Archive for October 12, 2018

Foiled Paris bomb plot raises fears that Iran is planning attacks in Europe

October 12, 2018

Source: Foiled Paris bomb plot raises fears that Iran is planning attacks in Europe – Europe – Stripes

Thousands gather in Natnes, France, on Jan. 7, 2015, in a rally at the Place Royale to pay tribute to those injured and killed in an attack in Paris. France, Germany and several other countries, including the U.S. and Israel, are worried that Iran is planning new terrorist attacks in Europe.

FRANCK DUBRAY/ZUMA PRESS/TNSOBY WARRICK | The Washington Post | Published: October 12, 2018

WASHINGTON — On the evening of July 1, police in Bavaria surrounded the rented van of an Iranian diplomat after he pulled over at a gas station on the autobahn. Fearing he might be transporting explosives, the authorities summoned the bomb squad.

The diplomat, based at Iran’s embassy in Vienna, had been under surveillance for some time and was suspected of involvement in a plot to bomb a rally of Iranian dissidents in Paris. Despite his diplomatic status, he was arrested and extradited to Belgium, where two others, suspected of planning to carry out the attack in France, were detained.

The foiled plot has sparked growing anxiety in France, Germany and several other countries, including the United States and Israel, that Iran is planning audacious terrorist attacks and has stepped up its intelligence operations around the world.

Iranian leaders, under pressure from domestic protesters, Israeli intelligence operatives, and the Trump administration, which is reimposing economic sanctions lifted under President Barack Obama, are making contingency plans to strike at the country’s adversaries in the event of open conflict, according to American, European, Middle Eastern and Israeli officials and analysts who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

Iran has assigned different units and organizations to conduct surveillance of opposition figures, as well as Jewish and Israeli organizations, in the United States and Europe, the officials said. The Iranians are preparing what one Israeli official called “target files” of specific people or groups that Iran could attack.

One Middle Eastern intelligence official, speaking on the condition that his name and nationality be withheld, cited a “definite uptick” in the level of activity by Iranian operatives in recent months, adding that the Iranians are “preparing themselves for the possibility of conflict.”

Iran’s reach extends to the United States. In August, the Justice Department arrested two Iranian men, one a dual national with U.S. and Iranian citizenship and the other an Iranian who is a legal U.S. resident, for allegedly spying on behalf of Iran. The pair are accused of conducting surveillance on a Jewish organization in Chicago and rallies in New York and Washington that were organized by the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK, a dissident group that seeks regime change in Iran.

But the case of the Iranian diplomat is the most alarming, officials and analysts said, and has strained Iran’s diplomatic relations with Germany and France. Both countries are trying to hold together a landmark 2015 agreement meant to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which the Trump administration has abandoned.

The diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, has been a high-ranking official in Iran’s embassy in Vienna since 2014, but is also suspected of being the station chief of the Ministry of Intelligence, or MOIS, according to multiple officials from the United States and Europe.

In late June, European intelligence services tracked Assadi as he met with a married couple of Iranian descent living in Belgium and — according to the couple, who spoke to police after their arrest – gave them about a pound of explosive material and a detonator, the officials said.

The couple, Nasimeh Naami and Amir Saadouni, who were both born in Iran, allegedly planned to bomb a huge MEK rally in Paris, attended by thousands of people, including Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer and a vocal defender of the group, according to French, German and Belgian officials.

European officials said the couple, who are cooperating with authorities, identified Assadi as their longtime handler. Assadi professes not to know them, according to German officials, who said Iranian authorities have claimed he was set up. The Iranian government has said publicly that the plot was fabricated to falsely implicate the regime in terrorism.

A spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations denied that Iran had planned to attack the rally in Paris, calling the allegations “categorically false. And he accused the MEK and Israel of staging the plot “to sabotage Iran-EU relations.”

“The MEK had long been listed as a terrorist group by the EU and the U.S.; it also has a long history of propaganda and false flag operations,” said the spokesman, Alireza Miryousefi.

The State Department removed the MEK from a list of designated terrorist organizations in 2012. The group has publicly denied any involvement in the attempted attack in Paris.

Authorities said that Belgium would take the lead in the case for now, since the couple were arrested and have citizenship there.

French officials have publicly accused Iran’s Intelligence Ministry of planning the attack and have frozen the assets of two suspected intelligence operatives. “This extremely serious act envisaged on our territory could not go without a response,” France’s interior, foreign and economy ministers said in a joint statement. “In taking this decision, France underlines its determination to fight against terrorism in all its forms, particularly on its own territory.”

