The so-called "A-Team" of terror has had a run of failures since the 2008 assassination of its mastermind. And Iran hasn't done any better.
In the last months of 2011 and first half of 2012, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah, put on perhaps the greatest show of rolling ineptitude in the history of modern covert warfare. Hopscotching the globe, their operatives tried and failed to strike Israeli or American targets perhaps two dozen times—in Azerbaijan, in Georgia, in Kenya, in Nigeria, in South Africa, in Turkey, in Greece, in Cyprus and, most spectacularly, in Thailand, where after blowing up an apartment while trying to make a bomb, an Iranian agent scrambled into the street and blew off his own legs.
What could account for such a formidable string of failures? According to Hizballah itself: an Israeli mole inside the militant group. A senior official with the Shiite militia this week acknowledged “some major infiltrations” in its ranks. Speaking to a Hizballah radio station on Sunday, Naim Qassem offered oblique but rare on-the-record confirmation of earlier reports that one of its most trusted operatives was on trial for treason, along with four others reported to be compromised by Israel’s Mossad.
“It appears to be the real deal,” says Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury official and author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. “And they clearly are freaking out about it.”
The alleged culprit, identified as Mohammad Shawraba by the Lebanese English-language Daily Star, was in a position to know. The newspaper and other reports say he headed the “external operations” unit of Hizballah, the very group responsible for carrying out the bombings, assassinations and other terror strikes that the Shi’ite militia has long been known for conducting—and almost always without leaving behind evidence that it was responsible. Hizballah may not have quite invented terror strikes as a tool of modern warfare. (The first car bomb, actually a horse-drawn carriage, was exploded on Wall Street in 1920.) But by 2002, when the West felt wobbly from the attacks of 911, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage was calling them “The A-Team” of terror.
And yet, since the man hailed as Hizballah’s terror mastermind, Imad Mughniyah, was killed by a booby-trapped car headrest in 2008, his successors have been unable to deliver the revenge they repeatedly promised. Mughniyah’s assassination was, of course, laid at the feet of Mossad, as almost everything that happens in the Middle East is. The Israeli spy agency glories in its reputation for bloodless omniscience (Google the list of animals that neighboring Mideast states have named as Israeli spies), a notoriety that acts as a force multiplier. But as TIME and others have reported, Mossad has also a long run of real marquee missions, including the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran in 2010 and 2011. Those attacks in turn ignited a response from Iran’s own elite covert operators, the section of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force known as Unit 400. Though, like Hizballah’s external operators, Unit 400 soon proved less formidable than its reputation.
The full extent of the collapse became evident on February 13, 2012. Hizballah and the Qods Force were brought together by the anniversary of Muniyah’s death, four years and one day earlier, and the latest scientist assassination in Tehran, just a month previous. In what was intended as a one-two punch at “hard” Israeli targets, operatives tried to detonate bombs attached to Israeli diplomats’ cars in Tbilisi, Georgia, and New Delhi, India. The Tbilisi bomb was discovered. In Delhi, a man on a motorcycle managed to attach a “magnet bomb” to the side of a car carrying the wife of an Israeli diplomat.
It’s the method of assassination that Israeli operatives had repeatedly used on the streets of Tehran, targeting Iranian nuclear scientists on their way to work. But there was a hitch. “I was in New Delhi when it happened,” says Ely Karmon, a senior scholar at International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “They put the bomb on the right side of the car, because it had to explode on the fuel tank. But in India they ride on the left side, and the tank is on the left side.” The mistake gave the chauffeur time to eject his passenger, a diplomat’s wife, who survived.
Shawraba, the alleged Israeli mole, would have been involved in both attacks, as well as the July 2012 bombing that killed a handful of Israeli tourists on an airport bus in Bulgaria, where Hizballah resorted to a soft target. Evidence of his presumed loyalty was offered in reports that he had earlier served as a bodyguard to Hizballah’s charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, long assumed to be No. 1 on Israel’s hit list. The newspaper reports said he had betrayed five secret operations, and implied that his removal, along with four men working in his unit, had freed Hizballah from the shadow of suspicion.
“The idea is that they’ve stopped the sole source that was responsible for everything,” says Levitt, now a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he produced a 2013 report on the “Iran’s Shadow War with the West” that detailed operational incompetence in the string of failures under the heading, “Amateur Hour.” In an interview Monday, he noted that intercepted communications played a significant role in thwarting “many of these operations.”
“The Israelis are pretty good at what they do,” Levitt continues. “We’re pretty good at what we do. Nobody has one source for everything.”
Indeed, Israel has recruited Hizballah officials in the past, and likely has sources in the Iranian establishment as well, says Karmon. The Israeli army occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years, with its security services developing human assets that sometimes emerge only after decades, if ever. In 1973, the surprise Egyptian attacks on Israeli positions that became the cataclysmic Yom Kippur War was in advance tipped by the son-in-law of Egypt’s president. (His warnings were ignored, proving that Mossad isn’t omniscient after all.) What makes an insider turn? “Clearly money is very important,” says Karmon. “Also safe haven, in case of need. But sometimes it can be an issue of revenge, infighting in an organization, some personal dispute with one of the leaders.”
On the Iranian side, things have quieted down. Israel has greatly reduced its tempo of detectable attacks, and the Quds Force has eased off as well, likely in order to allow nuclear negotiations to go forward, Levitt says. But from Hizballah, the hits keep coming. Last April, another planned attack on Israelis was thwarted in Bangkok. And at the end of October, Peruvian authorities arrested a Lebanese man who admitted to working for Hizballah, and taking photos of apparent targets. Traces of nitroglycerin reportedly were found in his Lima apartment. The A-Team evidently remains on hiatus.