Before Deadly Bulgaria Bombing, Tracks of a Resurgent Iran-Hezbollah Threat (FP) FOREIGN POLICY) BY SEBASTIAN ROTELLA 07/30/12)
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Bent on avenging attacks on its nuclear program, Iran and Hezbollah
have allegedly spun at least 10 terror plots in the past year, most
of them failures. With this monthīs deadly bombing in the beach
resort of Burgas, Western counterterror officials say, the Shiite
alliance has crossed a dangerous line.
After a decade in which
al Qaeda dominated the world stage, the
global terror threat from Iran has escalated sharply, generating a
swarm of recent plots from Delhi to Mombasa to Washington and
signaling an aggressive new strategy, counterterror officials
But there were meager results until this month. On July 18,
suspected suicide bomber killed six people and wounded 30 aboard an
Israeli tourist bus in a coastal town in Bulgaria. Israel quickly
accused Hezbollah and Iran, longtime sponsor of the Lebanese Shiite
militant group. Many questions remain about the bombing, and
Bulgarian authorities have said they do not have proof implicating
Hezbollah so far. Nonetheless, many Western counterterror officials
share Israelīs suspicions.
If the allegations are true, Iran and
Hezbollah have crossed a
dangerous line with their first strike in Europe in more than 15
years. The repercussions are stoking more turmoil in a Middle East
torn by civil war in Syria and conflict over Iranīs nuclear
ProPublica has reviewed a string of plots attributed
to the Shiite
alliance, 10 cases in the past year alone, and found a complex and
contradictory evolution of the threat. Iran and Hezbollah have waged
a determined campaign to strike their enemies in retaliation for
attacks on the Iranian nuclear program and the killing of a Hezbollah
chief, counterterror officials say. The offensive led by the Quds
Force, Iranīs elite foreign operations unit, has displayed impressive
reach and devastating potential.
"The Hezbollah-Quds force
threat is the big thing worldwide right
now," a U.S. counterterror official said. "There has been a wave of
Yet the modus operandi so far has veered between
clumsiness, precision and improvisation. Most of the attempted
strikes have failed, often hampered by hasty execution and unreliable
operatives, according to counterterror officials and experts around
the world. In some ways the apparent opportunism and erratic behavior
make the menace worse, increasing the chances of conflict with the
West, experts say.
"These cases all seem amateurish," an Indian
said. "The Iranians feel great frustration and desperation because of
the attacks on the nuclear program, a real desire to strike. So they
arenīt prepared -- they act quickly. They donīt care about reprisals.
They are out of practice. They have done few operations like this
since the ī90s."
ProPublica interviewed law enforcement,
intelligence and diplomatic
officials and experts from the United States, Europe, Israel and
India for this article, granting them anonymity because of the
ongoing investigation in Bulgaria and because many are not authorized
to speak to the news media. They included officials from governments
that do not always agree with Jerusalem and Washington about the
nature of the Iran-Hezbollah threat.
Starting in the 1980s,
Hezbollah and Iran conducted an international
campaign of bombings, hijackings, kidnappings and assassinations
against Israeli, U.S., European, Saudi and Iranian dissident
In Argentina, car bombs blew up the Israeli embassy in
1992 and the
AMIA Jewish community center in 1994, killing a total of 115 people.
Argentine prosecutors charged that the Quds Force and Hezbollah used
a web of diplomats, front companies and logistics specialists in the
Iran had "plots on the shelf methodically
prepared and updated all
over the world," said Charles (Sam) Faddis, a retired CIA
counterterror chief. "They would do recon to test the defenses,
update contingencies and plans."
In 2001, Deputy Secretary of
State Richard Armitage called Hezbollah,
which relies on Iran for funding, arms and support, "the A-team of
terrorists." But the alliance scaled back international terror
activity outside of combat zones such as Lebanon, Iraq and
Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and its Sunni Muslim allies were the most
urgent terror threat to the West during the past decade, but have
declined dramatically in strength. Al Qaeda has not carried out a
fatal bombing in the West since 2005.
In February, Iran
allegedly tried to unleash a terror spectacular in
the style of old, targeting three countries at once. A motorcycle
bomber managed to wound an Israeli diplomat in India. But authorities
foiled attacks in Georgia and Thailand -- where a bomber blew off his
own legs -- even though a Quds Force commander had traveled
undercover to Bangkok to lay the groundwork, according to Western
Last year, Quds Force officers
allegedly directed an Iranian-American
used-car salesman to hire drug traffickers to assassinate the Saudi
ambassador in Washington. But the suspect unknowingly recruited a
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant and was arrested;
defense lawyers assert that their client has a mental
"Itīs as if thereīs a systematic policy of Iran
downright kooky terrorists," said British security expert Sajjan
Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation.
