Like everyone else who heard about the scheme, FBI officials were at first skeptical that Iran was behind a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
On its face, it didn’t make sense. Why would any country face possible retaliation over taking out an ambassador? From the clumsy planning to the amateurish conspirators to the effort to involve Mexican drug traffickers, the plot sounded like a B movie.
Yet in announcing criminal charges, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the plot was “directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government and, specifically, senior members of the Quds Force.”
“Initially, some of us were shaking our heads, asking is this for real,” says an FBI official. “One would assume we were dealing with a sophisticated, well-funded service,” referring to Iran’s Quds Force.
The Quds Force is a special operations unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that sponsors and promotes terrorist activities abroad.
Then, as skepticism grew, “additional corroboration came in,” the FBI official says. “Then the money trail gave support.”
The FBI monitored calls to Iran about the plot and traced $100,000 that had been wired from a bank account linked to the Quds Force. Manssor Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American charged in the scheme, is a cousin of Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior commander in the Quds Force who allegedly tasked Arbabsiar to carry out the assassination.
The second person charged, Gholam Shakuri, is an Iran-based member of the Quds Force.
The FBI is convinced that Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force chief, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were at least aware of the plot’s outlines.
“At the end, we had to take action,” the FBI official says. “The main suspect was going to travel. The other fear you had was they had fallback plans for others to assassinate ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. The plot could show a level of desperation.”
In the intelligence business, the assumption that leaders of another country will think as American leaders would is known as mirror-imaging. As noted in my book “The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror,” it was mirror-imaging that led the CIA initially to discount the possibility that the Soviet Union would deploy ballistic missiles in Cuba in September 1962.
Back then, the CIA received eyewitness reports of such a deployment but dismissed them because placing ballistic missiles in Cuba would not fit the Soviet Union’s behavior patterns. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “would not do anything so uncharacteristic, provocative, and unrewarding,” an intelligence estimate said.
But a month later, photographs taken by a U-2 spy plane showed conclusively that the Soviets were indeed moving missiles into Cuba.
We often see the same blindness when the FBI uncovers a terrorist plot. The media find that the plotters are not rocket scientists and claim that the FBI over-hyped the case.
The truth is that if they were smart, criminals likely would not be criminals. Outlandish though some cases may sound, virtually every federal indictment based on an FBI investigation winds up with a conviction.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is a New York Times best-selling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. His latest, "The Secrets of the FBI," has just been published. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via email. Go Here Now.
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