NEW YORK - The idea of Mexican drug cartels cooperating with Iranian plotters to carry out bombings and murders in the United States may be far-fetched.
That is because the alleged plan by Iranian-American suspect Manssor Arbabsiar and a co-defendant to use a Mexican gang to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington may have been as much conceived through a sting operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as hatched by a branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
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US authorities generally do not believe that any Mexican drug cartel would currently consider leading attacks of that scope within the United States.
Had Arbabsiar contacted an actual cartel member rather than a DEA agent posing as one, he might eventually have been killed, given the risks to the cartel of such an operation, according to a law enforcement official, who declined to be identified because of a lack of authorization to speak publicly on the matter.
The case is as notable for the increasing involvement of America's
anti-drug agency in national security investigations, including a number
of such stings in recent years, as a sign of any new threat from
Mexico, security experts and US officials say.
"If you are a member of organized crime ... you are there for a
business, your business is not killing people, your business is to
transport humans, to sell illegal goods, that's your line of business.
Assassination attempts are not what they do for a living," said Alberto
Islas, from security consultancy Risk Evaluation.
Some officials do point to an increase in the number of
terrorism-related cases involving the DEA as proof that those seeking to
attack Americans or those on American soil have contacts with drug
The scenario of "a state-sponsored organization planning a terrorist
attack, leveraging drug cartels to perpetrate an attack that has a
geopolitical impact... is precisely why the DEA really has been thrust
into the thornier issues, and right into that space," said Juan Zarate,
who was a national security adviser to former president George W. Bush.
Still, that may be more of a scenario than a clear threat.
It was a DEA informant who tipped the agency about the suspected plot of
two Iranian agents trying to hire someone who had experience with
explosives to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, according to court
documents released on Tuesday.
Alarmed and intrigued at what they heard about a possible wider plot
involving Iranians with government connections, DEA and FBI officers
launched an elaborate investigation.
But it seems to have been the informant, likely under instructions from
his handlers, who decided to pose as an explosives-savvy member of the
Zetas, a Mexican drug gang.
The increased involvement of the DEA in national security cases stems
largely from its international network of informants, experts said, and
the agency's decades of experience maneuvering abroad, particularly in
The involvement of the DEA "does not necessarily mean that more
terrorism cases now involve drugs, but that the agency's expertise,
breadth and know-how are being used more and more in national security
cases," said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National
Security at Fordham University School of Law.
"While the DEA's role might not be visible when the details of a case
are spelled out in an indictment, it has played an increasing role in
investigations and arrests in terrorism-related cases," Greenberg said.
Last year, for example, Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara combined his
office's Terrorism and National Security Unit with its Narcotics
Three months ago, when announcing drug and terrorism charges against
four men arrested in two separate DEA sting operations, Bharara cited
the growing nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism. The men were
allegedly connected to Afghanistan's Taliban and the militant Lebanese
The combined drug and terrorism unit is handling Arbabsiar's
prosecution. This may partially explain why he, and the four men charged
in July, were brought to New York to face charges.
The case of suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is now on
trial in New York, has some similarities to the suspected Arbabsiar
Bout was nabbed in Bangkok in 2008 in a DEA-led operation where US
informants posed as arms buyers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, known as FARC.
He is fighting charges of conspiring to kill US nationals and conspiring
to provide help to a terrorist group. At the opening of his trial on
Wednesday, he argued that he never intended to provide the weapons the
supposed FARC commanders offered to buy from him. His case was made
infamous after he was dubbed the "Merchant of Death" in a book about
Washington classifies the FARC, a Marxist-inspired guerrilla army, as a
terrorist organization and says it is deeply involved in the cocaine
Both the Arbabsiar and Bout cases were sting operations involving DEA
sources posing as members of a violent drug smuggling group.
According to the criminal complaint unsealed on Tuesday, Arbabsiar
approached an individual who eventually identified himself as a member
of the Zetas cartel, and offered to pay him to kill Saudi Ambassador
US officials say Arbabsiar was following orders by the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps, the guardian of Iran's 32-year-old
revolution, and the Quds force, its covert, operational arm.
Arbabsiar is in custody. His attorney, Sabrina Shroff, has said that if
her client was indicted, he would plead not guilty. She declined to
A second Iranian man, Gholam Shakuri, was also accused in the plot and is currently at large.
Another case experts point to as a key example of DEA-led investigations
is the arrest and prosecution of Syrian native Monzer Al-Kassar in
Kassar, a longtime resident of Spain known as the "Prince of Marbella,"
was arrested after he agreed to sell weapons to DEA informants posing as
member of FARC.
The informants told Kassar they intended to use the weapons against US
forces in Colombia. Kassar was convicted at trial in Manhattan federal
court in 2009 and is now serving a 30-year prison term.