On a balmy September evening last year, an Azeri man carrying a Russian passport crossed the border from northern Cyprus into southern Cyprus. He traveled light: a pistol, a handful of bullets and a silencer.
It was going to be the perfect hit job.
Then, just as the man was about to step into a rental car and carry out his mission — which prosecutors say was to gun down five Jewish businessmen, including an Israeli billionaire — the police surrounded him.
The failed attack was just one of at least a dozen in Europe in recent years, some successful, others not, that have involved what security officials call “soft” targets, involving murder, abduction, or both. The operations were broadly similar in conception, typically relying on local hired guns. The most significant connection, intelligence officials say, is that the attacks were commissioned by the same contractor: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In Cyprus, authorities believe Iran, which blames Israel for a series of assassinations of nuclear specialists working on the Iranian nuclear program, was trying to signal that it could strike back where Israel least expects it.
“This is a regime that bases its rule on intimidation and violence and espouses violence as a legitimate measure,” David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said in rare public remarks in September, describing what he said was a recent uptick in violent plots. “It is not spontaneous. It is planned, systematic, state terrorism — strategic terrorism.”
He left out one important detail: It’s working.
That success has come in large part because Europe — the staging ground for most Iranian operations in recent years — has been afraid to make Tehran pay. Since 2015, Iran has carried out about a dozen operations in Europe, killing at least three people and abducting several others, security officials say.
“The Europeans have not just been soft on the Islamic Republic, they’ve been cooperating with them, working with them, legitimizing the killers,” Masih Alinejad, the Iranian-American author and women’s rights activist said, highlighting the continuing willingness of European heads of state to meet with Iran’s leaders.
Alinejad, one of the most outspoken critics of the regime, understands better than most just how far Iran’s leadership is willing to go after narrowly escaping both a kidnapping and assassination attempt. [Continue reading…]