Stabbing of Iran International journalist in London bears the hallmarks of a secret army black-ops program

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Stabbed outside his home in Wimbledon on March 29, Pouria Zeraati later released a photograph of himself in hospital, vowing to be back on air soon. Back on the airwaves, he said “the show must go on.” (Supplied)
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Back on the airwaves, Pouria Zeraati, a victim of suspected Iran state terrorism, said “the show must go on.” (Supplied)
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Pouria Zeraati in hospital after he was stabbed outside his home in Wimbledon, UK, on March 29. (Supplied)
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Updated 07 April 2024
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Stabbing of Iran International journalist in London bears the hallmarks of a secret army black-ops program

  • Pouria Zeraati assault suggests IRGC operatives undaunted in their determination to intimidate overseas dissidents
  • Some hosts of the Persian-language TV channel not only face social-media abuse but also risk to their lives

LONDON: On Nov. 16, 2022, armed police descended in force on a West London business park, home to leading international brands such as Starbucks and Danone and a sprinkling of media companies, among them CBS, Paramount and the Discovery channel.

To the shock of the thousands of people who work in the dozen modern buildings, clustered around landscaped gardens featuring lakes, a waterfall, cafes and a boardwalk, security barriers were thrown up at every vehicle entrance, pedestrians entering the site were obliged to pass through body scanners and the colorful food trucks on the campus were joined by a fleet of black police armored cars.




Iran International, a Persian-language TV in London, has been categorized by Tehran as a “terrorist” organization. (Supplied)

One building in particular, home to Persian-language satellite TV channel Iran International, came in for special attention. Security fencing and concrete “Hostile Vehicle Mitigation” blocks were installed around it and armed police and dog handlers patrolled the perimeter.

Earlier that month, Volant Media, which owns the channel, had revealed that two of its British Iranian journalists had been warned by police that there was “an imminent, credible and significant risk to their lives and those of their families.”

Its journalists were accustomed to receiving abuse on social media, a spokesman said, but the threats marked “a significant and dangerous escalation of a state-sponsored campaign to intimidate Iranian journalists working abroad.”




“Wanted dead or alive” posters against Pouria Zeraati, Sima Sabet, Niusha Saremi and Truske Sadeghi published by the IRGC-backed Fars News Agency seen on the streets of Tehran. (Supplied)

Two months earlier, Esmail Khatib, Iran’s intelligence minister, had said Iran International had been categorized by Tehran as a “terrorist” organization and that its “agents” would be pursued.

Sanctions were also announced against the channel and BBC News Persian, both accused of inciting riots and supporting terrorism with their coverage of protests in Iran, triggered by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested in Tehran for violating Iran’s hijab laws.

On the same day that armed police locked down Chiswick Business Park, Ken McCallum, director-general of the UK’s domestic security service, MI5, said Iran “projects threat to the UK directly, through its aggressive intelligence services.

“At its sharpest this includes ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.”




Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Hossein Salami speaking during a military drill near the island of Abu Musa, off the coast of the southern Iranian city of Bandar Lengeh. (IRGC handout via Sepah News/AFP)

Only the previous week, he added, the British foreign secretary had “made clear to the Iranian regime that the UK will not tolerate intimidation or threats to life towards journalists, or any individual, living in the UK.”

But the news that one of Iran International’s London-based journalists had been attacked by a group of men and stabbed outside his home in Wimbledon, in south London, on March 29 showed that the regime remains undaunted in its determination to intimidate dissidents wherever they are in the world.

Pouria Zeraati survived the attack, which left him wounded in the leg — he later released a photograph of himself in hospital, smiling defiantly and vowing to be back on air soon. Back on the airwaves, he said “the show must go on.”




Pouria Zeraati, center, with leading British IRGC specialist Kasra Aarabi, left, and political commentator Al Hossein Ghazizade. (Supplied)

The attack is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, which says his attackers drove straight to Heathrow Airport and fled the country. Their destination has not been revealed.

The “siege” of Chiswick Business Park, as it became known locally, continued until February 2023, when Iran International announced it was “reluctantly and temporarily” closing its London studios and moving to Washington, D.C.

The last straw for the company was the arrest on Feb. 11, 2023, of an Austrian national, who was caught red-handed by security staff while carrying out “hostile reconnaissance” outside its offices.

Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev was swiftly arrested by armed anti-terrorist police in a cafe at the business park.

He was charged with terrorism offenses and at his trial at the Old Bailey in December 2023 was found guilty of attempting to collect information “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism."




Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev, a Chechnya-born Austrian national, was convicted in Britain of spying for a group suspected of planning an attack on an independent Iranian TV station in London. He was sentenced to jail for three-and-a-half years. (Metropolitan Police photo / AFP)

During the trial it was revealed that the Chechen individual had taken a minicab directly to the business park after flying to Gatwick Airport from Vienna. He was sentenced to three years and six months in prison.

