NAIROBI, Kenya – Two Iranians who led authorities to a cache of explosives after their arrest planned to attack Israeli, U.S., British or Saudi targets inside Kenya, officials told The Associated Press on Monday.
The two are believed to be members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, an elite and secretive unit that acts against foreign interests, one of the officials said.
The foiled attack appeared to fit into a global pattern of alleged plots by Iranian agents. Previous plots were uncovered in the U.S. — against Saudi Arabia's ambassador — as well as in Thailand, Azerbaijan and India.
Kenyan security forces arrested the Iranians on June 19 and were then led to 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of RDX, a powerful explosive that could have been used against multiple targets or concentrated in one large bomb. If used together, the explosives could have leveled a medium-sized hotel, officials told AP. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.
The two suspects — Ahmad Abolfathi Mohammad and Sayed Mansour Mousavi — appeared in a Kenyan court last week, where Mohammad said he had been interrogated by Israeli agents. Israel's embassy said it had no comment.
In Israel, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the AP that "there are no limits to the Iranian terror."
"After Iran sent its people to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on American soil and carry out attacks in Azerbaijan, Bangkok, Tbilisi and New Delhi, now its intention to carry out attacks in Africa is revealed. The international community needs to fight the world's greatest exporter of terror," said a statement from Netanyahu's office.
Given the previous alleged plots against Israeli interests overseas, it appeared likely that Israeli properties in Kenya were the likely primary targets, said one of the two officials, a Western diplomat.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the alleged plot fits into a pattern of Iranian actions against Israel.
Israel wants Iran to be prevented from developing a nuclear weapon. Tehran insists its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes only, such as generating electricity and medical research.
Five Iranian scientists with links to Tehran's nuclear program have been killed in the last two years, and Iran has blamed Israel — as well as U.S. and British intelligence agencies — for the attacks. In return, Israel blames Iran for alleged reprisal missions on Israeli property and personnel overseas.
Iran has denied any links to attacks outside its borders.
"It is much more likely if they were to do anything in Africa that they would try to find Israeli targets rather than U.S., British or Saudi targets," Cordesman said. "The reason basically is that to some extent, there is an al-Quds operation against Israel, which is a reprisal to Israeli attacks on Iranian physicists and scientists."
Several resorts on Kenya's coast are Israeli-owned, as is Nairobi's largest and newest shopping mall. Militants in 2002 bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near the coastal city of Mombasa, killing 13 people. The militants also tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time. An al-Qaida operative was linked to those attacks.
Representatives at the U.S. Embassy, the British High Commission and the Israeli Embassy declined to comment on the latest arrests. Kenya's government spokesman did not answer phone calls or text messages seeking comment.
Investigators believe that if the Iranian plot had been successful, suspicion would have naturally fallen not on Iran but instead on the al-Qaida-linked Somali militant group al-Shabab. Al-Shabab has threatened to bring Nairobi's skyscrapers to the ground following Kenya's military push into Somalia last year.
Militants — most likely from Somalia — have pulled off small-scale attacks in Kenya in the last year, including kidnappings, grenade attacks and a bombing in downtown Nairobi that peeled back the roof of a building.
It is unlikely the Iranians were working in concert with al-Shabab because the two groups come from two different branches of Islam and don't normally cooperate.
The advanced explosives the Iranians had and their links to the Quds Force would indicate the mission in Kenya was cleared by the highest levels inside Iran's government, the two officials who spoke to the AP said.
Cordesman said it's not clear how much central direction Quds operatives receive from top Iranian leaders.
The two Iranians were arrested in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, but led investigators to the explosives in Mombasa. Mohammad said in court last week that he and Mousavi were injected with an unknown substance against their will. The Kenyan magistrate ordered the allegation to be investigated.
Prosecutors said in their charge sheet that the two had explosives "in circumstances that indicated they were armed with the intent to commit a felony, namely, acts intended to cause grievous harm."
Despite the threats that the Iranian agents appeared to pose, the Kenyan government has not directly commented on the arrests or the discovery of the explosives.
Yusuf Haji, Kenya's acting internal security minister and current defense minister, was asked at a news conference Friday about the case, but he said the issue was "sensitive" and that he had no comment while the court case was ongoing. Haji said more information would be revealed when the prosecution presents its evidence.
Kenyan officials have an economic incentive to treat the case delicately. Kenya's Business Daily reported Monday that Tehran and Nairobi will sign oil contracts next month despite the risk of sanctions for buying Iranian oil. Iran's first vice president visited Kenya in May.
David Kirimi, a lawyer who represents the Iranians, said in court last week that their arrests could harm relations between Kenya and Iran. The prosecutor said he was pressing a case against a specific crime and was not concerned with diplomacy.
Mohammad alleged in court that — in addition to the injection — he was tortured, although he described only difficult living conditions, such as having to sleep on a cement floor.
Other overseas plots believed to have been carried out by Iranian agents include bomb plans in Thailand, an attack against the wife of an Israeli diplomat in India, and the targeting of Israeli teachers at a Jewish school in Azerbaijan.
AP writer Aron Heller contributed to this story from Jerusalem.