The Quds Force is a unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) specializing in unconventional warfare and military intelligence operations. U.S. Army’s Iraq War General Stanley McChrystal describes the Quds Force as an organization roughly analogous to a combination of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the United States. Responsible for extraterritorial operations, the Quds Force supports non-state actors in many countries, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Yemeni Houthis, and Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Analysts estimate the Quds has 10,000–20,000 members. The Quds Force reports directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. It was commanded by Major General Qasem Soleimani until he was killed by a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad International Airport on 3 January 2020. Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani was appointed as commander of the Quds Force on the same day.
The Quds Force was created during the Iran–Iraq War as a special unit from the broader IRGC forces. It has the mission of liberating supposedly “Muslim land”, especially al-Quds, from which it takes its name– “Jerusalem Force,” in English.
Both during and after the war, it provided support to the Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein. In 1982, a Quds unit was deployed to Lebanon, where it assisted in the genesis of Hezbollah. The Force also expanded its operations into neighboring Afghanistan, including assistance for Abdul Ali Mazari’s Shi’a Hezbe Wahdat in the 1980s against the government of Mohammad Najibullah. It then began funding and supporting Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance against the Taliban. However, in recent years, the Quds Force is alleged to have been helping and guiding the Taliban insurgents against the NATO-backed Karzai administration. There were also reports of the unit lending support to Bosnian Muslims fighting the Bosnian Serbs during the Yugoslav wars.
According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad helped fund the Quds Force while he was stationed at the Ramazan garrison near Iraq, during the late 1980s.
In January 2010, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the mission of the Quds Force was expanded and the Force along with Hezbollah started a new campaign of attacks targeting not only the US and Israel but also other Western bodies.
In January 2020, Quds commander Major General Qasem Soleimani was killed in an airstrike on a military installation near Baghdad International Airport.
Eight directorates of Quds Force Operations
The force is described as “active in dozens of countries.” According to former U.S. Army intelligence officer David Dionisi, the Quds force is organized into eight different directorates based on geographic location:
Western countries (including the former Eastern Bloc)
Former Soviet Union
Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India
Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan
According to journalist Dexter Filkins, the force’s members are “divided between combatants and those who train and oversee foreign assets,” and the force is divided into branches focusing on “intelligence, finance, politics, sabotage, and special operations.” Members are chosen both for their skill and “allegiance to the doctrine of the Islamic Revolution.”
In addition, Dionisi asserts in his book American Hiroshima that the Iranian Quds Force headquarters for operations in Iraq was moved in 2004 to the Iran-Iraq border in order to better supervise activities in Iraq. The Quds Force also has a headquarters in the former compound of the U.S. Embassy, which was overrun in 1979.
According to Filkins and American General Stanley A. McChrystal, it was the Quds Force that “flooded” Iraq with “explosively formed projectiles” which fire a molten copper slug able to penetrate armor, and which accounted for “nearly 20%” of American combat deaths in Iraq (i.e. hundreds of soldiers). In September 2007, a few years after the publication of American Hiroshima: The Reasons Why and a Call to Strengthen America’s Democracy in July 2006, General David Petraeus reported to Congress that the Quds Force had left Iraq. Petraeus said, “The Quds Force itself, we believe, by and large, those individuals have been pulled out of the country, as have the Lebanese Hezbollah trainers that were being used to augment that activity.”
On 7 July 2008, journalist Seymour Hersh wrote an article in The New Yorker revealing that President Bush had signed a Presidential Finding authorizing the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command to conduct cross-border paramilitary operations from Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran. These operations would be against the Quds Force and “high-value targets.” “The Finding was focused on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” a person familiar with its contents said, and involved “working with opposition groups.”
The size of the Quds Force is unknown, with some experts believing that Quds Force numbers no more than 2,000 people, with 800 core operatives, and others saying that it could number anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000.