Today's D Brief: US kills militia chief; More Yemen strikes; Russia’s suicide drones; Marines confirmed dead in crash; And a bit more.

The U.S. military killed a top official from an Iran-backed militia Wednesday night in Baghdad, 10 days after a deadly drone attack near the Jordanian border killed three American soldiers and wounded more than 40 others. The U.S. initially responded this past Friday when more than 85 targets were hit in a wave of U.S. airstrikes inside Iraq and Syria. But White House and military officials promised more attacks would unfold over the following days; Wednesday’s strike in the Iraqi capital appears to be linked to that response. 

The man targeted is Abu Baqir al-Saadi, and he was known as a senior leader of the Kataib al-Hezbollah militia and its drone commander inside Syria, according to the Guardian and the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister. U.S. military officials at Central Command said the Kata’ib Hezbollah commander they killed (they did not specify his name) was “responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on U.S. forces in the region.” 

Worth noting: Saadi also held a position within the Iraqi government’s Popular Mobilization Forces, which the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS leveraged to push ISIS out of Mosul, Iraq, in the summer of 2017. While receiving a salary through the Iraqi government, “he murdered and abducted Iraqi citizens, fired drones at Arab nations [including the UAE several times], and attacked coalition forces—all in violation of Iraqi law and the constitution,” Michael Knights of the Washington Institute noted on social media. 

The Iraqi military expressed its purported outrage at the strike, claiming it “undermine[s] the understandings and the start of bilateral dialogue” on the future of U.S. troops based in Iraq. “This path pushes the Iraqi government, more than ever before, to end the mission of this coalition, which has become a factor of instability for Iraq, and threatens to drag Iraq into the circle of conflict,” wrote Maj. Gen. Yehia Rasool. 

According to post-strike imagery, the U.S. appears to have used its AGM-114R9X Hellfire missile, which is also known as the “flying ginsu” knife—so named for blades it deploys upon impact to reduce the collateral damage of a traditional explosive projectile. The U.S. is believed to have used the same kind of missile to kill Iranian paramilitary chief Qasem Soleimani in early 2020 as well as former al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in the summer of 2022. 

In the hours after Saadi was killed, Iran-linked proxy groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Palestine, and Lebanon have all vowed to retaliate against U.S. forces in response to the Wednesday night strike in eastern Baghdad. “They don't call it a network for nothing,” Lister quipped on social media.

Related reading: Intel officials warned well before Tower 22 attack of increased risks from drones,” Politico reported Wednesday.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1915, D. W. Griffith's racist film, “The Birth of a Nation,” premiered in Los Angeles. It would go on to become the first film ever screened at the White House, and its popularity helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, as Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware explain in the early chapters of their new book, “God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-right Terrorism in America.”

America’s top diplomat is beginning a grand tour of Middle East capitals. The immediate objective: achieving some sort of progress toward implementing the Gaza hostage deal laid out last month, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown no interest pursuing. But more broadly, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken aims “to keep the current conflict essentially contained to Gaza, wind it down there, and use the opportunity to construct a more stable Middle East in the aftermath, on the bedrock of Israeli-Saudi relations and Palestinian statehood,” writes Hussein Ibisha, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, in the pages of The Atlantic

That’ll be a hard sell, particularly to Israel, and yet it could determine the future of U.S. influence in the region, Ibisha argues. Read on, here.

Jordanian King Abdullah is planning on visiting the White House Monday, administration officials announced Thursday. Ostensibly, the visit will mark 75 years of diplomatic relations. But more urgently, the two leaders are also expected to discuss “the ongoing situation in Gaza and efforts to produce an enduring end to the crisis,” according to the White House. 

The U.S. military says it destroyed three more missiles prepared for launch from Houthi-controlled Yemen late Wednesday evening. That included two anti-ship cruise missiles and a single mobile land attack cruise missile; all three were allegedly targeting ships in the Red Sea, CENTCOM said Thursday. 

For your eyes only: We have a new analysis of Houthi and Iranian missiles and drones after the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency released a 28-page report (PDF) Tuesday. Featuring side-by-side comparisons, the report illustrates several plausibly identical matches between missiles and drones used by the two U.S. antagonists—from Shahed-136 “one-way” attack drones to medium-range ballistic missiles, known as Burkan-3 or Zulfiqar to the Houthis, and Qiam or Rezvan to Iran. 

We also have a closer look at some of the anti-ship missiles the Houthis have been using to attack vessels in the Red Sea. (Fabian Hinz of the International Institute for Strategic Studies explained several of these in a January podcast.) This includes the Houthis’ Asif anti-ship ballistic missile, “which shares nearly identical features with Iran's Fateh-110 anti-ship variant, also known as the Khalij Fars,” the Defense Intelligence Agency writes. 

There’s a convincing match between Houthi Quds-4 land-attack cruise missiles and Iran’s Project 351 series of Paveh LACMs, both of which have similar rear fins, tail sections, engines, and boosters. And Iranian 358 surface-to-air missiles look suspiciously similar to the Houthis’ Saqr SAMs, which the Iran-backed terrorist group has used to attack U.S. drones flying in Yemen and the Gulf of Oman, according to DIA. This missile has also found its way in the hands of Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Lebanon. 

These weapons are just a small window into a much larger transfer of arms from Iran to the Houthis that DIA analysts have documented over several years. Indeed, “Between 2015 and 2023, the United States and its partners have interdicted at least 18 Iranian smuggling vessels, seizing ballistic missile components, UAVs, anti-tank guided missiles, and thousands of assault rifles, rocket components, and other illicit weapons on their way to the Houthis,” DIA says in its report. Continue reading via DIA’s reading room, here

Speaking of the Shahed-136: a purported dump of files stolen from an Iranian company shines new light on Russia’s quest to build tens of thousands of the suicide drones, which it is is using in its war on Ukraine. If the files posted by the Iranian Prana hacking group are authentic, they reveal Russia’s plans to license-produce up to 10,000 of the drones a year—and for prices maybe five times higher than has been estimated. D1’s Sam Skove reports, here.

And speaking of hacking, learn how the FBI tricked a Chinese botnet into deleting itself. The cybersecurity firm Lumen offers more detail about the takedown of the Typhoon Volt group, the one that U.S. officials had gone further than any other known Chinese effort in preparing for attacks on U.S. industrial control systems. Essentially, the group writes, U.S. operatives told the KV-botnet to wipe its own malware from hundreds of the internet-connected devices it controls. Read, here.

Five Marines died in yesterday’s crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion that was flying to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the Marine Corps said in a statement today. Their names are being withheld pending notification of next of kin.

President Biden offered condolences in a statement: “Today, as we mourn this profound loss, we honor their selfless service and ultimate sacrifice—and reaffirm the sacred obligation we bear to all those who wear the uniform and their families.”

In Washington today:

  • National Guard Bureau Gen. Daniel Hokanson and Chief Master Sgt. Tony Whitehead will host a (livestreamed) Pentagon press briefing on National Guard priorities for 2024 at 1 p.m.
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander will participate in a (livestreamed) fireside chat with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on "Victory and Defeat in Ukraine" at 1:30 p.m.