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Plot to Assassinate Saudi Ambassador or Murder-for-Hire Sting….

Plot to Assassinate Saudi Ambassador or Murder-for-Hire Sting....

The Quds Force

The news that Holder’s DOJ had bagged a ‘terrorist mastermind’ named Manssor J. Arbabsiar followed shortly on the heels of my last post about ‘spin,’ and the ways ‘stakeholders’ in the DOJ/ATF Fast and Furious story may be using it to sell their own POV, lack of culpability, or, in the case of the press, newspapers or their e-equivalents.

So the caller who woke me up way too early to tell me about US law enforcement’s latest tour de force, the discovery and preemption of an Iranian murder plot to assassinate the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia, really only had one question: “Is this the kind of ‘spin’ you’ve been talking about?”

Well, gee. It took me a minute, but my initial impression is the one I’m sticking with–if it isn’t spin, it should be, because the media ball is back in DOJ’s court–the story’s knocked the Fast and Furious scandal off the front page, replacing it, apparently, with a tale told by an idiot, a US national who’s failed at every job he’s ever had, from selling used cars to hawking luncheon fajitas.

On full display as well is an exceptional discharge of sound and fury—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the lady in charge of issuing exemptions to the Arms Export Control Act) and top dogs from the FBI, DOJ, ICE, DEA, and even the CIA, charging through the halls of the UN in Manhattan demanding further ‘isolation’ of Iran. Brrrrr

And, of course, in the end, it’s a tale that signifies…what?

That there are countless wannabe conspirators wandering the mean streets of LA, Dallas/Ft. Worth—wherever USA—heads filled with squeegee plots to rid the world of real or imaginary evils?

That when these hapless miscreants connect with law enforcement informers, whose own fates depend on helping agents build career-enhancing cases, the pot begins to boil?

That the best way to kill a story about the enemy within is to refocus attention on a bigger, badder enemy without?

I’m not sure. . .

But here’s a version of the “Iran Plots Terrorist Strike on US Soil” story (told to me) that I’d like to share with you.

Let’s start with the protagonist, Manssor J. Arbabsiar, who by dint of his ethnicity, may or may not have a beef against the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

But one thing we do know: he wants and needs to make money—no easy task for the dumb-and-dumber, especially in a hard economy.

But all is not lost: Arbabsiar has a relative, in Iran’s Quds Force, and this ‘cousin’ wants to help both his kinsman in the US and their countrymen in Iran via a collection of touchdowns for the home team.

And what does that mean?

Maybe pushing back at the Great Satan, killing some Israelis down the road, and knocking off a Saudi sheik bold enough to refuel at an enemy watering hole in DC.

“You can count on me,” Arbabsiar tells his cousin back in Iran, who, according to the Criminal Complaint filed by DOJ, suggests that locating one of those cartel assassins south of the US border might be the way to go. (Can we tell these two guys are related?)

Arbabsiar, who has lived on the Tex-Mex border, agrees.

Plot to Assassinate Saudi Ambassador or Murder-for-Hire Sting....

Manssor Arbabsiar-Terrorist Mastermind?

But how to get it done? This is a man who can’t keep track of his car keys or his cell phone. A small-time hustler slippin’ and slidin’ on the global stage….

Then Arbabsiar gets lucky. He puts out the word on the street that he has money and knows who’s hiring, and lo and behold, Arbabsiar stumbles across a guy with Connections.

Someone who ‘knows about these things.’

Illicit trafficking, bribery, theft, bomb attacks, mayhem and murder. When the hustler manages to connect with the ‘hit man’ (in reality, a trafficker turned DEA informant who has worked in Mexico), he’s elated and, he thinks, in business.

The Confidential Informant

“Sure,” says Arbabsiar’s new friend, whose DEA code name is ‘Confidential Source #1,” or “CS-1,” for short . “We do assassinations – we do it all.”

Now the informant really goes to work, teasing out his target’s intentions, assessing just how far Arbabsiar and his Iranian contacts will go, how many crimes they may be willing to commit (how many counts could end up on the Criminal Complaint), and how much they’re willing to pay.

It’s called a ‘murder-for-hire’ sting, a standard law enforcement ploy designed to help the criminal find the very worst in his nature and act on it. But sting operations come with their own risks as well as rewards—and attorneys know that ‘entrapment’ can be a strong defense.

