How An AI-Assisted Robot Gun Assassinated Iran's Top Nuclear Scientist

Fakhrizadeh, a former physics professor, had been top of Israel’s most-wanted list for over a decade due to his alleged leading role in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Image credit: saeediex/Shutterstock.com

An AI-assisted remote-controlled gun played a key role in Israel's assassination of Iran's nuclear kingpin, according to a new report by the New York Times.

On November 27, 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated while driving towards the town of Absard, east of the Iranian capital of Tehran. Some initial reports from Iran alleged that their longstanding adversary Israel had carried out the attack using a “remote-controlled weapon” or “killer robot,” while other reports said a gun battle had ensued between Israeli assassins and the scientist's bodyguards. In the heat of the moment, the day’s events become confused and muddled.

Now, an investigation by the NYT has spilled more details of this plot and detailed the advanced technology involved in the assassination. As it turns out, the seemingly unlikely reports of "killer robots" and sci-fi-like weaponry were not far wrong. 

Fakhrizadeh, a former physics professor, had been on the top of Israel’s most-wanted list for over a decade due to his alleged leading role in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Since 2007, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad has assassinated at least five Iranian nuclear scientists and carried out countless other steps to undermine Iran developing nuclear weapons, including cyberattacks and sabotage. Mossad had made an attempt on Fakhrizadeh’s life in 2009, but its plan failed. Since then, geopolitical tensions became increasingly fraught and by 2020 Mossad was ready to take another stab at the nuclear chief.

As per the NYT, the plot involved Iranian agents (working for the Mossad) parking a blue Nissan Zamyad pickup truck on the side of the road towards Absard. Iranian investigators later found that security cameras on this road had been disabled. In the back of the pickup truck, a Belgian-made FN MAG machine gun attached to an advanced robotic apparatus was hidden underneath a tarpaulin sheet and building equipment. To identify the target, a broken-down car armed with special cameras was placed around 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles) from the armed pick-up truck. 

Back in Israel, over 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away, an assassin sat in an undisclosed location closely watching a screen of the highway outside the town of Absurd. The artificial gun in their hand was hooked up to the pickup's gun in Iran using a host of cameras, artificial intelligence systems, and satellite technology. The AI was reportedly programmed to adjust for the potential delay in signals between Israel and Iran, and to compensate for the shaking and speed of the car.

At 1 pm local time in Iran, the assassin team was informed that Fakhrizadeh, his wife, and a band of armed guards in escort cars were set to leave their house and drive past the pick-up truck later that day. At around 3.30 pm, the cars were about to reach the target site. 

As if playing a computer game, the assassin stared at the screen, waiting for the target to drive by. When the car came into their sights, they pulled the trigger, shooting the actual gun in Iran. A shower of bullets fired at Fakhrizadeh's car, causing it to serve and stop. The gun reconfigured and let out another round of bullets towards the windshield, killing Fakhrizadeh but avoiding his wife who was sitting in the passenger seat. His bodyguards rushed out of their cars, confused where the shots were coming from, and the blue pick-up truck exploded in a failed attempt to destroy any evidence.

While this story might sound exceptional, a number of recent reports have highlighted the increasing use of remote weaponry and AI in warfare. One notably example is Israel's so-called "Iron Dome", which uses an AI air defense system to intercept and neutralize incoming missiles. The dizzying prospect of fully autonomous battlefield robots is still some way off, but it appears that the trend of AI-assisted warfare is already well and truly upon us.

 
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