Iranian opposition activists, members of the National council of Resistance of Iran, protest with portrait depicting Iranian official Asadollah Assadi, in Brussels, Belgium, on October 22, 2018. File Photo by Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE
Nov. 30 (UPI) -- On Friday, the trial began for Assadollah Assadi, a senior diplomat from the Iranian Embassy in Vienna, and three co-conspirators on charges of terrorism. Assadi refused to appear in the Antwerp court in Belgium, claiming immunity as a diplomat. If he is found guilty, he could face life in prison. It is the first time ever that a serving diplomat has faced a European court on such momentous charges.
On July 1, 2018, Assadi was arrested and charged with passing 550gms of TATP triacetone triperoxide high explosives and a detonator to an Iranian-Belgian couple from Antwerp. He had given the bomb to Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife, Nasimeh Naami, 36, at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Luxembourg. Assadi had instructed them to detonate the bomb at a major gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, attended by tens of thousands of people at Villepinte near Paris.
The rally was addressed by leading international politicians and senior government officials like Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Stephen Harper, the former prime minister of Canada, and Theresa Villiers MP, the former U.K. Cabinet minister.
The court will hear how the Belgian security service had received a tipoff from a foreign security agency alerting them that an attack involving Belgians was being planned. An intensive security operation was put in place and the Iranian-Belgian couple, Saadouni and Naami, were closely monitored.
On June 28, 2018, the Iranian diplomat, Assadi, was seen entering Pizza Hut in Place d'Armes, Luxembourg, disguised as a tourist wearing a casual shirt and a fedora, with a camera draped around his neck. He handed the couple a package containing the bomb and a cellphone with an Austrian SIM card, together with an envelope containing about $26,000.
In the days that followed, there was extensive text messaging between the three, with Saadouni and Naami indicating they had learned how to detonate the bomb. On June 30, 2018, the couple set out on the A12 highway to Villepinte in their new, dark blue Mercedes CLC. Again, the security services intercepted extensive text messages from the couple to Assadi saying: "We are going to win the cup. Everything is arranged. Your team will win, Inshallah" (God willing).
For many years, Saadouni and Naami had pretended to support the Iranian democratic opposition movement, the People's Mojahedin of Iran (MEK). Saadouni had lived in Belgium since 2003, working in the docks at Antwerp and as a warehouse keeper. He had taken part in various Iranian opposition protests against the Iranian regime outside the European Parliament in Brussels. His wife, Naami, had entered Belgium in 2010, registered as an Iranian refugee.
Between 2010 and her arrest in 2018, it was discovered that she had travelled to Iran 13 times, although there were no stamps indicating this in her passport. It was also discovered that during the same period, $127,500 had been deposited in her bank account and about $120,000 in her husband's, which neither could explain. It seems clear that she was a spy, working for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and that her frequent trips to Iran were for training purposes.
It is also known from their travel history and statements by one of the suspects, that the couple had met Assadi regularly in different parts of Europe, including Vienna, Salzburg, Austria, Munich, Germany, Milan and Venice, Italy, and in the Iranian capital Tehran.
The bomb plot was well prepared. Saadouni and Naami had registered as employees for the Iranian opposition event in Villepinte and Assadi had instructed them to place the bomb inside the main hall before detonating it from a safe distance. They were tracked on their journey to Villepinte by agents from the Belgian Police Directorate of the Special Units (DSU), who watched them perform a variety of evasive maneuvers, presumably to shake off any tails. Finally, the car took an abrupt exit and headed to Brussels, where they were stopped in the Woluwe-Saint-Pierre district and arrested.
Bomb disposal experts discovered the 550gms bomb in a suitcase in the couple's Mercedes, hidden in a toilet bag. An X-ray of the device, taken by a robot, showed the explosives and a wireless detonator. The bomb exploded as attempts were made to defuse it, destroying the robot and injuring a police officer who was standing more than 300 feet away, indicating the massive destructive power of the device. An envelope containing €22,000 ($26,350) in cash was also found in the couple's car.
On July 1, 2018, Assadi was apprehended by German security when he stopped at a motorway restaurant near Frankfurt. He was travelling with his wife and two grown sons. His rented red Ford S-Max was found to contain a "treasure trove" of evidence, including a notebook with instructions in Farsi on how to use the bomb, given the codename of "Playstation 4."
Police research revealed that in the months before the attack, Assadi had travelled frequently to Iran, including six times in the first months of 2018. Assadi had gone to Tehran days before the Villepinte event to test and collect the device, concealing it in his diplomatic bag on his return to Europe on a scheduled flight to Austria.
A fourth Iranian-Belgian man, Mehrdad Arefani, was arrested in Paris. He had also posed as a supporter of the MEK and was present at the rally in Villepinte. He was clearly a "backup" spy at the event. He was found to have a cellphone in his possession that only contained a single number -- Assadi's.
French security officers discovered that in 2017, Assadi had hired a French rental car and driven to the venue for the Iranian opposition rally at Villepinte, exploring the room where the annual meeting always takes place. The car's GPS showed that he had also visited the hotel where VIPs would stay. In one of his emails to Naami, he said: "I've been hunting those bastards of the Iranian opposition for 30 years."
According to the Belgian state security service, Assadi is an agent of the Iranian MOIS, who posed as a diplomat as cover. The MOIS is on the European Union's terror list. Jaak Raes, head of the VSSE, Belgium's state security service, said: "The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership. It was not a matter of Assadi's personal initiative."
Assadi has, of course, tried to claim diplomatic immunity and has refused to make a statement to the police, apart from threatening that if he is found guilty, armed groups in Iran, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon will retaliate.
There is no doubt that orders for this terrorist attack, that could have caused carnage and claimed the lives of countless people on European soil, came from the top in Tehran. With the newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden and his nominated Secretary of State Tony Blinken keen to reopen negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal, surely this groundbreaking trial that has finally exposed the deadly hand of Iranian state terrorism, will make them think again.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.