The ships closed in fast. Hours earlier, the navy had received news that the Victoria, a 179- meter-long cargo ship flying a Liberian flag, had departed from Mersin Port in southern Turkey with Alexandria, Egypt as its destination.
According to intelligence received several days earlier by the defense establishment, the ship was carrying 39 containers among the 100 on its deck that had been loaded onto it at Latakia in western Syria the week before.
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Latakia is one of Syria’s primary ports and is also home to a newly-built Russian navy base. It is there that the Russian supersonic P-800 Yakount cruise missiles will be brought later this year as part of a deal Israel tried to torpedo.
It was also the port where two Iranian warships – the frigate Alvand and supply ship Kharq – docked in late February.
Israel is not saying whether this is a mere coincidence or that the Iranian ships brought the weaponry that was captured aboard the Victoria early Tuesday morning. “It is a good question,” was all a senior navy source agreed to say.
BUT BACK to the operation.
First to approach the Victoria were Sa’ar 5-class missile ships from Flotilla 3, based in Haifa. They contacted the captain of the German-owned ship on the international radio channel and began questioning him about his point of origin and planned destination. A navy officer then told the captain his ship was suspected of carrying illegal cargo and asked for permission to board for an inspection. “Yes,” the captain said. “I will tell engineers to stop our vessel.”
A few more minutes passed before speedboats carrying armed commandos from Flotilla 13 pulled alongside the Victoria, which dropped down a ladder for them to use to climb aboard.
Not knowing what to expect, the commandos boarded with their weapons at the ready out of concern that there could be Iranian or even Hamas operatives aboard. They ordered the ship’s crew to gather by the bridge and then began going over the cargo certificates.
Led by Flotilla 13 commander Capt. S – a bald, short but serious looking officer – the commandos apparently knew what they were looking for. Out of the 39 shipping containers that had been loaded onto the Victoria in Latakia were three that were supposed to be unloaded in Alexandria.
According to their cargo certificates, the three were carrying lentils and cotton, but when the commandos located them on the upper deck they were found sealed with heavy locks, not the kind used for innocent cargo. After breaking them open, the commandos pulled away the first few rows of sacks and discovered a number of crates each of which had a “Made in Britain” sticker pasted to it.
The first few crates contained mortar shells of various sizes as well as regular ammunition. But Capt. S. knew the true reason he and his teams of commandos had been sent 350 kilometers into the Mediterranean in the middle of the night, and it wasn’t for mortars.
“Open the containers’ back door!” he ordered his men. It was then that the commandos saw two large metallic looking tubes, each containing a four-meter long missile known in Iran as the Nasr-1 and in China as the C-704, an extremely sophisticated antiship missile.
After the containers were unloaded at Ashdod port, the navy found they were carrying six C-704s in all, and two of the British-made radars that are used to guide them.
With a range of 35 km. and a 130 kg. explosive warhead capable of sinking 1,000-ton vessels, the missiles – had they arrived in the Gaza Strip – would have forced the navy to change the way it operates. It now operates just a few kilometers from shore; this would no longer be possible.
Even though the navy succeeded in stopping this shipment, there are likely to be more attempts. Since there is a chance the missiles will one day make their way to the Gaza Strip, the navy is working hard to develop systems for its smaller Dvora patrol boats which, unlike the larger Sa’ar 5-class vessels, do not have missile defense systems.
That such missiles were intercepted en route to Gaza shows Hamas’s and Iran’s nerve but also the possibility that Mahmoud Ali Mabhouh, who had served as Hamas’s main arms smuggler until his January 2010 assassination of in Dubai, has been replaced.
At the same time, the chosen route – Syria to Egypt – should also raise concern about the role the Sinai will play in future smuggling schemes. Iran, Israel believes, is working to establish new terrorist and smuggling infrastructure there to be able to increase the quantity and quantity of material reaching Gaza.
Use of the Sinai route, though, might mean that Iran is feeling pressure in other places, primarily in the Red Sea, through which ships are believed to sail from the port of Bandar Abbas, controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, to Eritrea and Sudan. The arms are then transferred through the Sinai to the Philadelphi corridor, where they are smuggled via one of the hundreds of tunnels into the Gaza Strip.
There have been reports the sea route is preferred by Iran since it is so vast and extremely difficult to track. In 2010, the navy questioned hundreds of ships sailing in the Mediterranean and boarded a few dozen. NATO, American and UNIFIL ships have questioned thousands more.
THE MAN responsible for weapons smuggling is Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds Force. Established in the early 1990s to operate covertly outside Iran, the force serves as an elite unit that answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Its main mission is to export the revolution outside of Iran.
Not much is known about Suleimani, but he is believed to have played a key role in the transfer of long-range missiles to Hezbollah in the years preceding the 2006 Second Lebanon War. He was born in the late 1950s in Qom.
According to Western intelligence agencies, several thousand agents operate under Suleimani, who has served as the commander since 1998; most are Iranian and the remainder from other nationalities. The common denominator is their knowledge of Arabic and uncompromising devotion to the revolution.
The first commander of the al-Quds Force, Gen. Ahmed Vahidi, cultivated Iran’s greatest success thus far in exporting the revolution – Hezbollah. In August 2009, he became defense minister shortly after an international extradition order was issued against him for his involvement in the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994.
By the time Suleimani took over, the focus was still on Hezbollah but also on Hamas. After the end of the Second Lebanon War, Iran began sending it assistance on a regular basis and even set up training centers in Iran for its fighters.
Suleimani also works with African countries.
In October, two of his operatives were discovered in Nigeria where they were allegedly trying to smuggle weapons into Gambia. The shipment was listed as containing building materials, but instead had 107 mm. rockets, 1210 mm. mortar shells and light arms.
The difficulty in locating and identifying arms shipments cannot be
underestimated. Thousands of ships travel through the Red Sea and the
Mediterranean and it is up to Israeli intelligence services to pinpoint
the three or four containers that are carrying arms.
“This is a war,” Chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz said as he
inspected the Victoria’s cargo in Ashdod Port on Wednesday.
“And in a war there is never a moment to rest.”