ISTANBUL: Intelligence agents from Turkey and Israel have thwarted an Iran-led plot to kill an Israeli-Turkish tycoon following a monthslong surveillance operation.
The planned victim was Istanbul-based Yair Geller, the 75-year-old owner of CNC Advance Technologies. He was targeted in retaliation for the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020, an act that Tehran considered to be an Israeli operation.
Turkey’s national intelligence agency, MIT, said a nine-person network of hit men tracked Geller for a long time, taking photographs of his daily life, his workplace and his home in Istanbul. The gang used multiple Turkish and Iranian phone numbers to avoid detection.
MIT informed its Israeli counterpart, Mossad, about the gang’s plan before it turned operational and the two sides worked together to move the businessman to a safe house protected by Mossad operatives.
Once Geller was safe, MIT moved in on the hit men and arrested all but one of them. Most are Turkish nationals, but the head of the group is Iranian Saleh Moshtagh Bigohouz. One member of the group, who has close ties to the Iranian intelligence service, remains at large.
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This is not the first time Turkish authorities have foiled such an assassination attempt. In 2009 they prevented a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli target in Turkey by implementing high-security measures in three major cities.
That attack was planned as revenge for the death of Imad Mughniyeh, who was the founding member of Lebanon’s Islamic Jihad organization and No. 2 in Hezbollah’s leadership.
Experts said the timing of the operation to protect Geller was significant as it came amid the discussions between Turkey and Israel to normalize diplomatic relations, adding that Iran might have been motivated to disrupt such talks.
Israel’s President Isaac Herzog and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have held four phone conversations this year in an attempt to mend frayed ties, and Herzog is expected to visit Turkey soon.
Dr. Nimrod Goren, president of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said the cooperation between the two countries’ intelligence agencies would be beneficial in helping to improve bilateral relations.
“It conveys a message to the Israeli public that Turkey is not in the Iranian camp, that security cooperation between Israel and Turkey is possible and that improved channels between the countries can bring tangible benefits and save lives,” he told Arab News.
One of the topics for rapprochement between the two countries is energy, an industry in which Geller operates.
“Over the last few years, most media reports regarding Israel-Turkey relations carried negative crisis-related news, often portraying Turkey as a security threat to Israel given its ties with Hamas and Iran,” Goren said.
But the Geller story delivered the opposite message, as it portrayed Turkey as a potential security ally, he added.
“In that regard, the successful intelligence cooperation and the fact that it was made visible can help in rebuilding trust, improving perceptions, and preparing public opinion toward a new chapter in Israel-Turkey relations,” Goren said.
Jason M. Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, agreed that the cooperation between the intelligence agencies represented a gesture by Erdogan ahead of Herzog’s visit.
“Turkish-Israeli relations over the last decade have been fraught, with Turkey reportedly compromising an Israeli intelligence ring working in Iran in early 2012,” he told Arab News.
“This latest episode is an attempt by Ankara to turn the page and build confidence, but there is still a long way to go, especially with curbing Hamas activity inside Turkey. That will test this exercise.”
Iranian operatives have been active on Turkish soil for a long time. They have been involved in several kidnapping and assassination attempts, and have been closely monitored by MIT. Last year, a gang of Iranian spies was captured after being accused of trying to kidnap an Iranian dissident military official.
Another Iranian citizen was arrested last year for helping to plan the assassination of Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in Istanbul in 2019.
An Iranian cell also attempted to abduct Iranian dissident Shahnam Golshani, leading to another counterintelligence operation by Turkey that led to the arrest of 11 suspects, including an Iranian national.
Brodsky said there had been an uptick in the Turkish government’s disclosure of Iranian intelligence plots in the country in recent years.
“This latest revelation indicates some continued tension with Tehran against the backdrop of gas disputes and other irritants in the bilateral relationship,” he said.
Louis Fishman, associate professor at Brooklyn College, said the foiling of the assassination attempt on Geller in Turkey should not have come as a surprise.
“Turkey maintains strong economic ties with Israel despite the harsh rhetoric of the past between former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdogan. If Iran had succeeded in carrying out such an act, it would have been seen as a huge failure on the part of the Turkish security forces,” he told Arab News.
The intelligence operation also indicated that cooperation between the security teams was “working at high level,” Fishman said, adding that it was “another sign that Turkey is really serious about jump-starting its relations with Israel in the post-Netanyahu era.
“Such news stories are important in building trust among the Israeli public, which is still quite skeptical of Turkey’s attempts to mend ties. (But) Israeli government members will still want proof that Turkey will curb Hamas activities in Turkey.”