Argument

It Ain't Just a River in Egypt

Egyptian liberals lost badly in the post-revolution scramble for power -- and now they're in deep denial as many embrace conspiracy theories about the United States.

When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pulls up to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo this week, he will see a protest outside its walls. Just steps away from Tahrir Square, supporters of Omar Abdel Rahman have been staging a sit-in for nearly a year to protest the imprisonment of the man known as the "Blind Sheikh," who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for planning terrorist attacks on American soil.

Upon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit just weeks before, these protesters were joined on the embassy's doorstep by a group often seen as more sympathetic to U.S. values and policies: Egypt's liberals. This time, they had lost some of that sympathy.

The protests, by themselves, weren't entirely unexpected -- after all, no one in Egypt these days seems to have much praise for President Barack Obama's administration. And liberals, due to their perceived closeness to the West, have often had to overcompensate to shore up their nationalist bona fides. After all, it wasn't the Muslim Brotherhood but, rather, liberal standard-bearer Amr Hamzawy who refused to meet in February with Sen. John McCain due to his "biased positions in favor of Israel and his support for invading Iraq and attacking Iran."

What is different about this most recent surge in anti-Americanism is its conspiratorial bent. Some of Egypt's most prominent liberal and leftist politicians are telling anyone who will listen that the United States is in bed with the Islamists. Such allegations would be concerning on their own, but they're even more troubling for what they represent -- Egyptian liberals' growing ambivalence and even opposition to democratic rule. The rise of what we might call "undemocratic liberals" is threatening Egypt's fledgling democracy.

The suspicion that the United States is secretly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood sounds far-fetched, in part because it is. I remember first hearing a variation on the theory from a top Egyptian official in January: He spoke at some length of a U.S. master plan to install a grand Islamist alliance in government, including not just the Brotherhood but also more radical Salafists. Initially, I thought he might be making a meta-commentary on the absurdity of conspiracy theories. He wasn't.

Over the course of Egypt's troubled transition, liberal resentment has only grown. This month, former presidential candidate Abul-Ezz el-Hariri claimed that the Obama administration was backing the Brotherhood so it could then use the establishment of Egyptian theocracy as a pretext for an Iraq-style invasion. Most of the allegations, however, have not aspired to the same level of creativity. Emad Gad of the Social Democratic Party, a leading liberal party, asserted that the United States was "working with purpose and diligence in order to enable the forces of political Islam to control the institutions of the Egyptian state."

It was Gad who would capture in a few choice words the newfound merger of anti-Americanism and anti-democratic sentiment. "It's an Egyptian issue. It's not for the secretary of state," he told the New York Times. "We are living in an unstable period. If the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] goes back to its barracks, the Brotherhood will control everything."

Liberals' fears have increasingly dovetailed with those of Egypt's Coptic Christian community, which makes up perhaps 10 percent of the population and is understandably suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, after decades of ambiguous statements on minority rights. On the first day of Clinton's visit, four of the country's leading Coptic figures released a statement saying, "Clinton's desire to meet Coptic politicians after having met with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi leaders is a kind of a sectarian provocation which the Egyptian people and Copts in particular reject." It has reached the point, they wrote, where the United States had backed one candidate -- referring to the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy -- in the presidential election.

The belief that the United States was behind Morsy's victory has spread among anti-Brotherhood groups. Before the final election results were announced on June 24, a coalition of leading liberal parties held a news conference condemning the Obama administration for backing Morsy's candidacy. "We refuse that the reason someone wins is because he is backed by the Americans," said the Democratic Front Party's Osama el-Ghazali Harb, who was an influential figure in former President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party before resigning in 2006.

In all these examples, no evidence was provided to substantiate the allegations, in part because no such evidence exists.

When asked to explain how they came to believe in a U.S.-Brotherhood "deal," Egyptians point to innocuous pro-democracy statements from U.S. officials, such as Clinton urging that the Egyptian military "turn power over to the legitimate winner" of presidential elections. One organizer of the anti-Clinton protests, the Free Front for Peaceful Change, accused the United States of attempting to "impose its hegemony" on Egypt because of a July 4 statement by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson in which she said, "The return of a democratically elected parliament, following a process decided by Egyptians, will also be an important move forward."

