Two Pakistani terrorists accused of plotting to attack Jewish targets in Athens, Greece made their first court appearance Friday morning.
Syed Irtaza Haider, 27, and Saqi Abid Hussein, 29, were arrested Tuesday for plotting to attack a kosher restaurant in downtown Athens, which also is home to a Chabad House. Police say they were led by a third Pakistani, Syed Hakar, operating out of Iran.
The attackers hoped to strike in early April during the Jewish Passover and Greek Easter. Greek counterterrorism police and intelligence services launched Operation Hyacinth last August after Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency informed them of the plot.
Information disclosed since the arrests confirms the terrorist cell’s links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. government. However, the arrests have received very little attention in the United States. This report is based on Greek media coverage and interviews.
Hakar is a member of a Pakistani criminal network associated with the IRGC. He is wanted in Pakistan for four murders and abductions and is suspected in additional cases. He is part of an IRGC-affiliated Islamist network that recruits Pakistanis, Azeris and Kurds abroad to conduct terrorist attacks.
Greek police have arrested eight more migrants for questioning. They all come from Sargodha, a Pakistani town in the Punjab region. At least two of them admitted to being in contact with the arrested terrorists, who tried to recruit them.
“The hard part was locating them, because they changed places of residence and work and used to cohabitate with many other individuals,” a Greek intelligence source told Greece’s iefimerida news outlet. “To this purpose, we used human sources to arrest them.”
The two prime suspects admitted to participating in the plot and to communicating with the Iranian-based mastermind. They used WhatsApp to send encrypted messages to the Tehran-based handler, along with photos and videos of the targets. Videos taken in December showed the Gostijo kosher restaurant and Israelis who went there.
The two suspects entered Greece illegally in 2018 from neighboring Turkey, officials say. Haider was the leader and was in constant contact with Hakar in Iran. Hakar gave Haider the restaurant’s location, along with a list of Israelis who could be targeted for assassination attempts. He also instructed the terrorists how to take pictures of the targets without drawing suspicion.
The pair was promised $18,000 for each person killed.
The entire plot, therefore, from the targets to the planning and financing, came from Iran.
“This group was recruited via Whatsapp, widely used by terrorists in Asia and the Middle East,” Greek security analyst Alexandros Niklan of Geopolitics and Daily News told the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT). “They tried to recruit people from the organized criminal underworld of Greece to procure their weapons. They were actually trying to build an expanded network of terrorists for more future operations. If the attack against the Jewish restaurant was successful, there would be multiple casualties in a strike reminiscent of the Bataclan deadly attack in Paris. They had already picked a second target, as the Tehran-based leader was insisting on locating an Israeli ‘businessman with a beard.’”
The cell also coordinated with Hakar on an escape plan. After the attack at the Jewish restaurant, they would flee Greece through smuggling networks and go to Iran, where they would receive additional financial help.
Hakar claimed that he would deposit money in a Pakistani bank account after the attack. The terrorists could use the money to return to Pakistan and buy houses.
Greek authorities are now investigating whether the two suspects have been paid, although that likely would be done through a difficult-to-trace hawala informal fund transfer system. Investigators have already detected transfers of small sums to two of the two suspects’ relatives.
Part of a Larger Islamist Network
As details emerged this week, Iran rushed to deny the allegations. In a statement, the Iranian embassy in Greece said it was “refuting intensely the rumors spread by Zionist sources and the unfounded charges. It is evident that these trumped-up charges aim to distract attention from [Israel’s] internal crisis.”
Each involved attempts to kill Israelis and Jews as part of Iran’s covert anti-Israel operations and Islamist terrorist network abroad. Ten Iranian and Turkish operatives were arrested in Istanbul last June for plotting to murder Israeli tourists. Similar to the Greece plot, Iran had promised considerable sums for each dead Israeli.
It was the Cyprus arrests that first alerted Greek intelligence to the possible existence of similar networks in Greece. They put Pakistani migrants with suspected radical links under constant surveillance. This line of investigation, along with Israeli intelligence, led to the final dismantling of the terrorist cell.
In all these cases, operational patterns bear the distinct footprint of Iranian involvement. The theocratic regime employs non-Iranians, such as Pakistanis and Azeris, to carry out terrorist operations against Israeli targets abroad. This tactic is used in hopes of evading detection by intelligence agencies of the targeted countries. Recruits are courted with a mixture of Islamist messages, anti-Israeli feelings and financial rewards.
What remains unknown in this latest case is who was going to provide the reward—amounting to hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars—for a successful attack. Who provided the names of the Israeli citizens who would be targets?
It is possible authorities already know.
Cooperation between Greek and Israeli intelligence services led to a significant victory against international Islamist terrorism, highlighting the importance of trusted cooperation among nations facing common dangers.
IPT Senior Fellow Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. His latest book is Geopolitics of the War in Ukraine.