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Analysis / Iran and Hezbollah’s Terror Escalation Against Israel

First published by Haaretz

After a series of failed or foiled terror attempts against Israeli targets this year, Iran and Hezbollah finally staged a “successful” attack. The suicide bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian citizen, and wounded some 30 Israelis.

The current campaign, which began more or less four years ago, is not the first wave of Iran-Hezbollah attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. The terror campaign of 1994/95 included a failed March 1994 truck bombing of the Israeli embassy in Bangkok; the July 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community’s AMIA building, in which 85 people were killed and 300 wounded; the July 1994 suicide bombing on a commuter aircraft in Panama, 12 of whose 21 victims were Jews and a Hezbollah cell in Singapore’s 1995 plan to attack Israeli (and American) ships and the Israeli embassy.

Contemporary assessments viewed the earlier campaign of terror as retaliation to the Israeli bombing of a Hezbollah training camp in Lebanon in which 40 members of the organization were killed. Israeli author-journalist Ronen Bergman claims Tehran retaliated because Israel foiled important Iranian financial negotiations with Europe. Argentinian prosecutors who worked for several years on the AMIA case suggested that Iran ordered the 1994 bombing as a response to Argentina’s suspension of a contract to transfer nuclear technology to Tehran.

The 2006 Second Lebanon war

The connection between Iranian strategic priorities and attacks on Israel itself, as well as Israeli targets abroad, was well-illustrated by the events of 2006. It is likely that the July 2006 escalation on Israel’s Lebanese border, set off by Hezbollah, was the result of six years of strategic planning, as Iran armed its Shi’ite ally with long-range artillery and rockets. Its goal: To trigger a major Middle Eastern military clash which would relieve pressure on Iran and divert international attention from the Islamic Republic’s s nuclear program. It was intended to signal the West, the United States and Israel before that year’s G-8 summit, which took place on July 15, of the results of serious international sanctions or destruction of Iranian nuclear facilities in a U.S. or Israeli attack.

In an interview aired in April 2007, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem described Iran’s role in his organization’s strategy on all major issues: “When it comes to matters of jurisprudence pertaining to its general direction, as well as to its jihad direction, Hezbollah based itself on the decisions of the supreme legal authority [i.e. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei]. It is he who permits, and it is the supreme legal authority who forbids. Therefore, we covered our jihad position with regard to fighting Israel with the decision of the supreme legal authority…Even with regard to the firing of missiles on Israeli citizens, when they were bombing citizens on our side… even that required general permission based on Islamic law.”

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, made it clear in August 2007 that Hezbollah was following Iranian instructions. “In the course of the war and jihad in Lebanon [the Hezbollah leaders] visited the [Iranian supreme] leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] several times. At those meetings, he emphasized time and again the spiritual connection with God, the reliance on God, the connection with the Koran, and prayer,” he said.

The current terrorist campaign

The current terrorist campaign started after the February 2008 assassination in Damascus of senior military-terrorist leader Imad Mughniyeh, who had been linked to major attacks on American, Israeli and Arab targets around the world. Accusing Israel of the assassination, Hezbollah and Iran vowed to extract a painful revenge. (Remarkably, Syrian authorities have never published the results of their investigation of the Mughniyeh assassination or even formally accused Israel of responsibility for it).

Attempts to strike back at Israel were not long in coming. In May of that year, authorities in Azerbaijan uncovered a plan to blow up the Israeli embassy in Baku with a suicide truck. Two Lebanese citizens and four Azeris were sentenced to 15 years in prison for planning the attack, which would also have endangered the Japanese Embassy, located in the same Baku building. Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) who helped organize the plot escaped to Iran.

Plans to bomb the Israeli embassy and Jewish targets in Baku actually began in 2007, long before Mughniyeh’s assassination. The same Hezbollah cell also intended to bomb the Russian Qabala radar station in Azerbaijan, which Moscow offered to the U.S. in order to monitor Iran.

Terror attacks targeting Israelis abroad since January 2012

However, the wave of attacks appears to have intensified in recent months. Numerous foiled and failed attacks against Israeli targets involving Iranian, Lebanese and local citizens have taken place since January 2012.

Bulgaria The Burgas attack wasn’t the first time this year that Israeli tourists were targeted. In January a package suspected of containing explosives was spotted on a bus carrying Israeli ski tourists from Turkey to Bulgaria.

Azerbaijan Three men were detained in January after planning to attack two Israelis employed by the Chabad Jewish school in Baku. The trio — Rasim Farail Aliyev, Ali Alihamza Huseynov and Balaqardash Dadashov, an Azeri citizen who lives in the Iranian city of Ardabil – were given smuggled arms and equipment by Iranian agents.

