Iran has emerged as the spearhead of a “troika of terrorism” and many of the terrorists are being trained at a religious school in the holy city of Qom, Western intelligence officials say.
Several alumni of the Hojjatian Religious School have been arrested in recent months, shedding light on the school’s clandestine activities, amid growing fears of an upsurge in Iranian terrorist activity.
Those fears have been fueled by recent bloody attacks on Iranian dissidents and Iranian threats to retaliate for U.S. and European intervention in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian terrorist activity has come into sharper focus since Libya and Syria, long identified by the United States as sponsors of international terrorism, were forced to pull in their horns.
Kadafi in ‘Back Seat’
Ian Geldard of the London-based Institute for the Study of Terrorism says Iran has taken the lead in what he called a “troika of terrorism.” He notes that Libya’s Col. Moammar Kadafi “has taken a back seat” since the U.S. air raids on Tripoli and Benghazi in April, 1985. And, said Geldard, the Syrians later “got their fingers burned” over allegations they were involved in the attempted bombing of an Israeli airliner in London.
“The Iranians are more fanatically anti-Western than Syria or Libya,” Geldard said. “They believe that a new age of Islamic supremacy is dawning, with them in the forefront of this jihad , or holy war.”
In recent months, Iranian agents have attacked opponents of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist regime in Pakistan, Britain, Austria, Greece and Turkey and assassinated several people.
One Qom alumni is Fouad Ali Saleh, a Tunisian Shia Muslim arrested in France last March. He is believed to be the leader of an Iranian cell in Paris controlled by Iran’s hard-line intelligence minister, Mohammed Rey-Shahri.
2 Iran Cells Cracked
Another is Mohammed Moujaher, 33, also arrested in Paris last March. France’s counterintelligence agency, the Directoire de la Surveillance du Territoire, or DST, has identified him as an agent controlled by officials in the Iranian embassy.
The DST was able to crack at least two Iranian cells, made up mainly of Tunisians, through the defection of a third Qom graduate, a 32-year-old Tunisian code-named Lotfi by French officials.
He walked into the DST bureau in the Loire Valley city of Tours in central France last February and informed on his comrades in return for immunity and relocation in the United States.
Lotfi implicated Iranian terrorists in 1986 bombings in Paris, in which 13 people were killed and 200 wounded and which had earlier been blamed on Lebanese Christian radicals. He also fingered other Tunisians recruited by Rey-Shahri’s ministry.
Religion and Terrorism
According to intelligence sources, Lotfi said he went to Iran out of religious fervor after Khomeini’s Islamic revolution toppled the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
At the Hojjatian school in Qom, he received religious indoctrination and terrorist training, Lotfi said.
Graduates of the school, particularly non-Iranian Shias who are less suspect, are sent abroad to spy on Iranian exiles and set up cells activated by Tehran agents posted in Iranian embassies.
Lotfi’s interrogation led French security authorities to Wahid Gordji, a translator at the Iranian embassy in Paris who was linked to the 1986 bombings.
Gordji, suspected of controlling Iran’s underground network in France, holed up in the embassy. That triggered a diplomatic war with Tehran that led to a rupture in relations last July.
Links were restored in December after the French government made a deal with Iran to free French hostages held by Iranian-backed Shias in Lebanon in return for letting Gordji leave the country.
The scale of Iran’s web of terror has emerged from interviews with specialists in terrorism, Iranian dissidents with contacts in Tehran and Western intelligence sources.
Paul Bremer, head of the State Department’s counterterrorism agency, said in a recent magazine interview: “Iran is a state which supports terrorism. It has supported terrorism in the past and continues to support terrorism.”
Active Since 1979
Iranian-backed Shia terrorists have been active since 1979.
Among their victims were more than 240 American servicemen killed in a suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut in 1983.
And 21 foreigners, including eight Americans missing in Lebanon, are believed held by Iranian-backed Shias. This hostage crisis has dragged the United States, Britain, France, West Germany, Ireland and other countries into the maelstrom of Iran’s revolutionary politics.
Iran’s terror network comprises at least two identifiable tiers, one controlled by the Internal Security Ministry in Tehran that works through Iranian embassies abroad. The other is a loosely structured alliance of Iranian-backed groups that include “wild men who often act on their own,” Geldard said.
Terror Escalation Seen
Prof. Paul Wilkinson, a specialist in terrorism at the University of Aberdeen’s International Affairs Department, said that Iranian-sponsored terrorism is expected to escalate “as Tehran becomes more desperate for victory in the war against Iraq.”
