The FBI charged two men, one tied to the Iranian IRGC's Qods force, with plotting to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C., in order to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US. One of the men attempted to contact a Mexican criminal organization (likely the Zetas) to pull off the job, but ended up meeting with DEA sources posing as cartel members instead. There were discussions of other potential attacks including some against the Saudi and Israeli embassies in DC. However, the killing of the Saudi ambassador seems to have been their main focus and they actually went through with wiring $100,000 to the source as a down payment for the attack.
Some initial comments and analysis below:
1. There are questions about how high up in the Iranian government this plot went and it seems uncharacteristically bold for Iran to act on US soil, but let's be clear that this was a real plot. The evidence is rather clear that officials within Iran's Qods force were involved, approved the operation, assisted in sending money, pressed for their US contact to work faster, and are now being sanctioned by the US government.
2. In some ways, this plot is the worst case scenario some people have dreamed up over the past decade ("What if the Islamic terrorists teamed up with the Latin American criminal groups...?"). On the other hand, the clearly amateurish nature of Iran's involvement here shows that we have less to fear. The fact that an Iranian Qods-linked official is poking around the border looking for Zetas sicarios and ends up with the DEA informant suggests that Iran and Hezbollah have far fewer ties to the Mexican organized crime scene than some analysts would want you to believe. If they were as linked and conspiring as some analysts claim, they would have just picked up the phone and called their friends to either set up the operation or at least verify that the guy they are paying $1.5 million to is legit. Instead, they screwed up and got caught relatively easily.
3. In spite of all the controversy over the Fast and the Furious, where guns were lost while the government worked to trace the criminal groups trafficking them to Mexico, the details of this plot show a level of confidence by the US government. They let the defendant in this case travel back and forth to Mexico and to Iran while they collected evidence and unraveled this plot. Could you imagine the Republican anger at hearings if this guy had gotten suspicious and not returned from Iran during one of his trips? Yet, the success in breaking up this plot and waiting until the full links to Iran's Qods force were revealed shows why it is sometimes worth taking the risk to let someone walk while collecting additional evidence. Attorney General Eric Holder and the civilian government leadership running this operation deserve a lot of praise for successfully managing this operation and stopping this threat.
4. To the extent the Mexican government was involved in this operation, they cooperated with the US and worked to keep both sides of the border safe. Thanks Mexico.
5. As for the Zetas or other criminal groups, it does not appear that they were actually involved. Iran simply thought they were dealing with them when they were actually dealing with an informant. However, it's worth considering that the organized criminal groups might have been approached at some point previously or in the future to commit a similar action. Would they do it? I think the top leadership of the Zetas and others are very aware that any involvement in a bombing on US soil or trafficking of WMD would bring a lot of additional focus and resources against them. They certainly wouldn't do it for the price of one truck of cocaine.
However, these criminal organizations are not just top-down strategists who want to avoid a confrontation with the US. There is also a decentralized component to the criminal groups. It may be possible for terrorists to purchase the cooperation of a small unit of 10-20 without the full involvement of a major cartel. That is probably the bigger threat to watch. I don't worry about cartel leaders El Chapo or El Lazca making a strategic deal with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That is unrealistic. I worry about some small quasi-independent Mexican criminal group desperate for cash making a deal with a mid-level Iranian official believing he can boost his standing in the regime. Those are the threats that are hardest to detect and most important to stop.