The reality, said an Iranian activist living in London speaking on condition of anonymity, “is that Iranian dissidents living in exile know they are increasingly at risk from a regime that has shown it can and will reach out to intimidate, threaten and even kill anyone, anywhere, any time.

“It is also clear that it has no qualms about using foreign and domestic criminals as its weapons of choice.”

The depths to which Iranian operatives are prepared to sink in order to silence critics became clear in January this year, when the US and the UK jointly imposed sanctions on a network of “individuals that targeted Iranian dissidents and opposition activists for assassination ... at the behest of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).”

According to the US Treasury, the network was led by “Iranian narcotics trafficker Naji Ibrahim Sharifi Zindashti and operates at the behest of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security.”

Zindashti’s gang was responsible for “numerous acts of transnational repression including assassinations and kidnappings across multiple jurisdictions in an attempt to silence the Iranian regime’s perceived critics.”

 

 

In a statement, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said that the MOIS and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “have long targeted perceived regime opponents in acts of transnational repression outside of Iran, a practice that the regime has accelerated in recent years.

“A wide range of dissidents, journalists, activists and former Iranian officials have been targeted for assassination, kidnapping and hacking operations across numerous countries in the Middle East, Europe and North America.”

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The scale of the IRGC’s black-ops program in one country alone was hinted at in February last year when Assistant Commissioner Matt Jukes, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s counterterrorism unit, said that police and MI5 had foiled “15 plots since the start of 2022 to either kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.”

Only occasionally do such plots make the headlines.

The US believes that IRGC agents engineered the assassination in The Netherlands of Ahmad Molla Nissi, a 52-year-old activist who campaigned for independence for Iran’s Ahwazi Arabs. Nissi was shot dead outside his home in The Hague in November 2017.




Ahmad Molla Nissi, founder of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, was shot dead outside his home in The Netherlands in November 2017. (X: @ahwazona1999)

In October 2019 Ruhollah Zam, a journalist living under political asylum in France who ran a popular anti-government website, was kidnapped during a visit to Iraq. After being taken to Iran, he was tortured, subjected to a sham trial and then hanged on Dec. 12, 2020.

In July 2020 Jamshid Sharmahd, an Iranian German activist, was kidnapped while traveling abroad and forcibly brought to Iran, where he has been sentenced to death.

 




German-Iranian political dissident Jamshid Sharmahd. (Amnesty International photo)

According to US Treasury, Tehran “increasingly relies on organized criminal groups in furtherance of these plots in an attempt to obscure links to the Government of Iran and maintain plausible deniability.”

Zindashti, who was sanctioned by the US in January and is believed to be in Iran, is wanted by the FBI “for his alleged involvement in criminal activities including the attempted murder-for-hire of two residents of the state of Maryland.”

His Iran-based criminal network, says the FBI, “allegedly used encrypted, internet-based messaging applications to hire criminal elements within North America to murder two individuals who fled Iran” and “allegedly provided resources to facilitate the attempted transnational killing of a person within the United States.”

On Dec. 13 2023, a federal arrest warrant was issued for Zindashti after he was charged with “Conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire” — US legal longhand for hiring a hitman.

According to the FBI, Zindashti was born in Urmia, a city in Iran’s northwest, close to the borders of Iraq and Turkiye. He weighs approximately 113 kg, is 190 cm tall and speaks several languages, including English, Farsi and Turkish.

The Iranians’ predilection for collaborating with underworld characters has led to some strange alliances. Alongside Zindashti, in January the US Justice Department indicted two Canadian nationals as alleged accomplices in his murder-for-hire plot to kill two US residents in Maryland.

 

 

Damion Patrick John Ryan, 43, and Adam Richard Pearson, 29, are members of a chapter of the motorcycle gang Hells Angels. Both are imprisoned in Canada on unrelated offenses.

The US Justice Department released details of the deal between Zindashti and the two men, who communicated through Sky ECC, an encrypted messaging network that has since been shut down by authorities in the US and Europe.

A fee of $350,000, plus $20,000 in expenses, was agreed for the killing of two targets, a man and a woman. Photographs of the intended victims were exchanged, along with their address and a map showing their location.

Discussing the plot regularly between December 2020 and January 2021, Ryan told Zindashti that having someone killed in the US was challenging, but that he “might have someone to do it.” That same day he messaged Pearson about a “job” in Maryland.

Pearson replied to say he was “on it” and that “shooting is probably easiest thing for them.” He would tell the gunmen he planned to recruit to “shoot (the victim) in the head a lot (to) make example,” adding “We gotta erase his head from his torso.” A “four-man team” would carry out the killings.

