Who Will Stop Iran’s European Hit Men?
It is just before dusk when gunshots sound on a quiet residential street in November 2017. A man falls to the sidewalk. A dark BMW races off — into the growing darkness of the night.
The victim, Ahmad Mola Nissi, dies that night of his wounds — including several shots to the head. He leaves a family grieving, but not surprised. There have been threats against him for some time, as well as efforts by the police to protect him. Those who know Nissi know who he is: the founder of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA), an Iranian separatist group that seeks independence for the Arab people of the Iranian province of Ahwazi, or Khuzestan. Iran calls it a terrorist group.
Yet this murder did not occur in Iran, but in Europe — in the Netherlands, where Nissi had lived since 2006; and although a year later the killer still has not been found, Dutch authorities were quick to pinpoint who was responsible: the Iranian regime.
This was not the first time that an Iranian dissident was murdered in the Netherlands. In 2015, Reza Kolahi was killed in Almere. Kolahi was a member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or MEK — considered the regime’s largest opposition group. Iran and Iraq both list the MEK as a terrorist group, though Europe, Canada, and the United States had all dropped that designation by 2012. The US now classifies it as a “cult.” In fact, many of Donald Trump’s supporters, including Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, have expressed their support of the group in its efforts to overthrow the ayatollahs, despite its Islamist-Socialist roots.
Still, neither the MEK nor ASMLA are innocent bystanders. The MEK is suspected of killing several Americans in the 1970s, and of bombing American corporations in Iran. Iran blames the ASMLA, together with the UK military, for a 2006 bombing in Ahvaz that killed at least eight people. And the two groups are responsible for other terrorist attacks that have killed dozens over the years.
But the assassinations by the Iranian state of citizens living on foreign soil is nonetheless inexcusable, say rights leaders in the Netherlands. Moreover, indications are that Kolahi was killed by criminal gangs under orders from Iran, suggesting, according to Iranian-Dutch counter-terrorism scholar Afshin Ellian, that “Iran has access to a broad network of sympathizers and intelligence agents in the Netherlands.”
He is not alone in that assessment. In October, the European Council on Foreign Relations alleged, “Iran’s intelligence services have long placed foreign-based opponents of the regime under close surveillance, often aggressively gathering information on them.”
That view has also been echoed by the Iraqi press. The Iraqi-Kurdish Basnews, for instance, reported after Nissi’s assassination that “the brutal gangland style of the murder is a trademark of the Iranian regime, which has had many dissidents in exile assassinated in the same way since first coming to power in 1979.”
The newspaper further noted that Nissi had been receiving threats for several years, another trademark of the regime “which routinely attempts to silence dissent both inside and outside Iran by killing dissidents or terrorizing them into silence.”
Indeed, the history of attacks on dissidents by the regime goes back decades. According to the Washington Institute, the regime “has been intently pursuing foreign assassination plots … for some time, in tandem with domestic maneuvers intended to ward off persistent political protests and intensified media pressure at home.”
Among the most notable of those attacks was the September 1992 murder in Berlin of the then-Secretary General of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, Sadegh Sharafkandi, along with several of his aides. Other murders followed, including the 1993 assassination of a cleric in Bonn; the 1993 shootings of Iranian dissidents in Copenhagen; murders in Stockholm in 1996 and Paris in 2005; and the April 2017 killing of an Iranian TV executive in Istanbul.
In October of this year, French authorities foiled plans to bomb an MEK rally outside Paris, again placing blame squarely on Iran. Rudy Giuliani was among those scheduled to attend the event. That same month, the Washington Institute reported that Denmark was recalling its ambassador to Iran in response to evidence that “regime intelligence operatives had plotted an assassination on Danish soil.” The target in that case was another ASMLA member.
For its part, Iran continues to deny government involvement in any of these killings, even as it blames ASMLA and the United States for a September attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Iran — an attack for which ISIS has claimed credit.
Despite these atrocities, European leaders, even those quick to condemn Saudi Arabia for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have been reluctant to take action against Iran. Only Denmark has called for re-imposing sanctions following the assassination plot there. Yet, as the European Council on Foreign Relations cautions, “If Europe refrains from punishing state-sponsored assassinations and disappearances, not only will authoritarian regimes continue their repressive tactics, but the EU will lose its ability to defend its common area of freedom, security, and justice.”
Abigail R. Esman, the author of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Follow her @radicalstates. This article was originally commissioned by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.