Another factor has played
a role: In the aftermath of the 9/11
attacks, global defenses against terrorism have been beefed up.
Still, Iranian spymasters have deployed seemingly inexperienced or
ineffective agents, especially those with Western passports. The
profile helps preserve deniability, according to Ali Alfoneh, an
expert on the Iranian military at the American Enterprise
"They donīt want to sacrifice better-equipped, better-
who, if arrested, can compromise the Quds Force, give up a lot of
inside information," said the Iranian-born Alfoneh.
Details Trickle Out
The successful strike in Burgas, a low-cost
beach resort popular with
young Israelis and Scandinavians, took place on the 18th anniversary
of the AMIA bombing in Argentina. According to news reports,
Bulgariaīs prime minister has described a sophisticated conspiracy
by "exceptionally experienced" terrorists.
The scope was
limited, however. And there were sloppy details.
bomber carried a fake driverīs license from Michigan,
which has a large population with Middle Eastern roots, according to
U.S. and European officials. The forger put a Louisiana address on
the license, an error that could have endangered the operation. A
suspected accomplice carried another fake Michigan driverīs license,
this one with a Michigan address, U.S. law enforcement officials
say. A travel agency refused to rent a car to the nervous suspected
accomplice before the attack because the license raised suspicions,
The decision to hit Israeli tourists aboard a
bus further reflects
limitations, experts say.
"The attempts at attacking embassies
and embassy personnel have been
failures, so they are shifting to soft targets," Alfoneh
Bulgarian authorities say the bomber and the accomplice,
apparently remains at large, arrived by plane about a month earlier.
The bomber is believed to have flown in via Germany and the
accomplice via Belgium, according to U.S. and European officials.
Police following circumstantial leads have questioned a third person,
a man of Turkish descent, but have not linked him to the attack so
far, a U.S. law enforcement official said.
The target, symbolic
date and context of previous activity implicate
Iran and Hezbollah, counterterror officials say.
"I am convinced
the origin of this attack is Shiite," an Italian
counterterror official said. "In the last two years, there was
growing concern that they were going to come here to Europe to do
something. They know if they do it in Israel, itīs more difficult and
retaliation is more likely."
Israel has not offered concrete
proof to back up its repeated
accusations. Hezbollah and Iran deny responsibility. Iran accused
Israel of orchestrating the attack on its own citizens. The process
of identifying the attackers has been slow and the fingerprints sent
to European and U.S. agencies and Interpol have not produced a match,
according to counterterror officials.
As a result, doubts
endure. The apparent use of a suicide bomber
perplexes some analysts. Iran and Hezbollah carried out major suicide
attacks in the 1980s and early 1990s. The tactic then spread to Sunni
groups. Al Qaeda began carrying out "martyrdom operations" in the mid-
1990s and made them a signature. At the same time, Iran and Hezbollah
have greatly curtailed the use of suicide bombers, counterterror
The backpack bomb itself is a point of
contention. The U.S. law
enforcement official said aspects of the device in Burgas resembled
bombs in the suspected Iranian triple plot in February. But the TNT-
based explosive differs from the Iranian-made plastic explosive in
the February case, according to another U.S. law enforcement
official, who remains skeptical.
"Iīm not convinced itīs Iran
and Hezbollah," he said. "Iīm waiting to
see the evidence."
Complicating the issue, there has been no
credible claim of
responsibility. Al Qaeda usually follows attacks with videos
featuring declarations by the suicide bombers, the networkīs leaders
or both. Iran and Hezbollah keep silent.
"It creates more fear,"
the Italian counterterror official
said. "Ambiguity suits them very well. The attack itself sends the
Whoever they were, the masterminds probably chose
Bulgaria because it
has weaker law enforcement and more porous borders than most of the
European Union. Bulgaria has the EUīs highest proportion of Muslims,
about 12 percent of the population, though so far no public
information has suggested a link to the local Islamic community.
Hezbollah operatives have previously been detected in Bulgaria, U.S.
law enforcement officials say.
Western intelligence officials
warned of Bulgariaīs potential as a
theater for terror five years ago. Intelligence revealed that
Hezbollah chiefs and Iranian intelligence officials had put Bulgaria
on a list of nations propitious for developing plots against Western
targets. Iranian spy agencies prefer developing countries, where itīs
easier to cover their tracks, experts say.
