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Podcast: Sebastian Rotella on the Alleged Iranian Terror Plot

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An embassy staffer peers through a glass door at an entrance of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, DC, on October 11, 2011. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

In his latest report for ProPublica, senior reporter Sebastian Rotella investigates what he calls “one of the strangest, most serious terrorism cases to surface in years” – an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil through a Mexican drug cartel known as the Zetas.

The federal indictment accusing Iranian intelligence officials of the $1.5 million scheme to kill Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir of Saudi Arabia has escalated an already fierce conflict between the U.S. and Iran, Rotella reports. And while the evidence in the case, including wire payments and taped conversations, seems convincing, the account in the indictment clashes with the past behavior of both the Zetas and the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“While it may sound good, in terms of for a novel or a movie, that the Iranian intelligence service recruits Mexican hit men – who we know obviously are very dangerous and very formidable and there is a lot of violence south of the border to do this – in reality, it is kind of hard to imagine,” Rotella says.

Rotella also notes that the costs of this attack seem to far outweigh the benefits – further questioning why the Quds Force would ever bother to plan this assassination in the first place.

Read the full transcript below. And you can subscribe to all of ProPublica’s podcasts on iTunes.

Transcript

Mike Webb: Hi, I'm Mike Webb, and welcome to the ProPublica podcast. On October 11, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that an Iranian‑backed terrorism plot had been foiled. The officials explained how an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps., known as the Quds Force, was working with the Zetas Mexican drug cartel to assassinate Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States.

Joining us on the podcast to talk about this plot is ProPublica senior reporter Sebastian Rotella. Rotella has reported from around the world on a variety of issues. His most recent work for ProPublica focused on Pakistan's terrorism ties and how the 2008 terrorism attack in Mumbai came together.

He’s been honored with numerous journalism awards for his international and investigative reporting and we're pleased to have him with us today. Welcome to the podcast, Sebastian.

Sebastian Rotella: My pleasure.

Mike: So why don't you tell us about the basics of the plot? Who approached whom to do what?

Sebastian: As far as we can tell from the indictment, the main suspect, Manssor Arbabsiar, has a cousin, who is a general in the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which does the foreign operations for Iran's foreign espionage and terror‑related operations. And this cousin, he’s talking to him in Iran about doing something against the Saudi Ambassador in the U.S. This is in the spring of this year. He tells his cousin, the General, that he has contacts. He goes back and forth between Texas and Mexico. He has contacts in the Mexican drug underworld and that they can do something. There is talk of a kidnapping or an assassination.

So he goes back to Texas and meets with this guy, who he also knows through a family thing. In Corpus Christi he knew a woman, who was the aunt of a guy who he believes to be in the Mexican drug cartel known as the Zetas, which was particularly fearsome, because it was formed by ex‑commandos from the Mexican military and dominates that area of Mexico, south of Texas.

The person he meets with and recruits to help develop a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington is, in reality, someone who is in fact an associate of the Zetas, who sources described to me as someone who had direct access to the leadership elements of the Zetas and another cartel, but is in fact, also an informant of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

This informant immediately goes to his DEA handlers and tells them that this Iranian American he knows has proposed him recruiting a team to do an attack on the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. And the plot evolves from there.

Mike: Is it normal for the Iranians to work through someone else to carry out plots?

Sebastian: You know, the Iranians, in different places, have used people -‑ you know, trying to use locals to the extent they can, because one of their main goals is always to cover their tracks. So, for example, the only other ‑‑ one of the main other cases we know where they did an attack in the United States. They did an assassination in 1980 in Washington. They used an American convert to Islam, who didn't otherwise have ties to Iran, but went to a mosque, where they contacted him.

But what they have used most of all in places like Argentina, where I investigated and have done a lot of reporting on two of their attacks, they have used Hezbollah. The Lebanese militant group has been their operational entity that they work with very closely. Sometimes they use a mix of Hezbollah operatives that they have trained and developed in Lebanon.

And also people, because there is a far‑flung Lebanese diaspora all over the world. So in places like Africa and places like Latin America, they have used people like that. What is very unusual is for them to use someone so distant from their operational style and their operational culture as Mexican drug traffickers. That is definitely a first.

Mike: Yeah, because how could you trust them or have any faith that they're actually going to be able to do what they say?

