One warm summer’s day in June, a “poet” named Mehrdad Arefani was heading from Brussels to Paris in a Peugeot 308, with the license plate VJU061. He had two mobile phones in his pocket.
The last four digits of one of the phone numbers was 2614: the one his friends knew about. The number of the other one ended in 1791 and was known only to a few. Besides these two Belgian phones, there was an Austrian SIM card waiting for him at home.
At the same time, a “diplomat” from the Iranian embassy in Austria was driving towards the German border, bound for Luxembourg.
What connects the poet to the diplomat in this story is a bomb: a small but deadly device that a couple named Nasimeh Naami and Amir Saadouni were due to transfer from Brussels and, with the help of Mehrdad Arefani, explode at a gathering of opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) on the outskirts of Paris.
Many members of MEK knew Mehrdad. He could easily get into the conference hall, and nobody would remotely suspect him of seeking to plant a bomb there. But French security forces had received information to this effect, and when Mehrdad Erfani reached Paris, a warrant had already been issued to keep him and his telephone communications under surveillance.
The French warrant to keep Mehrdad Erfani under surveillance
Asadollah Asadi, the Diplomatic Agent
“We couldn’t believe it!” said a European official who spoke to me about the Asadi case. “We’d never imagined they would carry the bomb aboard a passenger plane.”
The joint security case opened by Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg was based on intelligence received from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. They knew that Asadollah Asadi was planning to deliver an explosive device to agents in Europe, but they did not know how Asadi himself was going to fetch the bomb.
“Austrian security agencies were meticulously keeping Asadi under surveillance,” said the diplomat. “In May 2018 he abruptly made numerous flights to Tehran. This aroused the interest of the BVT (Austrian Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism). They received intelligence that Asadi was planning to bring an explosive device in his carryon bag when he returned from Tehran to Vienna in June – aboard Austrian Airlines Flight 782.”
The baggage carried by diplomats is not inspected at the border. The BVT had also activated something called “Code 43” on the airport’s computer system: even if the sensors at the gates detected explosives when Asadi was passing through, nobody would interfere with him. The goal was to keep Asadi under constant surveillance so that they could arrest his accomplices when he delivered the bomb. But what the Belgian State Security Service (VSSE) found a few days later was beyond all expectations: an “Alibaba’s cave”, this official called it, “of intelligence material and security treasures”.
Alibaba’s Red Cave
The cave, in fact, was a red Ford S-Max that Asadollah Asadi had rented three months earlier so as to take his wife and children on a “vacation”.
Asadi’s rental car, pictured after his arrest
A year before his arrest, Asadi had taken a different rental car from Austria to Paris and had spent three days in the French capital to scope out when and where the MEK’s gathering was due to take place. To cover his tracks, he had used the driver’s license of a person by the name of Mohammad Reza Zaeri, a clergyman close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to rent the car.
Asadi rented the car under the name of Mohammad Reza Zaeri (right), a clergyman under Ayatollah Khamenei
When I contacted Zaeri about this, he replied that it was a “dirty trick”. He then tweeted: “The full story is that I was traveling in Europe and wanted to rent a car. Since I could not legally rent it myself, the guys at the embassy rented one for me. I had the car at my disposal for a while and then returned it. That’s all there is to it.”
A tweet by Mohammad Reza Zaheri explaining away why the car was rented under his name
In any case, the driver of the red Ford did not look like a standard Iranian foreign ministry employee. A straw hat, a short-sleeved shirt and a clean-shaven face is not the way the Islamic Republic’s diplomats usually appear in public, even on vacation, unless something odd is going on.
Asadollah Asadi on "vacation"
That something, in this case, was a sophisticated bomb containing half a kilo of highly explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), along with a detonator and a remote control, hidden in the trunk of his car. Neither Asadi’s wife nor his children knew anything about it.
The red Ford crossed from Austria’s Autobahn A8 onto the German Autobahn 3 at dawn. Once inside Germany, the car made several stops in the parking lots of chain stores such as Lidl, but the passengers did not buy anything.
Meanwhile, security agents were faced with the challenge of keeping Asadi under surveillance for hundreds of miles. In top-secret operations such as this, the usual procedure is to have as small a team as possible so that the mission will not be exposed. When I asked my European source about this, he said simply: “In the 21st century you do not need to fill the streets with agents. The image of an agent wearing a hat and a raincoat, sitting on a bench and hiding his face behind a newspaper, belongs to centuries gone by.”
