On the afternoon of Feb. 13, Georgian police defused an explosive device that had been placed under an Israeli Embassy vehicle in Tbilisi. Nearly simultaneously, a „sticky bomb” attached to a vehicle carrying an employee of the IsraeliEmbassy in New Delhi exploded. While the incidents did not claim any lives, they follow several alleged Iranian plots targeting Israeli diplomats and citizens.
At approximately 1:50 p.m. local time Feb. 13 in Tbilisi, Georgia, a Georgian driver for the Israeli Embassy there notified police about a plastic bag attached to the undercarriage of his vehicle. Explosive ordnance disposal experts found that the bag contained a grenade, which they defused. Nearly simultaneously, at 3:20 p.m. local time in New Delhi, a „sticky bomb” exploded on the rear of a vehicle that was transporting an employee of the city’s Israeli Embassy. Four people were injured in the blast. Israel accused Iran of being behind the incidents; Tehran denied the allegations.
That the incidents occurred within minutes of one another and both targeted Israeli Embassy employees suggests that they were coordinated. An examination of the specifics of the incidents shows that the perpetrators lacked the training to succeed fully in their plots. However, if attempts to assassinate Israeli diplomats continue, they may eventually succeed.
In the New Delhi attack, Tal Yeshova, an Israeli Embassy employee and the wife of an Israeli Embassy defense official, appears to have been the target. According to New Delhi Police Commissioner Brajesh Kumar Gupta, Yeshova was en route to pick up her children, who attend the American Embassy School, when a motorcyclist attached a magnetic explosive device to the rear of her Toyota Innova while it was stopped at a traffic light.
The embassy vehicle continued driving a short distance before it stopped in front of a gas station on Aurangzeb Road, approximately 200 meters (650 feet) from the official residence of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and less than a kilometer from the Israeli Embassy. It was at this time that the explosion occurred starting a fire that soon engulfed the vehicle’s interior. Yeshova reportedly suffered serious injuries, while shrapnel caused minor injuries to her driver and two passengers in the vehicle behind the targeted car.
Gupta described the explosion as small; in fact, it did not affect the gas station. It damaged the rear of the car, blowing open the rear hatch, but, based on pictures of the scene, it appears that most of the damage to the vehicle was caused by the ensuing fire. Nitroglycerin was reportedly a component used to make the device.
According to local media, New Delhi police have limited or no surveillance video coverage of the area where the blast occurred, and it appears that no one was able to capture the license plate of the motorcycle used in the attack. However, surveillance cameras on Aurangzeb Road captured a man in a jacket on a motorcycle tailing the embassy car at 3:10 p.m., which means that the vehicle was followed for at least 10 minutes, demonstrating poor operational security on the part of the local driver.
Fewer details are available about the attempted attack in Tbilisi. The driver of the vehicle reportedly noticed a suspicious noise while driving to the Israeli Embassy and pulled over to find a black plastic bag duct-taped to the bottom of the car. Media reports have not disclosed where the vehicle was when the driver noticed the device. After defusing the grenade inside the bag, Georgian authorities took the car into custody for further investigation.
A motorcycle was a logical choice of vehicle for the attack in New Delhi. A city of more than 11.5 million, New Delhi is densely populated, and traffic there is frequently congested. A motorcycle would be able to weave through traffic much easier, allowing it to approach the target vehicle and flee to a safe distance.
In Tbilisi, the perpetrators also demonstrated some skill, since they were able to plant the device underneath the embassy vehicle without being detected. Indeed, the situational awareness of the driver may have been the only thing that prevented that plot from succeeding – although, had he been fully aware of his surroundings, the driver would have noticed the device before he entered the vehicle.
The placement of the sticky bomb in the New Delhi bombing demonstrated either a lack of training or experience or poor intelligence about the presumed target. The device was placed on the rear of the vehicle, but the Israeli official was sitting in the front passenger seat.
Allegation and Possible Motivations
The attack and attempted attack came the day after the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, which Israeli embassies and consulates had prepared for by raising security Feb. 12. This could explain why the perpetrators chose to attack mobile, softer targets instead of the embassy buildings themselves, though their limited capabilities may also have been a factor. However, the events of Feb. 13 could be a continuation of previous thwarted plots targeting Israelis rather than an effort to mark the anniversary of Mughniyeh’s death.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu linked the incidents to recent purported Iranian-supported Hezbollah plots against Israelis (Iran also has denied involvement in these plots). On Jan. 12, Thai authorities arrested Atris Hussein, a Swedish citizen of Lebanese origin, in Bangkok, accusing him of stockpiling at least 4 tons of fertilizer and chemicals, including ammonium nitrate and urea, both of which are used in explosives. It was initially believed that the substances were intended to make explosives for use in attacks against Israeli tourists in Thailand, but police later claimed that Hussein and another unnamed man planned to ship the substances to unspecified locations. A professional exporter who had returned to Lebanon in 2004 and who purportedly had ties to Hezbollah, Hussein denied the charges and claimed that Israeli intelligence had placed the fertilizer at his warehouse.
On Jan. 17, the Azerbaijani government arrested two Azeri nationals, Rasim Aliyev and Ali Huseynov, as well as an Iranian citizen of Azeri descent, Balaqardash Dadashov. The men were accused of plotting the assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Baku along with a teacher and rabbi at Baku Chabad Jewish school. According to the charges, Iranian intelligence had offered the men 100,000 euros ($130,000) for the completion of the operation.
In response to the Jan. 17 arrests, the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Feb. 13 summoned the Azeri ambassador to Tehran to protest Baku’s purported sheltering of Israeli-trained terrorists who Iran said had assassinated Iranian scientists. Iran has long held that Israel and the United States are responsible for the attacks that have killed four Iranian nuclear scientists and wounded another since January 2010.
While Iran has categorically denied Israel’s claims, Tehran has been implicated in several previous attacks and plots on foreign soil in addition to the plots in Thailand and Azerbaijan. In July 1980, an American convert to Islam and Iranian Embassy security guard in Washington shot and killed Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabaei at his front door. Iran also was behind the assassinations of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna in 1989, Shaptour Bakhtiar in Paris in 1991, and three Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders in Berlin in 1992.
The Iranian government has also been tied to failed plots. For example, Mohammad Reza Sadeghnia, who admitted to being an Iranian agent, was arrested in July 2009 in Los Angeles for trying to hire a hit man to kill a Los Angeles-based Iranian opposition leader. In October 2011, Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American used car salesman, was arrested after allegedly attempting to hire who he thought was a member of the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel – the man was actually a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant – on behalf of an Iranian Quds Force operative to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Israel has not yet substantiated its claims that Iran was behind the Feb. 13 incidents. However, Iran has been implicated in previous terrorist attacks and plots. Additionally, due to its belief that Israel is behind the assassinations of its nuclear scientists, Tehran has reason to target Israeli diplomats.
In response to the events of Feb. 13, Israel placed all of its embassies and consulates worldwide on high alert, and the Indian government urged foreign consulates and embassies in the country to be on heightened alert as well. While this is a logical response, it at least partially fulfills the objectives of the attackers – to sow terror and force an official reaction. These latest incidents will likely justify further security measures by Israel and a continuation of the sort of heightened vigilance that helped to disrupt the Azerbaijan and Thailand plots in the planning phase. Regardless, if this apparently concerted targeting of Israeli diplomats continues, they may eventually succeed.