Conflict with Israel
intensified in February 2008 after a car bomb in
the heart of Damascus killed Imad Mughniyah, a notorious Hezbollah
military leader and ally of Iranian intelligence. Iranian and
Hezbollah leaders publicly accused Israel and vowed
Within weeks, a plot was under way against the Israeli
Azerbaijan. Police broke up the cell in May 2008. The suspects
included Azeri accomplices, a senior Hezbollah field operative and a
Hezbollah explosives expert. Police also arrested two Iranian spies,
but they were released within weeks because of pressure from Tehran,
Western anti-terror officials say. The other suspects were
Police in Turkey soon broke up a similar plot against
targets, arresting Hezbollah operatives with Canadian and Kuwaiti
passports said to be involved in smuggling a car bomb across the
border from Syria in 2009.
The close partnership between Iran
and Hezbollah is not without
friction. There is debate in the Western intelligence community about
the extent to which Hezbollah would do Iranīs bidding in event of a
confrontation between Tehran and the West. But many cases show that
Iran and Hezbollah work together on terror activity, Western
counterterror officials say.
House Painter Turned Hit Man
Iranian dissidents also found themselves in the crosshairs,
to government documents and investigators.
In July 2009, police
in Glendora, Calif., arrested an Iranian-
American house painter when his accomplice got cold feet and reported
that he was planning a murder.
The suspect, Mohammad Reza
Sadeghnia of Ann Arbor, Mich., had done
surveillance on a prominent Iranian dissident who hosted a Farsi
radio show, according to a report by the Glendora police. Sadeghnia
hired an accomplice, an Iranian immigrant with a criminal record,
paying him $27,000 via his mother in Iran, the report says.
two conspirators holed up in a seedy motel for five days, police
say. After half-hearted efforts to buy a gun, Sadeghnia decided to
make the killing look like a traffic accident, according to the
police report. He and his accomplice purchased a 1986 van for $1,800.
They tinkered with the engine in a plan to run over the dissident and
blame a mechanical problem, the report says.
"He didnīt strike
me as the Jason Bourne of Iran," Capt. Tim Staab of
the Glendora Police said in an interview.
Suspecting that his
accomplice had lost his nerve, Sadeghnia
threatened to have the manīs relatives killed in Iran, according to
the police report.
"I have done other missions around the
world," Sadeghnia warned.
Alerted by the repentant accomplice,
police rushed to a hotel near
the Los Angeles airport and arrested Sadeghnia, who was headed to a
strip club before catching a night flight to Detroit, according to
Sadeghnia was charged with conspiracy to commit
murder and pleaded
guilty to a lesser crime. He served about a year in prison and got
five years more probation, authorities said. When a judge allowed
Sadeghnia to visit his ailing father in Iran in 2010, he never came
Despite Sadeghniaīs amateurish exploits, there are signs
he was a
bona fide agent. He had plenty of cash -- crisp new bills in a seal
from an Iranian bank, according to police. Sadeghnia admitted to the
FBI that he was gathering intelligence on his target, the police
Before the Los Angeles episode, Sadeghnia had
surveillance in London on another Iranian dissident, a radio
commentator for Voice of America there, according to a U.S. State
Department cable disclosed by WikiLeaks. Sadeghnia befriended the
dissident, met with him in London and Washington, and took photos of
him, his home and his car, according to the cable, dated Jan. 21,
2010. The dissident grew suspicious and cut off contact with
Sadeghnia, the cable says.
After the arrest in Los Angeles,
British authorities warned the radio
personality that Sadeghnia had been "working for the Iranian
intelligence services," according to the cable. It says that the
London surveillance photos were provided to Majid Alavi, a deputy
Iranian intelligence minister at the time.
Although the case
reveals skullduggery in the heart of the West, the
bumbling clashes with the formidable image of the Iranian security
"Why have they been so unsuccessful?" said Alfoneh, the
expert. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is a Third World country,
contrary to what people believe. ... Experience has shown when they
operate very far away, their success rate is not good."
And Hit Men
In the past two years, Iran redoubled efforts to
strike its enemies
in response to attacks against its nuclear program, including a major
cyber-assault and assassinations of nuclear scientists with
sophisticated "sticky" bombs attached to cars. Iran blames Israel and
the United States for those attacks.
The regime, under pressure
to show strength at home and abroad,
incorporated Hezbollah into its retaliatory offensive, experts
"The two organizations cooperate," Alfoneh said. "The
Hezbollah is to deliver services in exchange for the arms and money
they receive. The motive of Iran is to repair its damaged prestige,
the image that it is not even capable of defending its scientists.