A cui bono conspiratorial mindset has taken hold. The United States says it supports a "full transition" to democracy. The Brotherhood, being the largest, best-organized party in Egypt, naturally stands to benefit most from such a transition. This, in turn, must mean that the United States supports the Brotherhood. In other words, more democracy means more Islamism, so anyone who advocates the former is suspected of supporting the latter. The very notion of democracy is becoming politicized.

The Brotherhood, the closest thing Egypt has to a majority party, is, unsurprisingly, a rather staunch advocate of majority rule. On this point, Morsy and other leading Brothers have straddled the fine line between democracy and demagoguery. For many Egyptians, Morsy's dramatic, chant-like chorus of "there is no power above the people" during a June 29 speech in Tahrir Square was a stirring ode to popular sovereignty. For others, it was a sign that the Brotherhood -- having won 47 percent and 52 percent in parliamentary and presidential elections, respectively -- felt it had the right to implement its vision, regardless of what anyone else had to say about it.

Turkey's experience is instructive here, though less as a model than a cautionary tale. Upon assuming power in 2002, the Islamically oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) understood that the best way to promote religion in public life was to promote democracy, which would allow it to wrest power away from Turkey's entrenched secular establishment. Despite the anti-Western orientation of its Islamist predecessors, the AKP latched on to the European Union accession process, which required Turkey to reduce the powers of the military and lift restrictions on freedom of expression, including on religious issues. It was odd that those three things went together -- better relations with the West, democracy, and Islamization -- but in Turkey's case they did.

But just like in Egypt, the backlash from Turkey's liberals was harsh. The opposition Republican People's Party and other secularists adopted an increasingly anti-American and anti-European posture, resisting many of the reforms the AKP was hoping to implement. The staunchly secular military, which had traditionally seen itself as a Europeanizing force in Turkish politics, also underwent a striking evolution. As Turkish scholar M. Hakan Yavuz noted in a 2002 article, "One of the newest characteristics of the Turkish military in the late 1990s is its willingness to employ anti-Western rhetoric and accuse opponents of being the 'tools of Europe' because of growing pressure from the European Union on human rights and the need for civilian control."

EU accession was no longer in the interests of the military, and perhaps it never really was. In Turkey, like in Egypt, more democracy meant, inevitably, more religion. Turkey's secular establishment turned out to be much more secular than it was democratic -- and Egypt is looking as if it may go down the same path.

The question is often posed: Do Islamists really believe in democracy? The more relevant matter for Egypt, at least for now, is to understand how would-be democrats like Gad and Harb have strayed from the very ideals they claimed to be fighting for.

Some blame, of course, must be laid at the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood. As Egypt's most powerful political force, the movement had a responsibility to rise above partisanship and do more to reassure its skeptics. But the Brotherhood thought it was strong enough to dismiss liberals, and liberals were too weak to put up a fight through the electoral process. What sometimes seems like a massive ideological divide is really about power.

So too is the increasingly bizarre speculation about America's hidden designs in Egypt. Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, writes that conspiracy theories are "the ultimate refuge of the powerless." So in failing to win -- and feeling like an embattled minority in the process -- liberals have looked to the United States and other unnamed "foreign hands" to explain the rise of their Islamist opponents.

The irony is that the Obama administration, while willing to engage the Brotherhood, has itself been wary of the Islamists' rise to power. For much of the transition, the United States stood by the SCAF, the ruling military junta and the Brotherhood's archrival. The Egyptian military was a known quantity, the linchpin of the 30-year U.S.-Egypt relationship and a force for regional stability. The generals, the thinking went, would ensure that vital American interests were protected. When SCAF waged an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and threatened several American NGO workers with jail time, the United States sought a face-saving compromise and kept the $1.3 billion in annual military aid flowing. Even in her recent visit, Clinton avoided any direct criticism of SCAF, despite the latter staging an effective coup -- dissolving the democratically elected parliament and stripping the presidency of its powers -- just weeks prior.

The hostility of Egypt's secular establishment presents the United States with something of a dilemma. If it ever does get serious about pressuring the military and promoting democracy in Egypt, the more liberals -- perhaps its most natural allies -- will cry foul. This no-win situation will likely persuade U.S. policymakers that it's better to stay away and do less rather than more. In this sense, liberal conspiracy theories, as absurd and creative as they might be, may be hitting their mark -- pushing the United States and other outside actors out of Egypt. That is probably good for Egypt's liberals, but not necessarily for Egypt.

