Global alert issued after alleged Iran assassination plot
One suspect, a former used-car dealer, was 'no mastermind ... sort of a hustler,' friend sayshttp://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44870617/ns/us_news-security/#.TpWj8HJrzRQ
The State Department issued a worldwide travel alert late Tuesday for American citizens after the United States accused Iran of backing a plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington.
"The U.S. government assesses that this Iranian-backed plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador may indicate a more aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries, to include possible attacks in the United States," it said in a statement on its website.
The alert, which expires January 11, 2012, urged Americans living and traveling abroad to be wary.
"U.S. citizens residing and traveling abroad should review the Department's Worldwide Caution and other travel information when making decisions concerning their travel plans and activities while abroad," it added.
U.S. authorities said earlier on Tuesday that they had broken up a plot by two men linked to Iran's security agencies to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. One, a former Texas used-car dealer named Manssor Arbabsiar, was arrested last month while the other was believed to be in Iran.
However a friend and one-time business partner of Arbabsiar, David Tomscha, said Arbabsiar, known as Jack to his friends, made an unlikely secret agent.
Tomscha said Arbabsiar, 56, a naturalized U.S. citizen who holds an Iranian passport, was likeable, a bit lazy and "no mastermind."
"I can't imagine him thinking up a plan like that. I mean, he didn't seem all that political. He was more of a businessman ... He was sort of a hustler," he said.
The other alleged plotter, Gholam Shakuri, was charged in the complaint but is at large in Iran.
Iran has denied the charges and expressed outrage at the accusations.
'Childish and amateur game'
Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, echoing Iran's official stance, said the allegation was a "mischievous, foolish" attempt to fuel tension between Tehran and Riyadh.
"These claims are vulgar ... It is a childish and amateur game ... We believe that our neighbors in the region are very well aware that America is using this story to ruin our relationship with Saudi Arabia," Larijani told parliament in a speech broadcast live on state radio.Story: Alleged plot may signal ominous turn by Iran regime
The U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, said Wednesday that its interactions with Iran in the Gulf waterways were "routine and professional."
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama called the plot a "flagrant violation of U.S. and international law" and Saudi Arabia said it was "despicable."View complaint in alleged plot to kill Saudi ambassador (PDF)
The United States said Tehran must be held to account and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a Reuters interview, expressed hope that countries that have hesitated to enforce existing sanctions on Iran would now "go the extra mile."
"The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?" Clinton told The Associated Press.
At a news conference, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the convoluted plot — involving monitored international calls, Mexican drug money and an attempt to blow up the ambassador in a Washington restaurant — could have been straight from a film.
"Though it reads like the pages of a Hollywood script, the impact would have been very real and many lives would have been lost," he said.
Like a thriller, the murder-for-hire tale cuts back and forth across international lines. "This case illustrates we live in a world where borders and boundaries are increasingly irrelevant," Mueller said.
Attorney-General Eric Holder alleged it was the work of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the guardian of Iran's 32-year-old revolution, and the Quds Force, its covert, operational arm.
"I think one has to be concerned about the chilling nature of what the Iranian government attempted to do here," he told a news conference.
A plot against targets inside the U.S. "would be a first for the Quds Force," said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and National Security Council analyst who now heads the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"I do want to hear more about what evidence (U.S. authorities) have and why they believe" that the Quds Force was involved, Pollack said.
A senior U.S. official told NBC News that U.S. intelligence has a "high degree" of confidence that the "Quds Force at the highest levels" was involved in the alleged plot and that this was not some "rogue operation."
According to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in New York, the plot was revealed by an informant inside the world of the Mexican drug trade, a man paid by U.S. drug agents to rat out traffickers.
The complaint describes the informant as someone who was previously charged for violating drug laws in the United States but got the charges dismissed by agreeing to cooperate with U.S. drug investigations.
U.S. officials trusted the informant because he had proved reliable in the past and led to several drug seizures — and the informant was paid for those tips.
