Ethiopian intelligence reportedly foiled an Iranian attack on the United Arab Emirates embassy in Addis Ababa that was part of Tehran’s latest drive to strike at Israel and its Middle East allies to avenge the killings of top Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Soleimani and the Islamic Republic’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Ethiopian and Swedish security officials cooperated in the thwarting of the plot, arresting 16 suspects and seizing a cache of weapons and explosives, The New York Times reported Monday.
The cell’s suspected leader, Ahmed Ismail, was arrested in Sweden with the cooperation of friendly “African, Asian and European intelligence services,” Ethiopian intelligence officials said.
But Addis Ababa has avoided accusing Iran of being behind the plot, with diplomats telling the Times that Ethiopia wishes to avoid becoming publicly embroiled in such sensitive matters involving regional powers.
American and Israeli officials, however, have fingered Tehran, accusing its intelligence services of having activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa in the fall of 2020 with orders to scope out the Emirati embassy as well as the US and Israeli missions in the city.
Rear Adm. Heidi K. Berg, director of intelligence at the Pentagon’s Africa command, confirmed that 15 of the suspects had been arrested in Ethiopia and that Ismail, the “mastermind of this foiled plot,” was nabbed in Sweden, adding that the cell had been acting at the direction of the Iranians.
American and Israeli officials told the Times that the Ethiopian plot was part of a wider effort to attack “soft targets” in African countries to avenge the high-profile losses of Fakhrizadeh, who was said to have been taken out by Israel last November, and Soleimani, who was killed by the US in Iraq last year.
Iran’s embassy in Addis Ababa flatly dismissed the report as “allegations only provoked by the Zionist regime’s malicious media.”
“Neither Ethiopia nor the Emirates said anything about Iranian interference in these issues,” a spokeswoman for the embassy added.
Only two of the suspects have been identified and none have been officially charged, according to the Times. Israeli officials told the paper that at least three of the suspects are likely Iran-born operatives, while the others were Ethiopian recruits.
While it declined to name Iran as responsible, Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service said that a second cell had been planning to attack the Emirati Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. The accusation was confirmed by a Sudanese official to the Times.
A senior US defense official claimed the planned attacks were linked to a previous, failed Iranian effort to assassinate US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks last September.
The foiled plot comes as the US is seeking to reshape its relations with Iran, namely by reentering the nuclear deal, which was signed in 2015. Former US president Donald Trump bolted the accord in 2018, and Iran began openly violating its terms, enriching uranium well beyond the curbs allowed by the plan.
The reported plot perplexed some analysts, who told the Times it would squander whatever American goodwill still existed, leaving Iran without an avenue for much-needed sanctions relief.
Earlier this month, Hebrew media reported that several Iranian agents who scouted out the Israeli, American, and Emirati embassies in an unnamed East African country in preparation for a potential attack had been arrested.
The agents were sent by Iran to gather intelligence on the sites for a terror attack, Kan News reported, citing Western intelligence sources. Some held dual European and Iranian citizenship, and some were arrested in the East African country, while others were apprehended in different countries. The attack was thwarted last month, according to the report.
It was unclear whether the Monday Times report referred to the same attack.
Last month, a blast rocked the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, India. The explosion damaged cars but did not cause injuries. Israeli missions had already been on alert in the wake of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. A handwritten note found at the scene of the bombing claimed responsibility for a previously unknown group identifying itself as “India Hezbollah.” It cited the killings of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh, according to Indian media reports.