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Before Deadly Bulgaria Bombing, Tracks of a Resurgent Iran-Hezbollah Threat

Bent on avenging attacks on its nuclear program, Iran and Hezbollah have allegedly spun at least 10 terror plots in the past year, most of them failures. With this month's deadly bombing in the beach resort of Burgas, Western counterterror officials say, the Shiite alliance has crossed a dangerous line.

After a decade in which al Qaeda dominated the world stage, the global terror threat from Iran has escalated sharply, generating a swarm of recent plots from Delhi to Mombasa to Washington and signaling an aggressive new strategy, counterterror officials say.

But there were meager results until this month. On July 18, a suspected suicide bomber killed six people and wounded 30 aboard an Israeli tourist bus in a coastal town in Bulgaria. Israel quickly accused Hezbollah and Iran, longtime sponsor of the Lebanese Shiite militant group. Many questions remain about the bombing, and Bulgarian authorities have said they do not have proof implicating Hezbollah so far. Nonetheless, many Western counterterror officials share Israel's suspicions.

If the allegations are true, Iran and Hezbollah have crossed a dangerous line with their first strike in Europe in more than 15 years. The repercussions are stoking more turmoil in a Middle East torn by civil war in Syria and conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

ProPublica has reviewed a string of plots attributed to the Shiite alliance, 10 cases in the past year alone, and found a complex and contradictory evolution of the threat. Iran and Hezbollah have waged a determined campaign to strike their enemies in retaliation for attacks on the Iranian nuclear program and the killing of a Hezbollah chief, counterterror officials say. The offensive led by the Quds Force, Iran's elite foreign operations unit, has displayed impressive reach and devastating potential.

"The Hezbollah-Quds force threat is the big thing worldwide right now," a U.S. counterterror official said. "There has been a wave of activity." 

Yet the modus operandi so far has veered between agility and clumsiness, precision and improvisation. Most of the attempted strikes have failed, often hampered by hasty execution and unreliable operatives, according to counterterror officials and experts around the world. In some ways the apparent opportunism and erratic behavior make the menace worse, increasing the chances of conflict with the West, experts say.

"These cases all seem amateurish," an Indian counterterror official said. "The Iranians feel great frustration and desperation because of the attacks on the nuclear program, a real desire to strike. So they aren't prepared -- they act quickly. They don't care about reprisals. They are out of practice. They have done few operations like this since the '90s."

ProPublica interviewed law enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic officials and experts from the United States, Europe, Israel and India for this article, granting them anonymity because of the ongoing investigation in Bulgaria and because many are not authorized to speak to the news media. They included officials from governments that do not always agree with Jerusalem and Washington about the nature of the Iran-Hezbollah threat.

Starting in the 1980s, Hezbollah and Iran conducted an international campaign of bombings, hijackings, kidnappings and assassinations against Israeli, U.S., European, Saudi and Iranian dissident targets.

In Argentina, car bombs blew up the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994, killing a total of 115 people. Argentine prosecutors charged that the Quds Force and Hezbollah used a web of diplomats, front companies and logistics specialists in the Lebanese diaspora.

Iran had "plots on the shelf methodically prepared and updated all over the world," said Charles (Sam) Faddis, a retired CIA counterterror chief. "They would do recon to test the defenses, update contingencies and plans."

In 2001, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Hezbollah, which relies on Iran for funding, arms and support, "the A-team of terrorists." But the alliance scaled back international terror activity outside of combat zones such as Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and its Sunni Muslim allies were the most urgent terror threat to the West  during the past decade, but have declined dramatically in strength. Al Qaeda has not carried out a fatal bombing in the West since 2005.     

In February, Iran allegedly tried to unleash a terror spectacular in the style of old, targeting three countries at once. A motorcycle bomber managed to wound an Israeli diplomat in India. But authorities foiled attacks in Georgia and Thailand -- where a bomber blew off his own legs -- even though a Quds Force commander had traveled undercover to Bangkok to lay the groundwork, according to Western counterterror officials. 

Last year, Quds Force officers allegedly directed an Iranian-American used-car salesman to hire drug traffickers to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. But the suspect unknowingly recruited a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant and was arrested; defense lawyers assert that their client has a mental disorder.

"It's as if there's a systematic policy of Iran recruiting low-rent, downright kooky terrorists," said British security expert Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation.