Asadi was tailed by European intelligence throughout his time in Germany and Luxembourg
It is my understanding that besides surveillance cameras and a car tracking device, satellite imagery was also used in tailing Asadi and his companions. My European contact refused to confirm or deny this.
Asadi’s family spent some time in Germany before eventually leaving for Luxembourg, entering this small country via the Autobahn’s A1. Asadi was due to meet his accomplices and deliver the bomb to them on June 25, 2018. The location was No. 13, Place d'Armes: a branch of Pizza Hut. The bomb was carefully hidden at the bottom of a women’s cosmetics bag and its very small remote control was placed in a box of tampons, to evade discovery if the bag was subjected to a routine inspection.
Explosives hidden inside the bag Asadi handed to his two accomplices in Luxembourg
Before meeting with the two would-be bombers, Asadi drifted from shop to shop in Luxembourg. Anybody who saw him and the camera hanging from his neck would have assumed he was an ordinary tourist – that is, anybody except those who were tailing him, who captured every moment of the journey in pictures and on video.
At an inspection post in Luxembourg, when asked for his papers, Asadi introduced himself as a diplomat who was on vacation with his family. He opened the trunk with a pleasant face, showed his papers to the police and then continued on his way. Later, this claim of being on “vacation” was brought up to reject his insistence on diplomatic immunity.
Asadi's car being searched by police
By the time Asadi sat down in Pizza Hut facing Nasimeh and Amir, and handed over the bag containing the bomb, he was confident that nobody was following him. He also gave them the mobile phone with the Austrian SIM card inside, explaining the codes to be used in their communication and issuing them with their last instructions.
Nasimeh Naami, a Different Kind of Spy
Nasimeh Naami had lived in Europe as a supposed “political refugee” for more than a decade. But she was not like the other refugees. From the moment that she received her residency permit, she had started visiting Iran via Turkey, using a passport issued to her by the Islamic Republic.
She became acquainted with Amir Saadouni through social media in 2004. A year later they were married in absentia and, three years later, Nasimeh entered the Netherlands with a fake passport. Saadouni then brought her to Belgium, where she registered as an asylum seeker. They then began working together in collaboration with the security agents of the Islamic Republic.
Before being granted Belgian citizenship Nasimeh used her asylum seekers’ travel permit to make her way back to Turkey. From there, she used an Iranian passport issued by the Islamic Republic to travel to Tehran.
Nasimeh Naami's Iranian passport
Even after she received Belgian citizenship, though, Nasimeh had made little effort to conceal her visits to Iran. Her previous Iranian passports show that between 2010 and 2020 she traveled to Iran on several occasions. These journeys were not only for pleasure, nor solely to visit family and friends.
The passport later used by Naami after she gained Belgian citizenship
Amir Saadouni has since said that their cooperation with the Iranian intelligence ministry began in 2007. But the evidence suggests Nasimeh’s activities greatly exceeded those her husband knew about. It is understood that their acquaintance through the internet was, from the very start, a trap to recruit Amir Saadouni, and that Nasimeh Naami was in fact always at a higher level than him in the terror organization’s pecking order.
Nasimeh Naami is thought to have deliberately sought out her future husband online to recruit him for the Islamic Republic
Nasimeh had also brought her husband on some of her trips to Iran. They did visit their families in Ahvaz and Abadan in Khuzestan province, but according to Amir’s confession, their trips were largely spent in meetings with intelligence agents. At first the Intelligence Bureau of Khuzestan was their contact. But little by little they rose up the ranks and Asadollah Asadi became their personal liaison. While in Tehran, the couple were lodged in Esteghlal Hotel, formerly the five-star Royal Tehran Hilton.
Amir Saadouni later provided the Belgian intelligence agents with details about their meetings with Asadollah Asasi at Esteghlal Hotel. For his cooperation, he would go on to receive a lighter sentence.
Before he knew Nasimeh, and after his own request for political asylum had been rejected several times, Amir Saadouni had pretended to be a supporter of the People’s Mojahedin Organization, participating in their rallies and posing for pictures next to well-known MEK members, in a bid to show the Belgian authorities that he was eligible for asylum. Eventually, Belgium relented and gave him residency on human rights considerations.
Amir Saadouni, right, photographed in Europe
“Uncle” and the Dangerous “Playstation” Game
Now, Amir Saadouni was close to obtaining the riches he had always pined for. In his first years in Europe he had lived hand-to-mouth, working at port facilities, standing guard at warehouses and delivering pizza. But the money he was initially paid for just one day of “nosing around” the Mojahedin was more than his entire usual monthly wage. And he had been promised that if he could find out better information about the MEK, he would receive even better money next time. He had eventually given up his day job; the money just kept coming. His link to the intelligence agents, of course, was Nasimeh.
