Small Wars Journal published a scholarly review by Alma Keshavarz targeting the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and two of its most dangerous subsets: the elite Quds Force and Quds Force’s “Unit 400.” The Quds Force, Iran’s unconventional warfare arm, is well known to readers of IranTruth.
Unit 400 may not be as well known. As a subset of Quds Force, its precise size is not known but is smaller than the 10,000-15,000 members that Quds Force itself includes. For the purposes of comparison, the United States fields around 11,000 special operators, the bulk of them in the Army’s Special Forces, which carries our unconventional warfare mission. However, US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) contains over seventy thousand personnel, most of whom are support for the operators.
According to Keshavarz’s research, Unit 400 is the youngest element of Quds Force. They have become prominent in Quds Force operations since about 2012. Unit 400 is thought to be directed in its operations personally by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was, and may still be, commanded by Majid Alavi, a former deputy minister of both intelligence and information. During his first stint at the Ministry of Information, he used that ministry as a cover to maintain contacts with Hezbollah and other terrorist groups throughout the region. He and others were transferred away after the revelation of their participation in a series of murders in 1999. After a period of reporting directly to the Supreme Leader, he became under President Ahmadinejad the deputy chief of Foreign Intelligence in 2005. He moved back to the Information Ministry in 2009, then transferred to Quds Force in 2011. He is thought to have been elevated to command of Unit 400 in 2012.
Alavi was implicated in a botched assassination in Bangkok, where a suicide bomber blew off his own legs rather than killing his target. Alavi himself had traveled to Bangkok to make the arrangements for the attack.
Alavi is believed to be the same senior figure named in the WikiLeaks cable that described spying on dissidents in London and Los Angeles. He has served as Iran’s acting intelligence minister, officials say. He shifted to the Quds Force early this year [report is from 2012] and along with Abdollahi, a commander accused in the Washington plot, now runs a team known as the Special External Operations Unit, or Unit 400, according to Western officials.
The unit “conducts sensitive covert operations abroad [that] include terrorist attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and sabotage,” a U.S. official said. The unit has supported Iraqi militants, “provided weapons, equipment, training and money to Afghan insurgents … and also arranges the delivery of lethal aid into Syria and Lebanon and military training for Hezbollah and Palestinian militants.”
The Quds Force reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei, officials said, bypassing the Iranian military’s complex decision-making structure.
Alavi traveled to Bangkok on Jan. 19 using a diplomatic passport with the alias Hossein Tehrani, according to Western counterterror officials. He is believed to have entered from Malaysia, a suspected hub of the triple plot, according to a European security source who was briefed by Thai officials.
The United States uncovered a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador inside Washington, D.C. that also tracked to Unit 400. Federal Bureau of Investigation counterintelligence managed to infiltrate the operation and capture $100,000 in transferred funds intended for the assassins. At that time, the Iranian operative was trying to hire what he believed to be a Mexican drug cartel’s agent to carry out the killings. In fact, their contacts were with the FBI. This led to the conviction of an Iranian-American, Mansour Arbabsiar, who plead guilty to the charges after the FBI arrested him.
The existence of a tight specialized unit that is designed to carry out attacks far from Iran shows the importance of terrorism to Iranian foreign policy. Attacks such as the failed Bangkok bombing are a high-risk strategy, given that they are directly attributable to Iranian agents. Iran can always proclaim innocence when Hezbollah or Shi’a militias in Iraq carry out terror attacks or commit war crimes. Presumably the attempt to hire a Mexican cartel to carry out an assassination on US soil was intended to create a similar sort of plausible deniability, enabling Iranian allies such as Russia to block diplomatic moves to punish the Islamic Republic.