Sebastian: Well, you could, in the sense that, if you had had dealings with them, and there is no question that the Iranian intelligence service and Hezbollah do a lot of criminal activity around the world, where they come into contact with people like that. But what you say is right, in the sense that the way that they happened to meet these people seems rather amateurish and opportunistic. In other words, they know a guy, this Arbabsiar. They have this guy in Texas, who does not appear by any version to be a highly‑trained Iranian agent, who happens to know someone who he thinks is a drug trafficker. That’s sort of the connection to what becomes apparently a high level plot.

The U.S. allegations ‑‑ and they have been made at the highest levels of the U.S. government accusing high levels of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. ‑‑ are that people at the top of the Iranian security forces, powerful people, were involved in and monitoring and directing this plot and funding it to the tune of almost $100,000.

So that's the disconnect of this story, the combination of what appears to be a plot that was taken seriously and invested in by the Iranian intelligence services, that would have had very drastic consequences, an attack that could be constituted almost as an attack of war. Killing the Saudi Ambassador with collateral casualties in the heart of Washington and the disconnect with what seems to be an amateurish plot, developed kind of opportunistically using hit men, who would be really unfamiliar and an unknown quantity to the plotters.

Mike: Sebastian, do you think that the Zetas would actually want to be a part of an attack like this?

Sebastian: Well, that's the other thing that makes this case so strange is while it may sound good, in terms of for a novel or a movie, that the Iranian intelligence service recruits Mexican hit men – who we know obviously are very dangerous and very formidable and there is a lot of violence south of the border to do this – in reality, it is kind of hard to imagine. If you stop and think about it, the Mexican cartels, as violent as they are south of the border, are pretty careful north of the border. They don't do that much overt, spectacular, massive violence, even for turf.

You don't see the kind of bloody turf wars north of the border that you do south of the border. You certainly don't see, other than sort of heat of the moment incidents, much targeting of, say, U.S. officials or U.S. law enforcement by the Mexican cartels.

Mike: Because they don't want any retaliation, right?

Sebastian: They are making money and they know that there are certain lines that they would cross. So if you stop and think about it, these are guys who are making huge amounts of money in all kinds of rackets, in drug trafficking and immigrant smuggling and money laundering. The logic of this plot, and we are led to believe, apparently, if it’s true, that these top Iranian officials were involved. That they somehow thought that the Zetas would lend themselves to a plot, in which the likelihood of their being discovered doing not just a violent attack, but a violent terrorist attack in Washington. That would bring down a world of hurt on the Zetas. It would all of a sudden make them public enemy number one in the United States, both as an organized crime group and now, all of a sudden, as a terrorist group. And it's just kind of hard to believe that the Zetas would want to get involved in something like that.

What would they gain, you know? I mean, certainly, they can make money plenty of others ways. They don't need the notoriety. So that's another bizarre sort of aspect of this plot is the fact that not just the rather inexperienced operative who recruits the people who he thinks are Mexican hitmen, but his bosses crack, and a supposedly sophisticated and worldly intelligence service really thought that this was going to play out this way, and that there was nothing strange about the willingness of these supposed Mexican hired killers to do an attack that would have so many negative repercussions for them.

Mike: Why would Iran want to assassinate the Saudi ambassador?

Sebastian: Well, that certainly makes more sense. I mean, one of the main rivals in the Muslim world, Iran, the main rivalries that kind of defines the Muslim world and has for, you know, for decades is the battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran being sort of the bulwark of Shiite Islam and Saudi Arabia seeing itself as one of the leading entities of Sunni Islam. So that makes sense, and certainly there's a shadow war that goes on between those two countries. And there have been previous attacks, and I've covered some of them around the world, in which the Iranian services and some of their proxies have been involved in assassinating people connected to the Saudi government, Saudi diplomats, Saudi imams, things like that.

So the idea, obviously, and taking it in as sort of an abstract of attacking the Saudi ambassador in the U.S. as choreography for a terrorist plot is…would be a prime attack for the Iranians because essentially you would strike both your enemies at once. You know, you'd strike the Saudis and you'd strike the Americans.

And there's also…there's some chatter in this plot of talk of attacking the Israeli embassy, of course, and that would be the third big enemy of Iran. So that part feels more logical in the way Iran works and who its enemies are.

Mike: But an attack on American soil would really bring a strong reaction, right?