Another factor has played a role: In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, global defenses against terrorism have been beefed up. Still, Iranian spymasters have deployed seemingly inexperienced or ineffective agents, especially those with Western passports. The profile helps preserve deniability, according to Ali Alfoneh, an expert on the Iranian military at the American Enterprise Institute.

"They don't want to sacrifice better-equipped, better-trained people who, if arrested, can compromise the Quds Force, give up a lot of inside information," said the Iranian-born Alfoneh.

In Burgas, Details Trickle Out

The successful strike in Burgas, a low-cost beach resort popular with young Israelis and Scandinavians, took place on the 18th anniversary of the AMIA bombing in Argentina. According to news reports, Bulgaria's prime minister has described a sophisticated conspiracy by "exceptionally experienced" terrorists.

The scope was limited, however. And there were sloppy details.

The suspected bomber carried a fake driver's license from Michigan, which has a large population with Middle Eastern roots, according to U.S. and European officials. The forger put a Louisiana address on the license, an error that could have endangered the operation. A suspected accomplice carried another fake Michigan driver's license, this one with a Michigan address, U.S. law enforcement officials say.  A travel agency refused to rent a car to the nervous suspected accomplice before the attack because the license raised suspicions, officials said.

The decision to hit Israeli tourists aboard a bus further reflects limitations, experts say.

"The attempts at attacking embassies and embassy personnel have been failures, so they are shifting to soft targets," Alfoneh said.

Bulgarian authorities say the bomber and the accomplice, who apparently remains at large, arrived by plane about a month earlier. The bomber is believed to have flown in via Germany and the accomplice via Belgium, according to U.S. and European officials. Police following circumstantial leads have questioned a third person, a man of Turkish descent, but have not linked him to the attack so far, a U.S. law enforcement official said.

The target, symbolic date and context of previous activity implicate Iran and Hezbollah, counterterror officials say.

"I am convinced the origin of this attack is Shiite," an Italian counterterror official said. "In the last two years, there was growing concern that they were going to come here to Europe to do something. They know if they do it in Israel, it's more difficult and retaliation is more likely."

Israel has not offered concrete proof to back up its repeated accusations. Hezbollah and Iran deny responsibility. Iran accused Israel of orchestrating the attack on its own citizens. The process of identifying the attackers has been slow and the fingerprints sent to European and U.S. agencies and Interpol have not produced a match, according to counterterror officials.

As a result, doubts endure. The apparent use of a suicide bomber perplexes some analysts. Iran and Hezbollah carried out major suicide attacks in the 1980s and early 1990s. The tactic then spread to Sunni groups. Al Qaeda began carrying out "martyrdom operations" in the mid-1990s and made them a signature. At the same time, Iran and Hezbollah have greatly curtailed the use of suicide bombers, counterterror officials said.

The backpack bomb itself is a point of contention. The U.S. law enforcement official said aspects of the device in Burgas resembled bombs in the suspected Iranian triple plot in February. But the TNT-based explosive differs from the Iranian-made plastic explosive in the February case, according to another U.S. law enforcement official, who remains skeptical.

"I'm not convinced it's Iran and Hezbollah," he said. "I'm waiting to see the evidence."

Complicating the issue, there has been no credible claim of responsibility. Al Qaeda usually follows attacks with videos featuring declarations by the suicide bombers, the network's leaders or both. Iran and Hezbollah keep silent.

"It creates more fear," the Italian counterterror official said. "Ambiguity suits them very well. The attack itself sends the message."

Whoever they were, the masterminds probably chose Bulgaria because it has weaker law enforcement and more porous borders than most of the European Union. Bulgaria has the EU's highest proportion of Muslims, about 12 percent of the population, though so far no public information has suggested a link to the local Islamic community. Hezbollah operatives have previously been detected in Bulgaria, U.S. law enforcement officials say. 

Western intelligence officials warned of Bulgaria's potential as a theater for terror five years ago. Intelligence revealed that Hezbollah chiefs and Iranian intelligence officials had put Bulgaria on a list of nations propitious for developing plots against Western targets. Iranian spy agencies prefer developing countries, where it's easier to cover their tracks, experts say.

Conflict with Israel intensified in February 2008 after a car bomb in the heart of Damascus killed Imad Mughniyah, a notorious Hezbollah military leader and ally of Iranian intelligence. Iranian and Hezbollah leaders publicly accused Israel and vowed revenge.

