Saqi Abid Hussein (left) and Syed Irtaza Haider are accused of working with an Iranian handler to attack Jewish targets in Athens.
Syed Irtaza Haider, 27, and Saqi Abid Hussein, 29, were arrested Tuesday for plotting to attack a kosher restaurant in downtown Athens which also is home to the Jewish community center Chabad House. Police say they were led by a third Pakistani, Syed Hakar, operating out of Iran.
The attackers hoped to strike in early April during the Jewish Passover and Greek Easter. Greek counter-terrorism police and intelligence services launched "Operation Hyacinth" last August after Israel's Mossad intelligence agency tipped them to the plot.
Information disclosed since the arrests solidify the terrorist cell's links to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), designated by the United States as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The arrests have received very little attention in the United States. This report is based on Greek media coverage and interviews.
Hakar is a member of a Pakistani criminal network associated with the IRGC. He is wanted in Pakistan for four murders and abductions and is suspected in additional cases. Hakar is part of an IRGC-affiliated Islamist network that recruits Pakistanis, Azeris and Kurds abroad to conduct terrorist attacks.
Greek police have arrested eight more migrants for questioning. They all come from Sargodha, a Pakistani town in the Punjab region.
At least two of them admit to being in contact with the two arrested terrorists, who tried to recruit them into the operation. "The hard part was locating them, because they changed places of residence and work and used to cohabitate with many other individuals," a Greek intelligence source told Greece's iefimerida news outlet. "To this purpose, we used human sources to arrest them."
The two prime suspects admitted participating in the plot and to communicating with the Iranian-based mastermind. They used WhatsApp to send encrypted messages with the Tehran-based handler, along with photos and videos of the targets. Videos taken in December show the Gostijo kosher restaurant and Israelis who go there for the food or other Chabad activities.
The two suspects entered Greece illegally in 2018 from neighboring Turkey, officials say. Haider was the leader and had constant contact with Hakar in Iran. Hakar gave Haider the restaurant's location, along with a list of Israelis who could be targeted for assassination attempts. Hakar also instructed them how to take pictures of the targets without drawing suspicion.
The pair was promised $18,000 for each person killed.
The entire plot, therefore, from the targets to the planning and financing, came from Iran.
"This group was recruited via Whatsapp widely used by terrorists in Asia and the Middle East," Greek security analyst Alexandros Niklan of Geopolitics and Daily News told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT). "They tried to recruit people from the organized criminal underworld of Greece to procure their weapons. They were actually trying to build an expanded network of terrorists for more future operations. If the attack against the Jewish restaurant was successful, there would be multiple casualties in a strike reminiscent of the Bataclan deadly attack in Paris. They had already picked a second target, as the Tehran-based leader was insisting on locating an Israeli 'businessman with a beard'."
The cell also coordinated with Hakar on an escape plan. After the deadly attack at the Jewish restaurant, they would flee Greece through smuggling networks and go to Iran, where they would receive additional financial help. Hakar claimed that he would deposit money in a Pakistani bank account after the attack. They could use the money to return to Pakistan and buy houses. Greek authorities are now investigating whether the two suspects have been paid thus far, although that likely would be done through a difficult to trace hawala informal fund transfer system. Investigators already have detected transfers of small sums to two of the two suspects' relatives.
Intercepted Terrorist Communication
The Greek newspaper published transcripts of the intercepted conversations among the terror cell members, which are translated by the IPT:
"Syed Hakar (mastermind): You can attack the restaurant with gas tanks as well. Two or three persons could enter the kitchen and start a fire there when you get the chance.
Haider: I at least would like good money for this. I want the attacks to happen in a central place where at least 40-50 persons will be present.
Hakar: This is why I told you to create a group by gathering two, three or more individuals and tell them straightforward that they will get 50 lakh [$18,000]. The job should be done in such a way that there shall be no escape [for the victims], do you understand?