Immediately after the attack on Zeraati in London, a former journalist with Iran International said she had been told by the Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Unit “to immediately leave my residence and stay elsewhere until further notice.”




British Iranian journalist Sima Sabet. (X: @Sima_Sabet)
 

Writing on X, Sima Sabet revealed that last year she and her colleague Fardad Farahzad, who is now based in Washington, had been the targets of an assassination attempt orchestrated by the IRGC.

She said the plot was foiled by a “Western security service,” which had obtained “audio and video files in which a Quds Force commander ordered an individual to kill me and Farahzad with a knife.”




Esmail Qaani, commander of Iran's dreaded Quds Force, speaks in Tehran during a commemoration ceremony marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of IRGCV general Qasem Soleimani (on screen) on January 3, 2024. (AFP/File)

According to Sabet, the attack on Zeraati was “a serious warning and an extremely troubling act for all journalists and opponents of the Islamic Republic in Britain and other Western countries.”

Mehdi Hosseini Matin, Iran’s charge d’affaires in the UK, has said “we deny any link” to the attack.
 

 


Aid trucks start entering Gaza through Kerm Shalom crossing - Red Crescent

Updated 7 sec ago
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Aid trucks start entering Gaza through Kerm Shalom crossing - Red Crescent

CAIRO: About 200 aid trucks, including four fuel trucks, are expected to enter Gaza today, Khaled Zayed, the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society in North Sinai, told Reuters.


Hamas says it captured Israeli soldiers in Gaza

Updated 13 min 30 sec ago
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Hamas says it captured Israeli soldiers in Gaza

  • Al-Qassam Brigades spokesman: ‘Our fighters lured a Zionist force into an ambush inside a tunnel’
  • The Israeli military, in a statement, denied the claim of Hamas’ armed wing

CAIRO: A spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing said on Sunday its fighters had captured Israeli soldiers during fighting in Jabalia in northern Gaza on Saturday, though the Israeli military denied the claim.
The Hamas armed wing spokesman did not say how many soldiers had been abducted and showed no proof of the claim.
“Our fighters lured a Zionist force into an ambush inside a tunnel ... The fighters withdrew after they left all members of the force dead, wounded, and captured,” Abu Ubaida, the spokesman for Al Qassam Brigades, said in a recorded message broadcast by Al Jazeera early on Sunday.
The Israeli military on Sunday denied the claim by Hamas’ armed wing.
“The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) clarifies that there is no incident in which a soldier was abducted,” the military said in a statement.
Hamas released a video that appeared to show a bloodied person being dragged along the ground in a tunnel and photos of military fatigue and rifle. Reuters could not independently verify the identity of the person shown in the video nor his or her condition.
The comments by Abu Ubaida came hours after prospects for a resumption of mediated Gaza ceasefire talks grew on Saturday.
An official with knowledge of the matter said a decision had been taken to resume the talks next week after the chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency met the head of the CIA and the prime minister of Qatar.
The source, who declined to be identified by name or nationality, said it had been decided that “in the coming week negotiations will open based on new proposals led by the mediators, Egypt and Qatar and with active US involvement.”
A Hamas official later denied Israeli media reports the talks would resume in Cairo on Tuesday, telling Reuters: “There is no date.”
After more than seven months of war in Gaza, the mediators have struggled to secure a breakthrough, with Israel seeking the release of hostages held by Hamas and Hamas seeking an end to the war and a release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Nearly 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, Gaza’s health ministry says. Israel began the operation in response to Hamas-led militants attacking southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.


Scuffles erupt between police, protesters demanding return of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza

Updated 26 May 2024
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Scuffles erupt between police, protesters demanding return of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza

  • Israel says around 100 hostages are still being held in Gaza, along with the bodies of around 30 more
  • Around half of the 250 hostages taken by Hamas and other militants have been freed, most in swaps for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel

JERUSALEM: Scuffles between Israeli police and protesters erupted in Tel Aviv on Saturday after thousands gathered to demonstrate against the government and demand that it bring back the hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza.
Meanwhile, a small US military vessel and what appeared to be a strip of docking area washed up on a beach near the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, not far from the US-built pier on which the Israeli military said humanitarian aid is moving into the Palestinian territory.
Also on Saturday, Israeli bombardments were reported in northern and central Gaza.
Some protesters in Tel Aviv carried photos of the female soldiers who appeared in a video earlier in the week showing them soon after they were abducted during the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 started the war between Israel and Hamas. Some held banners reading “Stop the war” and “Help.” They called on the government to reach a deal to release the dozens of hostages still in captivity.
The protesters also called for the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and demanded new elections.
“We all saw the video, we could not stay at home after the government abandoned all these people,” said Hilit Sagi, from the group “Women Protest for the Return of All Hostages.”
Divisions among Israelis have deepened over how Netanyahu has handled the war against Hamas after the attack that killed about 1,200 people and saw 250 others taken hostage. Israel says around 100 hostages are still being held in Gaza, along with the bodies of around 30 more.