Within weeks, a plot was under way against the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan. Police broke up the cell in May 2008. The suspects included Azeri accomplices, a senior Hezbollah field operative and a Hezbollah explosives expert. Police also arrested two Iranian spies, but they were released within weeks because of pressure from Tehran, Western anti-terror officials say. The other suspects were convicted.

Police in Turkey soon broke up a similar plot against Israeli targets, arresting Hezbollah operatives with Canadian and Kuwaiti passports said to be involved in smuggling a car bomb across the border from Syria in 2009.

The close partnership between Iran and Hezbollah is not without friction. There is debate in the Western intelligence community about the extent to which Hezbollah would do Iran's bidding in event of a confrontation between Tehran and the West. But many cases show that Iran and Hezbollah work together on terror activity, Western counterterror officials say.

House Painter Turned Hit Man    

Iranian dissidents also found themselves in the crosshairs, according to government documents and investigators.

In July 2009, police in Glendora, Calif., arrested an Iranian-American house painter when his accomplice got cold feet and reported that he was planning a murder.

The suspect, Mohammad Reza Sadeghnia of Ann Arbor, Mich., had done surveillance on a prominent Iranian dissident who hosted a Farsi radio show, according to a report by the Glendora police. Sadeghnia hired an accomplice, an Iranian immigrant with a criminal record, paying him $27,000 via his mother in Iran, the report says.

The two conspirators holed up in a seedy motel for five days, police say. After half-hearted efforts to buy a gun, Sadeghnia decided to make the killing look like a traffic accident, according to the police report. He and his accomplice purchased a 1986 van for $1,800. They tinkered with the engine in a plan to run over the dissident and blame a mechanical problem, the report says.

"He didn't strike me as the Jason Bourne of Iran," Capt. Tim Staab of the Glendora Police said in an interview.

Suspecting that his accomplice had lost his nerve, Sadeghnia threatened to have the man's relatives killed in Iran, according to the police report.

"I have done other missions around the world," Sadeghnia warned.

Alerted by the repentant accomplice, police rushed to a hotel near the Los Angeles airport and arrested Sadeghnia, who was headed to a strip club before catching a night flight to Detroit, according to Staab.    

Sadeghnia was charged with conspiracy to commit murder and pleaded guilty to a lesser crime. He served about a year in prison and got five years more probation, authorities said. When a judge allowed Sadeghnia to visit his ailing father in Iran in 2010, he never came back.

Despite Sadeghnia's amateurish exploits, there are signs he was a bona fide agent. He had plenty of cash -- crisp new bills in a seal from an Iranian bank, according to police. Sadeghnia admitted to the FBI that he was gathering intelligence on his target, the police report says.

Before the Los Angeles episode, Sadeghnia had allegedly conducted surveillance in London on another Iranian dissident, a radio commentator for Voice of America there, according to a U.S. State Department cable disclosed by WikiLeaks. Sadeghnia befriended the dissident, met with him in London and Washington, and took photos of him, his home and his car, according to the cable, dated Jan. 21, 2010. The dissident grew suspicious and cut off contact with Sadeghnia, the cable says.

After the arrest in Los Angeles, British authorities warned the radio personality that Sadeghnia had been "working for the Iranian intelligence services," according to the cable. It says that the London surveillance photos were provided to Majid Alavi, a deputy Iranian intelligence minister at the time.

Although the case reveals skullduggery in the heart of the West, the bumbling clashes with the formidable image of the Iranian security forces.

"Why have they been so unsuccessful?" said Alfoneh, the Iran military expert. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is a Third World country, contrary to what people believe. ... Experience has shown when they operate very far away, their success rate is not good."

$100,000 And Hit Men

In the past two years, Iran redoubled efforts to strike its enemies in response to attacks against its nuclear program, including a major cyber-assault and assassinations of nuclear scientists with sophisticated "sticky" bombs attached to cars. Iran blames Israel and the United States for those attacks.

The regime, under pressure to show strength at home and abroad, incorporated Hezbollah into its retaliatory offensive, experts say.

"The two organizations cooperate," Alfoneh said. "The motivation of Hezbollah is to deliver services in exchange for the arms and money they receive. The motive of Iran is to repair its damaged prestige, the image that it is not even capable of defending its scientists. This is why they did those ill-prepared attacks. They needed to produce something."

