Iranian plot to assassinate one of Saudi Arabia’s most revered diplomats is foiled as US intelligence and security services counter an intricate international murder plot
American-Iranian, Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, has been
charged with plotting to assassinate the Saudi
Arabian ambassador to the United States. He was
reportedly the “leading active operative” of an
Iranian government-sponsored group created and
headed by Arbabsiar’s cousin, Abdul Reza Shahlai, a
senior figure in the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Shahlai’s ‘lieutenant’ in the plot has been named as
Ali Gholam Shakuri. Both men are members of the Quds
Force, the oft-used operational arm of the IRGC
which is a particularly feared element and has
direct ties to Iranian Intelligence and the
country’s senior leaders.
BACKGROUND TO AN INTENSE RELATIONSHIP
In recent years numerous ‘spy wars’ have been played out by intelligence agencies on Iranian soil. The central objective has usually been to glean intelligence on Tehran’s nuclear bomb programme. Using disruption operations, cyber attacks, assassinations and bait to lore key scientists away from the country, Iran has been under siege of late; add to this an agressive media campaign often inspired by carefully placed journalists and, on a diplomatic front, sanctions, then it comes as no surprise that the forces that be in Iran have decided to launch a counter-offensive.The transfer signalled the beginning of a major operation to kill a high profile figure.
On 24 May, Arbabsiar travelled to Mexico under instruction to make contact with a key player in a drug trafficking cartel known as Zetas. At that meeting, Arbabsiar asked the man if he or his crime gang was familiar or had knowledge of explosives. He also said there was a substantial amount of money available on the table if he would participate in or carry out an attack on the Saudi Embassy. Unbeknown to Arbabsiar, the link man was an undercover informant working for the powerful US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It’s unclear at this point if the meeting was one of chance or coincidence, but Eye Spy sources believe the FBI via NSA and CIA intelligence, were already aware of the money transfer and Arbabsiar’s primary objective. Why and how Arbabsiar found the Mexican ‘contact’ man remains a closely guarded secret.
A week or so later, and after several more telephone calls with the DEA-controlled informant, Arbabsiar flew to Reynosa (a city which has been badly affected by the country’s drugs’ war) in Mexico again and held more talks to discuss payments and his target. Arbabsiar named Washington DC-based Adel al-Jubeir.
Such a high-profile target complicated matters for those in US counter-terrorist planning. Trying to control an operation of this nature without compromise was considered complex. Deciding how long the ruse should continue was uppermost in the planners’ minds, for should anything happen to the ambassador, there would be serious repercussions. And there was always the possibility that this was simply a distraction operation to deflect attention away from another parallel plan already in motion.
The DEA and FBI decided to heighten Arbabsiar’s belief that his plan could work. On 14 July, the informant telephoned Arbabsiar and said “his people” had agreed to help; provided four men for the task but the asking price was $1.5 million. To cement the deal, Arbabsiar was also advised the crime gang had sent an operative to Washington to surveil the ambassador and his movements in the city. One location Adel al-Jubeir frequented was a city centre restaurant -Arbabsiar was told this was a “good place,” to detonate a bomb. The informant said a hundred people, including US officials and probably senators also dined at the venue, “they too could be killed.” In response, Arbabsiar said it was irrelevant. “They want that guy done... if the hundred go with him f*** ‘em,” said Arbabsiar.
In the first week of August, Gholam Shakuri approved two wire transfers totalling $100,000 to Arbabsiar’s Mexican contact. This money was the first down-payment of several that would follow the successful elimination of Adel al-Jubeir.
In late September, Arbabsiar was instructed to fly to Mexico to finalise the last few details of the plan. In the meantime, the FBI and DEA working with Mexican intelligence officials formulated a trap. On 28 September, Arbabsiar was refused entry and sent back to the USA, his flight taking him to JFK International in New York. It was here he was duly arrested by the security services and detained in a police cell. Arbabsiar, who didn’t really understand the entire plot was being orchestrated by the USIC (intelligence community) was allowed to make a number of phone calls from his cell “at the direction of the FBI.” He called Shakuri in Iran at least twice: “Just do it quickly, it’s late,” he said, with reference to the bomb plot in Washington. “Everything should move forward as quick as possible.” Of course the phone calls were being recorded.
Iran’s parliamentary speaker called the allegations “a mischievous attempt to fuel tension between Tehran and Riyadh,” but the evidence points to a high-level government sanctioned strike. This viewpoint is echoed by Saudi prince Turki Al Faisal, a senior member of the Royal Family and a former ambassador to the United States and Great Britain. “The burden of proof is overwhelming... and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this. Somebody in Iran will have to pay the price.”
© ESPL - Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine 2011. (Adapted from Eye Spy issue 76)