'Manhunt in the streets of Istanbul' to thwart terror cells

Israel: ‘Concrete’ threats of Iranian attack on Israelis in Istanbul this weekend

Senior officials call on Israelis still in the city to ‘immediately’ leave, those who can’t should lock themselves in hotel rooms; Iran trying to carry out attacks ‘at all costs’

Illustrative: Backdropped by the Suleymaniye Mosque people stroll along the banks of the Bosporous in Istanbul, Turkey Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Illustrative: Backdropped by the Suleymaniye Mosque people stroll along the banks of the Bosporous in Istanbul, Turkey Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Senior Israeli officials warned Friday that there were “concrete” threats that Iran was trying to carry out a terror attack on Israelis in Istanbul over the weekend and urged all citizens to leave Turkey immediately.

The warnings from the political and security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, come after a week in which Israel has urged its citizens in Turkey to immediately return home, and issued its highest possible security warning for Istanbul, over concerns that Iranian agents are planning to kill or kidnap Israelis.

The warnings came amid unverified reports in the press that Israeli and Turkish intelligence had together already thwarted several planned attacks by a broad network of Iranian agents, nabbing some of the suspects.

Israeli officials sharpened the warnings on Friday, saying that they believed that Iran had set in motion efforts to carry out wide-ranging attacks over the weekend, especially in Istanbul, and had ordered cells of Iranians and local Turkish recruits to target Israelis anywhere they could “at any cost.”

They warned that any Israeli could be targeted in any place — in hotels, restaurants and other places of entertainment — urging anyone who could to “immediately leave Istanbul.”

Those who could not leave were told to lock themselves in their hotel rooms and reduce showing signs that they were Israeli.

There are currently believed to be some 2,000 Israelis in Turkey.

Channel 12 quoted officials saying that Israeli agents were in Turkey working shoulder to shoulder with their Turkish counterparts in an effort to thwart the attacks, noting that there was excellent cooperation with local officials.

There is a “manhunt right now in the streets of Istanbul to stop an incident that has already gotten underway,” the report said.

“Being in Istanbul right now [for an Israeli] is akin to playing Russian roulette, tempting fate. If we could publicize the full operational picture, [Israelis] would be fleeing as they would a fire,” the senior official told Channel 12.

“We are in the midst of a rolling event in Istanbul,” a senior security official told the Ynet news site. “Cells of Iranians and Turkish mercenaries are out searching for Israelis at any cost.”

“We can’t foil every single attack; I urge Israelis to return home,” he said.

According to the report, the Iranians have been planning attacks for months, apparently in revenge for the slayings of senior officers and others blamed on Israel.

Hossein Taeb, head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization (Wikimedia Commons)

Hebrew media identified the Iranian official behind the planned attacks as Hossein Taeb, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official who is currently the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.

The reports said that Taeb was under intense pressure to carry out an attack amid growing frustration in Iran over repeated Israeli successes in penetrating Iran’s most secret organizations.

Israeli officials warned that should Iran succeed in hitting Israelis there would be a harsh response.

Friday’s warnings came a day after Israel’s National Security Council issued rare, specific instructions to Israelis in Turkey, telling them not to open their hotel room doors for delivery people, not to post about their travel plans on social media, and not to go to the same tourist traps as all the other Israelis.

In a communique published Thursday, the National Security Council called again for Israelis to leave Istanbul, where the terror warning is highest, but said it was offering advice for those who were remaining in the Turkish city despite the risk.

In addition to remaining constantly updated on the latest travel warnings and information from official sources, the council advised Israeli tourists in Turkey to keep their families at home informed of any planned trips and in particular with details of the hotel they are staying in.

Hotel rooms should be kept locked when inside and the door should not be opened to strangers who might be posing as staff or delivery people, the NSC said. Special attention should also be paid to any unusual activity in the lobby.

Israelis were advised to conceal outward signs of their nationality like Hebrew lettering or national symbols on clothing or luggage, and to “keep a low profile,” avoiding areas that are known to attract concentrations of Israeli tourists.

The NSC told Israelis to be wary of offers or invitations, such as organized trips, and in particular offers made on social media, that might be used as an opportunity for an attack.

Travel plans, itineraries and lodgings should not be posted on social media either, the NSC said.

“Wait until after you return home to post updates like that,” the NSC said.

Any suspicious activities should be reported to the local police, the statement said, or in case of an emergency to an Israeli hotline on +972 25303155.

A man checks goods he has just bought in a market in Istanbul, Turkey, April 11, 2022. (Francisco Seco)

Haaretz cited Israeli sources as saying that in the past few days several Iranian cells were caught by Turkish authorities. The sources said there are still Iranian teams at large in Turkey.

There have been several attacks thwarted in the past two weeks, some by Iranian agents and some by locals who were under Iranian direction, Channel 12 news reported without naming a source for the information. No arrests of Iranians or locals connected to any plots have been announced.

On Monday, the National Security Council raised the warning level for travel to Istanbul to its highest level, putting it alongside Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iran as places that Israelis must leave immediately and may not visit.

The authority said it raised the warning level amid “the continuing threat and amid the escalation of Iranian intentions to harm Israelis in Turkey, with an emphasis on Istanbul.” Other parts of Turkey remained at a slightly lower warning level, with recommendations to avoid visiting the country for nonessential reasons.

Illustrative: Travelers stand in line to check in at Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 13, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Tensions between Israel and Iran have intensified in recent weeks, after the assassination of a top Iranian officer in Tehran last month, a number of other deaths of security personnel inside Iran, airstrikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria, threatening rhetoric from Iranian leaders and Iran’s increasing violations of nuclear agreements.

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