Thailand On January 12, Thai authorities arrested Hussein Atris, a Swedish citizen of Lebanese descent linked to Hezbollah. A month earlier, at the end of 2011, Israeli intelligence alerted Thai officials that two or three suspects with Swedish passports could be planning an attack in Thailand. Atris led Thai police to four tons of explosive precursor in Samut Sakhon province in a commercial building which had been rented since January 2010.

Several weeks later, an Iranian team planning to attack the Israeli ambassador and other Israeli representatives in Bangkok was uncovered after Iranian citizen Saeid Moradi was seriously wounded in a “work accident.” Mohammad Hazaei, whom Thai authorities suspect headed the Iranian operational group, was captured. Other suspects fled: Masoud Sedaghatzadeh managed to reach neighboring Malaysia and a woman, Leila Rohani, escaped. A fifth Iranian, Nikkhahfard Javad, is thought to be an instructor in making bombs authorities said were “strikingly similar” to devices used in later attacks on Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India. Thai police later arrested a sixth operative, Madani Seyed Mehrded, who entered Thailand back in July 2011. A seventh suspect, Norouzi Shaya Ali Akbar, wanted on charges of possessing and making explosives, fled to Iran.

Singapore A plot to assassinate Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a mid-February visit was foiled by Singapore authorities in cooperation with the Mossad. Singaporean security agencies arrested three members of a Hezbollah-Iranian terror cell.

India New Delhi Police arrested Indian journalist Syed Mohammed Ahmad Kazmi, a Shi’ite with long-standing Iranian connections who was employed part-time by an Iranian broadcaster, for allegedly facilitating the February 13 bombing of an Israeli Embassy car in which the wife of the Israeli defense attaché was wounded. An Indian court issued arrest warrants for Iranians Housan Afshari, Syed Ali Mehdi Sadr and Mohammed Reza Abolghasemi in connection with the attack. Housan Afshari, who had visited Delhi twice and left for Malaysia shortly after the Delhi attack, was in contact with Masoud Sedaghatzadeh, one of the Iranian suspects in the January Bangkok bomb plot, who was later named on an Indian arrest warrant for his role in the New Delhi attack.

Georgia On February 13, the same day that the Israeli diplomatic car was bombed in New Delhi, local police defused a similar device in a car belonging to an Israeli embassy staff worker in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

Turkey In mid-March, based on information provided by Israel, Turkish security authorities reportedly foiled an Iranian terror plot against Israel’s diplomatic missions in Istanbul. Four members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force who entered Turkey from Iran were in possession of weapons and materials to be used in the attacks on Turkish soil.

Kenya In mid-June, Kenyan authorities arrested two Iranians suspected of planning attacks on Israeli and Western targets. Ahmad Abolfathi Mohammad and Sayed Mansour Mousavi were charged with preparing to commit acts of terror and led officials to a 15-kilogram cache of RDX explosive in Mombasa. This resort city had been the scene of a two-pronged 2002 attack in which a car bomb killed 13 people, including three Israelis, at a local hotel and an anti-aircraft missile was fired at, but missed, an Israeli airliner leaving the local airport. Most of the 100 kg of explosives the two 2012 suspects shipped from Iraq have not been recovered.

South Africa No details are currently available on an Iranian terrorist plot foiled by South African authorities, a plot that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to in passing in his televised comments denouncing the Burgas attack last week.

Cyprus Cypriot authorities on July 7 arrested a 24-year-old Lebanese man traveling on a Swedish passport. The suspect, who admitted he was a Hezbollah operative, had photographs of Israeli targets in his possession, including information on tour buses carrying Israeli tourists and Israeli flights to and from the island.

Bulgaria The identity of the suicide bomber who blew up the bus carrying Israeli tourists at the Burgas airport on July 18 (exactly 18 years after the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires) has not yet been officially determined. The perpetrator used a fake Michigan driver’s license, and a senior U.S. official has confirmed Israel’s assertion that he was a member of a Hezbollah cell operating in Bulgaria.

Israeli sources calculate that over the past year there had been 20 terrorist attacks or attempts abroad in which Iranians and/or Hezbollah operatives have been involved directly.

Modus operandi

The Iranian/Hezbollah foiled or failed attacks took place in what could be defined as “soft countries” in Asia and Africa, countries where the intelligence and law enforcement agencies are not sufficiently professionally trained to challenge this kind of threat, and where the Iranian and Hezbollah activities are in any event low priority for the local security forces. Additionally, some of the attacks have been aimed at “soft targets” like Israeli tourists or local Jewish facilities where the level of security may be even lower.

