The Obama administration acknowledged in March that the U.S. Embassy may have been among the intended targets. But in the months since then, the suspects under questioning revealed extensive details about the “other objects in Baku” that had been on the target list, confirming that the would-be assassins intended to go beyond attacks on buildings.
“They were going after individuals,” said the former State Department official who worked closely with the embassy in Baku. “They had names [of employees]. And they were interested in family members, too.”
The alleged plot leader, Dashdev, would tell investigators that the planned attacks were intended as revenge for the deaths of the Iranian nuclear scientists, attacks that Iran has publicly linked to Israel and the United States. Iran vehemently denied involvement in any assassination plot inside Azerbaijan, and the Iranian Embassy in Baku suggested in a statement that the plot was fiction.
“We believe that the glorious people of Azerbaijan understand that this part of the script of Iranophobia and Islamophobia is organized by the Zionists and the United States,” the statement read. Attempts to contact Iranian officials for additional comments for this article were unsuccessful. Dashdev, who confessed to his role in a videotaped message broadcast on Azerbaijani television, remains in custody and could not be reached for comment. Baku officials have repeatedly accused Iran of stirring up unrest among pro-Iranian extremists to drive a wedge between Azerbaijan’s population and its government, which cooperates closely and openly with Western counterterrorism agencies.
“What we are trying to do is build a strong, independent nation that is a responsible actor,” Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Washington, said in an interview. “We have told all our friends and neighbors that expressing disagreement in a civilized way is more beneficial than resorting to terrorism or promoting radicalization.”
String of foiled attacks
U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say the Azerbaijan plot fits a pattern seen in numerous other recent attempts linked to Iran. The foiled assassination of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington involved a similar plan to hire criminal gangs — in this case, members of a Mexican drug cartel — to kill a senior diplomat in a public setting, U.S. intelligence officials note.
The report presented to U.S. officials last month asserts extensive links between attempted assassinations of diplomats in five other countries: India, Turkey, Thailand, Pakistan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Each attempt was carried out by operatives with direct ties to Iran or Hezbollah and directed against diplomats from countries hostile to Iran, the reports states.
Israeli and Indian officials have described substantial Iranian links to a car bombing in February that seriously wounded the wife of an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi. In that Feb. 13 attack, an assailant on a motorcycle attached a magnet bomb to a diplomatic car in which the woman was riding, injuring her and her driver. Indian police have charged an Indian man — a free-lance journalist working for Iranian news organizations — with organizing the attack with the help of three Iranian nationals who had entered the country.
The next day, an alleged plot to kill Israeli diplomats in Bangkok was thwarted when a bomb being assembled exploded prematurely.
The car bombs prepared for use in both attacks were virtually identical, with a magnetic outer shell that was smuggled into the two countries, to be combined later with C4 military explosives obtained from a still-unknown source. Two of the Iranian nationals allegedly involved in the Bangkok attempt were captured, and they, like the suspects in Azerbaijan, are continuing to provide clues to investigators.
The suspects, thought to be low-level operatives, either do not know or will not say who ordered the attacks, leaving investigators to speculate about how far up within Iran’s government the plots may have originated.
“There is not yet a smoking gun,” said the Western diplomat briefed on the evidence. “But the pattern is clear, and each day the volume of evidence grows.”