Before dawn on January 3, as a United States drone fired missiles that killed Iran’s Quds Force head Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad, a separate strike was carried out to eliminate a senior commander of the force working in Yemen.
Sources in the Yemeni military told The National on Monday that information passed to the government regarding recent US air strikes indicated that Quds Force commander Abdul Reza Shahlai had been targeted near the rebel-controlled capital of Sanaa.
“The information we received didn’t offer further details about the exact area where the raid was launched,” a military official said. “But we think that the senior Iranian commander Abdul Reza Shahlai was among those who were targeted.”
The Pentagon did not comment when contacted by The National.
The Washington Post first reported the news of a second, failed, operation on January 3 near Sanaa targeting Shahlai, a financier and key commander in the elite overseas force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The newspaper said the US operation was classified and therefore Pentagon and military officials declined to comment on the record. The Post report added that had the operation been successful, the news would have been announced.
“If we had killed him, we’d be bragging about it that same night,” the paper quoted a senior US official as saying.
In Sanaa, residents who spoke to The National said they had not seen or heard anything about the operation nor had they known of any airstrikes in the city on January 3.
“We didn’t hear any explosions that night, unless the raid was not that big or targeted him in the far northern outskirts; that is possible,” one resident said.
Shahlai was born in Iran’s Kermanshah province in 1957 and enlisted in the IRGC at the same time as Suleimani at the start of the Iran-Iraq war in in 1980.
When the war ended in 1988, Shahlai joined the Quds Force and also went by the name Hajj Yusuf.
The United States has offered up to $15 million for information on Shahlai, who is also designated a terrorist by the European Union, UK, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The American Rewards for Justice website lists Shahlai as being behind the deaths of coalition forces in Iraq; a financier in Yemen; and being behind a 2011 plot to assassinate then Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel Al Jubeir.
A senior military official in the Yemeni army told The National that the government believes Shahlai entered Yemen on June 4, 2016, using a forged passport.
"Shahlai is the top Iranian commander leading the Houthi militia in Yemen," Col Yehya Abu Hatim, an adviser to Yemeni Defence Minister Brig Mohammed Al Makdashi, told The National. "He is the controller of the other Iranian and Lebanese military experts who are in charge of manufacturing and installing the Iranian-made missiles and drones in Sanaa and the other Houthi-held areas in Yemen."
Col Abu Hatim said Shahlai also worked alongside Houthi commander Yehya Al Qasmi Abu Ayman in the group’s electronic war unit to set targets and measure distances for rocket attacks.
He also over oversees the training of specialised Houthi rebel frogmen unit.
In 2016, the Hezbollah-run War Media Centre shared images and video of a training exercise by the Houthi militia’s new amphibious unit emerging from the sea in western Yemen wearing scuba diving equipment and toting assault rifles as they assault a beach.
“These kinds of training are carried out by Shahlai and his followers in two main bases in Hodeidah, the first base is located in Al Erq area near Al Saleef port north-west of Hodeidah and the other base is located in Al Dhahi area north-east of the port city of Hodiedah,” Col Abu Hatim said.
The defence adviser said Shahlai one of the Lebanese experts that Shahlai was working with in Yemen was a senior Hezbollah member called Abu Al Hasan Hamyia.
The Hezbollah commander trains Houthi militia units in manufacturing and installing land and sea mines, equipping explosives boats used to harass maritime traffic as well as planting landmines in the Hodeidah region.
On Shahlai’s whereabouts, Col Abu Hatim said that he has been shuttling between Hodeidah city and the mountains of Burra and Shameer as well as Al Mahwit province west of Sanaa.
The US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook has said of of Shahlai: “The US is gravely concerned by his presence in Yemen and potential role in providing advanced weaponry of the kind we have interdicted to the Houthis.”