The explosion planned for June 30, 2018 was to be their last mission. Amir and Nasimeh now drove a navy blue Mercedes and were planning to buy a villa costing around half a million euros, in Nasimeh’s name. They had already been paid half of the “dark” money and Asadi had promised them the rest once things cooled down.
Specialists defusing the bomb next to Amir and Nasimeh’s Mercedes after their arrest
On June 28, the pair were given the bag containing the bomb. Asadi reviewed the codes they were to use during the operation: “We only contact each other through text messages. All messages must be written in such a way that if they are checked randomly it will appear as though we are talking about a video game tournament.
“‘Playstation’ means the bomb itself, and ‘plugging in the TV’ means connecting the detonator and activating it. When we tell you ‘Come to the boarding house at such and such an hour’, it means that your mobile phone must be switched on at that hour. No communication for a few months afterward. Do not use email at all! And do not travel by air. If it’s necessary, travel only by land.”
Asadi glanced at his red notepad again to ensure he had not forgotten anything. “God be with you! Don’t forget to avoid tailing.”
An excerpt from Asadi’s notebooks, which were discovered in the car after his arrest
On June 28, the couple who now had the bomb in their possession got into their Mercedes and headed off towards Belgium. Amir and Nasimeh, like other operatives involved, had Asadi’s number saved on their phones under the name of “Daniel”. But throughout the operation, they called him “Uncle”.
On the morning of June 28, right on schedule, Saadouni sent a text message from the Belgian phone number +32 030 11-20-23-205 to Asadi’s Austrian number +43 660 22-27-681. A brief conversation ensued.
Saadouni: Hello Uncle.
Asadi: You OK? Is the game assembled?
Saadouni: Yeah, the game is assembled. We won! We’ll hit the top at Sunday breakfast. If PS [PlayStation] is not assembled, should we return to Zaker’s home or go for breakfast?
Asadi: We’ll know when we play the game 20:00 hours. Bye.
Saadouni: OK, Uncle.
On the morning the Mojahedin’s gathering was due to take place, as recorded in the case file at the Antwerp criminal court, another text message conversation took place between these two numbers.
Saadouni: Hello. PS is running. We are going to win the cup Uncle.
Asadi: Well done. Is the TV’s plug connected as well or not?
Saadouni: Yes, everything is shipshape.
Saadouni: Pray for us.
Asadi: God be with you.
The bomb was expected to go off at noon that day. Asadi sent a text message at 1.06pm, but received no reply. There was no news of an explosion at the MEK rally. It wasn’t the kind of story that would have been overlooked, either; the MEK’s leader Maryam Rajavi and several politicians including Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, were also in attendance.
At 8:47pm Asadi sent a second text message:
Are you OK? Everything fine?
Again, there was no reply and now Asadi was worried.
On the morning of Sunday, July 1, Asadollah Asadi was still on “vacation” in Germany. At 10:53am he enquired again:
Are you OK? Everything fine?
He waited a few minutes for an answer, but none came. The embassy of the Islamic Republic in Austria now seemed like the safest place for him to be. The “vacation” was not yet over but nonetheless, he rounded up his mystified family and took off for Austria from Rheinbreitbach, near Bonn.
From Frankfurt, Asadi entered the long Autobahn 3. He filled up the fuel tank and drove at top speed toward the Austrian border. But before he got there, at about 1pm, the police arrested him and his family.
Police waiting to execute the arrest warrant for Asadollah Asadi
Asadi’s shellshocked wife and children were released 24 hours later. Asadi, however, remained unruffled and smiling. Indicating his diplomatic passport, he asked to be released and given access to the consulate of the Islamic Republic. He was confident that he would be a free man again very soon.
But this incident was different to the earlier terrorist operations carried out by the Islamic Republic in the 1980s and 1990s. This time, Nasimeh Naami and Amir Saadouni had been arrested with the bomb on their way from Brussels to Paris, before the atrocity could take place. With the evidence in hand, they were already being interrogated.
Mehrdad Arefani: No Happy Ending
We return now, briefly, to the “poet”. Mehrdad Arefani had enjoyed a colourful social life in Brussels. He composed low-grade poetry, participated in rallies and demonstrations with the Mojahedin, and loudly chanted their slogans. He had published a few books over the years and would sometimes speak at small literary gatherings in European cities.
