February 22nd, 2012
02:37 PM ET

A shadow war from Bangkok to Baku

By Tim Lister

The video, shot by a bystander, is horrific.  A man lies on a Bangkok street, his legs severed below the knee. He is Saeid Moradi, a 28-year old Iranian, injured on February 14 as he tried to throw a device at police.

Minutes earlier, an explosion had rocked the house rented by Moradi and two other Iranians in the Sukhumvit Road area of the Thai capital. (Watch one of the suspects take Thai police to the scene of the explosion)

They left the house before being confronted by police. All three are now under arrest - one detained in neighboring Malaysia as he tried to board a plane for Tehran.Thai police say all the men carried Iranian passports. They are suspected of planning attacks on Israeli targets in Thailand, but they have not yet been charged.

Thai media quote police officials as saying that two improvised bombs were found at the house.  They were portable radios, stuffed with C-4 explosives. Grenades had been inserted as detonators, along with ball bearings intended as shrapnel. The devices had magnetic plates and could kill anyone within five meters (yards), the officials said.

The incident in Bangkok followed attempts the previous day in New Delhi and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to blow up Israeli diplomatic vehicles. In the New Delhi attack, the wife of an Israeli diplomat was seriously injured.

And on Tuesday, Azerbaijan - which shares a border with Iran - announced that a number of people had been arrested in connection with an alleged plot against foreign citizens organized by Iran. The National Security Ministry said the plotters had acquired weapons and explosives.

Just last month, Azeri authorities arrested two local people allegedly plotting an attack on the Israeli ambassador and a rabbi in the country's small Jewish community. It said they too had worked with a criminal figure who had links to Iranian intelligence.

In turn, Iran has furiously accused Azerbaijan of allowing the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, to launch terrorist operations across the border.

Israeli and Western counter-terrorism officials believe that elements within the Iranian regime most likely sponsored these plots, looking for revenge after the killing of several Iranian nuclear scientists.

Iran has strenuously denied involvement, accusing Israel and the United States of trying to provoke conflict. So has its ally Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militia, which has a long history of terrorist operations overseas.

The Bangkok explosions followed the arrest there last month of a Lebanese man, Hussein Atris, who has been charged with possession of prohibited substances.  A warehouse he rented in the Thai capital contained several tons of fertilizer and a large amount of ammonium nitrate, commonly used together to make explosives.

Atris, who was once a hairdresser in Sweden, has denied any links to Hezbollah and insisted the materials were destined for export.  He told a Swedish newspaper that he had been "set up" by the Mossad.

Soon after his arrest, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz warned: "We are witnessing efforts by Hezbollah and other hostile elements to carry out vicious terror attacks far from Israeli territory."

But the February 14 incident in Bangkok seems "too amateurish to be Hezbollah," says Benedetta Berti, who has written about its counter-intelligence war in the current edition of the CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

For example, the three suspects had allowed themselves to be photographed relaxing with two Thai women in the resort town of Pattaya.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has dismissed allegations of the group's involvement as "an insult."

Hezbollah would not target Israeli diplomats and civilians, he said in a televised speech last week. "Those who we will take revenge against know very well who they are; and they will need to keep taking precautions for their safety."

Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at Tufts University, says there is a "good chance" that Iran is behind the attacks, and that they are not meant to be "of a scale that would provoke an international crisis."

Nasr, who is on the U.S. State Department's Advisory Board, says they are "pinpricks designed to send a signal to Israel and the United States about what might be coming down the pike if this conflict escalates." But such attacks may have unintended consequences, he says.

Several analysts consulted by CNN say elements within or associated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard are likely responsible for the recent plots. One branch of the Guard, the Quds Force, is responsible for covert operations overseas.

Israeli Vice-Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon claimed last week that Brigadier-General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, was directing the attacks.

"We see what is happening in India, Georgia and Thailand. It is the same pattern. The same bomb, the same lab, the same factory," Yaalon told the newspaper Maariv.

Nasr says that the Quds Force is capable of highly professional operations. It may be deliberately mounting unsophisticated, easily discovered plots to try to scare the West - and to demonstrate that it can carry out attacks anywhere in the world.

The Quds Force was also implicated in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States last year.

According to the criminal complaint, a U.S. citizen of Iranian origin, Manssor Arbabsiar, acknowledged that he had been recruited by his cousin - a high-ranking officer in the Quds Force - to pay a purported member of a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the killing.  The trafficker was, in fact, a paid informant of the U.S. government. (Read the charges against Arbabsiar here)

Arbabsiar said he had a number of meetings in Tehran with senior Quds officers, and identified one of them in a photograph. He has pleaded not guilty in the plot; his trial is slated to begin in October.

Similarly, officials in Azerbaijan suspect elements within the Quds force paid Azeris to attack Jewish targets in the capital, Baku, but, again, the details that have emerged so far suggest a somewhat haphazard plot that also involved figures from Azerbaijan's criminal underworld.

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has long been concerned about what he described to U.S. diplomats as "Iranian provocations."  In a U.S. embassy cable from 2010 published by WikiLeaks, Aliyev "specifically cited not only the financing of radical Islamic groups and Hezbollah terrorists," but the organization of violent protests in Azerbaijan.

Now it seems that Azerbaijan has become the latest stage for a shadowy war between Israel and Iran and their respective proxies.

Post by:
Filed under: Georgia • India • Iran • Israel • Middle East • Thailand
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