French police also raided the headquarters of one of the largest Shiite Muslim centers in France, which has links to Iran, according to European officials, and arrested three people.

Belgian officials contend that Assadi, who was surrounded at the gas station while traveling with his wife and two sons, is not protected by diplomatic immunity from prosecution because he was arrested outside Austria.

The case has been closely watched by the Trump administration. Assadi’s arrest “tells you, I think, everything you need to know about how the government of Iran views its responsibilities in connection with diplomatic relations,” White House national security adviser John Bolton told reporters last week. Bolton, a prominent Iran hawk, has been leading Trump administration efforts to place new sanctions on Iran, which he called “the central banker of international terrorism.”

The MOIS has a long history of conducting surveillance operations in Europe, but an attack at a major public gathering in Paris, attended by Trump’s lawyer, would invite massive retaliation from the French and the Americans, prompting some experts to wonder why Iran would take such a risk.

Iran has in the past targeted Iranian dissidents abroad, and Tehran has previously been linked to numerous plots involving Israeli, Jewish and Arab interests in the West. The level of Iranian activity ebbs and flows, sometimes without a discernible reason, according to former U.S. officials and Iran experts.

In the first 15 years after ruler Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power, Iranian agents assassinated at least 60 people in four European countries. The most notorious single attack was the 1992 assassination of a Kurdish Iranian dissident leader and three of his colleagues, all shot inside a Berlin restaurant.

Some experts now fear a return to those kinds of bloody operations.

In Germany last year, a Pakistani man was sentenced to four years in prison for scouting out potential targets with links to Israel and Jewish organizations on behalf of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to court documents, he had been in touch with his Iranian handlers since at least since 2011. But the “contact intensified” in the middle of 2015, around the same time that authorities believe the couple planning to attack the MEK rally were first contacted by Assadi.

Officials said that Iran has recruited people from Pakistan, as well as from Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, North Africa and Afghanistan, in order to obscure the country’s role in overseas spying.

A high-level German official said Iran’s aggression inside Europe calls for a tougher response.

“There are clear indications for calling this a case of state terrorism,” the official said of the thwarted Paris attack. But leaders in Germany and France, the official said, “would rather play the danger and level of interference down,” in order to hold together the nuclear deal.

Norman Roule, who served 34 years in the CIA and retired last year as the national intelligence manager for Iran, said the lack of a tougher European response, especially in the wake of Iran’s support of terrorism on the continent, has likely sent a message to Tehran: “You can get away with pretty much anything.”

Roule said that Iran has been testing the limits of European and American resolve for decades. The regime has launched cyberattacks, supported terrorist groups, and, in 2013, plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a fashionable restaurant in Washington – an attack Roule said would likely have inflicted civilian casualties.

All those events saw little tangible response, he said.

“My fear is that Iran may well believe they have yet to reach our red line, and this is a recipe for further attacks,” Roule said.

While U.S. officials have accused Iran’s top leaders of being behind the biggest plots, Iranian intelligence factions have sometimes acted in competition with one another, with little apparent coordination with the country’s ruling clerics, former U.S. officials said. Some think that pattern may be repeating now.

“It is not always the case that a senior [Iranian] official says, ‘Go and do this,’ ” said Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism official with the Treasury Department and FBI. “Sometimes initiative – even stupid initiative, even initiative that fails — is smiled upon within this system.”

In light of the operations in Europe and the United States, it’s not clear that the Iranian leadership is in control of its own operatives, said intelligence officials in multiple countries.

One German official said that based on his government’s discussions with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s leaders understand that an attack in the heart of Europe could do irreparable damage to their country’s relationship with the remaining signatories to the nuclear deal.

But there is also a parallel power structure in Iran, and as domestic unrest grows and more Iranians die fighting in Iraq and Syria, Iranian hard-liners elsewhere in the government could push for a show of force against the West, the German official said.

The regime has also been humiliated by recent Israeli spying operations that laid bare huge troves of documents about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly crowed about his spies’ prowess and has pressed for a tougher international response to Iran.

In a speech last month at the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu cited the arrest of the two U.S. operatives and the foiled Paris attack as evidence of Iran’s continued support of terrorism in the West, despite the election of more moderate leaders and the nuclear deal.

“If you think that Iran’s aggression has been confined to the Middle East, think again,” Netanyahu said.

An Israeli official said that there is a directive from the top levels of the Iranian government to quickly develop targets, and that the Intelligence Ministry has pushed its operatives to work too fast, leading to mistakes and arrests.

