Is Iran really trying to kill off Israeli diplomats in the Thai capital? Every day brings a new twist
It was the bizarrest of twists to a whodunnit story already teeming with convolutions about murky men committing even murkier deeds.
First, there were the suspects: a supposed team of assassins hired by the Iranian government to kill off Israeli diplomats in the Thai capital. Then there was the getaway vehicle: a Honda motorcycle with a Qur’anic reference underneath its seat that would trail the diplomats’ cars. There were the weapons: a cache of homemade C-4 explosives stuffed into portable radios, with hand grenades serving as their detonators and magnetic strips to slap the bombs on to moving targets. And, of course, there was the motive: an escalating cold war between Israel and Iran being played out in cities all over the globe, from Tbilisi to Delhi and now, apparently, Bangkok.
Reporters salivate over the weird and wonderful details of such international intrigue. As I was about to soon discover, however, the epically arcane tableau of this tale would quickly be painted with even more colour.
The Guardian’s offices in Thailand are just steps away from one of Bangkok’s busiest Jewish synagogues, under 24-hour watch since a Swedish-Lebanese man with alleged links to pro-Iranian Hezbollah was detained by Thai police last month. Israel had allegedly warned Thailand in December that an attack was “imminent”, but it was unclear why this mostly Buddhist nation would serve as a terrorism staging ground, or what exactly that attack might entail. So when, on Tuesday afternoon, three explosions rocked Bangkok’s nearby upscale Ekkamai neighbourhood, it seemed that this “attack” may have happened at last – albeit in a thwarted manner. First, a two-storey house partially exploded after bombs in it accidentally detonated, forcing its three tenants to flee into the street. It was there that one of them decided to throw explosives at a passing taxi and then again at police, before setting off the bomb at his own feet – sending one of his bloodied legs into the playground of a nearby school.
Almost immediately, Israel blamed Iran for the bizarre sequence of events, accusing it of “continu[ing] to operate in the ways of terror”. Iran, in turn, called the allegations baseless and the self-created trickery of “the Zionist regime”.
Analysts were perplexed: the events in Tbilisi, Delhi and Bangkok seemed amateurish and atypical of an Iranian assassination or terrorism cell. Here was Iran in the process of building nuclear centrifuges, yet hiring inept assassins in Thailand who had blown up their own home and blown off their own legs? This “assassination squad” seemed ignorant of even the most basic of cardinal hit-man rules, among them How to Avoid Being Photographed with Escorts Days Before You Detonate Explosives.
But things got really weird when I found on Friday a gaggle of police near the Guardian office randomly questioning a 41-year-old Iranian national. “Routine check,” the police smiled at me. The man lived nearby; one hour later, the import/export businessman would tell me the most bizarre of tales.
Last month, he said, he was approached by a government official in Tehran who wanted to know where to find C-4 explosives in Bangkok. The man told him “they needed the C-4 immediately, for some anniversary, and that they’d pay whatever it took,” the businessman told me. “Then he asked if they couldn’t just send someone with the explosives to travel back to Thailand with me. They’d arrange for the C-4 to go through customs in Iran. When I asked him, ‘Why, out of everyone you could ask, are you asking me?’ The man said, ‘Look – if I want to travel somewhere, I could take a limo, a taxi or a bus to get there. The bus gets noticed the least … Consider yourself the bus.'”
The businessman staunchly refused the pitch. He flew back, alone, to Thailand, and forgot about the incident – until the bombs in Ekkamai reminded him of his government “encounter” in Iran, he said.
His story – which was simply fantastic – was impossible to corroborate. It seemed unlikely, but given the wackiness of all the other details that had emerged so far, perhaps it was true. Maybe Iran was using amateurs like him to deflect attention. Maybe someone did bring in C-4 from outside Thailand; a bomb specialist recently told the Bangkok Post such bomb-making methods had never before been seen in the country.
Mostly, however, his story drove home the difficulty of reporting the “truth” in a world where facts are about as changeable as the location of a sticky bomb. Asian society orbits around a custom of “saving face” that does not exist in the west, which means that anyone – from a high-ranking government official to an eyewitness or interviewee – can tell you what they think you want to hear, instead of what they actually know. That’s why, when Thai authorities “confirmed” last week that the so-called Bangkok bombers were indeed Iranians targeting Israeli diplomats, other Thai authorities underlined that the suspects’ nationalities still hadn’t been confirmed and that the Bangkok blasts were totally unrelated to those in Georgia and India.
Every journalist reporting this story is doing his or her best to make sense of the chaos surrounding it. But every day brings a new twist. That’s why, when my phone rang early Saturday morning, I wasn’t surprised by the news. “I’m sorry,” said my Iranian ‘informant’. “Everything I told you yesterday, it was all just a bad joke.”
I wonder if that’s what the “Iranian assassins” will say when they’re finally interrogated by police this week.
from Kate Hodal