Informants are like sharks, scouring the underworld for opportunities and targets the feds can use as springboards to career-making cases. It’s the informant’s job to find two sticks (agent and opportunity), to rub them together vigorously, and to blow gently on the sparks of criminal enterprise.

So it’s the DEA informant, CS-1, who makes the pitch, polishing his credentials for Arbabsiar, a potential target. It’s the informant who tells the Iranian he has ties with Los Zetas, guys who kill people every day for nickels and dimes, and who’d be more than happy to do it better for better-paying customers. It’s CS-1 who’s making it up as he goes along.

And you know, this clears something up, something that’s been bothering me. You see, immediately following DOJ’s announcement that the assassination plot had been foiled, a number of US intelligence liaisons in Mexico, people who work for ICE and for the CIA providing trafficking intel, were scrambling to identify the DEA informant who’d partnered up with Arbabsiar.

He was an unknown.

Our guys in Mexico, whose job it is to know ‘who’s who’ in the world of cartel trafficking, should have had the skinny on the man Arbabsiar believed was a big player for Los Zetas. But they didn’t.

They couldn’t place him because Arbabsiar’s hired hand may not have had any meaningful ties to Los Zetas or to any Mexican assassins. He may have created those associations as the need arose, to meet Arbabsiar’s expectations.The link between the purported plot to assassin the Saudi Ambassador to the United States and Los Zetas may have been real only for the Arbabsiar, his ‘cousin’ and his contacts in Iran, and for CS-1, a paid snitch trolling for new targets and some government coin on the side.


Here’s how it works: informants hunt for targets as assiduously as would-be conspirators look for accomplices. CS-1’s job is to be whatever Arbabsiar needs him to be. To be creative, adaptable, and opportunistic. Indeed, in a carefully worded statement embedded in DOJ’s Criminal Complaint, the FBI witness confirms that the informant, CS-1, ‘posed’ as an associate of a DTO operating in Northern Mexico. Critical word, “posed.”

So what we have is roughly four months of fantasy and role-playing, during which time the plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States remains only a figment in the imaginations of a handful of would-be assailants: Arbabsiar, his cousin (“a big general”) in the Iranian military, Gholam Shakuri, a member of the Quds Force, and according to the Criminal Complaint, another Iranian belonging to the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Meanwhile, DEA is waiting for the kind of case they can take to a US Attorney, and that means their informant needs to move from make-believe to real-time crime. He needs to get paid.

How much?

It had to have been Arbabsiar asking this question, because at this point, CS-1 is calling the shots.

1.5 million with 100k on deposit. . .

The Iranians agree to the deal, and wire the 100k to the undercover bank account, routing and account numbers supplied by CS-1.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

100k proves conspiracy–but not involvement of Iranian government

It’s illegal, a violation of OFAC, for any US bank, business or US citizen to accept funds wired from Iran or from an account anywhere belonging to an individual or entity using it to conduct commerce with Iran.

In a case like this, the 100k would have likely come from the United Arab Emirate, maybe Dubai, where Iranian interests established shell companies many years ago for the specific purpose of circumventing OFAC and the US embargo on Iran.

It’s likely that the Iranian government, the Quds Force, have billions in UAE banks, money that at this point, could never be traced back to Iran. So this begs the question–would Arbabsiar’s contacts send funds that might indeed be traced back to Iran to the undercover bank account in the US when big-time players intent on an assassination plot could just as easily route a transfer out of a corporate account in UAE?

I don’t think so.

If Arbabsiar’s backers were high-level players working on behalf of the Iranian government, the 100k wired to the US would, almost certainly, have come out of a UAE corporate account, or via an account belonging to an international bank with correspondent branches/banks around the world.It’s highly improbably that US authorities can prove the owner/s of that account have direct links to the Iranian government.

And that’s a problem, isn’t it?

US indulging in ‘Wag the Dog’ foreign policy?

Yes, receipt of the 100k by US authorities is enough to make a conspiracy case against Arbabsiar and the Iranian cohorts he’s implicated in the plot.

But that 100k in the US undercover bank account still does not prove that the Iranian government was driving the bus. To do that, US authorities must establish a link between the owner of the account in the UAE — or the owner/s of an account held by an international financial institution with correspondent branches/banks around the world — and the government of Iran. No mention of this in the Criminal Complaint, is there?

