Bangkok: Has the deadly Israel-Iran feud gone global?


BANGKOK, Thailand — As clandestine bomber hideouts go, it was a desirable posting: a two-storey, gingerbread-colored residence on a leafy Bangkok backstreet where most homes host live-in servants.

But this safe house, gutted Tuesday by a C4 plastic-explosives mishap, is secure no more. Its occupants, who sometimes called themselves Israelis but hold Iranian passports, have drawn this upscale neighborhood into an Israeli-Iranian conflict now boiling over into capitals far flung from the Middle East.

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Bangkok’s blasts were preceded by Monday car-bomb attacks targeting Israeli diplomats in New Dehli, India, and Tbilisi, Georgia. Though only semi-successful — the blasts produced injuries, but no deaths – the attacks’ perpetrators fared far better than the bumbling cell in Bangkok.

“I heard this loud sucking sound and then – boom! – the roof just exploded,”said Mayumi Nagai, a Japanese clarinetist and music teacher who witnessed the safe house explosion. “Then two men came running out with backpacks.”

A third man, she said, also emerged and appeared severely dazed by the presumably accidental blast. “There was a lot of blood running down his cheek,” Nagai said.

This person, she believes, is Saeid Morati, the man who would moments later lob explosives on a busy thoroughfare, blowing out shop windows and nearly destroying a neon-pink taxi after its driver refused to pick him up. Three Thais were wounded by his bombs.

The last bomb he chucked missed its target: Thai police in pursuit. Instead, it blew off both his legs (video of the graphic footage). Mobile phone footage shows Morati writhing on the sidewalk, screaming in agony, muscle tissue hanging in ribbons from his twin stumps. His blue jeans hung from a nearby tree branch.

As Morati clings to life in a Thai hospital, the forces that funded, trained and supplied his underground bombing cell are hotly disputed by Israel and Iran.

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Israeli authorities have wasted no time in linking the Bangkok cell to assassination attempts in India and Georgia. Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, proclaimed that the incidents in Thailand prove that “Iran and its proxies are continuing to act in the ways of terror.”

This is substantiated by Iranian passports Thai police found on Morati – who is reportedly 28 – and another suspect detained in Bangkok’s international airport as he tried to board a flight to Malaysia. Other men from the cell, according to Thai police, are still being hunted.

Though more guarded than their Israeli counterparts, the US State Department officials also refer to “Iranian fingerprints” on the blasts in India, Georgia and Thailand. An unidentified Thai intelligence official reportedly told the Agence France-Presse outlet that the cell is, indeed, an “assassination squad” sent to kill Israelis.

Iranian authorities, however, claim just the opposite.

In a statement, Iran’s foreign ministry insisted that “elements of the Zionist regime are responsible for this crime.” Iran’s government accuses Israel of killing four Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010. Tensions between the two nations have crescendoed as Israel warns, in increasingly alarming tones, that Iran is on the brink of unlocking the secrets of nuclear weaponry.

Unlike other nearby homes, the now-ruined Bangkok safe house employed no maid and appeared only sporadically occupied, according to servants residing on the street. The men neighbors saw rushing from the home just after it exploded claimed, in earlier chats, to be Israelis.

“They would say, ‘We’re Israelis’ but they seldom talked to anyone,” said Khanchai Chompuwiset, a domestic worker employed across the street. “They wouldn’t make any noise. You’d just see a light on at night.”

The home, surrounded by a low wall, is a short stroll to swank nightclubs on Bangkok’s trendy Ekkamai Road and cutesy coffee shops. It’s also a five-minute walk from the Tehran-funded “Culture Center of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The institute’s Web site decries the deaths of Iranian nuclear experts and warns that Israel and other “arrogant powers” should not prevent Iran from acquiring “peaceful nuclear technology.”

Thai-speaking Iranians at the center, sipping coffee behind a locked gate, politely declined to speak about the explosions up the street or their recently detained countrymen. “We don’t have anything to say,” said a bearded man through the gate’s iron bars.

Adding confusion to the cell’s disputed origins is its ineptitude. Were it not for the mishandling of their C4 trove, which shredded their safe house and blew out its roof, the bombers might have remained undetected. Morati’s wild behavior — throwing a bomb at a taxi in apparent anger — also suggests shoddy training.

“The attacks in India, Georgia and now Thailand have all been highly amateurish,” said Will Hartley, an analyst with the US-based private intelligence service IHS Jane’s, according to Bloomberg.

The incidents, he said, “lack the sophistication that would normally be expected from an operation” by the Quds Force, the Iran military’s elite foreign ops wing, or Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militant group.

Still, with perseverance, even amateurish bombers can eventually hit their mark. The “heightened vigilance” among security forces in the world’s capitals might not be enough to ward off more attacks against Israeli officials abroad, according to analysis by the Stratfor Global Intelligence agency.

“If this apparently concerted targeting of Israeli diplomats continues,” the agency wrote, “they may eventually succeed.”

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