Iran case a sign of US drugs agency’s new role

NEW YORK, (Reuters) – The idea of Mexican drug  cartels cooperating with Iranian plotters to carry out bombings  and murders in the United States may be far-fetched.
That is because the alleged plan by Iranian-American  suspect Manssor Arbabsiar and a co-defendant to use a Mexican  gang to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington may have been  as much conceived through a sting operation by the U.S. Drug  Enforcement Administration (DEA) as hatched by a branch of  Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

U.S. authorities generally do not believe that any Mexican  drug cartel would currently consider leading attacks of that  scope within the United States.
Had Arbabsiar contacted an actual cartel member rather than  a DEA agent posing as one, he might eventually have been  killed, given the risks to the cartel of such an operation,  according to a law enforcement official, who declined to be  identified because of a lack of authorization to speak publicly  on the matter.

The case is as notable for the increasing involvement of  America’s anti-drug agency in national security investigations,  including a number of such stings in recent years, as a sign of  any new threat from Mexico, security experts and U.S. officials  say.

“If you are a member of organized crime … you are there  for a business, your business is not killing people, your  business is to transport humans, to sell illegal goods, that’s  your line of business. Assassination attempts are not what they  do for a living,” said Alberto Islas, from security consultancy  Risk Evaluation. Some officials do point to an increase in the number of  terrorism-related cases involving the DEA as proof that those  seeking to attack Americans or those on American soil have  contacts with drug smuggling groups.

The scenario of “a state-sponsored organization planning a  terrorist attack, leveraging drug cartels to perpetrate an  attack that has a geopolitical impact… is precisely why the  DEA really has been thrust into the thornier issues, and right  into that space,” said Juan Zarate, who was a national security  adviser to former president George W. Bush.

Still, that may be more of a scenario than a clear threat.
It was a DEA informant who tipped the agency about the  suspected plot of two Iranian agents trying to hire someone who  had experience with explosives to assassinate the Saudi  ambassador, according to court documents released on Tuesday.

Alarmed and intrigued at what they heard about a possible  wider plot involving Iranians with government connections, DEA  and FBI officers launched an elaborate investigation.

But it seems to have been the informant, likely under  instructions from his handlers, who decided to pose as an  explosives-savvy member of the Zetas, a Mexican drug gang.

The increased involvement of the DEA in national security  cases stems largely from its international network of  informants, experts said, and the agency’s decades of  experience maneuvering abroad, particularly in Latin America.
The involvement of the DEA “does not necessarily mean that  more terrorism cases now involve drugs, but that the agency’s  expertise, breadth and know-how are being used more and more in  national security cases,” said Karen Greenberg, director of the  Center on National Security at Fordham University School of  Law.

“While the DEA’s role might not be visible when the details  of a case are spelled out in an indictment, it has played an  increasing role in investigations and arrests in  terrorism-related cases,” Greenberg said.  Last year, for example, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet  Bharara combined his office’s Terrorism and National Security  Unit with its Narcotics Trafficking Unit. Three months ago, when announcing drug and terrorism  charges against four men arrested in two separate DEA sting  operations, Bharara cited the growing nexus between drug  trafficking and terrorism. The men were allegedly connected to  Afghanistan’s Taliban and the militant Lebanese group  Hezbollah. The combined drug and terrorism unit is handling  Arbabsiar’s prosecution. This may partially explain why he, and  the four men charged in July, were brought to New York to face  charges.     The case of suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who  is now on trial in New York, has some similarities to the  suspected Arbabsiar plot.
Bout was nabbed in Bangkok in 2008 in a DEA-led operation  where U.S. informants posed as arms buyers from the  Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

He is fighting charges of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals  and conspiring to provide help to a terrorist group. At the  opening of his trial on Wednesday, he argued that he never  intended to provide the weapons the supposed FARC commanders  offered to buy from him. His case was made infamous after he  was dubbed the “Merchant of Death” in a book about him.    Washington classifies the FARC, a Marxist-inspired  guerrilla army, as a terrorist organization and says it is  deeply involved in the cocaine trade.Both the Arbabsiar and Bout cases were sting operations  involving DEA sources posing as members of a violent drug  smuggling group.

According to the criminal complaint unsealed on Tuesday,  Arbabsiar approached an individual who eventually identified  himself as a member of the Zetas cartel, and offered to pay him  to kill Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.
U.S. officials say Arbabsiar was following orders by the  Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the guardian of Iran’s  32-year-old revolution, and the Quds force, its covert,  operational arm.

Arbabsiar is in custody. His attorney, Sabrina Shroff, has  said that if her client was indicted, he would plead not  guilty. She declined to comment.
A second Iranian man, Gholam Shakuri, was also accused in  the plot and is currently at large.

Another case experts point to as a key example of DEA-led  investigations is the arrest and prosecution of Syrian native  Monzer Al-Kassar in 2008.

Kassar, a longtime resident of Spain known as the “Prince  of Marbella,” was arrested after he agreed to sell weapons to  DEA informants posing as member of FARC.    The informants told Kassar they intended to use the weapons  against U.S. forces in Colombia. Kassar was convicted at trial  in Manhattan federal court in 2009 and is now serving a 30-year  prison term.

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