In May 2011, the informant allegedly met with Arbabsiar. The complaint doesn't say how the two were introduced, but Arbabsiar reportedly approached the informant, who he thought was an associate of a drug cartel well known for its violent tactics, to ask about his knowledge of explosives for an attack on a Saudi embassy.
The informant reached out to his contacts in the United States to tell them all about it. Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was told the informant was "somebody who was in one of the drug cartels, credible, long history, was fully capable of conducting the kind of operation the Iranian was asking for."
"This guy brought it to us, and from there it was laid out in front of us as they went forward," the Michigan Republican said.
The complaint said Arbabsiar and the informant met several more times in Mexico over the next few months, with the informant secretly recording their conversations for U.S. authorities.
The two spoke English and their discussions became more focused on the specific target for violence — al-Jubeir, a U.S.-educated commoner sent to the United States to repair relations after the Sept. 11 attacks who has been ambassador since 2007.
The complaint said Arbabsiar has fully confessed to his role in the operation and said he was recruited, funded and directed by the Quds Force.
Arbabsiar said his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai was a high-ranking member of the Quds Force who approached him this past spring to ask for his cooperation.
Arbabsiar said he frequently traveled between the U.S. and Mexico for work and knew people he believed were in the drug trade, and his cousin asked him if he could recruit someone in the narcotics business for criminal activity.
U.S. officials say Shahlai has a violent past — the Bush administration accused him of planning a Jan. 20, 2007, attack in Karbala, Iraq, that killed five American soldiers and wounded three others.Ties to attack on U.S. troops in Iraq
This time, according to U.S. officials, Shahlai and other Quds agents approved a plot to pay their Mexican drug contact $1.5 million for the death of the ambassador — making a $100,000 down payment to an account the informant provided.
According to transcripts of their recorded conversations cited in the complaint, the informant told Arbabsiar he would kill the ambassador however he wanted — "blow him up or shoot him" — and Arbabsiar responded he should use whatever method was easiest.
The plot eventually centered on targeting Al-Jubeir in his favorite restaurant and Arbabsiar was quoted as saying killing him alone would be better, "but sometime, you know, you have no choice."
Scores of deaths 'no problem'
Arbabsiar dismisses the possibility that 100-150 others in the restaurant, including U.S. lawmakers, could be killed along with the ambassador as "no problem" and "no big deal."
Eventually, according to the complaint, the informant told Arbabsiar he must come to Mexico to offer himself as "collateral" for the final payment of the $1.5 million fee for the assassination.
Arbabsiar said his cousin's deputy at the Quds Force — Gholam Shakuri, also charged in the complaint but at large in Iran — warned him against offering himself as a guarantee of payment.
But Arbabsiar went anyway, boarding a flight to Mexico on Sept. 28 with plans to fly to Iran after the plot was finished.
Mexican authorities, who say they had been cooperating with U.S. officials in the investigation, denied Arbabsiar entry into the country and he boarded a flight to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Law enforcement officials secretly boarded with him to keep him under surveillance, and he was arrested when he got off the plane in New York.
Arbabsiar agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities and made several recorded phone calls to Shakuri in which they discussed the purchase of a "Chevrolet," their agreed-upon code-word for the plot.
Shakuri urged Arbabsiar to make sure they "just do it quickly."
In 2001, Arbabsiar was booked into Texas' Nueces County Jail on a charge of check fraud that was later dismissed for lack of evidence. He was also arrested in Nueces County in 1993, 1996 and 1997 on traffic violations, records show.
No one answered the door Tuesday at Arbabsiar's two-story home, decorated for Halloween, at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Austin suburb of Round Rock.
A neighbor said he frequently saw Arbabsiar walking around smoking cigarettes and talking on a cellphone in a language the neighbor did not understand.
Public records show Arbabsiar has been married at least twice and has a history of arrests in Texas for offenses that include evading arrest and theft.