Big Questions Still Unanswered In Thai Terror Plot

Published February 21, 2012 9:54AM (EST)

BANGKOK (AP) — It began when three men blew up their house accidentally on Valentine's Day in Bangkok. It ended with a gory scene that looked more like Baghdad: A bloodied, would-be bomber with severed legs moaning on a glass-strewn sidewalk after another botched blast.

Last week's explosions in the Thai capital announced the apparent arrival of international terrorists in this Southeast Asian nation, revealing a plot allegedly aimed against Israeli diplomats.

So far, three Iranian citizens have been detained in the case, and this week, a Thai court issued an arrest warrant for an additional Iranian suspect. On Tuesday, police also were investigating the discovery of strange stickers plastered on Bangkok utility poles and billboards that may have marked routes for intended victims.

However, profound questions remain about who was behind the plot, and why.

Was it part of a covert tit-for-tat war in which Iranians are hitting back at Israel for allegedly killing Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran? Were the assailants part of a global terror network? If they were professional assassins, why were they so inept?

"There are many theories," government spokeswoman Thitima Chaisaeng said shortly after the Bangkok blasts.

And so far, not many answers.

The explosions Feb. 14 came one day after two other incidents in India and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in which bombers tried to hit Israeli targets with so-called "sticky" bombs that attach magnetically to vehicles.

Whoever was responsible for the cross-continental string of violence, the perception that Tehran is to blame "has undoubtedly exacerbated the already mounting tensions surrounding Iran's nuclear program, and international efforts to curtail it," said Will Hartley, head of the Terrorism & Insurgency Center at IHS Jane's in London.

Iran has denied responsibility. Thai investigators, meanwhile, have been left to pick up the pieces and solve the riddle of what happened on Thai soil.

Police say a 31-year-old Iranian named Leila Rohani, who visited Thailand four times over the last year, paved the way for the operation by renting a two-story house in the Thai capital.

Rohani left Thailand on Feb. 5, and the three now-detained Iranians arrived in the predominantly Buddhist country several days later, each traveling on a 60-day tourist visa. The trio met in Pattaya, a notoriously sleazy beach town on the Gulf of Thailand known for its go-go bars.

They included Mohammad Kharzei, 42; Masoud Sedaghatzadeh, 31; and Saeid Moradi, 28. Immigration police say Kharzei and Sedaghatzadeh, at least, had visited Thailand before, Sedaghatzadeh as recently as December.

In Pattaya, the men checked into separate rooms at two different hotels, and appeared to relax. For a couple of days, they hung out with several prostitutes, said Lt. Col. Noppon Kuldiloke, a senior immigration police investigator in southern Thailand.

A snapshot of the group during this period emerged last week. Published on the front page of the Bangkok Post after the explosions, a cell phone image taken by one of the sex workers showed the Iranians at a Middle Eastern-themed bar or restaurant. Surrounded by hookah water-pipes and a drink-filled table, Kharzei and Sedaghatzadeh each cradled a woman in their arms, while Moradi reclined on a cushion.

The group drank and played pool together, according to the report — then headed to Bangkok to stay at the house Rohani had arranged for them.

Whatever the men were planning went awry on the afternoon of Feb. 14, when an explosives cache stored at the home ignited by mistake. The ensuing blast blew the roof off an entire front room, simultaneously shredding a first floor edifice and showering the driveway and a grass courtyard with debris.

A closed circuit video camera installed on the street outside showed the Iranians emerge, one by one.

First out was an apparently barefoot Sedaghatzadeh, wearing shorts and sunglasses. Kharzei was next, carrying a large backpack strung over his shoulder.

By the time Moradi finally came out, about five minutes later, a small crowd had begun to gather. But the bystanders recoiled in fear, backing up and turning away as Moradi strode past wearing a jacket and a black backpack. Blood appeared to drip from a wound on the left side of his face, staining a blue baseball cap.

In each hand, he carried what appeared to be portable radios — possibly homemade "sticky" bombs.

As Moradi tried to flee, a red taxi passed and — for reasons that remain unclear — he dropped one of the bombs into the road in front of it, blowing apart the vehicle's front end and wounding the driver and three other Thai bystanders.

Boonlak Phakdi, a cleaning lady living in the area, said the driver got out and shouted to other taxis that Moradi tried to flag down: "Don't take that man in your car!"

Moradi turned onto a main road as police began moving in. One of them, Sgt. Panphum Rakkuson, said the Iranian pulled a rectangular-shaped box out of his backpack and threw it toward the officers.

"We were stunned and couldn't do anything but stand there," Panphun said.

The bomb, though, got caught on something, hit the ground next to Moradi and exploded. The blast instantly shredded both of Moradi's legs below the knee.

Panphum said Moradi reached out for a piece of broken glass from the sidewalk and drew it toward his neck, as if he was trying to kill himself.

Moradi is in police custody at a Bangkok hospital, while Kharzei was arrested at the international airport that night, trying to board a flight to Iran. Sedaghatzadeh was detained the next day in Malaysia, and may eventually be extradited to Thailand.

Thai courts have issued arrest warrants for all three men, as well as Rohani and a fifth Iranian, 57-year-old Norouzi Shayan Ali Akbar.

Akbar, with dark hair and a silver beard, was caught on CCTV footage leaving the Iranians' home the morning of the blast. Deputy national police chief Gen. Pansiri Prapawat said Akbar was en route to the airport, where he took a flight to Tehran.

Officials have given contradictory accounts as to Akbar's role. Police Lt. Gen. Winai Thongsong said he may have been a bomb-making expert who provided training to the other three Iranians. But Monday, Winai backtracked, saying Akbar may only have been a caretaker at the residence.

Investigators say Kharzei — the only one Thai officials have been able to interrogate so far — has been tightlipped, admitting through an interpreter that he was in the house but denying any knowledge of explosives.

Over the weekend, authorities seized a blue Honda motorcycle they say was purchased by Rohani in December and used by Sedaghatzadeh. It was found abandoned on a Bangkok street on Saturday.

Police have also found 52 stickers with the word "SEJEAL" on them — possibly a reference to a passage from the Quran. The stickers were spread at dozens of locations across the capital, possibly to mark routes that could be used by targets. The stickers are identical to others found under the seat of the Iranians' motorcycle as well as an apartment used by Rohani.

The most damning evidence was found in the destroyed house: two more portable radio bombs — each filled with one or two pounds (kilograms) of plastic explosives, and — according to IHS Jane's — ball-bearings.

The bombs had round, coin-like magnets on them — similar to the "sticky" bombs used against Israeli envoys in a foiled attack in Tbilisi on Feb. 13 and a blast in New Delhi the same day that injured four people, including a diplomat's wife.

Thai officials say the Bangkok plot was aimed at Israeli diplomats, too. Israel has gone further, alleging the evidence clearly points to Iran as being behind all three plots.

However, the "sticky" bombs also are similar to those used in the Jan. 11 assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan in Tehran. That attack, carried out by two unidentified assailants on a motorcycle who attached a magnetic bomb to his car, was blamed on Israel.

Iran's ambassador to Thailand, Majid Bizmark, said the Bangkok case remains ambiguous.

Asked about the culprits in an interview published in the local Nation newspaper, Bizmark said: "We don't know who they are. They could be anybody."

By Salon Staff

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