ESSEN, Germany — The two bullets, believed to have been fired by a hooded figure who briefly appeared on the security cameras in the dead of night, gouged the reinforced glass of a door at the Old Synagogue in this northwestern German city. A third bullet hit the door’s metal frame.
“It’s a new escalation,” Uri Kaufmann, the director of the Jewish cultural center now run in the building, said earlier this year as he pointed out the damage from the November attack. “But shoot the building — this is really shocking.”
The alleged orchestrator, according to five German security officials and two Western intelligence officials, was Ramin Yektaparast: a muscled Hells Angels leader wanted in the case of a gruesome biker gang murder in Germany. Yektaparast is suspected of directing attacks from Tehran through his criminal networks in Germany, allegedly at the behest of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the officials say.
Those attacks are part of what Germany’s security services see as an uptick in Iranian regime activity aimed at Jewish targets as well as the Iranian diaspora in Germany. That would be in line with a reported increase in Iranian assassination and kidnapping threats in Europe and the United States. Analysts say that while facing protests at home, Iran is increasingly going after what it sees as foreign threats to the regime and is using criminal gangs to add a cloak of deniability.
“They are increasing the pressure and trying to make some groups feel insecure. It is not acceptable at all,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, a German parliamentarian who has pushed for tougher action in response to Tehran’s heavy-handed crackdown on domestic protests but has only succeeded in getting himself banned from entering Iran.
Germany and Iran have engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats since a court in Tehran last month sentenced a German man of Iranian origin to death. Iran’s judiciary accused Jamshid Sharmahd, who also was a U.S. resident, of leading a U.S.-based group seeking restoration of the monarchy in Iran and having “planned 23 terror attacks,” of which “five were successful.” Outside of what human rights groups say was a forced confession, the 67-year-old has maintained that he was only a spokesman for the group and had no role in the attacks.
Some in Germany are calling for the government to act more robustly by blacklisting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, expanding sanctions and closing a controversial mosque that German intelligence says is a hotbed for spying activity.
German and some European Union officials, though, have expressed reluctance to take steps that might close the window on diplomacy amid growing concerns about Iran’s domestic nuclear program.
Germany’s foreign minister has said there is no legal basis for listing the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, “but there’s no will to find one,” Kiesewetter said.
Some politicians and analysts suggest that such grounds can be established — by looking less at Iran’s domestic crackdown and more at its activity abroad, in cases such as the attack on the Essen synagogue.
While policymakers have largely tried to keep the issue of countering Revolutionary Guard activity in Europe separate from the blacklisting debate, “it will probably become harder to make that argument as these activities persist,” said Cornelius Adebahr, a Berlin-based Iran expert at Carnegie Europe.
Security officials expressed confidence that the synagogue plot was carried out on the instructions of the Revolutionary Guard. One German security official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case, called it an act of “state terrorism.”
Although Europe’s biker scene may seem an unlikely source of agents for Iranian activities, using criminal gangs to add plausible deniability is “a cornerstone of [Iran’s] operational playbook,” said Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. counterterrorism official who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
It didn’t take long after the synagogue shooting for German police to zero in on Yektaparast.
On the same night, a molotov cocktail had been thrown at a school next to a synagogue in the nearby city of Bochum. The suspect in that attack, a 35-year-old Iranian German named by police as Babak J., was arrested after a tip from a man he allegedly tried to hire for an arson attack on a third synagogue in Dortmund. It was Babak J.’s phone that led investigators back to Iran and Yektaparast.
“His cellphone was evaluated and with that, we came across more people,” said a second security official. “In other words, a network structure, and an individual in Iran.”
Yektaparast was already wanted by German authorities. A former president of the Hells Angels chapter in Oberhausen in the heart of Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley, he was one of the main suspects in what the media called the “Rocker-Torso Murder” — with “rocker” referring to biker subculture.
Prosecutors accuse him of shooting a fellow club member in January 2014. The body was dismembered, packed into barrels that were then filled with concrete and sunk in the Rhine River and a canal. But the following month, an arm was found, followed by the torso. Later, police divers found a skull. Investigators believe the killing earned Yektaparast the Hells Angels “Filthy Few Patch” he was seen wearing — denoting that he had killed for the club.
By the time the case went to trial in 2021, however, Yektaparast had fled to Iran — and was posting Instagram stories of himself with luxury cars. “As there is no extradition treaty between Iran and Germany, there’s no possible way to get me out of the country legally,” he said in one now-deleted video.
Yektaparast did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent through Instagram.
The nature of the synagogue attacks has had some in the security community puzzled. The Old Synagogue in Essen, although an active Jewish cultural center, has not been used as a place of worship since it was set alight in the Nazi-inspired pogroms of 1938. “I’m stumped,” said the security official. “The buildings were empty. What was that supposed to do? That is why we were very reluctant at the beginning to assess that there was much more behind it.”
Out of 124 known foreign plots by Iran since 1979, 12 have been in Germany, with five of those occurring in the past two years, amid a global rise in such events, said Levitt, who tracks assassination, surveillance, and abduction plots.
With higher-level assassination plots foiled, Iran may turn to “softer targets,” he said.
“That’s when the plots targeting Jews come into play,” he said.
The German Interior Ministry said in a written response to a parliamentary question last month that intelligence agents from the Quds Force — an elite wing of the Revolutionary Guard — aim their “extensive espionage activities” particularly at pro-Israeli and Jewish targets.
The Essen investigation also unearthed a threat against Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
Since the present wave of anti-regime protests began in Iran, ignited by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini in September, “there have been increased reports of possible spying on events and individuals from the opposition arena,” the Interior Ministry reported.
“We know that the Iranian secret service has been very active in the diaspora community,” said Neda Soltani, a Berlin-based activist who said three of her friends have been warned by German authorities of a specific threat to their safety. “They have very long arms all over Europe,” she said.
Iranian activists who camped out for 80 days in front of the Green Party headquarters in Berlin say they were attacked by a man wielding a knife and a broken bottle. It remains unclear who the perpetrator was. While some say that Islamist extremists might have been behind the attack, activists say they are increasingly surveilled.
“These attacks didn’t happen out of the blue. We recognized there were people who took pictures and that were roaming around there,” said Setayesh Zadeh, one of the Berlin protest organizers, who has called for the Iranian ambassador to be expelled. “People are afraid to go to demonstrations. That shouldn’t be the case in a democracy.”
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has warned Germans who are of Iranian origin about the risks of returning to Iran if they have participated in demonstrations against the Iranian government.
The intimidation has increased calls for Germany to shut down the Hamburg Islamic Center, which Green Party leader Omid Nouripour called a “central spy nest” for Iran.
The German Interior Ministry is assessing whether the religious center should be closed. The center denies accusations by Germany’s intelligence agencies that it is a hub for Iranian regime operations.
Kate Brady and Vanessa Guinan-Bank in Berlin contributed to this report.