BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Azerbaijan’s security agency said Tuesday it has busted a suspected terrorist group working for Iran’s secret services, the second such claim this year as tensions rise between the two neighbors.
The National Security Ministry said in a statement carried by Azerbaijan’s state television that it had arrested an unspecified number of people suspected of preparing terror attacks against foreign citizens at Iran’s behest. The people were gathering intelligence and had acquired a large number of weapons and explosives, the ministry said. It gave no further details.
The ministry’s announcement came hours after authorities arrested some 20 young people in Baku’s suburb of Nardaran. Authorities gave no information about the arrests, but some local media reported that a nephew of the alleged mastermind of a botched plot in January was among those arrested.
Azerbaijan last month announced the arrest of two local residents accused of plotting to kill two teachers at a Jewish school in Baku on Iranian orders. Iran, in turn, has accused Azerbaijan of turning a blind eye to Israeli intelligence operations on its soil.
The Baku plot, allegedly unraveled in January and recounted through interviews and police records, has been largely overshadowed by this month’s arrests and attacks that suggest Iran wants payback after the slayings of at least five of its top scientists - all of whom had links to Tehran’s nuclear program - over the past two years.
But the Baku claims offer a wider portrait of Iran’s alleged clandestine operations, and how they appear tailored to different locales.
Each step, according to authorities in Baku, was overseen by Iran’s intelligence services for what could have been a stunning attack weeks before the suspected shadow war between Jerusalem and Tehran flared in Azerbaijan’s neighbor Georgia, as well as in New Delhi and in Bangkok, where according to an ABC News report an alleged Iranian hit squad used $27 portable radios to hide at least five bombs.
Exclusive photos of one undetonated bomb, obtained by ABC News, show the inside of the radio packed with tiny ball bearings and six magnets. Bomb experts say the magnets indicate the bomb was designed to be affixed to the side of a vehicle.
Israeli authorities and U.S. bomb experts say the bomb in the photos is strikingly similar to those used in other attacks last week in the Republic of Georgia and in India. “While there are small differences,” said one U.S. expert, “they appear to be factory made.”
Multiple authorities told ABC News the devices were either slipped through airport security or smuggled in a diplomatic pouch.
Meanwhile in Baku last month, the tools for an alleged Iranian-directed murder team were smuggled into Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea piece by piece: a sniper rifle with silencer, pistols, 16 pieces of plastic explosives and detonators.
The final piece to be delivered was a dossier with photos, names and exacting details - down to workplace drawings - for Israeli targets in the capital of Azerbaijan.
“The moves against Israel taken in other countries and thwarted in Baku are undoubtedly interconnected,” said Arastun Orujlu, the head of East-West, an independent Baku-based think tank. “Iran tries to provoke Israel. Iran needs an external factor to mobilize and unite the society, but it realizes that it will lose a big war. That is why Iran is trying to provoke Israel to engage in smaller-scale confrontation.”
In Bangkok, the three Iranian suspects in custody took advantage of Thailand’s foreigner-friendly culture to party with bar girls while allegedly organizing a bomb cache whose targets, police say, included the Israeli Embassy. In New Delhi, the wife of an Israeli diplomat, Tal Yehoshua-Koren, was wounded along with three others by attackers using magnetic bombs - the same tactic used to kill a senior nuclear official in Tehran last month in an attack that Iran claims was masterminded by Israel. The same day as the New Delhi blast, a similar “sticky bomb” was found on the car of a driver for the Israeli Embassy in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
The Baku allegations bring a different scenario: local mercenaries suspected of being recruited by a well-known gangster with alleged ties to Iranian secret services.
“Each alleged plot has its own signature,” said Theodore Karasik, a security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, who was part of a fact-finding trip to Baku after the January arrests in Baku. “They all seem to have a bit of an amateur quality about them, however, as if Iran is trying various tactics to see what works.”
But the shifting tactics remain difficult to interpret, security experts say.
According to some speculations, they indicate a level of sophistication and forethought to adapt plans that take local conditions and opportunities into account. But there is also an opposing view, which says they could represent a scattershot approach that shows panic and disarray as sanctions - and suspected covert attacks inside Iran - rattle Tehran’s leadership.
“There is no way to interpret its belligerent and violent behavior, which all but defies all operational and diplomatic logic, as anything but a sign that the decision-makers in Tehran are acting from their gut and not their head,” wrote Israel Hayom’s Yoav Limor, also a prominent defense correspondent for Israel’s national TV station.
The Baku case bridges both elements: A suggestion of some methodical planning, but also a risky reliance on the local underworld in a city with a history of tensions between Iran and Israel.
The former Soviet republic - flush with Caspian oil and friendly to the West - sits on Iran’s western shoulder with deep connections into the Islamic Republic through Iran’s ethnic Azeri community, one of the nation’s largest whose members include Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Baku’s outward-looking policies also have been packaged into an international PR campaign as it bids for the 2020 Olympics.
In 2007, Azerbaijan convicted 15 people in connection with an alleged Iranian-linked spy network accused of passing intelligence on Western and Israeli activities. The following year, Azerbaijan officials said they foiled a plot to explode car bombs near the Israeli Embassy in retaliation for the killing in Syria of a Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah’s top military commander. Two Lebanese men were later convicted in Baku for the bombing attempt.
Now, as Iran’s nuclear showdown with the West deepens, the Islamic Republic sees the Azeri frontier as a weak point. Earlier this month, Iran’s foreign ministry accused Azerbaijan of allowing the Mossad to operate on its territory and providing a corridor for “terrorists” to kill members of Iran’s scientific community.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Elman Abdullayev, dismissed the Iranian claims as “slanderous lies” designed to turn attention away from the alleged assassination plot uncovered last month.
The suspected ringleader was a local thug, Balagardash Dadashev, who had a record that included kidnapping and robbery. Azeri officials believe Dadashev, at some point, branched out to make connections with Iranian agents, possibly linked to the powerful Revolutionary Guard.
From a safe haven in Iran, Dadashev then reached out to two Azeri underworld figures to carry out killings of Israeli citizens.
Police say he first approached his brother-in-law, Rasim Aliyev, who at first rejected the idea. Then, authorities say, he and his Baku neighbor returned with a demand for $200,000. Dadashev countered with $150,000 and gave Aliyev a $9,300 advance as well as a plan of a Jewish school in Baku and photos of two Israeli teachers working there. Police say Dadashev said they could target either of the two at their choice.
Aliyev’s neighbor, Ali Guseinov, used some of the money to buy a used car, according to investigators. He then requested a sniper rifle after seeing security cameras at the school, which caters to Azerbaijan’s small Jewish community. Police say pistols, explosives and detonators also were part of the plot’s arsenal.
The alleged plot collapsed with a series of raids and arrests announced Jan. 19. Dadashev was believed to be in Iran and out of the reach of Baku authorities. But in a purported confession shown on Azerbaijani state television, Aliyev said Dadashev had told him it was revenge for the alleged Israeli slayings of nuclear scientists in Iran. Some Israeli reports, which have not been officially confirmed, said the country’s ambassador also was a target.
Israeli security officials refuse to give further details about their investigations or coordination with authorities in Baku. Last week, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted the alleged Azerbaijan plot as part of Israel’s efforts to work with security forces around the world.
“In recent months, we have witnessed several attempts to attack Israeli citizens in several countries, including Azerbaijan, Thailand and others,” he said. “In each instance, we succeeded in foiling the attacks in cooperation with local authorities.”