But it’s a crucial point–one that could defuse the Obama Administration’s claim that ‘senior officials at the highest levels of the Iranian government’ were tied to the assassination plot and challenge the call of senior US officials for alterations to current foreign policy, in the US and abroad, toward Iran. If US authorities cannot prove that this was something more than a plot formulated by a small group of non-state actors, the President, the Secretary of State, DEA and the FBI have some explaining to do.

What’s also interesting is that, with the exception of The Guardian (which asks if the US may be indulging in a “Wag the Dog” type of foreign policy) the mainstream media doesn’t seem to be picking up on any of this.

Maybe that’s because Arbabsiar’s own statement in the Criminal Complaint seems to implicate the government of Iran:“This isn’t personal–not my money–it’s the government’s money.”

It’s important to note, however, that Arbabsiar made this statement to CS-1 in response to the informant’s request for more money: CS-1 told Arbabsiar that he needed at least a ‘five man team’ to pull off the assassination, and that his people wanted half of the 1.5m — as opposed to a measly 100k — as downpayment for the hit. Arbabsiar wants to reassure CS-1 that it’s the Iranian government that’ backing him, not just a ‘personal’ circle of contacts–so how reliable Arbabsiar’s statement is remains to be proved.

What we do know at his point is that Arbabsiar appears to be under pressure, and, is, in turn, pressing CS-1 to get on with the scheme. By this time, we’re calling the proposed plot ‘Operation Chevrolet,’ a sentimental nod, it seems, to Arbabsiar’s former career in used car sales, and his contacts back in Iran, Arbabsiar tells CS-1, want to ‘take delivery’ of the vehicle.

This is all according to testimony provided by Arbabsiar to the FBI, the same outfit responsible for Ruby Ridge in 1992, a situation that began when an ATF informant convinced a white separatist named Randy Weaver to sell him what the government later alleged were two ‘sawed-off’ shotguns (shortening the barrels of these weapons before selling them constitutes an illegal sale), and that ended a little more than a week after an FBI sniper killed Weaver’s wife with a shot to the head as she stood in her doorway holding a baby in her arms.

ATF and the FBI have a history

Plot to Assassinate Saudi Ambassador or Murder-for-Hire Sting....

Weaver family-Ruby Ridge

especially when it comes to making criminal mountains out of some pretty strange molehills—focusing on small-time and sometimes delusional targets in an attempt to build a case authorities believe they can manage and bring, once it’s been parented into a full-blown crisis, to successful (and high profile) prosecution.

Randy Weaver was low-hanging fruit, as was David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians—cultural oddballs with spare educations and no clout, waiting with their off-the-grid religious beliefs and caches of canned food and long guns, for the apocalypse.

When it came, it was wearing a badge.

But this current murder-for-hire sting is different—unlike previous domestic ‘stings’ run out of the FBI, the dynamic between Arbabsiar and his informant stand to affect global foreign policy, reshaping strategic relations between the US and the Mideast in ways that are difficult, unless maybe you’re the Secretary of State or the cigarette man in the X-files, to envision.

Karen Greenberg, a journalist for the Guardian, puts it this way:

In the Arbabsiar case, the issue has immediately leapt from a matter of individuals to a matter of state – and from a matter of non-state actors engaged in alleged criminal activity on behalf of al-Qaida (or another transnational terrorist group) to a matter of state actors (that is, the Quds Force). The US government is claiming that this case constitutes a diplomatic breach and an act of international violence planned by the Iranian authorities – in the president’s words, “a flagrant violation of US and international law”.

This is important stuff—read it again.

Then ask yourself this. . .

Is Arbabsiar just another screwball—more low-hanging fruit—involved in a crank scheme engineered by a ‘rogue faction’ (otherwise known as three more screwballs) in the Iranian military, or is he, as he seems to believe and the US government continues to insist, a henchman for powerful officials within the highest echelons of the Iranian government?

If he’s small-time and delusional, a ‘hook’ on which the feds and the Administration have managed to hang some very serious allegations, well then, Houston, we’ve got a problem. If he’s the gateway player in an international terrorist plot, we’ve got a different problem.

You choose.

