force to target military installations and national infrastructure in northern Israel from Syria.

An illustrative map showing the locations from which the Israeli military says Iran tried to launch explosive-laden drones into northern Israel from Syria in August 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the IDF, the drones and IRGC advisers were flown into Syria from Tehran several weeks ago.

The plan was personally overseen by IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said.

The statement by the military came as the death toll in the Israeli raids on Saturday night climbed to five, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

According to Conricus, four members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force were sent to Syria to form a team that would fly explosive-laden kamikaze drones into targets in northern Israel.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran, September 18, 2016. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

“These attack drones would carry several kilograms of explosives,” he said.

Conricus said the military has been monitoring the Iranian plot for “a number of weeks.”

When the IDF spotted the Iran-led team — made up of the four IRGC advisers and Shiite militiamen — moving to launch the drones again on Saturday night, the Israeli Air Force took action and bombed their base.

A satellite image distributed by Israeli private intelligence firm ImageSat International showed that the compound had been completely destroyed.

“Thanks to a substantial intelligence effort, an Iranian attack was thwarted and harm to Israel was prevented,” the head of Military Intelligence Tamir Heyman said in a statement.

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)

Conricus said forces had been put on high alert near the Syrian frontier after the attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said an Iranian combatant and two fighters for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah were among the fatalities in the strike, along with at least two others whose identities are not yet known.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi during an event honoring outstanding IDF reservists, at the President’s residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

According to the spokesman, the Iranian drones used in the attack were of the same variety that Tehran-backed militias have used elsewhere in the Middle East, namely Yemen’s Houthis.

IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis said the Iranian Mohajer drone was among the aircraft supplied to the IRGC team in Syria.

“The modus operandi is similar to what we have seen in other places in the Middle East — in Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” Conricus said.

A top Revolutionary Guards commander on Sunday denied the Israeli claims.

“Israel and the United States do not have the power to attack Iran’s various centers, and our [military] advisory centers have not been harmed,” Mohsen Rezaei, who is also secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, a powerful state body, told the semi-official ILNA news agency on Sunday.

The late-night airstrike, which triggered Syrian anti-aircraft fire, appeared to be one of the most intense attacks by Israeli forces on Iranian targets in Syria.

There have been few direct clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria. In May 2018, Israel said Iranian forces fired some 20 rockets at Israel, with most being shot down or failing to reach Israeli territory. In response, Israel carried out extensive airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria.

While Israel has acknowledged carrying out thousands of airstrikes inside Syria against weapons transfers to Iran-backed fighters and to keep Iran from gaining a foothold there, it rarely acknowledges individual strikes.

The ambiguity is part of a strategy seen as helping give Tehran and Damascus cover from needing to strike back to save face. Israel has appeared to apply the same strategy in Iraq, where the IDF has been reported to have carried out a number of strikes on Iran-backed militia positions near Baghdad.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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