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Terrorism and the Long Arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

by Nikola Zukalová

For forty years, Iran has used agents of disruption and terror-tactics to punish enemies of the regime and generate the perception of global reach.

The news that Iran had threatened the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (a Washington-based Think Tank), while unsurprising, follows a long pattern of Iranian threats and operations abroad.  The Islamic Republic of Iran, in a bid to spread fear and its ideology, has been waging a subversion campaign on targets both inside and beyond the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since its inception in 1979. The use of terrorism represents an important part of the regime’s foreign policy and a tool for achieving its interests. This briefing focuses on Iran’s forty year terror campaign outside the MENA region: in Europe, Southeast Asia, Subsaharan Africa, the Caucasus, and both North and South America.


The Apparatus and Patterns of Iran’s Global Terror Campaign


The foreign operations of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been managed by the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which grew with the 2011 creation of the Special External Operations Unit, known as Unit 400. This newly established Unit was specifically created to attack Iranian enemies’ interests around the world aiming to protect the regime and advance its interests. The leadership of the IRGC-QF and the Unit 400 is directly responsible to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the global terror campaign, Iranian agents have focused on three main categories of targets: 1. dissidents and exiled opposition,2. enemy states’ diplomatic staff and missions and 3. tourists and civilian facilities, especially those linked to the US, Jewish communities and Israel. Until 2011, Iran predominantly used Hezbollah operatives or local recruits, in addition to intelligence operatives to ensure plausible deniability for the regime. Despite that, in many cases, investigators traced the origins of the attacks to the highest ranks in the IRGC-QF, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and by extension to the Iranian leadership. Since 2011, the IRGC-QF operatives, through Unit 400, have been more active in the direct execution of the attacks rather than limiting themselves only to ordering and providing the means to carry out the attack. It seems that since then Hezbollah and the IRGC have divided their responsibilities: Hezbollah operatives focus on tourists, while the IRGC-QF focuses on diplomatic staff, embassies and more high-profile targets. In some cases they use inconspicuous locals that can operate under the radar of intelligence services, dual nationals with European, Canadian or US passports, diplomatic cover and sometimes criminals for the preparation and execution of the attacks.


The Power Consolidation Period—1980 until the 2000’s


Throughout the 1980’s, Iranian operations focused on the assassination of dissidents and exiled opposition figures, such as members of the Shah’s family and the former establishment. During this period there were several successful assassinations of individuals in France, the United States and Austria for the Iranian regime. In late 1985, it became clear that Tehran is not restrained in its use of large-scale, indiscriminate, violence against civilians to achieve its foreign policy goals. For instance, in order to pressure the French government to end its support for Iraq in the war with Iran and unfreeze Tehran’s financial assets in French banks, Hezbollah operatives recruited a Tunisian-French convert to Shia Islam, who studied in the Iranian holy city of Qom, Fouad Ali Saleh. The local salesman Saleh formed a cell that planted, with direct Iranian logistical support, 13 bombs in Paris, killing around a dozen civilians and wounding almost 300 over a ten-month reign of terror. During the 1990’s, Tehran continued its programme of eliminating Iranian opposition around the world, including in Switzerland, France and Germany. The Iranian and Hezbollah operatives demonstrated their global reach, when they carried out two of their deadliest attacks outside the Middle East—both in Buenos Aires within the span of 2 years. In 1992 the bombing of Israel’s Embassy killed 29 and injured almost 250 civilians and in 1994 a bomb near the Jewish community centre, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), caused 85 deaths and over 300 injured civilians. The investigation uncovered that Hezbollah carried out both attacks with Iran’s logistical support.


A Resurgence of Operations Outside the Middle East into the 2010’s


After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Iranian-Hezbollah international terror campaign was put on hold amid the tightening security in many countries and Washington’s Global War on Terror. Until 2008, both Iran and Hezbollah lowered their profile globally and focused efforts on the direct targeting of Israel and promoting Iranian interests in the Middle East, notably in post-Saddam Iraq. However, their global terror campaign resurfaced after a car bomb killed Hezbollah’s military leader, Imad Mughniyah, in Damascus in February 2008. Three months later Azerbaijani authorities foiled a plot to bomb the Israeli and US Embassies in Baku, in which two Hezbollah operatives were arrested and several IRGC-QF operatives were reportedly quietly released and returned to Iran. In July 2009, an Iranian-American national, Mohammad Reza Sadeghnia, was arrested by police in California for trying to hire a hitman to kill Jamshid Sharmahd—host of a local radio show in Farsi that was critical of the Iranian regime. Sadeghnia served 1 year in prison and fled to Iran during his probation time in late 2010. It was later discovered that Sadeghnia was also monitoring and befriended another Iranian dissident in London—Reza Nourizadeh, a Commentator of the Voice of America—and provided his photos to Iran’s Deputy Intelligence Minister, Majid Alavi. 


