an extremely intelligent hypothesis: MeK without USraeli backing

The full article contains descriptions of VEVAK and Quds-IRGC, and various allegations regarding previous Iranian covert action abroad. The author is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane’s – RB

Convoluted fuse to Bangkok bombs (extracts)
Anthony Davis, Asia Times, Feb 23 2012

Since the Feb 13/14 incidents in Tbilisi, Delhi and Bangkok, puzzled independent observers have managed to concur on only two aspects of the still-unexplained events. First, the incidents 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 to have been carried out 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, a premature explosion in a rented house was followed by 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, the arrests of two accomplices at Bangkok airport and in Malaysia, and the discovery of stickers bearing the Koranic term “SEJEAL” plastered along a 1.5 km stretch of road in central Bangkok as well as in a house rented by one of the apparent Iranian bomb-making team, and on a motorcycle believed to be intended for use in one or more attacks. 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 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. 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. 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. 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 Feb 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 MeK. At various levels, there are grounds which might support the theory of an independent MeK operation in Bangkok, 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. 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.

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