Moreover, the Tehran regime apparently has calculated, based on past experience, that the governments of these countries will react leniently and that Tehran will pay only a minimal political price. And indeed, no country where these recent attacks occurred has openly accused the Tehran government of involvement, and no country has taken open and strong diplomatic measures against Iran.

In this respect, the experience of the failed 1994 Bangkok embassy bombing is illustrative: The Iranian citizen involved was sentenced to death by a Thai court – and released after serving four years in jail after Iran applied heavy pressure. So far there has been no serious Thai diplomatic response to Iran regarding this year’s attack, despite the clear involvement of seven or eight Iranian citizens in two planned terror attempts against Israelis this year.

Indian reaction to the February 13 bombing of an Israeli diplomatic car has been lukewarm at best. A foreign ministry spokesman in New Delhi said that India “will seek the cooperation of the Iranian authorities in bringing those involved in this dastardly attack to justice.” And though the defense relationship between New Delhi and Jerusalem has flourished in recent years, India, the Islamic Republic’s second-biggest oil customer (after China) rushed to buy more Iranian oil, and paid in gold. There were even demonstrations in India after the arrest of Syed Mohammed Ahmad Kazmi, the local journalist accused of involvement in the terror plot.

In Kenya, a country that is on very friendly terms with Israel, a judge released the two would-be terrorists on bail of only $23,000. It will be interesting to see if they appear in court at their trial due to start this week.

According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia last year warned Argentina of a possible Iran-backed plan to attack the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Buenos Aires. The reaction was not what might have been anticipated: Argentina, which indicted six high level Iranian leaders for the 1994 AMIA bombing, reportedly reached out quietly to Iran in an attempt to close the file on the AMIA incident.

Only in the case of the United States has a projected attack been targeted at a country Iran does not regard as “soft.” In October 2011, two men, including a member of Iran’s Quds Force unit, were charged in a New York federal court with conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., using a hired member of the Mexican Zeta drug cartel, perhaps in the hope that the use of a criminal gang would obscure Iranian fingerprints.

Interestingly, Senegal and Gambia, two African countries which had excellent economic and political relations with Iran, cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in late 2010. It was not against a background of terrorist plots against Israel, but due to the fact that it became clear that 13 shipping containers of Iranian arms discovered in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria, were headed for the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MDFC) insurgency. The insurgency, in southern Senegal near the Gambian border, posed a threat to the security interests of both countries.

The strategic goal of the Iranian terrorist plots

A U.S. official cited by the New York Times called the Burgas suicide bombing a tit-for-tat retaliation against the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists over the last couple of years, for which Iran blames Israel and the U.S.

There are also signs that in ordering recent terror attacks, Iranian leaders have been acting under pressure and motivated by emotion. Ha’aretz military expert Amir Oren recently remarked that “the most worrying aspect of the recent string of Iranian terror attacks in Asia was the evident drive to commit them even though they hadn’t been properly prepared,” not typical of Tehran’s previous deliberate decision-making.

Stress may explain the clumsy way that Iran has mounted these operations as well as Tehran’s apparent disregard for the effect they might have on the countries where they were carried out, through death or injury to their citizens and their negative effect on local tourism.

In this author’s opinion, the real Iranian strategic goal is to provoke a regional conflict between Israel and its neighbors which would divert international attention from Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran realizes that while such attacks might not provoke an Israeli strike on Iran itself, a large number of casualties might prompt an Israeli military response against the home base of Iranian surrogates such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The pressure is certainly increasing as Iran loses partners in its “coalition”: Hamas has deserted it in favor of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Bashar al-Assad regime is on its way out in Syria.

The conflict could involve Lebanon, with the willing support of Hezbollah, already massively armed by Iran and Syria, or it could involve Gaza, where a massive missile attack by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iran’s proxy, or other minor groups could lure Israel into a major land operation and a possible crisis with Egypt. It could also involve Egypt itself, triggered by border attacks by Iranian-sponsored networks like a Hezbollah group discovered in 2009, or with the help of Palestinian or Bedouin surrogates.

In view of the indiscriminate Iranian terrorist activities on all continents, the international community should act strongly in the diplomatic arena. It should also take practical steps against an Iranian physical presence that could exacerbate existing dangers, including to the upcoming London Olympic Games. In this context, it should be recalled that after Saddam Hussein’s troops occupied Kuwait in 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, many countries sought to prevent terror attacks by expelling Iraqi diplomats and suspected intelligence agents who were using diplomatic or business cover.