The chief of Iranian cyber-security has been shot dead, sparking rumours that he was murdered in a targeted assassination.
The body of Mojtaba Ahmadi, commander of the Cyber War Headquarters, was found in isolated woodland near a town called Karaj, which is north-west of Tehran. He had been shot twice through the heart.
Despite rumours that Israel's intelligence unit, Mossad, was responsible for the killing – purportedly in order to cripple the Islamic Republic's cyber warfare capability – the country's Revolutionary Guard has cautioned against assuming the murder was an assassination.
“I could see two bullet wounds on his body and the extent of his injuries indicated that he had been assassinated from a close range with a pistol,” eyewitness told the website Alborz, according to the Telegraph.
Alborz is said to have links to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military dedicated to preserving the country's Islam-based government and judiciary.
Yet a statement from the Imam Hassan Mojtaba division of the Revolutionary Guard Corps warned against “prematurely [speculating] about the identity of those responsible for the killing.”
Iran's cyber warfare capabilities are not as much of an international concern as its nuclear weapons programme or its occasional threats to close the vital Strait of Hormuz, through which a large portion of the world's oil exports passes. However, if the latest killing turns out to be an assassination by foreign powers, it will mark the beginning of a new front in the clandestine war against the Islamic Republic.
Shashank Joshi, from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), was surprised to see the killing. Iran is not known for its fearsome cyber warriors, despite persistent rumours suggesting it played a significant role in training the Syrian Electronic Army, which was responsible for a number of cyber-attacks – mostly Twitter hijacks – on Western targets this year.
Joshi said: “Iran’s cyber attacks on Israel and elsewhere in the region are a rising threat and a growing threat, but it hasn’t yet been seen as a major and sustained onslaught, so it would be pretty novel and significant to take this step in the field of cyber-warfare at this time."
The modus operandi of the killing, which is thought to have been carried out by two men on motorcycles, is similar to previous assassinations against prominent Iranian officials.
Four Iranian scientists linked to the nuclear programme have been bumped off since 2007. Motorcycles have been linked to previous attacks. In at least one of the killings, a motorcyclist allegedly linked to Mossad stuck what was described as a "magnetic" bomb under a target's car; in another, a remote-controlled bomb attached to a motorcycle was detonated outside a man's home.
The head of Iran's ballistic missiles programme was also killed in an explosion at an Iranian base in 2011.
American officials have previously claimed Iranian hackers were responsible for attacks on oil, gas and power firms.
Iran and the US are engaged in new diplomatic efforts aimed at ending sanctions and stopping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Any assassination could be seriously damaging to this nascent diplomacy. ®