The number of failed plots since Mughniyah’s death, coupled with the series of blowback to Iran’s Nuclear Programme and its prestige — which included the killing of an Iranian physicist in Tehran in 2010, and the destruction of hundreds of centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz facility due to the Stuxnet computer virus — forced Tehran to reassess its strategy. It established Unit 400 within the IRGC-QF to carry out operations against the US, Israel and other ‘enemy’ states’ interests abroad, while Hezbollah was tasked with targeting predominantly Israeli tourists. Against the backdrop of the previous failures and the revised strategy, the IRGC-QF and Hezbollah intensified the international terror campaign to regain Iran’s prestige and avenge disruptions of its Nuclear Programme and Mughniyah’s death. Over 19 months, between 2011 and 2012, they were responsible for three terror attacks in Pakistan, India and Bulgaria, as well as at least eight foiled plots: two in Thailand and one each in the US, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kenya, Cyprus and Nigeria. One of the foiled plots included Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American car dealer in Texas (and a cousin of an IRGC official), attempting to hire a drug cartel member (who turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA] informant) to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, in a restaurant in Washington, DC. The US investigation traced the attack to senior IRGC-QF officials, including Commander Qasem Soleimani, the Head of the IRGC-QF, and Major General Hamed Abdollahi, the Head of Unit 400. Four plots targeted Israeli and US diplomats in Thailand, Georgia, India and Azerbaijan and were planned for the fourth anniversary of Mughniyah’s killing—around 12 February 2012. However, three of the attacks were disrupted and the one in New Delhi resulted only in non-life threatening injuries. Based on the evidence, investigators were able to link the four plots and traced their origins to the IRGC-QF. On the day of the eighteenth anniversary of the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed 6 people and injured 30 in an attack on a tour bus with Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. The same year there were also two major arrests in Africa: Kenyan police arrested two Iranians for plotting attacks on Israeli and Western targets and possession of 15 kg of explosives, and Nigerian authorities arrested a local Shiite cleric, Mallam Abdullahi Mustaphah Berende, who studied in Iran and admitted to being recruited by Iranian intelligence for staking out Israeli and US targets.


During and After the JCPOA Negotiations


In addition to the arrest of a Hezbollah operative for plotting a terrorist attack on Jewish and Israeli targets in Peru in October 2014 and an attempted attack on the Israeli Embassy in Uruguay by an Iranian diplomat in January 2015, Iran’s/Hezbollah’s global terror campaign seemed to have quieted down again during the formal negotiations of the JCPOA, until the deal was signed by the P5+1 (re: Russia, China, France, Germany, Britain + the United States) and Iran in July 2015. However, in summer and autumn 2015 there were two major discoveries of stashed explosives in Cyprus and the United Kingdom. In the first one, a Lebanese-Canadian national and a Hezbollah member was arrested and later pleaded guilty to a terrorist plot as the Cypriot authorities seized over eight tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used for homemade bombs, in his house in Larnaca. Later that year, 3 tonnes of the same chemical were discovered by the British authorities in Hezbollah’s secret bomb factory in north-west London. The timing of the discovery — a few months after the signing of the JCPOA — made the British authorities to keep the information away from the public and the Parliament, uncovered The Telegraph in June 2019. In 2016, two plots were discovered in Southeast Asia and East Africa: the Philippines local authorities thwarted an Iranian plot to hijack a civilian Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) aircraft, while Kenyan authorities arrested three men in an Iranian diplomatic car surveilling Israeli Embassy in Nairobi in connection to a terrorist plot. 


In addition to planning terrorist attacks across the world, Iran’s campaign against opposition figures and Israeli or Jewish targets abroad also continued undisrupted after the signing of the JCPOA. In 2017, two Hezbollah operatives were arrested in New York and Michigan for surveilling potential targets in New York City, Panama and around the Panama Canal. In December 2017, a Pakistani man was convicted of spying on a German politician for Iran as a possible target of assassination. A month later German authorities investigated 10 IRGC-QF operatives for spying on Israeli and Jewish targets in Germany. Following the investigations of the assassinations of two Dutch nationals of Iranian origin in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017, which implicated Iran as the perpetrator, the Dutch government expelled two Iranian diplomats in June 2018. The same year, another series of Iranian plots was uncovered by authorities in Albania, France and Denmark. The attempts included two plots against the MEK meetings in Tirana and in Paris. In the latter case, authorities from Germany, France and Belgium cooperated to arrest 2 Belgian nationals of Iranian origin in possession of explosives and a detonator, their accomplice in Paris and an Iranian diplomat, working at Iran’s Embassy in Vienna, who was reportedly an Iranian MOIS agent and ordered the attack. Probably the latest case of Iranian terror involvement in Europe was in Denmark in late 2018, when a senior Iranian intelligence operative with Norwegian citizenship, working for MOIS, was arrested for planning an assassination of three Iranians living in exile in Denmark.



Given Iran’s terrorist activity around the world it is important to try and redefine red lines on state terrorism. Instead of isolating Europe’s long-term ally, the US, for the sake of short-term economic gains from the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose agents are responsible for death, destruction and injury on European soil, Europe needs to stand shoulder to shoulder and isolate Tehran until it ceases its terrorism in Europe, the Middle East and indeed the world.

03 September 2019

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