Big questions still unanswered in Thai terror plot

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. But big questions remain about who was behind the plot, and why.

So far, three Iranian citizens have been detained in the case, though police say they haven’t revealed anything substantial under interrogation. A Thai court issued an arrest warrant for an additional Iranian suspect this week, and on Tuesday, police were investigating the discovery of stickers plastered on Bangkok utility poles and billboards that may have marked routes for intended victims.

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 beach town on the Gulf of Thailand known for its abundance of sleazy go-go bars.

They were 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.

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, who has 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 left the country hours later on a flight to Tehran.

Officials have given contradictory accounts of 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 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 in 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 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 in all three plots clearly points to Iran.

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.

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