The two Iranian men arrested for spying inside the United States were under surveillance by the FBI for an extended period of time, with their travel inside and outside the country tracked, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case.

The two men also appeared to be pressed for time. The alleged agent with dual Iranian and American citizenship urged his associate, who lived in California, to hand over photographs and other material he’d been gathering for target packages. But the California man “expressed some frustration,” according to the complaint, because he wanted more time to get the materials in order.

“I don’t like to do it this way … I like to have a complete package, meaning that there is no gap in information,” he said.

Mekhennet reported from Berlin. Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.

 

Hamas leader: We are trying to reach understandings with Israel

October 12, 2018

Source: Hamas leader: We are trying to reach understandings with Israel

Ismail Haniyeh says negotiations, mediated by Egypt and UN, over potential ceasefire arrangement are still ongoing and emphasizes that group is willing to agree to ‘quiet in exchange for the lifting of the blockade,’ In addition, Hamas releases statement criticizing Palestinian Authority for trying to curb Qatari efforts to supply fuel to Gaza.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Friday that the group is still working with Egypt and the UN in order to “reach understandings” with Israel over a potential ceasefire arrangement.”We are working with a number of parties, including Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations, to reach understandings in order to break the blockade (on the strip),” Haniyeh stressed in a video message at an Islamic conference in Istanbul, Turkey.

Despite recent Hamas statements, indicating that the indirect talks between Israeli officials and the terror group have collapsed, Haniyeh insists the agreement is still possible.

Ismail Haniyeh (Photo: AFP)

Ismail Haniyeh (Photo: AFP)

“It is possible to reach the kind of understandings that would lead to quiet in exchange for the lifting of the blockade,” emphasized Hamas leader, adding that “the quiet does not have to come at a political price or at the expense of the intra-Palestinian reconciliation.”

Haniyeh’s statements come amid international efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis in the strip and avoid a flare-up with Israel.

On Tuesday, a truck brought fuel across Israel’s border into the Gaza Strip in what sources said was a Qatari and UN-backed drive to improve the conditions in the enclave and stem the escalation of hostilities.

The shipment was a potential slap to the Western-backed administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which opposed the foreign relief plan, since Gaza is controlled by Abbas’s rival and the Palestinian president has been using economic pressure in order to wrest back control.

Qatari fuel brought to Gaza (Photo: Reuters)

Qatari fuel brought to Gaza (Photo: Reuters)

“The Qatari operation to help Gaza’s power plant was possible due to the UN efforts, despite the threats made by Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh to the employees of the Energy Authority, that he would withhold their salaries if they cooperate with the Qatari initiative,” Hamas vented in their official statement.

“The residents of the Gaza Strip must live in dignity, without the blockade, without war and without aggression. Hussein al-Sheikh went as far as to appeal to international institutions and transport companies in an attempt to prevent the entry of Qatari fuel into the Gaza Strip. All of his efforts failed,” the statement exclaimed.

Nevertheless, the Hamas-led border violence still continues. On Friday morning, an incendiary balloon, with Arabic inscription, was found on the side of the road on Sprinzak Street in the central city of Rishon LeZion. The device was neutralized by police sappers without causing any damage. It was the fifth incendiary balloon to land in the Shfela region this week.

Earlier, an incendiary balloon landed in a schoolyard in the Eshkol Regional Council.

The device had been spotted by the school matron during a routing morning inspection. It did not cause fire and was removed by local security personnel before the school day had started.

Fire in the Gaza border region (Photo: AP)
Fire in the Gaza border region (Photo: AP)

Head of the Eshkol Regional Council, Gadi Yarkoni, demanded the government put an end to arson terror.

“The alertness of the school matron and the immediate arrival of local security personnel allowed us to neutralize the balloon before the arrival of the students … Eshkol has been dealing with balloon terrorism for over sixth months … we demand that the Israeli government act decisively to put an end to this threat to give our children a sense of security,” Yarkoni vented.

In addition, at least three fires broke out in Kibbutzim Or HaNer and Erez, in the Gaza border region.

Furthermore, a fire had broken out near a railway track in the city of Sderot, prompting the authorities to close Route 34 between Sderot and Kibbutz Yad Mordechai due to a heavy smoke.

Reuters contributed to this story

 

Iran’s supreme leader orders officials to resolve economic crisis 

October 12, 2018

Source: Iran’s supreme leader orders officials to resolve economic crisis – Israel Hayom

 

US Navy returns to Israeli port in sign of ‘deep alliance’ 

October 12, 2018

Source: US Navy returns to Israeli port in sign of ‘deep alliance’ – Israel Hayom