This is why they did those ill-prepared attacks. They needed to
Last yearīs Washington plot had an
opportunistic quality. U.S.
prosecutors charged Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen
living in Texas, and Gholam Shakuri, a colonel in the Quds Force who
is thought to be in Iran, with planning to assassinate the ambassador
of Saudi Arabia, a nemesis of Tehran. There was also talk about
Israeli targets, according to U.S. officials.
included a $100,000 wire transfer sent to Arbabsiar and
telephone intercepts of senior Iranian officers discussing his plan
to hire Mexican hit men for an ambush in a restaurant, according to a
criminal complaint and U.S. officials. Separately, the U.S. Treasury
Department accused three Quds Force chiefs as masterminds: Gen. Qasem
Sulemaini, the Quds Force commander; Hamed Abdollahi; and Abdul
Shalali, a cousin of the Iranian-American suspect.
little apparent training and few qualifications other
than his family connection, according to U.S. officials. His business
career and personal life were checkered, according to court documents
and state records. In the spring of 2011, he enlisted a Mexican drug
cartel associate because he knew the manīs aunt, according to
officials and a federal complaint. The cartel associate, a DEA
informant, promptly alerted his handlers and set in motion an
undercover sting led by the FBI.
Arbabsiar pleaded innocent and
awaits trial in the fall. In expert
reports filed recently in federal court in the Southern District of
New York, his lawyers paint him as hapless. Two defense psychiatrists
said he was bipolar.
"Arbabsiar consistently lost keys and
titles to cars when he ran a
used car lot," Dr. Michael B. First of Columbia University wrote in
one report. Arbabsiar spent much of 2010 depressed and smoking
cigarettes in his room, the report says. In manic episodes, the
report says, he "becomes excessively energized, speaks rapidly,
becomes hypersexual, is inappropriately trusting of other people to
the point where he gets taken advantage of, and needs less
On one plane flight, Arbabsiar "decided to treat the
pilot and passengers seated around him to expensive bottles of
perfume from the duty-free cart because he wanted to make everyone
feel good," according to the report.
To be sure, that portrait
comes from defense lawyers. But the case
has caused consternation in the U.S. intelligence community and some
public skepticism. U.S. counterterror officials are convinced the
evidence is solid, but they expressed surprise that Iran used a
seemingly low-caliber agent for a high-risk scenario verging on an
act of war.
The misadventure may reflect factionalism and
freelancing in Iranīs
mafia-like security forces, according to experts and officials. Some
theorize the Quds Force launched the mission mainly to send a warning
message, or as part of Iranian political intrigue.
aftermath, the Director of National Intelligence, James
Clapper, warned about a shift in Iranian strategy. "Some Iranian
officials -- probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- have
changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack
in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions
that threaten the regime," Clapper said during Senate testimony in
String of Recent Plots
The Arbabsiar arrest last
October did not slow the drumbeat of terror
Weeks later, an alleged plot was detected in
Azerbaijan, this time
aimed at Americans as well as Israelis, counterterror officials say.
The Washington Post detailed that case in a recent
Israeli leaders have said publicly that they warned
January about another suspected threat there against Israeli tourists
on winter vacation.
In Thailand on Jan.16, police discovered a
warehouse containing 8,800
pounds of explosives material. They jailed a suspect accused of
stockpiling the stash and distilling the materials into crystal form,
a step toward bomb-making. A former hairdresser born in Lebanon,
Hussein Atris holds a Swedish passport and is a suspected Hezbollah
operative, according to counterterror officials.
More than a
dozen embassies in Bangkok issued warnings about
impending attacks after the arrest. Despite that alert, a Quds Force
commander named Majid Alavi secretly entered Thailand on a high-
stakes mission, according to Western counterterror
Alavi is believed to be the same senior figure named
in the WikiLeaks
cable that described spying on dissidents in London and Los Angeles.
He has served as Iranīs acting intelligence minister, officials say.
He shifted to the Quds Force early this year and along with
Abdollahi, a commander accused in the Washington plot, now runs a
team known as the Special External Operations Unit, or Unit 400,
according to Western officials.
The unit "conducts sensitive
covert operations abroad [that] include
terrorist attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and sabotage," a U.S.
official said. The unit has supported Iraqi militants, "provided
weapons, equipment, training and money to Afghan insurgents ... and
also arranges the delivery of lethal aid into Syria and Lebanon and
military training for Hezbollah and Palestinian militants."
Quds Force reports directly to Iranīs Supreme Leader Khamenei,
officials said, bypassing the Iranian militaryīs complex decision-
Alavi traveled to Bangkok on Jan. 19 using a
diplomatic passport with
the alias Hossein Tehrani, according to Western counterterror
officials. He is believed to have entered from Malaysia, a suspected
hub of the triple plot, according to a European security source who
was briefed by Thai officials.
