Greek authorities said Tuesday that they had busted an Islamist network that was planning a terrorist attack against a Chabad house in downtown Athens.
“Their aim was not only the loss of innocent civilians,” Greek police said, “but also undermining the security feeling in our country.”
In a rare statement, Israel acknowledged that its Mossad intelligence agency assisted in the investigation. It “rendered intelligence assistance in unraveling the infrastructure, its work methods and the link to Iran, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.
“The investigation revealed that the infrastructure that operated in Greece is part of an extensive Iranian network run from Iran and spanning many countries. The Mossad, together with its partners in the community, is working relentlessly to thwart intended Iranian attacks around the world,” the statement added.
The terrorists planned to attack several targets with the aim of maximizing casualties.
The first target, Gostijo, is a kosher restaurant in downtown Athens. The restaurant is home to the Chabad House of Athens, part of the Chabad global network. The attack was considered imminent. The two terrorists in Greek custody reportedly scouted out the restaurant, taking photographs of the neighborhood to plan for maximum casualties as well as their own escape.
The plotters considered using poisonous gas or a car bomb, police say, but later settled on using automatic weapons bought on the black market. The goal was to kill everybody inside the restaurant in a horrendous massacre. To this end, the two Pakistanis were in contact with the local criminal underworld in order to obtain automatic weapons. Greek police found Kalashnikov rifles in one of the suspect’s homes.
The two terrorists and their handler have not been identified, but are all Shia Pakistanis. The two suspected terrorists were in Greece as temporary workers, while the 30-year-old handler is believed to be in Tehran. He is reportedly wanted for previous murders.
Police say the handler contacted and recruited the two prospective terrorists, aged 27 and 29. He promised the two, who had been in Greece for five years, 15,000 euros for each person killed.
All three individuals hail from Sargodha, a town in the Punjab region of Pakistan. They are described by Greek intelligence and police as “hard individuals with no moral qualms and respect of human life, and embedded with religious fanaticism.”
The handler urged the two terrorists to recruit more members in order to commit additional attacks in squares, malls and soccer stadiums. “Let’s kill two, three, as many as we can,” he wrote to his co-conspirators, according to Greek media reports citing intelligence sources. Additional attacks would follow, according to the information available, including assassinations.
The two Pakistanis in custody are due in court Friday on charges of creating and participating in a terrorist organization.
Greek intelligence services obtained information from Pakistani migrant communities singling out the two Shia Islamists. It learned last August about the existence of an Islamist terrorist network involving Pakistanis that was preparing attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets. They put the two suspects under constant surveillance in February. They were first apprehended at that time for illegally residing in Greece. Investigators examined their cell phones and discovered their connections with the Iranian-based handler.
The network was trying to recruit more Pakistani migrants, contacting at least 15 people. Greek police have questioned the 15, but none have been charged.
This is not the first time a Chabad House was targeted by Pakistani terrorists. Six Jews were among the 166 people killed in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. They were inside the Mumbai Chabad house, which was specifically targeted by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who thought it was a Mossad front.
For decades, Iran has sought out Jewish targets across the globe for terrorist attacks. In 1994, 85 people were killed in a bombing at a Buenos Aires Jewish center. Hezbollah carried out the attack with Iran’s help. A day later, a suicide bombing on a Panamanian commuter airplane killed all 22 people on board, including 12 leading local Jewish businessmen.
Two years earlier, 29 people were killed in a bombing at Israel’s Argentine embassy. The Hezbollah attack was authorized by “the highest levels of the Iranian regime,” Israeli’s Foreign Ministry said.
In July 2012, a bomb widely attributed to Hezbollah killed five Israeli tourists and a bus driver in Bulgaria.
Iran is accused of plotting additional terrorist attacks in countries such as Egypt, Cyprus, Georgia, Thailand, India and others.
More recently, Israeli intelligence last summer foiled three separate Iranian plots to kidnap or kill Israeli citizens visiting Turkey. In one case, a couple was reportedly picked up by Israeli security agents in a van and rushed to the airport because Iranian assassins were waiting for them at their hotel.
The Pakistani-Iranian connection
It is not yet known who would pay the hundreds of thousands of euros promised to the terrorists for a successful attack. Greek media claim that the terrorist network is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), designated by the United States as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Iran’s Islamist regime has had close relations with Pakistani Shias for decades. Pakistan smuggled nuclear material to IRGC operatives in London, human rights and national security lawyer Irina Tsukerman told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. There have been previous assassination attempts on Israeli targets in Greece.
“Iran has been adept in recruiting disenfranchised Shia Pakistanis to its military ranks. It’s a mixture of concerted radicalization and financial needs. The international community must reexamine Iran’s concerning links to Pakistani actors; last year’s IRGC/ISI joint intelligence infiltration of the Secret Service all the way to the top shows the growing strategic, not just tactical, security and intelligence cooperation between the rogue regimes,” she said.
On a geopolitical level, the foiled attack could be part of an attempt by Iranian hardliners to destabilize the Greek government ahead of national elections set for May 21.
The effective cooperation of Greek authorities with Israel led to an important success in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
Investigative Project on Terrorism 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.