Israeli police detain a protester during a demonstration in Tel Aviv on May 26, 2024, by relatives and supporters of Israelis taken hostage by Palestinian militants in Gaza in the October 7 attacks. (AFP)

“Basically they are not doing enough in order for the hostages to come back, either with military force, with (a) hostages’ deal, negotiating. Nothing is being done,” said Snir Dahan, uncle of hostage Carmel Gat, still in captivity in Gaza.
Earlier in the week, the bodies of three hostages killed were recovered from Gaza, Israel’s army said Friday. The army said they were killed on the day of the attack and their bodies were taken to Gaza. The announcement came less than a week after the army said it found the bodies of three other Israeli hostages killed on Oct. 7.
Around half of the 250 hostages taken by Hamas and other militants have been freed, most in swaps for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel during a weeklong ceasefire in November.
Netanyahu’s government has faced increasing pressure, both at home and abroad, to stop the war and allow humanitarian aid into the enclave that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians, almost 80 percent of whom have been displaced.
Also this week, three European countries announced they would recognize a Palestinian state, and the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court requested arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, along with Hamas officials.
On Friday the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to end its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and to open the nearby border crossing for crucial humanitarian aid. The top United Nations court also said Israel must give war crimes investigators access to Gaza.
However, the judges stopped short of ordering a full ceasefire across the entire Palestinian territory, and Israel is unlikely to comply with the court’s ruling. South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians during the war in Gaza, which Israel vehemently denies.
“We were hoping the war would end,” said Islam Abu Kamar, who moved from Gaza City to Rafah following the ground operation launched by Israel after the Hamas attack in October.
In the past two weeks, more than a million Palestinians have fled Rafah as Israeli forces pressed deeper into the city. Israel’s takeover this month of the Rafah border crossing, a key transit point for fuel and supplies for Gaza, has contributed to bringing aid operations to near collapse, the UN and relief groups say.
Israel says it needs to invade Rafah to destroy Hamas’ last stronghold. Egypt said it agreed to send UN humanitarian aid trucks through the Kerem Shalom border crossing, Israel’s main entry point into southern Gaza. But it remains unclear if the trucks will be able to enter because fighting still rages in Rafah.
Israel said aid is moving into the Palestinian territory through northern Gaza and via the US-built pier. On Saturday, a small US military boat and what appeared to be a strip of docking area washed up on a beach near the southern Israeli city of Ashdod.
The US Central Command said four of its vessels supporting the humanitarian aid mission were affected by rough seas with two of them anchoring near the pier off the Gaza coast and another two in Israel.
US officials said no injuries were reported and the US is working with the Israeli army to recover the vessels, Central Command said.
American officials hope the pier at maximum capacity can bring the equivalent of 150 truckloads of aid to Gaza daily. That’s a fraction of the 600 truckloads of food, emergency nutritional treatments and other supplies that USAID says are needed each day to bring people in Gaza back from the brink of famine and address the humanitarian crisis brought on by the 7-month-old Israel-Hamas war.
Israeli bombardments continued in the enclave on Saturday with reports of strikes northern and central Gaza. Witnesses said people were killed in strikes on the cities of Jabaliya and Nuseirat.
More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to the Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and civilians.


Tunisian president fires interior, social affairs ministers in partial cabinet reshuffle

Updated 26 May 2024
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Tunisian president fires interior, social affairs ministers in partial cabinet reshuffle

TUNIS: Tunisian president Kais Saied dismissed on Saturday the Interior Minister Kamel Feki as part of a partial cabinet reshuffle, the presidency said.

The partial cabinet reshuffle also included replacing the minister of social affairs, Malek Ezzahi.

Saied appointed Khaled Nouri as the new interior minister and Kamal Madouri as minister of social affairs.


At least one Iraqi Sunni fighter killed in attack north of Baghdad

Updated 26 May 2024
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At least one Iraqi Sunni fighter killed in attack north of Baghdad

BAGHDAD: At least one pro-Iraqi government Sunni fighter was killed in an explosive device attack at a checkpoint in Khan Beni Saad, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Baghdad, officials and security sources said early on Sunday.
Two fighters with the Iraqi pro-government Sunni tribal force Sahwa were killed and at least six people, including five Iraqi soldiers, were injured in the attack, according to two security sources and a medical source.
The Iraqi Security Media Cell, an official body responsible for disseminating security information, said one person was killed after two explosive devices were detonated near the checkpoint on Saturday evening. It also said in a statement four people had sustained minor injuries.