The Office of Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday announced the thwarting of an Iranian terror plot targeting Israeli businessmen in Cyprus.
Such operations come as no surprise, as similar incidents were uncovered in recent years. But the Cyprus ploy is notable for three reasons: Tehran’s Axis of Resistance’s history of using Cyprus as a launchpad; the Iranian focus on targeting Israeli businessmen worldwide; and the nationality of the suspect in question.
Cyprus has often served as a platform for Iran’s Axis of Resistance to target Israel in the past. In 2012, Israel accused Tehran and the Party of God of complicity in a plot to target Israelis in Cyprus. Fast forward to 2015, when Cyprus imprisoned a Hezbollah operative after he was arrested in May of that year in possession of 8.2 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which was in a house in Larnaca.
Indeed, the timing of the operation is also important to consider. It follows a report over the summer by El Tiempo, a leading Colombian newspaper, about how Colombian intelligence uncovered a complex Iranian terror plot which also targeted Israeli businessmen in the country. The plot was allegedly masterminded by a Quds Force operative Rahmat Asadi, who reportedly criminally outsourced the gambit. Israeli media also reported on Monday about an attempt by Iran to target the car of an Israeli diplomat in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. This followed reports in February of Iranian operatives casing US, Israeli, and Emirati embassies in East Africa for potential attacks and another episode in India in January, which featured a low-intensity explosion near the Israeli embassy in New Delhi.
The uptick in these plots is reminiscent of the state of play in 2012, when multiple attempted or actualized attacks took place in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, India, Kenya, and Thailand, targeting Israeli interests. It’s not only the pace, but also the places which are evocative of the events from 2012. Azerbaijan, Cyprus, India, and Africa all appear to be choice locales for the Axis of Resistance, given perceived freedom of movement or permissive environments for such illicit activity. Tellingly, Israel issued a travel warning for some of these same places back in December.
Additionally, back in 2012, Israel’s reported assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists coupled with the killing of senior Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh provided the backdrop. Almost ten years later, in 2021, the assassinations of former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and the late Deputy Defense Minister and the father of Iran’s past nuclear weapons program Mohsen Fakhrizadeh likely fuel Iranian motivation for these daring schemes. This is not to mention the repeated sabotage operations against Iranian nuclear facilities over the past year.
Lastly, the suspects in all three cases in Cyprus were non-Iranian foreign nationals. In 2012, it was a Swedish passport holder of Lebanese descent. In 2015, Hussein Bassam Abdallah, with Canadian and Lebanese nationality, was arrested. In the current case, initial reports indicate the suspect is Azeri with a Russian passport. Such a modus operandi enables freedom of movement as well as masks Iranian fingerprints. The Azeri nationality of the suspect also raises questions given the ongoing tension between Azerbaijan and Iran, in part, over Baku’s relations with Israel, as well as whether Iran outsourced the hit to a criminal syndicate, as it did in Colombia.
In the end, Tehran appears to be resorting to a familiar playbook of undertaking multiple plots in countries that are vulnerable to infiltration in the context of repeated Israeli operations targeting its nuclear program. 2021 is looking very much like 2012.