The Quds Force is charged with the task of spearheading the expansion of the Islamic revolution beyond Iran, which in a substantive way it does through terror and subversive activity overseas. It is an elite wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) owing to the sensitive nature of its activities abroad. The IRGC in turn has a separate armed forces, air force, navy and intelligence arm.
Established after the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the Quds Force received an official mandate to deal with various covert, strategic-operational and military affairs:
Exporting the revolution and the Islamic theocracy's ideology, while assisting various actors whose interests are aligned with theirs.
Special operations (terror, weapons transfers, political subversion)
Intelligence collection outside Iran
The Quds Force is today comprised of about 12,000 operatives. It receives extensive resources from the Iranian state to carry out its missions all over the world. A particular emphasis is paid to Muslim countries with large Shiite communities as well as to states ruled by Sunni regimes where in most cases Shia form a minority of the overall population.
The chief commander of the Quds Force over the last fifteen years has been Qassem Suleimani. Suleimani authorizes the organization's activities including all of the terror attacks it pursues around the world and the strategic-military support it provides to partners and proxies of the Iranian regime.
The headquarters of the Quds Force is the central hub for coordinating and controlling the Force's operational and intelligence-collection activity abroad. It has a special status within the Iranian regime, and its top commanders have direct access to the Supreme Leader. In this way, the Quds Force is able to discreetly carry out sensitive and subversive missions in other countries without having to pass through the state bureaucracy. Often just a handful of people in the Iranian leadership are aware of action being undertaken by the Force, which is ultimately dictated by the Supreme Leader.
The Quds Force has been involved in political processes in countries from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. The tools it uses to apply pressure and implement the Supreme Leader's policies invariably include covert military activity and financial support to individuals and militia groups that the regime wants to strengthen.
The Quds Force carries out a range of covert activities outside of Iran's borders. These activities include terror plots and the training, equipping, financing and coordination of various militia organizations around the world:
Initiating terror attacks: The organization's commanders prefer to carry out attacks through the deployment of proxy militias, the most prominent of which is Lebanese Hezbollah, though other, separate, organizations such as Iraq-based Kata'eb Hezbollah (the Brigades of the Party of God) are also significant. The Quds Force directly coordinates the actions of some proxy cells. In a break with regular procedure, a number of plots have also been undertaken directly by Iranian operatives over the last two years, for instance in India, Thailand and Kenya. This may be due to a difficulty the Quds Force has faced in mounting attacks in these countries using proxies.
Establishing terror infrastructure worldwide: By setting up the operational structures and services required to mount attacks, Iran seeks to be able to spring them into action against the U.S., Israel, Arab and other Western interests in accordance with its strategic considerations at any given moment.
Establishing a "resistance" bloc made up of different countries and other actors that oppose the U.S. in particular and the west in general. This includes varied political and military support, including equipping them with weapons.
Assisting terror and guerrilla groups, as well as political figures, to carry out subversive activity in countries and regions in which Iran wants to exert influence at the expense of Western nations. Priority is given to countries with significant Shi'ite populations, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others.
Dissemination of Islamic Revolutionary ideology, and providing social services through setting up educational, cultural and charity networks for Muslims, especially Shi'ite-Iranian communities in the Middle East, Western states and elsewhere. This activity is integral to and reinforces subversive and terror activities.
Activity against dissident figures and groups opposing the Iranian regime from outside Iran, including assassinations of individuals living and working in the West.
Intelligence collection around the world, including in Western countries. The information obtained is used both for Iran's military needs and for conducting terror attacks by the Quds Force and Hezbollah in different countries.
Secret structure The Quds Force is comprised of various divisions and units, some of which are highly classified even within the secret organization.
Headquarters: Dozens of divisions at the Quds Force HQ are in place with the sole purpose of providing support for overseas terror, subversive and other criminal activities. Among them are branches with expertise in operations, logistics, intelligence, training and human resources.
Regional Corps: The Quds Force conducts many of its operations through regional corps that are responsible for geographic areas within their respective remits. They include the Iraq Corps, Lebanon Corps (also responsible for Syria), Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus and Africa. A special corps covers Europe, the U.S. and Latin America. These corps monitor events and activities in their regions and are responsible for laision with subversive and terror elements, recruiting operatives and establishing operational cells. The Iranian operatives of a regional corps are stationed in the arena for which it is responsible and usually use diplomatic cover or the cover of Iranian cultural/religious centers as a front to legitimize their stay.
Special Units: Highly compartmentalized, a number of units specialize in certain kinds of activity, such as overseas terror attacks and transferring weapons to terror organizations worldwide.
