The U.S. State Department put out its annual report on terrorism last week, which concluded that 2012 was “notable in demonstrating a marked resurgence of Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and Tehran’s ally Hizballah. Iran and Hizballah’s terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s.”
Although Hezbollah retains a potent terrorist capability, 2012 if anything underscored the severe limitations in Iran’s interest and autonomous capability to execute terrorist attacks.
According to the State Department report, “The IRGC-QF is suspected of directing planned terrorist attacks in Georgia, India, Thailand, and Kenya in 2012.” Whether measured by intent or capability, this suggests the threat from Iranian terrorism is overblown. As I’ve written on The Diplomat previously, Iran’s intent in authorizing these attacks was to respond to suspected Israeli terrorist attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists without escalating the covert war further.
For years now Iran’s top nuclear scientists have been assassinated in plots that are widely believed to have been planned by Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, perhaps working with the anti-regime “former” Iranian terrorist group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MeK).
Although earlier attacks used different tactics, the plotters came to favor placing “magnetic sticky bombs” under the scientists’ cars at traffic lights in Tehran while they were on their way to work. Those carrying out the assassinations demonstrated high tactical effectiveness, almost always killing their target (although one scientist who survived an attack, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, was later named head of Iran’s nuclear agency) and at times sparing others in the cars.
Notably, in both the Indian and Georgia plots, sticky bombs were placed on cars belonging to the Israeli embassy in both countries. It is likely that the planned attack in Thailand would have tried a similar action had the Iranian operatives not bungled the operation earlier.
In any case, the tactics in these attacks made the intent behind them unmistakable: Iran was trying to exactly replicate the alleged Israeli assassinations in order to retaliate without escalating. Thus, Iran’s use of terrorism was in pursuit of limited aims.
Two other characteristics stood out about these four attacks. First, in contrast to most other Iranian terrorist plots which used non-Iranian operatives from proxy groups, all the known operatives in these attacks were Iranian nationals. Second, in contrast to other Iranian terrorist plots that used non-Iranian operatives, these attacks were speculator failures.
By far the most successful attack was the one in India where a motorist placed a sticky bomb on a vehicle carrying Tal Yehoshua Koren, the wife of Israel’s military attaché, and successfully detonated it. Still, unlike most of the attacks on the Iranian nuclear scientists, this attack failed to kill its intended target—who was in “critical but stable condition” the following day— and as such can hardly be characterized as successful. Furthermore, although the operative who placed the bomb managed to escape back to Tehran, he and his co-conspirators practiced shoddy operational security, and were therefore easily identified by Indian authorities working with foreign authorities.
The Indian attack was an unambiguous successful when measured by the standards of the other operations. The next most “successful” attack was the one in Georgia where an operative managed to place a sticky bomb on an unmanned, parked Israeli embassy car. The bomb failed to detonate before being discovered by a driver, however, and authorities quickly defused it.
The attempted plot in Thailand demonstrated the full extent of the sheer incompetence of the Iranian operatives. In this incident, three operatives accidently set off one of the explosives that they were building in a safe house in Bangkok. Following the blasts, two men took off on foot while the third tried unsuccessfully to hail a taxi in his visibly injured state.
Eventually, local police arrived at the scene where the third operative threw one of the remaining explosives at the officers in his continued desperate attempt to escape. He failed to injure the police or any innocent bystanders with this bomb but did manage to blow off both of his own legs. Fortunately, he survived and along with the two other operatives was taken into custody. The sole “success” of this plot was that the apparent “mastermind” who wasn’t in the safe house at the time was able to escape back to Iran.
Iran seemed to “learn” from its mistakes slightly when two Iranian nationals were arrested for plotting a terrorist attack in Kenya in July of last year. This suggested that, after three failed attempts to attack Israeli diplomatic personnel, Iran’s Quds Forces had decided to switch to softer civilian targets; namely, the large Israeli civilian presence in Nairobi, Kenya. Ultimately the two Iranian operatives were discovered and arrested remarkably early in the planning stages of the attack, and one operative quickly led authorities to their explosive cache in an entirely different part of the country. Both were later convicted in a Kenyan court and given life sentences.
Not surprisingly, after this failed plot the Iranians turned to Hezbollah, who unfortunately was successful in bombing a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Following this incident, Iran’s Quds Forces have turned their efforts to retaining existing proxies and allies in the Middle East, while trying to cultivate new ones in places like Yemen. Given their own shoddy record in 2012, who can blame them?