Last year's Washington plot had an opportunistic quality. U.S. prosecutors charged Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Texas, and Gholam Shakuri, a colonel in the Quds Force who is thought to be in Iran, with planning to assassinate the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, a nemesis of Tehran. There was also talk about Israeli targets, according to U.S. officials.  

The evidence included a $100,000 wire transfer sent to Arbabsiar and telephone intercepts of senior Iranian officers discussing his plan to hire Mexican hit men for an ambush in a restaurant, according to a criminal complaint and U.S. officials. Separately, the U.S. Treasury Department accused three Quds Force chiefs as masterminds: Gen. Qasem Sulemaini, the Quds Force commander; Hamed Abdollahi; and Abdul Shalali, a cousin of the Iranian-American suspect.

Arbabsiar had little apparent training and few qualifications other than his family connection, according to U.S. officials. His business career and personal life were checkered, according to court documents and state records. In the spring of 2011, he enlisted a Mexican drug cartel associate because he knew the man's aunt, according to officials and a federal complaint. The cartel associate, a DEA informant, promptly alerted his handlers and set in motion an undercover sting led by the FBI.

Arbabsiar pleaded innocent and awaits trial in the fall. In expert reports filed recently in federal court in the Southern District of New York, his lawyers paint him as hapless. Two defense psychiatrists said he was bipolar.

"Arbabsiar consistently lost keys and titles to cars when he ran a used car lot," Dr. Michael B. First of Columbia University wrote in one report. Arbabsiar spent much of 2010 depressed and smoking cigarettes in his room, the report says. In manic episodes, the report says, he "becomes excessively energized, speaks rapidly, becomes hypersexual, is inappropriately trusting of other people to the point where he gets taken advantage of, and needs less sleep."

On one plane flight, Arbabsiar "decided to treat the stewardess, the pilot and passengers seated around him to expensive bottles of perfume from the duty-free cart because he wanted to make everyone feel good," according to the report.

To be sure, that portrait comes from defense lawyers. But the case has caused consternation in the U.S. intelligence community and some public skepticism. U.S. counterterror officials are convinced the evidence is solid, but they expressed surprise that Iran used a seemingly low-caliber agent for a high-risk scenario verging on an act of war.

The misadventure may reflect factionalism and freelancing in Iran's mafia-like security forces, according to experts and officials. Some theorize the Quds Force launched the mission mainly to send a warning message, or as part of Iranian political intrigue.

In the aftermath, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, warned about a shift in Iranian strategy. "Some Iranian officials -- probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime," Clapper said during Senate testimony in January.

String of Recent Plots

The Arbabsiar arrest last October did not slow the drumbeat of terror activity.

Weeks later, an alleged plot was detected in Azerbaijan, this time aimed at Americans as well as Israelis, counterterror officials say. The Washington Post detailed that case in a recent article.

Israeli leaders have said publicly that they warned Bulgaria in January about another suspected threat there against Israeli tourists on winter vacation.

In Thailand on Jan.16, police discovered a warehouse containing 8,800 pounds of explosives material. They jailed a suspect accused of stockpiling the stash and distilling the materials into crystal form, a step toward bomb-making. A former hairdresser born in Lebanon, Hussein Atris holds a Swedish passport and is a suspected Hezbollah operative, according to counterterror officials.

More than a dozen embassies in Bangkok issued warnings about impending attacks after the arrest. Despite that alert, a Quds Force commander named Majid Alavi secretly entered Thailand on a high-stakes mission, according to Western counterterror officials.

Alavi is believed to be the same senior figure named in the WikiLeaks cable that described spying on dissidents in London and Los Angeles. He has served as Iran's acting intelligence minister, officials say. He shifted to the Quds Force early this year and along with Abdollahi, a commander accused in the Washington plot, now runs a team known as the Special External Operations Unit, or Unit 400, according to Western officials.

The unit "conducts sensitive covert operations abroad [that] include terrorist attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and sabotage," a U.S. official said. The unit has supported Iraqi militants, "provided weapons, equipment, training and money to Afghan insurgents ... and also arranges the delivery of lethal aid into Syria and Lebanon and military training for Hezbollah and Palestinian militants."

The Quds Force reports directly to Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei, officials said, bypassing the Iranian military's complex decision-making structure.

Alavi traveled to Bangkok on Jan. 19 using a diplomatic passport with the alias Hossein Tehrani, according to Western counterterror officials. He is believed to have entered from Malaysia, a suspected hub of the triple plot, according to a European security source who was briefed by Thai officials.