Many political activists in Brussels, who were less computer-literate than he, recall inviting Arefani to their homes to install software for them. So far, it is not clear how much of the information stored on their computers was captured by the Iranian intelligence ministry.
Mehrdad Arefani was well-connected in Belgium and "helped" Iranian activists installing software on their computers
Arefani was good at fixing things, from ICT to plumbing and painting, and was on hand whenever he was needed. Unlike Nasimeh and Amir with their Mercedes, he drove an ordinary Peugeot and once in a while, he received unemployment benefits from the Belgian government. For this reason many people initially assumed his arrest had been “a mistake”. Some even started collecting donations to hire a lawyer for him. As they saw it, “Mehrdad was not into such things”.
So when Antwerp’s court announced in its final judgement that Arefani had been paid 226,000 euros by “terrorist groups” and this money had been “discovered and confiscated”, many of them were dumbfounded.
Friends also noticed Arefani looking perplexed at the MEK rally on June 30. Throughout the event he kept stepping out of the conference hall. He was expecting to see Nasimeh and Amir, but there was no sign of them. Then, in the parking lot, he was arrested by a special unit of the French police. His friends, supporters of the MEK without the faintest idea what was going on, tried to intervene and were arrested as well for their trouble.
There in custody, they were flabbergasted on seeking Arefani’s shocked face and hearing that he had been charged with involvement in a plot to plant a bomb at the gathering. The explosion of half a kilo of TATP in a closed space could have killed hundreds of people. The police released the astounded MEK supporters after a few hours. But not Arefani.
The Method to Iran’s Madness
To detonate a bomb in that particular conference hall, where not only were Maryam Rajavi and Mojahedin supporters present but also many former and current government officials from different countries, would have been geopolitical suicide. Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, a former Republican presidential candidate, a former British cabinet minister and many others would have lost their lives as well as hundreds of members of the MEK. But there was a method to the Islamic Republic’s apparent madness.
The plan was to make it look as though the bombing came about as a settling of scores between the Mojahedin themselves. The arrests took place on the same day that President Rouhani had arrived in Europe on an official visit. If pressed, officials in the Iranian foreign ministry were planning to say “Are we really so crazy?”. And a full year later, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said precisely that.
“Do you think we’re crazy?” Zarif demanded rhetorically in February 2019, while at the annual Munich Security Conference. “That we’d do this, on that day? We’d at least do it a day before, a day after, 10 days after. To do it on the same day our president comes here? Give us some credit... It could have been a false flag operation. It could have been entrapment. It could have been a rogue operation. But it is certainly not the work of a government. You don’t gain the influence we have by being crazy.”
But this time around, things had gone badly wrong for the Islamic Republic. European intelligence services had gained access to a welter of evidence about the planned terror attack, to the point that on January 3, 2019, Ali Majedi, the former Iranian ambassador to Germany, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA): “In this case, the Europeans have made claims and presented evidence we cannot easily refute.”
Some sources believe that Amir Saadouni was to be murdered in secret after the explosion if it became necessary. The Iranian authorities would then publish a picture of him next to Mehdi Abrishamchi, a leading member of the Mojahedin, and at MEK rallies, and claim that the explosion had taken place because of “internal disagreements” within the Mojahedin, and that Saadouni’s murder had been “an act of revenge”
Iran’s intelligence and security agencies had calibrated their propaganda machine in such a way that if the explosion led to international problems for the Islamic Republic, they would publish the above-mentioned pictures and portray both the explosion and Saadouni’s assassination as “score-settling” by different factions of the MEK. In all likelihood, the Islamic Republic also believed that its considerable number of lobbyists overseas would push the same story in foreign media.
Amir Saadouni at a Mojahedin Rally
Saadouni, the Unwitting Target
The interrogators told Saadouni about this possible scenario, and showed him documentary evidence that laid out Nasimeh’s long-range plans. When they presented him with the details of Nasimeh’s reports to Iranian intelligence officials about her husband, he realized that throughout their time together he had only ever been a pawn. He broke down when he found out that his wife’s reports had painted him, in the eyes of Iranian intelligence officials, as an unreliable, untrustworthy coward.
Amir Saadouni then started to sing. He told his interrogators all he knew, some of the details of which were not laid out in court because they were considered personal or unrelated to the charges at hand. In the end, the court rewarded him for his cooperation by reducing his prison sentence from 18 to 15 years.
