After rounding up eight suspects with medical connections in the plot to detonate car bombs in London and Scotland, Britain’s Scotland Yard and anti-terrorist agencies are now looking hard at Iran, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report.
They are putting together leads which indicate that Iran, masters of the proxy tactic, used an al Qaeda group, the resurgent Ansar al Islam, to cover its tracks.
The decision to target Britain the day after Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as prime minister Thurs. June 28, was motivated by deep resentment in Iran’s ruling circle over British policies which have brought relations to an all-time low.
Tony Blair is seen as having spearheaded Europe’s diplomatic campaign to vilify and curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and is considered in Tehran as America’s tool for persuading Europe to agree to tougher sanctions.
Even before Brown had settled in at 10 Downing Street, the British UN ambassador was busy drafting a new sanctions resolution for the UN Security Council, including measures that would seriously hurt Iran’s economy and its ability to withstand external threats.
Iran’s rulers are therefore extremely perturbed to see Blair turning up as the Middle East Quartet’s special envoy. They do not believe for a moment that he will confine himself to his formal remit of building Palestinian institutions and acting as liaison between Israel and the Palestinians. They believe he has been positioned to serve US President George W. Bush as day-to-day coordinator with Middle East and Gulf rulers when American military action is launched against Iran this summer.
He is also viewed as Washington’s agent for prying Hamas and other pro-Iranian elements out of Tehran’s orbit.
By a series of attacks in Britain and Scotland, where Gordon Brown was born, Tehran hopes to deter him from carrying on his predecessor’s policies. If he fails to heed the warning, he will have to reckon with Iran’s arm reaching deep into every corner of the United Kingdom.
Smashed by the US, resuscitated by Iran
Iraq’s Ansar al-Islam was chosen for the car bomb plot against Britain, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, because of its long ties with Tehran going back at least 10 years.
The group set up shop in 1997 around the Iraqi Kurdistan town of Bayara which has a mixed population of Iraqi Sunni Kurds, Kurdish Shiites and Iranian Kurds. Like every other terrorist group in Kurdistan with the potential for influencing Iranian Kurds across the border, it soon caught the attention of Iranian intelligence.
Iranian undercover agencies were especially interested in the efforts of Iraqi military intelligence during Saddam Hussein’s rule in Baghdad to penetrate Ansar al-Islam.
They also took notice of the arrival in 1998 of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then on the run from Jordan where he and his independent terrorist were in the sights of Jordanian security agencies.
His early contacts with Ansar al-Islam evolved into Zarqawi’s ties with al Qaeda and his ending up as the Islamist group’s senior commander in Iraq.
The investigation in London and Glasgow is beginning to untangle some of these longstanding associations and trying to understand their function in developing the bomb plot of 2007.
One of the first US actions upon invading Iraq in March 2003 was to join hands with Iraqi Kurdish leaders to smash Ansar al-Islam by slamming airborne missiles into their bases. Hundreds of Ansar terrorists – according to some reports, 2000 – died in the attack. The few survivors fled across the nearby Iranian border to safety.
After its infrastructure was wiped out, the group’s undercover cells in West Europe, mainly in Britain, Italy, Germany and Sweden, the Far East and such places as India, Pakistan and even Australia, continued to function. Their ties with the central leadership based now in Iran are channeled through the organizations networks in Turkey.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources report that as Tehran’s relations with the US and UK and Iran deteriorated over Iraq and Tehran’s nuclear program, more resources were invested in rehabilitating Ansar al Islam’s military capabilities in northern Iraq as one of Iran’s several proxy groups held ready for hitting the Americans and their Kurdish allies in Iraq.
Its fighters, boosted by Iranian Kurds, trained at the Revolutionary Guards special installations for terrorists outside the Kurdish towns of Qasr Shirin and Saqez near the Iraqi Kurdistan border.
Iran not told which Ansar al-Islam cell acted on its behalf in UK
In early 2007, they re-entered their old Iraqi Kurdistanj haunts, newly outfitted by Iran with weapons, explosives, mines and an assortment of anti-tank and anti-air missiles. They set up bases in Bistan and Sutaimanadol in the Kurdish mountains north of Suleimaniyeh. From there they have spread east and north, embedding cells in the Kurdish capital of Irbil and Mosul, linking up with the strong al Qaeda presence already there.
Their function is separate from that of the cells outside the Middle East, although their Iran-based shared high commanders commute overseas to pass out instructions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that by virtue of the sanctuary, logistical assistance, weapons and training Iranian military intelligence renders Ansar, Tehran might have felt entitled to apply directly to its commanders in Iraq for the services of its cells in Britain. However, throughout all the years of ups and downs in its collaboration with al Qaeda – differences have on occasion exploded into bloody battles – Iranian intelligence has always made a point of never turning to any of the group’s operational arms without the permission of al Qaeda leaders, whether the large group of senior officers operating out of Iran, or the top men holed up in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
A small Shiite group with ties to Iranian intelligence operates on the Pakistan-Afghan frontier in the heart of the Sunni population. This minority fulfils an important role in al Qaeda’s logistical supply system by connecting the jihadist group and Iran. It is also one of the channels between the Ansar al Islam’s Middle East, European, Pakistani and Indian networks.
Iranian intelligence did not know which Ansar cells al Qaeda activated in response to its request for an operation in Britain on Gordon Brown’s second day in office – nor the scale of the operation or the casualties involved. All Tehran needed to know was it would never be tied to Iran by British intelligence and that al Qaeda would as usual in the past six years wipe out all leads to masterminds. The British investigation, successful in its first stages of rounding up cell members, must then face a blank wall. The seven doctors may belong to one or more Ansar al-Islam cells, but the flow of information must stop with them.
Tehran demonstrates its long reach
The car bombing attempts in London were bungled and the Glasgow attack was just as inept. However for the Islamic Republic the failed plot was of prime deterrent importance. Notwithstanding the absence of solid evidence, every Western capital is now aware that should UN sanctions against Iran be expanded further, the clerical rulers of Tehran are capable of catching them unawares anywhere through al Qaeda’s long and multi-tentacled arm.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s al Qaeda experts, contrary to appearances, the attempted attacks in the UK do not betoken a major change in the organization’s modus operandi or network structure, which are based on dangerous suicide fanatics trained specifically for large-scale, multi-casualty bombing attacks.
The idea of forming networks of members of the same professions, such as the doctors in the British attacks, must be credited to a Kurd called Warba Holiri al-Kurdi (Abu Abdullah al-Shafi) reported to have taken over as Ansar al-islam leader in 2003, present whereabouts unknown.
He figured that professional groups are easily closed to outsiders and communicate freely in their own arcane language whatever their origins or country of employment. Moreover, because they are educated members of the middle class with good incomes, they do not fit the commonly held Western stereotypes of the Islamist extremist terrorist.
In Iraq, however, Ansar also runs suicide and car bombers.
Like al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam’s recruiting mechanisms and chains of command are as opaque as ever and stalled the fast-moving London investigation five days after it began. But signals were up that should have forewarned British intelligence that something was in the wind for the days of the Blair-Brown transition.
Two weeks ago, Mullah Krekar (Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad), once reputed to be Ansar al-Islam’s military leader, who is under detention in Norway, declared: “Many martyrs are ready to blow themselves up.” He warned Britain to expect reprisals for its continuing involvement in the Middle East.
And 17 days before the first bomb was disabled in central London’s Haymarket on June 29, a message appeared in the jihadist “al Hesbah” chat room which said:
“Today I say: Rejoice, by Allah, London shall be bombed.”