Iranian Media Claim CIA Agent Behind Soleimani Airstrike Killed in Afghanistan

TOPSHOT - In this photograph taken on January 27, 2020 the wreckage of a US Bombardier E-11A jet is seen after it crashed in mountainous territory of Deh Yak district in Ghazni Province. - A US military jet crashed in mountainous territory in eastern Afghanistan, where there is a heavy …
STR/AFP via Getty Images

Iranian state media are claiming a senior CIA officer named Michael D’Andrea, who they allege planned the airstrike that killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Gen. Qasem Soleimani in December, was killed when an American plane went down in Afghanistan on Monday.

The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday spotted similar claims in Russian media and the Taliban in Afghanistan, while reporting considerable “skepticism” from all other quarters:

Michael D’Andrea’s name began to appear in Farsi media in the wake of the Soleimani killing when articles at Mehr News and Radio Farda claimed he was involved in planning the US operation. Later, on January 27, his name appeared again in rumors after the plane crash.

There are many who might have an interest in spreading conspiracies about the Taliban downing high-ranking US intelligence officers. Nevertheless, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency ran with the story, quoting Russian sources that said the “assassin of Soleimani was on the plane and [was] killed in the crash.” It claims that D’Andrea “is the most prominent figure in the US CIA in the Middle East. He has been in charge of operations in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.”

The Taliban was quoted as saying it had shot down the plane. Tasnim refers to D’Andrea as “Ayatollah Mike” and “the Prince of Darkness,” relying on old US newspaper clippings. Press TV of Iran has also included the report, claiming top CIA officers were killed and repeating rumors about D’Andrea. But the original reports from the Taliban only spoke of a plane being shot down and some CIA members allegedly being on it. The US says an American E-11A plane was shot down in Ghazni province, around 900 km. from the Iranian border.

The aircraft in question, an Air Force Bombardier E-11A transport that is largely identical to a popular model of private jet, crashed in Taliban-controlled territory in the eastern Afghanistan province of Ghazni on Monday. 

In addition to transportation, the E-11A is often used as a platform for communications and electronic surveillance. The U.S. military began using such airborne communications platforms to coordinate ground action after the harrowing rescue of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, as dramatized in the 2013 film Lone Survivor. 

Both the E-11A and its civilian equivalent have exemplary safety records — according to manufacturer Bombardier of Canada, none of the planes has ever crashed without outside interference.

The Taliban immediately claimed it had shot down a plane was full of high-ranking CIA officers. Observers on the scene reported seeing only two bodies near the crash, as did local Afghan officials, but the Taliban claimed there were six people aboard. 

Defense officials said on Tuesday that only two people were aboard the plane. Their bodies were recovered from the crash site and some sensitive equipment was destroyed by the recovery team, including the flight data recorder. A statement from the Pentagon said the bodies were “treated with dignity and respect by the local Afghan community.”

The U.S. military disputes the Taliban’s claim of shooting down the plane but has not offered any details about why it went down or who was on board, which is a common approach to sensitive intelligence missions. Defense sources said harsh terrain and bad weather hindered recovery efforts.

“The cause of the crash remains under investigation, however there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire,” said a statement from the U.S. military.

The Jerusalem Post found a good deal of speculation on social media about D’Andrea, a storied CIA officer involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. When Iranian state television reported D’Andrea was killed in the plane crash, it accompanied the report with a photo of actor Fredric Lehne, who played a character based on D’Andrea in the 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicled the raid on bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan in 2011. D’Andrea’s actual appearance has never been publicized.

The New York Times reported in 2017 that D’Andrea had been placed in charge of the CIA’s operations in Iran. This assignment was taken as an early sign that President Donald Trump and then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo were serious about getting tough with Tehran.

Information on D’Andrea’s whereabouts and activities is as difficult to come by as one would expect for a top CIA officer. Among the few details known to the public about him are that he comes from a family with numerous ties to the CIA, and he converted to Islam in order to marry his wife, who he met while working an assignment overseas. He joined the CIA in 1979, the year of the Iranian Islamic revolution, but his name did not become known to the public until 2015.

According to claims made by Iranian and Russian media, the E-11A aircraft was D’Andrea’s mobile command center. Why he would need an airborne command center over Afghanistan when he is nominally in charge of Iran operations for the CIA was not addressed by the reports, although there was some speculation that Iran or Russia provided the missiles that supposedly brought down D’Andrea’s plane, an attack that would normally be beyond the abilities of Taliban forces. A militia group trained by the Iranian IRGC is also known to be active in Afghanistan.

The Jerusalem Post observed that Iran would be keenly interested in killing D’Andrea or claiming to have done so, to give the appearance of exacting “hard revenge” for the death of Soleimani. Since the U.S. government would normally avoid talking about D’Andrea’s current location or status — and certainly isn’t going to march him out in front of cameras to prove he is alive — it would be an easy pretense to maintain.

U.S. defense officials on Tuesday dismissed the claim of D’Andrea’s death as “propaganda.” According to these officials, the two people who were killed aboard the plane were its pilot and co-pilot.

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