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Saturday 25 February 2012

Convoluted fuse to Bangkok bombs By Anthony Davis

Feb 24, 2012
Convoluted fuse to Bangkok bombs
By Anthony Davis

BANGKOK - Since the mid-February bomb blasts which struck Bangkok and New Delhi, and a failed attack in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, confusion over events on the ground has been compounded by a predictable war of words between Iran, widely viewed as behind the attacks, and its arch-enemy Israel, the apparent target.

Amid the din of accusation and denial, amplified by camp-followers of both parties, puzzled independent observers have managed to concur on only two aspects of the still unexplained events.

First, the incidents in India and Georgia on February 13, and in Thailand the following day, were almost certainly linked in a
coordinated plot intended to assassinate Israeli diplomats using "sticky bombs" attached to vehicles by magnets. The fact that the same method was used successfully against Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated in Iran in attacks believed carried by Israeli agents clearly implied an operation intended to be seen as tit-for-tat retaliation.

Second, the operations in all three cities were marked by a startling lack of professionalism. In Bangkok, incompetence veered into a bloody comedy of errors that in any work of spy fiction would have been dismissed as ludicrous. Now celebrated highlights include a premature explosion in a rented house; panicked flight by the apparent bomb makers; bungled bomb attacks on a taxi and a police car that cost one Iranian both of his own legs; and arrests of two accomplices at Bangkok's international Suvannabhumi airport and in Malaysia.

The Valentine's Day fiasco was followed by the discovery of stickers bearing the Koranic term "SEJEAL" plastered along a 1.5 kilometer stretch of road in central Bangkok as well as in a house rented by one of the apparent Iranian bomb making team. Another was discovered on a motorcycle believed to be intended for use in one or more attacks. While Thai police initially speculated the stickers marked out a getaway route, security analysts who spoke to Asia Times Online are skeptical they had any operational relevance, suggesting instead some religiously auspicious significance.

While less farcical, the operations in Georgia and India were also marked by remarkable mistakes. In Tbilisi, the would-be assassin attached an explosive device - later found and disarmed - not to a diplomatic vehicle but to the car of the Israeli ambassador's Georgian driver. The choice appeared to indicate either a failure of reconnaissance or a last-minute need to settle for a secondary, related target rather than a primary one.

In New Delhi, an Israeli diplomat's wife was actually wounded by a magnetic bomb and the would-be assassin was able to escape. However, he reportedly attached the device to the rear of the vehicle near a tail light rather to its side, significantly lessening the chance of killing his target.

With the Iranian government now seen as the most likely suspect behind the bombings - and in many quarters already declared guilty - it is worth fitting these events into the context of what is known about Iranian external intelligence operations. Viewed through this lens, the recent incidents are puzzling in several regards.

Iran is certainly no stranger to foreign assassinations. Indeed, since shortly after the Islamic revolution of 1979, Tehran has been deeply implicated in directing and conducting both assassinations and larger mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. Its primary targets have been Iranian dissidents based in Europe perceived as threats to the revolutionary regime.

Both in terms of intelligence gathering and "direct action", external operations are the responsibility of two organizations understood to work either independently or, occasionally, in conjunction. The primary body is the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (Vezarat e Etela'at va Amnita e Keshvar, or VEVAK); the other, the elite Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the branch of the armed forces that answers directly to Iran's senior most clerical leadership.

Established in 1984, VEVAK is responsible for both internal and external security matters. According to Israeli sources, notably investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, the ministry's external operations are undertaken by its Department 15 which fields operatives working under diplomatic cover in Iranian embassies abroad. But VEVAK has also been known to use other state organizations to provide cover, including Iran Air, Iranian Shipping Lines and the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

By contrast, the Qods force fulfills an essentially military and para-military mission and has been responsible for providing instruction and support to pro-Iranian guerilla and terrorist groups in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Sudan. Such training is conducted both in facilities inside Iran and abroad: Qods Force personnel have had a long and well-documented presence in Lebanon as well as in Iraq during the US occupation.