Sebastian: Absolutely. And that's also what's very strange and such a departure from the usual practices and methods of the Iranian Quds Force doing overseas operations. What they have done for years is try and strike in places where, number one, they have a good chance of success. Number two, they have an infrastructure well in place, so in South America where, as I said, they have these Hezbollah‑connected infrastructure or in the Middle East, obviously, where they have big intelligence operations going, so places…and places where they can cover their tracks, where law enforcement is weak, where they can leave some ambiguity as to them having been the ones who did the attack.

That's why they're very active in Iraq. They're in the fog of war in Iraq it's hard to pin them down when they're using, say, Shiite militant groups to attack U.S. troops. There are very credible allegations that they play a role in training, for example, Taliban snipers to go after American troops.

But that's a far cry from doing something in Washington where, again, whether or not it would succeed is one thing. But the chances of getting away with it and it not being traced back to them given that the might of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence would have come down on any kind of attempted or successful attack, that that's what's very strange, because it just seems, as I was saying earlier, that you're setting yourself up for a confrontation that would almost demand some kind of major and even military U.S. response.

Mike: Right. Now one source told you that Arbabsiar may have been trying to bilk the Iranians. Did you get that sense?

Sebastian: Well there are some ‑- you know, there are a lot of theories, and a lot of them are Byzantine. But there's this idea, because you know this source, he's a CIA veteran, Sam [nickname] Faddis, who talked to me for this story, and he's dealt with Iranian operations all over the world, and he's now dealt with terrorism over the world. And he's trying to make sense of the contradictions that we were talking about in this case and the amateurish aspects of it. And he's saying one way that might possibly explain it is that you have this fellow, for whatever reason, Arbabsiar, who's able to sort of convince or sell the…his contacts in the Iranian intelligence service, one of whom is a relative, that he's got connections that maybe he doesn't really have.

He sort of builds up something that he or he's looking to make money. And there have been reports that he was someone who was seemed much more driven by money than he was by ideology. He does not by any sense come off as an Islamic fundamentalist. So one of the theories out there is that he's to some extent ‑ he's got a hustle going, he's looking to make money. He's trying to ‑ maybe he's actually trying to do it, but he's maybe selling it as something bigger than it is, and what he's above all interested in is gaining some profit out of it.

And that might explain, in other words, the theory there would be that the Iranians spies are interested enough to sort of explore it with them and even reach the point of funding and then discover that they've stumbled into a situation where U.S. law enforcement is all over him. So that's one of the number of theories that are out there floating to try and explain some of these strange and bizarre aspects of the case.

Mike: Let me ask you this. Do you have a sense of how it's all going to play out?

Sebastian: Well I think obviously the U.S. government has taken it incredibly seriously, has laid out these charges at the very highest levels, is talking to allies all over the world, presenting the evidence to them, has done things ‑‑ not just the indictment ‑ but also presented more information and done more sanctions in retaliation on Iranian individuals connected to the plot and others. So there seems like there's going to be a lot of repercussions. I think, in terms of the case itself and when the way sort of the ‑ I think what will dictate how aggressive the response is and what the international response is, too, is the evidence. In other words, are we going to see more that really pins down, that really is a smoking gun that really shows that top Iranians officials were involved in and directing this plot?

So is the origin of the money ‑ is this $100,000 really coming from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard? Are there really extensive transcripts that make it clear and intelligence that makes it clear, and evidence that makes it clear that top people were involved?

I think that's what we need to see, because everyone, I think, around the world now is looking at this, and it's going to shape the dynamic of the relationship of the confrontation that already existed before this between the U.S. and Iran, and between the Saudis and Iran, and the dynamics of the Middle East. So this all of a sudden becomes a case where these questions of evidence are going to have potentially massive global repercussions.

Mike: OK. Well, so there's much more to play out.

Sebastian: I think so, yeah.

Mike: OK. Sebastian, thank you very much for joining us.

Sebastian: My pleasure.

Mike: That was Sebastian Rotella. You can read his report, "Alleged Assassination Plot Doesn't Fit Past Iranian Behavior," at ProPublica.org. And keep an eye out for his new work of fiction, a book titled, "Triple Crossing," at major book retailers. And now for our Officials Say the Darndest Things Tumblr quote of the week. "Is it of vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so." Who said it? Florida Gov. Rick Scott about his plan to reform the state's higher education system by shifting funds away from liberal arts programs and towards math, science, engineering and tech programs.

OK, that's it for this week's podcast. Thanks to you for listening. Thanks to Minhee Cho for producing. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll catch you next time.

Transcription by CastingWords

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