Special Ops Unit: Unit 400
Unit 400 is the special forces unit of the Quds Force, focused on planning and conducting attacks outside Iran. Within this remit, it also takes responsibility for transferring military aid to terror and guerrilla organizations around the world and coordinating their activities in order to prepare them to carry out attacks that serve the interests of the Iranian regime.
Unit 400 is an elite unit that works covertly and maintains maximum compartmentalization and secrecy. Given the sensitivity of the unit's activities, its operations require special authorization from Quds Force chief commander Qassem Suleimani and ultimately from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The unit has been responsible for various attacks and attempted attacks that have been exposed in recent years, including the assassination of a Saudi diplomat in Pakistan in May 2011, plans to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. that were foiled in September 2011, and a series of plots in February 2012 in New Delhi, Tblisi and Bangkok.
The unit is headed by Major General Hamed Abdollahi, from the Shah-Abad district of Tehran. Abdollahi has been involved in violent terror activity including, for instance, the firing of an RPG at a Sunni mosque in Zahedan. He has served in various significant positions, including as commander of the Quds Force intelligence branch, commander of the IRGC in the Zahedan and Zabol provinces of east Iran, and as deputy to Qassem Suleimani when the latter commanded the 41st Division.
Another senior commander in the unit is Majid Alawi, who served in the past in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and as Iran's deputy intelligence minister. Alawi joined Unit 400 in 2011, and has been using his experience to contribute to operational activities and attack plans mainly in distant countries with which he is familiar from his operational past.
Several other Unit 400 operatives that used to serve in the MOIS have recently been exposed while conducting activity overseas. They also joined the Quds Force with a view to widening its operational reach to countries outside of Iran's usual orbit.
Unit 400 uses various methods to conduct activities while maintaining secrecy and obscuring any trace of Iranian involvement:
The unit uses foreign facilitators and proxies, including criminal elements, for collecting operational intelligence, making preliminary logistical preparations and for mounting attacks. These facilitators sometimes undergo operational training in Iran, including in weapons, explosives, surveillance and other intelligence tradecraft. Quds Force handlers meet them for briefings in Iran and overseas, in which operational intelligence collected by the facilitators is passed to the handlers and assignments are passed back to the external facilitators.
The unit uses commercial front companies that assist its operatives when travelling internationally.
The unit transfers weapons and equipment to areas in which it plans to conduct attacks. Again, cover companies such as Arash Zoobin and Aria Navid are used to secretly transfer the weapons.
Iranian religious/cultural/charity organizations around the world are used to recruit facilitators. In parallel, the Quds Force also recruits students that pay extended visits to the holy city of Qom to study in religious seminaries.
Operatives from the unit use these capabilities to work up an appropriate plan in preparation for any attack. Any newly initiated operation by the unit is approved in principle by the Quds Force chief commander and the Supreme Leader, and only then is the attack plan advanced with the assistance of facilitators, proxy organizations and front companies.
Final authorization for execution of an attack is provided only after intelligence has been collected on the target and examined, a suitable operating method worked out, and weapons and equipment brought into the target area. Usually, this authorization is provided both at the level of Quds Force command and the Iranian leadership itself.
Unit 190-Weapons Transfer Unit
One of Quds Force’s main activities is transferring and smuggling weapons to organizations, ethnic groups, and countries in accordance with Iran’s interests. The Quds Forces unit performing this activity is unit 190, which is considered one of the Quds Force special units, and it specializes in smuggling weapons.
Purpose of the unit: Transferring weapons to resistance organizations outside Iran to influence conflict areas in various places in the world, as part of the concept of exporting the Shi’ite revolution of the leader Khamenei.
There are several UN security council resolutions prohibiting export of weapons from Iran, including resolutions 1747 (2007), 1929 (2010), and 2105 (2013). In order to bypass these sanctions, the main mo of this Quds Force unit is transferring and smuggling weapons to various countries under the guise of innocuous merchandise. In this way Iran blatantly violates international law and poses a threat to civilian commerce channels around the world.
The unit was responsible for the transfer of tens of thousands of tons of weapons in recent years to Hezbollah in Lebanon , the Assad regime in Syria, to Palestinian terror organizations in the Gaza strip, the Houthi faction in Yemen, and additional elements.
In its activity, unit 190 uses a variety of methods to impart to the weapons and shipment an innocent appearance, in order to maintain secrecy, maximize the chances that the shipment will arrive at its destination, and disconnect the shipment from Iran, if it is caught.