Official assassinations
European police and judicial investigations dating from the 1980s and 1990s - the heyday of the Islamic Republic's overseas assassination campaign - indicate that Tehran's direct action operations abroad have often been undertaken by Iranian nationals usually working for VEVAK out of embassies or other organizations providing cover, including private businesses

During the wave of nearly 200 assassinations of dissident exiles, Iranian "diplomats" were expelled from several countries including Germany, Norway and Turkey. In 1997, Iranian Intelligence and Security Minister Ali Fallahian was himself the subject of an arrest warrant issued by German prosecutors after protracted investigations into the gunning down of three Iranian Kurdish exiles in Berlin in September 1992. Those arrested and found guilty of the killings were VEVAK operatives whose orders were traced back to Fallahian's desk.

Iran's extensive network of Middle Eastern allies has also permitted the use of proxies for deniable "direct action". Some such operations involved mass-casualty attacks such as the bombing of the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires in July 1994 which killed 85, wounded several hundred and which was formally linked by Argentinean prosecutors to Latin American-based elements of Lebanese Hezbollah directed from Tehran.

Others have been individual assassinations such as the March 1992 killing of Ehud Sadan, a Israeli security officer at Israel's embassy in Ankara, Turkey, who died when a bomb detonated under his car. The assassination came days after the Israeli killing of Sheikh Abbas Moussavi, secretary general of Lebanese Hezbollah and was later traced to Iranian-trained Farhan Osman, an operative of Turkish Hezbollah, a notably lethal branch of Iran's external network. Osman was arrested by Turkish authorities in 2000 and admitted at his trial to carrying out attacks on orders from Tehran.

Against this backdrop, it is puzzling that a state with decades of experience in conducting overseas operations and with access to an extensive network of proxy operatives would find itself abruptly reduced to deploying a team of its own nationals with little evident training or field support given to adorning Bangkok's busy streets with bumper stickers in advance of an attack.

Another puzzling aspect of the Iranian state responsibility alleged by Israel centers on the decision to conduct a coordinated operation more or less simultaneously in three foreign countries. Details of both Iranian and Israeli assassination operations which have emerged in recent years indicate clearly that achieving a successful outcome in a single operation is complex enough and requires careful planning, reconnaissance and execution by skilled operatives with plans for unforeseen contingencies. Not least would be the need for back-up travel documents and possibly an alternative safe-house.

Even then success is anything but guaranteed. The bungled attempt by operatives of Israel's external intelligence agency, the Mossad, to kill Khaled Mashal, a senior figure in Palestinian Hamas, in Amman, Jordan in September 1997 illustrates the risks of even meticulously planned operations. After administering a poisoned spray to their intended victim, the two Israeli assassins - posing as Canadian tourists - abandoned a get-away car in traffic and were pursued and arrested. Humiliatingly, Israel was obliged to provide Jordanian authorities with an antidote to the poison that saved Mashal's life.

By the same token, a near-simultaneous assassination operation by a single intelligence service against three hard targets in three different countries is almost certainly unprecedented in recent decades. Even assuming a political need for multiple strikes, such a scatter-gun approach is bound to stretch resources in terms of planning and execution and sharply raises the chances of failure (as in Tbilisi) and disastrous blow-back (as in Bangkok).

In short, if the Iranian government was indeed responsible for the recent attacks, it would have been almost setting itself up for a fall in two countries (India and Thailand) with which it shares valuable diplomatic and trade relations and at a time when it has a vital interest in not providing Israel with a pretext for war.

There is arguably only one explanation that might bridge the yawning disconnect between events as they unfolded and Tehran's known capabilities and operational record, and its wider strategic interests. That is that the Islamic Republic's senior most leadership perceived an overriding political need to display resolve in retaliating swiftly for the killing of its nuclear scientists - and ordered action in willful disregard of the operational risks involved.

Explosive motivations
Beyond Iran, however, other possible perpetrators of the attacks have been suggested. The favorite of Internet conspiracy-theorists and Iranian officials is - predictably enough - Israel itself.

According to this interpretation of events, Israel organized a "false flag" operation using Iranian nationals to further isolate Iran and increase international support for an attack against Tehran should a decision be made in favor of a military option to check its nuclear program.

While colorful, this theory does not stand up to rational analysis. It implies that Israel, a state which goes to extraordinary lengths to protect and defend its citizens, would be willing to target its own diplomats in the pursuit of its wider campaign against Iran.