Haider: The job will be done; I promise you that. I will send pictures from each dead and each wounded, as well as videos.
Hakar: All wounds or injuries must be clearly visible in the video and the pictures."
In another conversation, they discussed procuring weapons for the attack. Initially, they had talked about the use of explosives, but Haider said he was not familiar with their use.
"Hakar: You should make a video and pictures [of the targeted restaurant]. If we cannot do things as we discussed, then the solution is to go quietly to the spot, take 2-3 photos and come back without being. You have to find a way for something to happen.
Haider: Listen, I have a friend in another island who has three rifles and guns. We shall kill them on the spot and then send you the video. The other guy [Saqi Abid Hussein] says that it should be just the two of us.
Hakar: Go get the guns and send me pictures of you holding them."
Part of a Greater Islamist Network
As details emerged this week, Iran rushed to deny the allegations. In a statement, the Iranian embassy in Greece said it was "refuting intensely the rumors spread by Zionist sources and the unfounded charges. It is evident that these trumped-up charges aim to distract attention from their [Israeli] internal crisis."
But the foiled operation in Athens should be viewed in the context of other Iranian-led terrorist operations in countries as Cyprus and Turkey.
Each involved attempts to kill Israelis and Jews as part of Iran's covert anti-Israeli operations and Islamist terrorist network abroad. Ten Iranian and Turkish operatives were arrested in Istanbul last June plotting to murder Israeli tourists. Similar to the Greece plot, Iran had promised considerable sums for each dead Israeli.
In October 2021, Cyprus police broke up a terrorist cell involving five Pakistanis – similar to the Greece plot – and a 38-year old Azeri national. They were preparing to attack Israeli businessmen in Cyprus. Orkhan Asadov, 38, the Azerbaijani national, had Hizballah-related images on his phone. He reportedly is connected to the "Movement of Islamic Unity," an Iranian arm that coordinates operatives abroad. A Pakistani cell member who acted as a recruiter had links to Zainabiyoun Brigade, active in Syria, which is under command and control of the IRGC Quds Force.
"Τhe modus operandi of the terrorist attack planned in Greece shows analogies with previous cases in Cyprus," investigative journalist Marios Poullados of Cypriot media network Sigma Live and Simerini newspaper told the IPT. "In September 2021, the Cyprus police in cooperation with the Israeli intelligence service, arrested six people in connection with an alleged plan to attack Israeli businessmen in Cyprus. The Azeri mastermind was arrested while crossing from the Turkish-occupied north through a Nicosia checkpoint carrying a gun, a silencer and bullets. It is also worth mentioning that in May 2015, a 26-year-old member of Hizballah's military wing residing in Larnaca was arrested after two tons of ammonia nitrate were found in his home. According to intel information, the plan was to use ammonia for terrorist attacks in Cyprus against Israeli interests."
In fact, it was the Cyprus arrests that first alerted Greek intelligence to the possible existence of similar networks in Greece. They put Pakistani migrants with suspected radical links under constant surveillance. This line of research, along with Israeli intelligence, led to the final dismantling of the terrorist cell.
"Research should be made into possible links of the terrorist cell with the Zainabiyoun Brigade," Niklan told the IPT.
In all these cases, operational patterns bear the distinct footprint of Iranian involvement. The theocratic regime employs non-Iranians, such as Pakistanis and Azeris, to carry out terrorist operations against Israeli targets abroad. This tactic is done in hopes of evading detection by intelligence agencies of the targeted countries. Recruits are courted with a mixture of Islamist messages, anti-Israeli feelings and financial rewards.
What remains unknown in this latest case is who was going to provide the reward – equaling to hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars – for a successful attack? Who provided the names of the Israeli citizens who would be targets?
It is possible authorities already know.
Cooperation between Greek and Israeli intelligence services led to a significant victory against international Islamist terrorism, highlighting the importance of trusted cooperation among nations facing common dangers.
IPT Senior Fellow Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. His latest book is Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine.
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