Turkish intelligence revealed on Thursday that it thwarted an Iranian attack against a former Israeli ambassador in Istanbul last Friday.
According to reports, Iran planned to kidnap several Israeli tourists along with diplomats in Istanbul, including the former ambassador and his wife, and already had all operatives and logistical aspects of the operation in place – with some Israelis being spirited away just moments before a hit team would have been bearing down on them.
Turkish intelligence and local police arrested 10 suspects last Friday, including sharpshooters and local collaborators at the Sol Hotel and three others renting apartments in the Istanbul area.
Iranian intelligence assets and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operatives impersonated students, businessmen and tourists to entrap the Israelis.
Turkey said that the Mossad located the targeted Israelis and flew them to Israel in private planes.
“Iran is behind these attempted terrorist attacks. The intelligence leaves no doubt about it.”Foreign Minister Yair Lapid
Despite the success, senior Israeli officials said that there still remained an Iranian threat to Israelis in Turkey.
Officials said that there were at least three Iranian cells that had not been arrested, and that tracking and arresting them would be a lengthy process.
It is believed that the Islamic Republic is desperate to get its hands on an Israeli somewhere to show the public a victory in the ongoing war between the countries.
The announcement on Thursday came just before Foreign Minister and incoming Prime Minister Yair Lapid arrived in Ankara.
“In recent weeks, the lives of Israeli citizens have been saved thanks to the security and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and Turkey,” Lapid said. “Iran is behind these attempted terrorist attacks. The intelligence leaves no doubt about it. We’re not only talking about the murder of innocent Israeli tourists, but also a clear violation of Turkish sovereignty by Iranian terror. No country should tolerate terror on its soil.”
Lapid, who also met with the head of Turkish intelligence, had previously urged citizens in Turkey to leave “as soon as possible” over threats that Iranian spies were actively planning to kill or abduct Israelis in Istanbul.
The stark warning had come amid the latest surge in tensions between Iran and Israel, after a string of attempted attacks on Israelis staying in Turkey.
Israel had reportedly put off issuing the warning for some time to give Turkish authorities a chance to resolve the threat internally.
Ultimately, counterintelligence operations were carried out in cooperation between the Mossad and Turkish authorities, whom Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised last week.
“The operational efforts with the Turkish security forces have borne fruit,” Bennett said in a news briefing. “In recent days, in a joint Israeli-Turkish effort, we thwarted a number of terrorist attempts, and numerous terrorists were arrested on Turkish ground. In recent days, in a joint Israeli-Turkish effort, we thwarted a number of terrorist attempts, and numerous terrorists were arrested on Turkish ground.”
In one case last week, Israeli security forces evacuated Israeli citizens from their hotel room in Istanbul, rushing them to an airport to escape the country just before an Iranian hit squad arrived.
Any Israelis who had not yet evacuated were told to lock themselves in their hotel rooms and to be wary of opening the doors even for service staff and delivery people.
“I call on all Israelis in Turkey to obey the instructions of the security forces,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a statement on Saturday night. “Israel is working to thwart Iranian attempts to carry out an attack, and is preparing to respond forcefully to any attack on Israeli citizens – anywhere.”
IRGC dismisses head of intelligence
Iran’s state TV reported on Thursday that Iran had dismissed the powerful IRGC chief of intelligence, Hossein Taeb, seemingly right after the success of Mossad and Turkish intelligence efforts at saving Israelis in Turkey.
The station gave no further details about the dismissal of Taeb, who has been IRGC’s intelligence chief since 2009.
Under his reign, IRGC intelligence eclipsed the traditional Iranian Ministry of Intelligence Service, which works for Iran’s president.
Before becoming IRGC intelligence chief, Taeb worked at the office of Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
TV said Taeb had been moved laterally to become an adviser to IRGC Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami.
In October 2019, Taeb said that his agency had arrested three suspects in a thwarted plot to assassinate then IRGC Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani.
Taeb said the assassins had worked on their plan for a number of years, and that it involved blowing up Soleimani at a memorial service during the Muslim month of Muharram, which began in early September.
“Frustrated by their failure to upset security in Iran or to harm the IRGC military bases, the enemies had hatched an extensive plot to hit Maj.-Gen. Soleimani in his home province of Kerman,” Taeb was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
The US eventually assassinated Soleimani in Baghdad in January 2000 using a drone.
But the current Iranian attempts against Israelis are viewed as attempted retaliation following Israel’s alleged assassination of top IRGC officials last month and this month, which Jerusalem may have ordered in response to other actions by Tehran in a dizzying circle of retaliation.
This month’s threats were not the first against Israelis by Iran in Turkey.
There were reports of thwarted plots in February and April, and also in past years.
What has changed is that since July, and even more since President Isaac Herzog’s public visit to Turkey in March, the countries have been more public about their cooperation and more complementary to each other.
Reuters contributed to this report.