During an in-person meeting between Nasimeh and Amir in custody, the interrogators recorded Nasimeh’s scolding of him: “Why did you talk?”. And in the courtroom, when Mehrdad Arefani denied knowing Saadouni at all and accused him of being the culprit, Saadouni became enraged and the pair got into a shouting match.
Mehrdad Arefani pictured in court
Mehrdad Arefani in the Dock
In fact, Mehrdad Arefani had always had a higher rank within the Iranian security establishment than either Amir or Nasimeh. Born in the northern Iranian city of Tonekabon in 1963, he had joined the group Pioneer Fighters for the Oppressed: a movement that was later demolished by the Islamic Republic in the 1980s. He was arrested and spent a few years in prison, where he got acquainted with some supporters of the MEK, who made up the bulk of political prisoners at that time.
He spent the 1990s inside Iran and left for Europe as an asylum seeker towards the end of the decade. He called himself an “atheist” and got close to the MEK in Belgium. As a volunteer, he helped them with taking pictures and recording videos at their gatherings.
Mehrdad Arefani was initially a member of the now-destroyed group Pioneer Fighters for the Oppressed
At first, prosecutors believed that Arefani’s role in the plot had been minor compared to those of the other defendants. They asked that Arefani be sentenced to 15 years in prison, but the court instead sentenced him to 17 years for trying to mislead the justice system.
For her part, Nasimeh Naami was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The Belgian citizenships of all three were revoked. Meanwhile, Asadollah Asadi’s demand for diplomatic immunity was rejected several times in German, Belgian and Austrian courts, and he was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison: a life sentence in Belgium.
For a Fistful of Euros
Asadollah Asadi is a devotee of the Islamic Republic’s ideology. This “soldier of the regime” had shrugged off even the most basic of human emotions, knowingly placing his wife and children in a car carrying a bomb. In his text messages, he said he wanted to send the regime’s opponents “to hell”.
Asadollah Asadi’s mug shot after his arrest
The other three defendants, however, had a plainer motive: money. Besides whatever they had made legally, the authorities discovered and confiscated €120,000 from Amir Saadouni, €106,000 from Nasimeh Naami and €226,000 from Mehrdad Arefani, all of which they had received little by little through 120 different bank accounts, registered under middlemen’s names. The police also confiscated a quantity of cash from them. Even with this much money stashed away, they had been sporadically claiming unemployment benefits from the Belgian government.
Mysterious Notebooks and Turbulent Dreams
We return, at last, to Alibaba’s cave. In the dashboard of the red Ford Asadi had rented for the trip, police found three notebooks with red, green and black covers.
Parts of the red notebook contained Asadi’s notes about the bombing operation planned for June 30, 2018, including instructions for working with the explosive device, safety points, and the address of the Mojahedin’s gathering.
The notebooks were discovered in the dashboard of the car Asadi had rented
Asadi had undergone security training and knew that online notes were more perilous than notes kept on paper. He also relied on his diplomatic passport, assuming no-one would inspect a diplomat’s car. As such he carried these notebooks on his person, carefree, because he had not entertained the possibility that European intelligence services, aided by non-European services, were entirely aware of what he was doing and were within their rights to inspect his car.
In Germany, after he had delivered the bomb, Asadi drove to a car wash and asked for the trunk and interior to be completely cleaned, so that no possible traces of TATP would remain. Even then, he held onto the notebooks, and when he was arrested police sniffer dogs still picked up traces of the explosive.
The green notebook contained 289 entries, handwritten in both Latin and Persian scripts, detailing sums of money he had paid and various addresses in Europe. The times and dates were also noted down. These entries showed that several individuals with very common Iranian names or family names – mostly aliases – had received cash from Asadi in wages, operational expenses and even “financial aid”. Some had also signed the notebook to acknowledge payment.
With the notebooks in hand, investigators were able to tie the information to 11 different countries including France, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. Most of the payments listed, in around 144 notes, were linked to Germany. One, for instance, said: "Beautiful view 36 D 22085 Hamburg". This was the address of the Islamic Center Hamburg (IHZ), a Shiite mosque association. As of now a number of Iranians who live in Germany have been summoned and interrogated about these cash payments from Asadi.
An official of the court in Antwerp court has confirmed that “for the moment”, only these four individuals have been convicted in relation to the planned terror operation and covertly working for the Islamic Republic. The court cannot put the Islamic Republic itself on trial, but those whose names and addresses are listed in the green notebook are unlikely to sleep easy for quite some time.