On Wednesday, October 23, the Albanian Police General Director, Ardi Veliu, flanked by his counterterrorism colleague, Albania’s Anti-Terrorism Chief Gledis Nano, announced that the state security services intercepted another Iranian terror cell, thwarting the planned attacks which it was preparing to carry out on Albanian and European soil. Albanian officials stated that the attacks were being facilitated by a division of the Iranian armed services, known as QUDS. These intended attacks were directed at an Iranian dissident group, the MEK, who have taken refuge in the small Balkan nation.
This terror cell and the thwarted attacks are only the latest Iranian-backed terror operation which has been targeting Europe. France has stated that Iran was definitely behind an October 2018 planned attack near Paris which targeted a group similar to the MEK, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Earlier this year, the UK stated that it had intelligence evidencing that Iran had terrorist sleeper cells positioned in Europe funded and directed to conduct attacks.
France responded to the Paris attempt by expelling an Iranian diplomat from the country. In the months following France’s expulsion, Albania expelled two diplomats from the Iranian embassy in Tirana, including the Ambassador; who the Albanian government accused of “damaging its national security”.
Wednesday’s announcement addressed matters which stretched back to 2018. Veliu stated that Albanian security services were assisted by “sources inside the cell”. The individuals responsible for the attack are known to Albania, as two of the three named by Veliu were originally arrested back in March 2018 but released due to insufficient evidence to warrant further legal proceedings at that time. They are now believed to be in Austria and Turkey.
Veliu identified the Iranian-based head of the operation only as “Peyman”. The two other named members of the terror group had ties to the region. An Iranian residing in Turkey, Abdolkhalegh Malek Zadeh, was stated to be involved in both Iranian state-sponsored terrorism activities but is also known to be involved in organized crime. Veliu stated that Zadeh has been connected to a Turkish drug-trafficking network, whose operations are international. It is believed that Iranian operatives are working with Europe’s organized crime underworld to facilitate its intended terror attacks.
The Turkish element to the terror cell is of no surprise. The relationship, including criminal, between Turkey and Iran is well documented. Turkey and Iran have been critical partners, along with Russia, in directing the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Iran has reportedly been using the Syrian conflict as an excuse to attack Israeli assets involved in the conflict as well. The Iranian regime has deployed the QUDS force into Syria to conduct drone operations and attack Israeli assets.
Additionally, Turkey has been instrumental in Iran’s attempt to circumvent sanctions against the country. In 2017, the US Justice Department secured a guilty plea against a Turkish based Iranian banker, Reza Zarrab, who implicated Erdogan as complacent in the bank’s operation to assist Iran. Zarrab, a client of Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s attorney; Giuliani reportedly attempted to free Zarrab by asking Trump to send Zarrab to Iran via a prisoner swap. Something which may be coming to fruition, as Iran has forwarded a list of prisoners to comprise the possible swap.
A third individual also represents what some say is a systematic problem which the MEK are dealing with. Veliu named, Alireza Naghashzadeh, as a part of the operation in Albania. Naghashzadeh is believed to formerly be a member of the MEK, who defected from the group and reportedly returned to Iran and joined the QUDS force; the group responsible for planning these and other suspected operations.
Veliu and Nanos described the intended attack and the three individuals as terrorists; “A terrorist cell of the foreign operations unit of Iranian QUDS was discovered lately by Albanian intelligence institutions,”. They conclusively stated that the intended target was “the Iranian opposition [group MEK],”. Wednesday’s announcement comes as Albania is reportedly seeking to arrest the individuals involved, having had over a year to collect additional evidence and build a prosecutable case.
The group reportedly tasked with carrying out Iran’s terrorist activities and eliminating the MEK is the QUDS force. The QUDS is a very shadowy, but an official and recognized, arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard which is used for, essentially, foreign matters. Veliu stated that the QUDS cell was “sent to Albania from 2018 to plan attacks against the MEK,”. QUDS is known to be tasked by the Iranian government to carry out operations spanning from hacking to assassinations to bombings.
Attacks contributed to QUDS include the 1983-84 bombings of the US Embassy and military compound in Beirut. Additionally, QUDS engineered the armour-piercing IED’s which have been deployed by terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan to attack military vehicles. The group is known to have operated in, as well as with armed groups in, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories. QUDS is the only state-operated military unit to be labelled a “terrorist group” by the United States.
The MEK, or Mujahedin e Khaliq (also referred to as People’s Mujahedin of Iran), is a small resistance group, whose origins date back to the 1960’s, started by Marxists-minded university students. They are a very controversial group, as most resistance groups are; at times it has even been called a cult. During the Iranian Revolution, the MEK targeted both US citizens and interests; which resulted in the US designating them as a terrorist group. Today, the MEK, no longer labelled as terrorists, are considered a US ally in the alliance against Iran.
Just as the MEK played a key role in toppling the regime of the US-backed Shah, it intends to accomplish the same with the current Iranian regime. In the 1980’s, the MEK sided with Saddam Hussein and their compound was reportedly attacked by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and those who survived fled the country for Europe.
Currently, the MEK are scattered across the European continent. They are believed and or known to have compounds in various European, including EU member, states; from the UK to Germany to Albania. Their leader, Maryam Rajavi, is based in Paris, France. Rajavi asserts that the MEK intend to create a non-nuclear Iran which operates as a democracy, under the principles of a separation of state and religion, and a free-market economy.
Over the past year, Iran has increased its violent international activities across the region and world. Iran has been deemed responsible for a series of attacks and seizures of oil tankers. In September, Iran was named as the party responsible for the missile attack against Saudi oil resources. Though, these attacks only represent known Iranian operations. The expertise of the QUDS force is actually in training, supplying, funding, and directing others to conduct attacks rather than carrying them out themselves. And, to that end, their actual evil footprint in Europe is still relatively unknown.