A second theory centers on the possibility of elements within Iran's security and intelligence establishment acting without sanction - and thus without access to trained personnel and operational support - in outsourcing an operation to non-official or semi-official contractors. In a February 15 commentary for CNN, Thailand-based security consultant Paul Quaglia, himself a former intelligence official, posited "outsourcing" as a possible explanation for the amateur nature of the events in Bangkok.

The possibility of impatient "hawks" circumventing reluctance at higher levels of the state to retaliate for the assassinations of Iranian scientists cannot be simply dismissed. Iran's intelligence establishment is far from monolithic and almost certainly factionalized. Indeed, in a celebrated case in the late 1990s, a rogue group in VEVAK was held responsible by Iranian prosecutors for the murders inside Iran of three dissident writers, a political leader and his wife.

Nevertheless, the sheer level of organization and number of personnel required for simultaneous attacks in three foreign countries are hardly consistent with a rogue operation. Furthermore, such an operation would carry a high risk of being traced back to those responsible with potentially severe consequences.

A third alternative that merits close attention centers on the Iranian domestic opposition, grouped loosely around the People's Mujahideen Organization of Iran or Mujahideen e Khalq (MeK). An Islamic-socialist group founded in 1965 in opposition to the then US-backed shah regime, MeK began an urban guerrilla campaign in the early 1970s and later took part in the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Subsequently, however, MeK broke violently with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's clerical regime and for years operated out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq as an Iraqi-backed conventional military force on the border as well as an underground terrorist network within Iran. MeK has been declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US government.

Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, MeK's military units were disbanded by the Americans but the organization has continued to operate clandestinely inside Iran while conducting a public relations campaign from Europe. Its network in Iran is generally believed to have provided the US and Israel with intelligence - notably on Iran's nuclear program - as well as with assets for the covert destabilization of the Islamic regime.

At various levels, there are grounds which might support the theory of an independent MeK operation in Bangkok, New Delhi and Tbilisi.

Strategically, the organization has ample motive. The successful assassination of Israeli diplomats would at the least serve to further isolate the Iranian government at a critical juncture. At most, it might provide the impetus to push Israel into an attack on Iran that would destabilize or even topple the regime - a result MeK has no chance of achieving itself.

The attempted assassination of Israel's ambassador to London, Argov Shlomo, by Palestinian terrorists on June 3, 1982, provides solid historical precedent for such a calculation. The attack, which critically wounded Shlomo (without killing him), provided a convenient justification for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon three days later and the routing of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) forces based there.

Operationally, the hand of MeK or allied opposition elements also provides an explanation for the otherwise puzzling blunders displayed in mid-February. It can be safely assumed that a small number of Iranian opposition elements has been recruited, trained and deployed by Israeli and/or US intelligence services in the covert war against Iran's nuclear program. However, MeK remains a larger - and largely uncharted - group without access to specialized training.

It is also worth noting that for an opposition group to commit poorly-trained and supported personnel openly using Iranian travel documents would pose no real risk of blow-back: In the event of failure or fiasco, the simple fact that the operatives were Iranian would serve well enough to implicate the Tehran regime in the eyes of an already skeptical world.

The extent to which the truth behind recent events emerges will depend importantly on investigations currently conducted by the Thai police, who already hold two members of the Iranian team and may soon have access to a third detained in Malaysia.

The willingness of the Islamic Republic to provide proactive assistance in the investigation will also serve as an important reflection of its interest in rebutting Israel's accusations. Two suspected members of the Bangkok-based bomb-making team, Leila Rohani and Ali Akbar Norouzi, are both back in Iran with their photos and return flight details already made public by the Thai police.

It remains to be seen, however, how aggressively the Thai authorities - perennially reluctant to be dragged into the maelstrom of Middle Eastern conflict - will choose to pursue the investigations or request assistance from Tehran. In the final analysis, Thailand has little to gain and possibly much to lose from establishing publicly and with certainty either the innocence or guilt of the Iranian government.

Indeed, the best pointer to the affair's likely outcome is the fate of Atris Hussein, the Lebanese-Swedish businessman with suspected links to Iran-allied Lebanese Hezbollah, whose January arrest was followed by the seizure of four tons of explosives he and his associates had amassed in a warehouse on the edge of Bangkok. Hussein is to be charged with possession of restricted substances and may serve a few years in a Thai jail in a case that will soon be quietly forgotten.

Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.

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