The center of much of the escalating terrorism can be traced to Shia Muslim fundamentalists of Hezbollah, or Party of God, in Lebanon, analysts say.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Bekaa Valley of east Lebanon train Islamic zealots and funnel recruits from among Lebanon’s million-strong Shia community to Iran for ideological and religious indoctrination before sending them on missions abroad, Geldard said.
Western intelligence sources and Iranian exiles with contacts inside their homeland say that the more structured Iranian network is masterminded by Rey-Shahri.
‘No Fixed Structure’
The ministry’s Eighth Branch, housed in a nondescript building in Tehran’s Pasdaran Street, controls Hezbollah and has direct control of fundamentalist factions in Lebanon that hold the foreign hostages, according to officials of the Moujahedeen Khalq, or People’s Warriors, the main Iranian opposition movement.
“The Iranian network has no fixed structure,” Geldard said. “The whole Tehran leadership is involved in one way or another.
“Whether there’s one single mastermind is open to question. Some Iranian leaders take a greater interest in this sort of thing than others.
“But they all have their own death squads to kill off their own particular enemies. The Iranians, like the Libyans, have been assassinating their enemies, what Kadafi calls Libya’s ‘stray dogs,’ since 1980. But it’s only now that the strands of Iranian terrorism have become more evident.”
‘No Middle Ground’
American intervention in the Gulf “won’t necessarily make all that much difference in Khomeini’s overall strategy,” Geldard said.
“The United States is seen as Iran’s fundamental enemy because it’s the major Western power, the symbol of everything Tehran opposes,” he said. “The Iranians are obsessive about destroying the West and all things non-Islamic. There’s no middle ground for them.”
Hezbollah is now believed to have activists “all over the West, and they act as Khomeini’s hit men,” Geldard said.
Wilkinson said that the main Iranian network is controlled by Rey-Shahri’s ministry and extends as far as Southeast Asia where it recruits Muslim fanatics.
Web of Agents
Intelligence sources noted that this web breaks down into regional networks, with the Middle East controlled from Iran’s Beirut Embassy and Africa from Sierra Leone. The European net is controlled by Iran’s permanent United Nations mission in Geneva, the sources say.
It runs agents in Paris, Bonn, Hamburg, Cologne, Vienna, Brussels and Rome.
Wilkinson said the second network controls pro-Iranian factions abroad, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Iranian-backed Islamic Call, a movement of dissident Iraqi Shias loyal to Khomeini.
Control in Tehran
These factions are controlled by religious or political leaders in Tehran “who are powerfully connected,” Wilkinson said.
The sources identified one as Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. As Iran’s ambassador in Damascus several years ago, he was a key figure in organizing Hezbollah and other radical Shias in neighboring Lebanon.
Mohtashemi, who lost a hand in a book bomb explosion in Damascus in 1983, has been linked by U.S. intelligence sources to the suicide truck bombings of the U.S. and French embassies in Beirut in October, 1983.
Coordination between these networks is patchy because “these groups are often driven by their own militancy with their own tactical objectives” that need not always dovetail with the grander designs of Iranian leaders, Wilkinson notes.
‘Lot of Wild Men’
“They have a lot of wild men,” he says. “These are the people we really need to worry about, people who single-handedly hijack an aircraft with little hope of success.
“But they’ve been indoctrinated that to die in a jihad means they will go to paradise. That’s not something fanciful as many Westerners believe.
“These people really believe it, and this attitude has to be understood more in the West if we’re to be able to combat this kind of fanaticism.
“This poses a big threat to secular states that don’t seem to understand the nature of the beast they’re up against in what I believe is going to be a very difficult period.
“We should have taken effective steps to curb this long before now. Iran is not Libya. The Iranians have an intensity of revolutionary fervor that leaves the Libyans at the starting block. And unlike Libya, Iran is a regional power that’s playing for high stakes.”
Vast Manpower Pool
The Iranians, as the beacon for Islamic fundamentalists, can call on a vast manpower pool from Lebanon to the United States, from Britain to West Germany and Turkey, where there are large Iranian communities.
“It’s impossible to say how many of these potential terrorists are trained,” Geldard said. “But they represent a large pool of sympathizers who can provide support for terrorist groups.”
Islamic fighters, fired by Iran’s successes in the war with Iraq, have intensified their attacks against Israel in south Lebanon.
Aided by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in east Lebanon, they now pose as big a threat as the Palestinians once did.
Fundamentalists Rounded Up
Egypt recently rounded up hundreds of fundamentalists following abortive attempts to assassinate government leaders and U.S. diplomats.
President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by fundamentalists after signing a peace treaty with Israel.
Kuwait, which Iran accuses of aiding Iraq, has been hit by attacks by pro-Iranian Shias, including an abortive attempt to assassinate the emir in 1985.