Countries have assassinated people with drones, but those attacks now appear to include robotic weapons on the ground. The New York Timessources claim Israel assassinated top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27th, 2020 using a remotely-controlled, AI-assisted machine gun. Israel reportedly mounted the gun on a pickup truck by the side of the road and, when Fakhrizadeh’s car approached had a distant operator fire the gun using a satellite link.

The attack was precise, sparing Fakhrizadeh’s wife, but may not have used facial recognition to assist with aiming as unnamed Iranian officials said. While Israel purportedly used the AI to compensate for the satellite system’s lag and gun recoil, operatives identified Fakhrizadeh by staging a decoy car with a camera to force a U-turn and get a clear image.

Neither government has publicly confirmed the use of a robotic gun, although The Times‘ story is based in part on the Fakhrizadeh family’s statements to the media. Iranian investigators only determined the nature of the attack by chance, according to the sources. The Israeli operatives exploded the truck in a bid to destroy the evidence, but the equipment remained intact (if inoperable).

The use of this technology isn’t surprising. While the remote gun was supposedly difficult to set up (Israel smuggled parts in very gradually), it both kept agents out of harm’s way and avoided raising alarms like a drone. If the gun had been destroyed as planned, Iran might have been unable to determine the assassination method.

If accurate, the report might point to the future of espionage. Assassins can now use robotics to take out targets with little risk to themselves, little warning to enemies and a greater chance of deniability. You won’t necessarily see a surge of assassinations as a result (Fakhrizadeh ignored multiple security recommendations), but there’s a real chance this won’t be the last kill of its kind.