Slumped in a Nairobi courtroom, suit coats rumpled and reading glasses dangling from librarian chains, the defendants made a poor showing for the notorious Quds Force of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ahmad Abolafathi Mohammed and Sayed Mansour Mousa had been caught red-handed and middle-aged. And if the latter did them a certain credit — blandly forgettable always having been a good look for a secret agent — the prisoners still had to explain why they had hidden 15 kg of the military explosive RDX under bushes on a Mombasa golf course.
Created to advance Iran’s interests clandestinely overseas, the Quds Force has lately provided mostly embarrassment, stumbling in Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Kenya and most spectacularly in Thailand, where before accidentally blowing up their Bangkok safe house, Iran’s secret agents were photographed in the sex-tourism mecca of Pattaya, one arm around a hookah, the other around a hooker. In its ongoing shadow war with Israel, the Iranian side’s lone “success” was the July 18 bombing of a Bulgarian bus carrying Israeli tourists — though European investigators last week officially attributed that attack to Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hizballah. That leaves the Islamic Republic itself with a failure rate hovering near 100% abroad and an operational tempo — nine overseas plots uncovered in nine months — that carries a whiff of desperation. A Tehran government long branded by U.S. officials as the globe’s leading exporter of terrorism may be cornering the market on haplessness.
Within Iran’s own borders, however, the story is different. Twice in the past two years Iranian intelligence has cracked espionage rings working with Israel’s Mossad, Western intelligence officials tell TIME. In both cases, the arrests were the furthest thing from secret: announced at a news conference, each was later followed up by televised confessions broadcast on Iranian state television in prime time. Given Iran’s history of trumped-up confessions, skepticism is more than justified. But the arrests appear to be solid. One intelligence official said the captured Iranians provided “support and logistics” to the Mossad operatives who carried out the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
At least four scientists were killed on Tehran’s streets from 2010 to 2012, when, as TIME has reported, Israel ratcheted back on covert operations inside Iran. Officially, Israel has remained silent on the killings, though government officials will coyly say they welcome the deaths. The Jewish state maintains the same ambiguous posture on other “setbacks” to Iran’s nuclear program widely — and correctly, Western intelligence officials say — attributed to Mossad, from the Stuxnet computer virus, to mysterious explosions like the massive blast at a missile base, which destroyed ballistic missiles that could reach Israel.
A few years ago Latin American specialists began warning the defense community at large that the Mexican cartels constituted an insurgency in the actual sense, though one that was strategically different from the ideologically-inspired ones with which we are all familiar. By now, the weakness of the oft-repeated response that “Well, they’re not about taking over the government” ought to be plain. Sure they are. The pattern of cartel corruption of local governments in some areas of Mexico makes that plain. They just care about influence and compliance with their wishes, not about traffic law and picking up the garbage at the curb.
Some still think this is only about crime. It is not. Considering the full scope of criminality and terrorism in today’s world, on a spectrum ranging from the local gangs inside the United States to the confluence of the cartels, international terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and criminal states like Iran and Venezuela — there are others — it seems obvious that what we’re seeing is a new wrinkle in warfare itself, consisting of the blending of the huge resources of the black economy (estimated at a fifth or more of the world’s GDP) with transnational state and criminal organizations that wage economic, cyber and kinetic warfare outside the bounds of what we have come to think of as “established” rules of warfare.
One ominous and imminent development along this line is the recent move by Iran to collude with the Mexican cartels — the Zetas, specifically — to strike targets inside the United States. Given the ongoing issue of Iranian nukes, international sanctions (which will not come fully on line until the summer), Israeli pressure to strike and the covert war inside Iran itself that includes the assassination of four nuclear scientists, the probability of an Iranian terror campaign inside the United States cannot be discounted. There are operational and strategic issues involved in the potential Iranian strategy and the US response that have not been fully — or even partially — discussed. Thanks partially to 9/11, we are much better prepared now to deal tactically with events — remember that when the Quds representative reached out to the Zetas, he hit a DEA informant instead — but thus far we are only playing defense.
On a larger canvas — if a “larger canvas” can be found than dealing with attacks inside the US against our government & people — is the whole issue about the conduct of war in the 21st century. We now have “criminal” nation-states that collude with existing transnational criminal and terrorist groups to make money, corrupt international financial systems and attack other states, all the while maintaining the rights & privileges of traditional states. We have these transnational groups that themselves attack states — as the Mexican cartels are doing in Mexico, throughout Central America and along the Andean Ridge and we have the international, state-sponsored terrorist groups like Hamas, AQ and Hezbollah. All of these organizations are attacking, in one form or another, legitimate states and their populations. In many ways, Russia is very nearly, if not already, such a criminal state.
Their transnational nature means that they maintain viable “rat lines” across borders around the world, along which they move drugs, traffic in human beings (who are either voluntary refugees or slaves [ see the sex trade out of the Balkans]), arms or money, which moves through the international banking system, including US banks. Eventually, nuclear materiel, either finished weapons or otherwise, will move in those channels as well. And, I might add, one criminal state — Iran — is also developing IRBMs and shorter-range missiles at a good clip.
Defense specialists would so well to remember a quote from a nineteenth-century European general who complained about Napoleon that he never fought war according to the rules. We have even a more abrupt shift before us, which I believe is the decay of the old international “way of war” and the emergence of … something else. What are we going to do about it?
Explosive CIA Memos: Mossad agents posed as CIA spies to recruit members of a terrorist group to fight covert war against Iran
Buried deep in the archives of America’s intelligence services are a series of memos, written during the last years of President George W. Bush’s administration, that describe how Israeli Mossad officers recruited operatives belonging to the terrorist group Jundallah by passing themselves off as American agents. According to two U.S. intelligence officials, the Israelis, flush with American dollars and toting U.S. passports, posed as CIA officers in recruiting Jundallah operatives — what is commonly referred to as a “false flag” operation.
The memos, as described by the sources, one of whom has read them and another who is intimately familiar with the case, investigated and debunked reports from 2007 and 2008 accusing the CIA, at the direction of the White House, of covertly supporting Jundallah — a Pakistan-based Sunni extremist organization. Jundallah, according tothe U.S. government and published reports, is responsible for assassinating Iranian government officials and killing Iranian women and children.
But while the memos show that the United States had barred even the most incidental contact with Jundallah, according to both intelligence officers, the same was not true for Israel’s Mossad. The memos also detail CIA field reports saying that Israel’s recruiting activities occurred under the nose of U.S. intelligence officers, most notably in London, the capital of one of Israel’s ostensible allies, where Mossad officers posing as CIA operatives met with Jundallah officials.
The officials did not know whether the Israeli program to recruit and use Jundallah is ongoing. Nevertheless, they were stunned by the brazenness of the Mossad’s efforts.
“It’s amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with,” the intelligence officer said. “Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn’t give a damn what we thought.”
Interviews with six currently serving or recently retired intelligence officers over the last 18 months have helped to fill in the blanks of the Israeli false-flag operation. In addition to the two currently serving U.S. intelligence officers, the existence of the Israeli false-flag operation was confirmed to me by four retired intelligence officers who have served in the CIA or have monitored Israeli intelligence operations from senior positions inside the U.S. government.
The CIA and the White House were both asked for comment on this story. By the time this story went to press, they had not responded. The Israeli intelligence services — the Mossad — were also contacted, in writing and by telephone, but failed to respond. As a policy, Israel does not confirm or deny its involvement in intelligence operations.