But first hear the rest of Arbabsiar’s story . . .

It’s almost fall now, 2011. Arbabsiar’s contacts in Iran, he tells CS-1, are unwilling to invest more upfront money in the operation (he says they want to see how this first ‘test’ pans out), so Arbabsiar agrees to go himself to Mexico and wait there as ‘human collateral’ until the hit on the Saudi Ambassador in DC had gone down, and everyone, we assume, gets paid.

Now, according to the FBI report, Arbabsiar admits that his own contact in Iran told him this might be a bad idea and advised against it. But for some reason (crazy or broke?) Arbabsiar gets on a flight to Mexico City, expecting that he will be held as human ransom by Los Zetas (?????) until it is confirmed that the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, as well a room full of unsuspecting fellow-diners in DC, have been blown to smithereens via a wad of well-placed C4 plastique.

On or around September 28th, Arbabsiar flies to Mexico City, only to be denied entry, per the request of the US. DEA, with only 100k as a ‘down payment’ for the proposed murder of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, arranges surveillance as Arbabsiar boards another flight out of Mexico to JFK in New York, and once this plane lands, US agents arrest the man who still can’t do anything right.

The terrorist plot to bomb and murder foreign nationals on US soil remained, from start to finish, an imaginary plan, beyond any possible implementation and always under the control and management of CS-1 and US law enforcement.

Whether CS-1 did more than root out and manage the alleged plot is already a question the media is asking.

In other words, did US law enforcement, via the actions of CS-1, lend legal substantiality to a ‘plot’ that may have existed only within the close confines of a few fevered minds?

Senior Iranians officials, of course, are saying just that, and more:

Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, told reporters that the U.S. accusation is “a really big lie” and it “doesn’t make sense.” He also accused the U.S. of setting a “dangerous precedent.”

Another Iranian official accuses President Obama of ‘spinning’ the story to divert attention away from the economic crisis in the US.

And from DOJ’s Fast and Furious?

What do you think?

Then there are the more than usual number of Euro-skeptics who also contend that Iranian operatives in charge of mounting terrorist attacks would never enlist the aid of an amateur like Arbabsiar, deal with non-Muslim players, or engage in what intelligence experts are diplomatically calling ‘clumsy tradecraft.’

They have a point, and it’s gratifying to see common sense and a call for verification weaving its way through the mainstream media. Trust but verify.

Of course, it’s small comfort to find oneself ‘siding’ with the Iranian government. Iran is still the most dangerous (along with Pakistan) country in the world, and its interests and its behavior run counter to that of the United States and our allies.

In an earlier blog,”Wikileads…who’s following up?” I referenced a leak that struck me as amusing: Saudi Arabia had been lobbying the US to take on Iran at the same time that the US has been pressing Saudi Arabia to lean on that same country. Apparently, the Saudis haven’t let up, a clue, perhaps, as to why the US might want be looking for a politically acceptable reason to distance itself and its allies further from Iran. Ok, fine. But let’s not use the Keystone Kops to do it and call it strategic foreign policy.

Listen, I’m no diplomat and I don’t have the inside scoop. I do, however, have some gut feelings about how we should conduct our law enforcement operations at home and our foreign policy abroad—straight up.

That’s not going to happen, is it? So let’s just try this: respecting the laws of the United States.

Rewind: did the architects of Fast and Furious violate the Arms Export Control Act?

Ask Hillary Clinton, the same US official who just advised the UN Security Council to come down hard on Iran for the part (alleged, Hillary, alleged) its government played in this latest DOJ-revealed plot to blow up the Saudi Ambassador at a DC restaurant.

Diversion, diversion, diversion. Thy name is Spin.

Is the “Iran Plots Terrorist Strike on US Soil” story an attempt to divert attention from Fast and Furious, and maybe (a twofer), a strategic move toward Saudi Arabia, designed to seem motivated, not by shared US and Saudi interests, (and certainly NOT at the behest of the Saudis who cannot, under any circumstances, break ranks with the Arab world), but by justifiable outrage over the national security threat posed by Manssor J. Arbabsiar et al?

Wow. Consider the irony here. A man who couldn’t sell fajitas to a hungry lunch mob could end up up altering History.

Is it spin? I don’t know. But if it isn’t, it should be.


Because it looks like it could work.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.