The commander spent several days
in Thailand working on preparations
for an attack and meeting with Thai Shiite accomplices, officials
said. Alavi relayed orders to strike as close as possible to Feb. 12,
the anniversary of the Mughniyah killing, officials said.
unusual for someone of his rank to take part at the
operational level, but this is indicative of the pressure being
applied from the most senior political-military levels of the regime
to carry out attacks," a Western counterterror official
Other Iranian cells allegedly set up in Tbilisi, the
Georgia, and Delhi. A group of Iranians with tourist visas entered
India, which has good relations with Tehran and a large Iranian
student community. Their accused Indian accomplice is a freelance
journalist: Mohammed Kazmi, a Shiite Muslim and frequent collaborator
with Iranīs national news agency. (Kazmi has pleaded not guilty and
is being held for trial.)
Closed-circuit television footage,
Kazmiīs statements to
investigators and other evidence show that he helped his visitors do
reconnaissance on the Israeli embassy and helped provide them with a
motorcycle, Indian authorities say. The suspects communicated with
the Iranian embassy and handlers in Iran, Indian officials
The cells went into action Feb. 13, investigators say. A
maneuvered through traffic in the heart of Delhiīs embassy district,
slapped a magnetic bomb onto an Israeli diplomatic vehicle and sped
away. The explosion wounded the wife of Israelīs defense attaché. The
method used closely resembled the assassinations of Iranian nuclear
scientists. The Iranian suspects fled the country, with the bomber
heading to Malaysia.
Other plots fizzled. A bomb placed on an
Israeli embassy car in
Georgia was detected. And in Bangkok, a wild scene took place at a
safe house when a bomb exploded prematurely, causing three suspects
to flee, according to the account of U.S., Israeli and European
Sayed Moradi was wounded in the Bangkok blast,
according to the
officials. He staggered into the street, bleeding from the ears, and
tried and failed to escape in a taxi. When police closed in, he
hurled a grenade at them that bounced back and blew off his legs.
Police arrested him and two other Iranians. A fourth fled to
Malaysia, where he was captured.
The cells in the three
countries were linked by telephone contact,
according to officials. And the sticky bombs resembled each other,
according to counterterror officials from several countries involved.
The devices were encased in shoebox-sized radios with components
including a grenade, Iranian-made plastic explosives and magnets on
the bottom, officials said.
In the aftermath, Thai press reports
and photos revealed that the
suspects in Bangkok took time from casing Israeli diplomatic targets
to cavort with prostitutes. An ambitious plan to spread worldwide
terror broke down because of questionable personnel and "improvised"
plots, a French official said.
"Iran wanted to strike fast and
strong," the French official
said. "But they werenīt ready. It was intended to send a signal. They
Surveillance on Israeli Tourists
raised concerns in the weeks before the Bulgaria blast.
the U.S. embassy in Nairobi issued a terror warning after
Kenyan police arrested two alleged Quds Force officers and found 33
pounds of explosives in a shipping container in the port city of
Mombasa. Authorities allege that they had Israeli, U.S., and Saudi
targets in mind. The Iranian suspects have denied guilt and face
An arrest took place in Cyprus on July 7. Police detained
Hezbollah operative and charged him with conducting surveillance on
Israeli tourists, who frequent the island in large numbers.
in Thailand in January, the suspect held a passport from Sweden,
which has an active, internationally connected community of
extremists. He remains in jail. His profile fits a pattern of using
operatives with Western documents.
Israeli leaders say the
Cyprus case has close parallels to the
bombing in Bulgaria 11 days later. If the investigation implicates
Hezbollah and Iran, it could worsen the Middle East turmoil caused by
the civil war in Syria.
While vowing a stern response to the
bombing, Israel has also warned
that it might intervene militarily if Syria attempts to transfer
chemical weapons to its allies. Iran and Hezbollah have a vital
triangular alliance with Syria, which plays a central role helping
Iran fund, train and arm the Shiite militant group. The Syrian crisis
has pushed Tehran and Hezbollah closer together, though Hezbollah
Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah knows that supporting the regime
in Damascus hurts his international image, experts say.
the individual interests of Hezbollah and Iran coincide, they
are more dangerous," said Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute
on Near East Policy, a former deputy assistant secretary for
intelligence at the Treasury Department.
As the tensions mount,
the worldīs intelligence and law enforcement
agencies are keeping a close watch on a network they say has a taste
for risk and for striking in unexpected places.
"If there are
hostilities, they would hit in the Middle East, Latin
America, Europe," said Faddis, the CIA counterterror veteran. "And
the U.S., if they could."
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