The commander spent several days in Thailand working on preparations for an attack and meeting with Thai Shiite accomplices, officials said. Alavi relayed orders to strike as close as possible to Feb. 12, the anniversary of the Mughniyah killing, officials said.

"It is unusual for someone of his rank to take part at the operational level, but this is indicative of the pressure being applied from the most senior political-military levels of the regime to carry out attacks," a Western counterterror official said.

Other Iranian cells allegedly set up in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and Delhi. A group of Iranians with tourist visas entered India, which has good relations with Tehran and a large Iranian student community. Their accused Indian accomplice is a freelance journalist: Mohammed Kazmi, a Shiite Muslim and frequent collaborator with Iran's national news agency. (Kazmi has pleaded not guilty and is being held for trial.)

Closed-circuit television footage, Kazmi's statements to investigators and other evidence show that he helped his visitors do reconnaissance on the Israeli embassy and helped provide them with a motorcycle, Indian authorities say. The suspects communicated with the Iranian embassy and handlers in Iran, Indian officials say.

The cells went into action Feb. 13, investigators say. A motorcyclist maneuvered through traffic in the heart of Delhi's embassy district, slapped a magnetic bomb onto an Israeli diplomatic vehicle and sped away. The explosion wounded the wife of Israel's defense attaché. The method used closely resembled the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. The Iranian suspects fled the country, with the bomber heading to Malaysia.

Other plots fizzled. A bomb placed on an Israeli embassy car in Georgia was detected. And in Bangkok, a wild scene took place at a safe house when a bomb exploded prematurely, causing three suspects to flee, according to the account of U.S., Israeli and European officials.

Sayed Moradi was wounded in the Bangkok blast, according to the officials. He staggered into the street, bleeding from the ears, and tried and failed to escape in a taxi. When police closed in, he hurled a grenade at them that bounced back and blew off his legs. Police arrested him and two other Iranians. A fourth fled to Malaysia, where he was captured.

The cells in the three countries were linked by telephone contact, according to officials. And the sticky bombs resembled each other, according to counterterror officials from several countries involved. The devices were encased in shoebox-sized radios with components including a grenade, Iranian-made plastic explosives and magnets on the bottom, officials said.

In the aftermath, Thai press reports and photos revealed that the suspects in Bangkok took time from casing Israeli diplomatic targets to cavort with prostitutes. An ambitious plan to spread worldwide terror broke down because of questionable personnel and "improvised" plots, a French official said.

"Iran wanted to strike fast and strong," the French official said. "But they weren't ready. It was intended to send a signal. They failed."

Surveillance on Israeli Tourists

New incidents raised concerns in the weeks before the Bulgaria blast.

In June, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi issued a terror warning after Kenyan police arrested two alleged Quds Force officers and found 33 pounds of explosives in a shipping container in the port city of Mombasa. Authorities allege that they had Israeli, U.S., and Saudi targets in mind. The Iranian suspects have denied guilt and face trial.

An arrest took place in Cyprus on July 7. Police detained a suspected Hezbollah operative and charged him with conducting surveillance on Israeli tourists, who frequent the island in large numbers. 

As in Thailand in January, the suspect held a passport from Sweden, which has an active, internationally connected community of extremists. He remains in jail. His profile fits a pattern of using operatives with Western documents.

Israeli leaders say the Cyprus case has close parallels to the bombing in Bulgaria 11 days later. If the investigation implicates Hezbollah and Iran, it could worsen the Middle East turmoil caused by the civil war in Syria.

While vowing a stern response to the bombing, Israel has also warned that it might intervene militarily if Syria attempts to transfer chemical weapons to its allies. Iran and Hezbollah have a vital triangular alliance with Syria, which plays a central role helping Iran fund, train and arm the Shiite militant group. The Syrian crisis has pushed Tehran and Hezbollah closer together, though Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah knows that supporting the regime in Damascus hurts his international image, experts say.

"When the individual interests of Hezbollah and Iran coincide, they are more dangerous," said Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, a former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence at the Treasury Department.

As the tensions mount, the world's intelligence and law enforcement agencies are keeping a close watch on a network they say has a taste for risk and for striking in unexpected places.

"If there are hostilities, they would hit in the Middle East, Latin America, Europe," said Faddis, the CIA counterterror veteran. "And the U.S., if they could."

JACK GUEZ/AFP/GettyImages