In the container, the weapons themselves are usually in a locked crate, surrounded by the material used as camouflage, in order to find the disguised weapons, the container must be opened, and several tons of innocent equipment unpacked.
Registration of the shipment as humanitarian aid or innocent civilian equipment, the unit has developed sophisticated packaging methods which give the merchandise a completely innocent look. The declared contents of the shipment are completely innocuous, matching the material used as camouflage in the container, such as construction material, polyethylene, powdered milk, and vehicle spare-parts.
Use of civilian shipping platforms (boats, airplanes, trucks, and trains).
Transferring the shipments via cut-countries/ports, to disguise the connection between the shipment and Iran.
Transferring weapons that are not Iranian produced, to enable Iran to deny involvement if the shipment is detained/exposed.
From Iran to Syria: unit 190 uses passenger and military flights between Iran and Syria which pass over Iraq, for transferring thousands of tons of weapons for the Assad regime and Hezbollah. Involved in weapons transfer are Iranian airlines such as Iran Air, Mahan Air, Caspian Air and Maraj Air. For example, in April-May 2013, Fateh-110 missiles were transferred via this channel for Hezbollah. These missiles were blown up on Syrian soil. Most of the weapons used by Assad’s military and Hezbollah in their battle against the rebels in Syria were transferred via this channel.
From Iran to Lebanon: passenger and cargo flights by Iranian airlines that pass over Turkey. Quds Force uses this line for sending weapons and equipment for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
From Iran to Sudan: in August-September 2012, the unit transferred hundreds of tons of strategic weapons for Palestinian organizations in theGaza strip in six direct Iran Air and Mahan Air flights from Iran to Sudan. About a month later, the weapons were blown up in Sudan.
From Syria to Sudan: weapons and equipment were sent on flights from Teheran to the international airport in Syria, and smuggled by unit 190 on civilian flights from Damascus to Khartoum. Some of the weapons and equipment were destined for Palestinian terror organizations in the Gaza strip, and some for the north Sudan regime.
From Iran to Sudan: unit 190 uses civilian ships to transfer weapons from Iran to Sudan. The weapons are unloaded in Port Sudan, sent to Egypt, and from there to the Gaza strip using smuggling networks. For example, in March 2014, the Israeli navy foiled a shipment from Iran to Sudan for Palestinian Organizations, which had been loaded on the commercial ship the klos-c. The shipment included 40 Syrian m-302 long-range rockets. The weapons transfer unit selected Syrian-produced rockets to obscure the Iran connection to the shipment.
From Iran to Yemen: the unit transferred weapons via ships to Yemen for Houthi rebels. For example, in January 2013, Yemen security forces foiled a transfer of weapons from Iran to Yemen on a small boat named gehan-1. On the boat were 40 tons of weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. In a similar incident in October 2009, the Yemeni navy detained a boat called mahan-1 flying an Iranian flag, which was carrying anti-tank missiles sent by Quds Force to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
From Syria to Egypt: In march 2011, Quds Force tried to send about 50 tons of weapons to Egypt on a boat named victoria, for smuggling from there to the Gaza Strip. The Israeli navy took control of the boat, and found Iranian produced c-704 shore-to-sea missiles in the containers, among other things.
From Iran to Africa: in October 2010, Quds Force sent 13 weapons containers from Iran to Gambia. The shipment was transshipped in Nigeria and were foiled there by the Nigerian security forces. The shipment contained many tons of weapons, among them 120 mm mortar shells and 107 mm rockets. The incident caused a diplomatic crisis between Iran and several African countries, and led to the arrest of Quds Force activists in Nigeria who were involved in the event.
From Iran to Syria and Lebanon: in November 2009, the unit tried to transfer 36 containers of weapons from Iran to Latakia port in Syria for Hezbollah. The containers were transshipped in Dubai and Egypt, where they were loaded on the commercial boat named Francop. The purpose of the transshipping was to disconnect Iran from the shipment. The containers, which had been declared to contain Polyethylene, were seized in an Israeli navy raid, and it was revealed that they contained about 500 tons of weapons.
In trucks from Iran to Syria: in recent years, unit 190 has performed transfers of weapons, equipment, and prohibited materials from Iran to Sudan for the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
In trains from Iran to Syria via Turkey: in May 2007, a shipment of weapons containers from Quds Force was revealed, which had been transferred from Iran to Syria via Turkey on a train, and was apparently destined for Hezbollah. The containers held 122 mm mortar shells and explosives, among other items. On the shipment’s bill of lading was the signature of the senior Quds Force official, Behnam Shahariyari, on behalf of the cover company Shahariyari trading ltd.