Edit: CNN) Two people poisoned by same nerve agent used on ex-spy, police say. Read down.
The tally of arrests in the Iranian bomb plot against the MEK has reached six: (VOA) Iran Diplomat Arrested in ‘Plot’ to Bomb Opponents in France.
We can now understand Mike Pompeo’s May statement about Iranian ops in Europe. (Slate) Mike Pompeo Says Iran Is Carrying Out “Assassination Operations” in Europe. What Is He Talking About? He was talking about the elaborate covert preparations made by Iran’s Quds Force in advance of actual assassinations, creating networks of operatives, provision of weapons, safe houses, surveillance of targets, and escape routes.
For some insight into the real world complexities, John le Carré ‘s The Little Drummer Girl is a fictional but well informed (le Carré has an intelligence background) account of a Mossad operation against a PLO assassin in Europe in the 70’s. A dry, factual account of the assassination of Leon Trotsky is given by Pavel Sudoplatov in his autobiography, Special Tasks.
As with a spy network, the elaborate network created to support assassinations is typically discovered by a dangling thread, poor tradecraft, visibility, or pattern that does not disclose the full extent. A network is typically followed for years without arrests, with observations of a few operators progressively leading to the discovery of others. Only imminent threat forces investigators to take action, possibly leaving undetected operators in place.
The exception to careful planning is post breakup Russia. While at their best, Russians still excel at the undetectable murder, their reputation has been sullied by high profile embarrassments, amateurish exploits involving high tech poisons, such as the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and the contamination of half of Salisbury with Novichok A-234. It suggests that, contrary to the almost automatic “Putin approved…” theory of assassinations, there are multiple entities in Russia that initiate, including the SVR, and multiple entities that execute, including possible freelancers.
This hypothesis has just received a little extra support from (CNN) Two people poisoned by same nerve agent used on ex-spy, police say. This is likely the result of bungling; the Russian operatives seem to have had a poison leakage problem. Tales of the old KGB reveal they had their share of drunks and bunglers. But at the institutional level, they strove for perfection. There would have been consequences; the operatives would have been cashiered.
As with the recent misadventure of Russian mercenaries in Syria (Newsweek: ‘A Total F***up’: Russian Mercenaries in Syria Lament U.S. Strike That Killed Dozens), and the Litvinenko hit, this implies multiple entities, not inherited from the Soviet Union, with varying degrees of competence, which may not be in complete control of the Kremlin. A sentence from one of Putin’s speeches following his reelection appeals to “the clans”, not to take actions that damage Russia.
If you dig into the subjects of the above paragraphs, you’ll notice that these operations come in three noxious flavors:
- With the use of simple means, such as bombs and hand weapons, an operation requires a large footprint, with elaborate logistics, deception, concealment, and elaborate preparations for escape.
- With exotic poisons, the fact of murder can be concealed. An operation can have a small footprint, as with Litvinenko and the Skripals.
- At the height of the dark art, the Russians commit murders that speak as unsolvable crimes, such as (my opinion) the death of Mikhail Lesin (see Mikhail Lesin, a Kremlin Hit, a Theory, Part 1, Part 2, and Takeaway) and (my opinion) the death of Gareth Williams.
Iranian operations have been of the first category, requiring large footprints vulnerable to discovery and interdiction. The disadvantage of discussion in advance of public disclosure is the broad suspicion of political motive. Quoting The Slate,
It appears that the secretary, who was CIA director until a month ago, was either revealing some classified information or relying on some fairly sketchy reports in his charges against Iran. Given the stakes of this conflict, he should reveal what evidence he’s relying on.
This Pompeo could not do, without compromising operations to trace and dismantle the Quds networks. But even in May, Pompeo’s assertion was highly plausible. As a Quds Force policy, assassination has been institutionalized for decades, and is widely employed. See (The Diplomat) Did Iran Really Plan a US Hit Job? and (WaPo) U.S. officials among the targets of Iran-linked assassination plots.
From 1979 to 1992, Iran may have had the most active assassination program operating in the West of any sovereign state. The total number of hits is not definitively known. A low count (Wikipedia, List of Iranian assassinations) of 18 includes only high profile political figures. A count of 162 given in (Iran Human Rights Documentation Center) No Safe Haven: Iran’s Global Assassination Campaign includes Iranian expatriates for whom political motive may exist but is not obvious. The murder of Gelareh Bagherzadeh had all the appearance of an assassination. The alleged perpetrator, Ali Mahwood-Awad Irsan, is (Chron) currently on trial for what appears to be an honor killing.
Iran and Russia share the distinction of running the only assassination programs now threatening the West. Russian means tend towards the sophisticated, with operations varying from sophisticated to amateurish-as-if-by-freelancers. Iran’s methods are more conventional, hand weapons and explosives. requiring larger, more vulnerable footprints. But there are no amateurs among the Quds Force.