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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Suspects held over Iranian opposition bomb plot shunned politics

The couple detained in Belgium over alleged bomb plot lived a quiet life in Antwerp

The couple were arrested when their car was stopped in Brussels on Saturday June 30, 2018. Reuters TV
The couple were arrested when their car was stopped in Brussels on Saturday June 30, 2018. Reuters TV

The young woman never talked about politics on the four nights a week she turned up at her friend’s home for dinner with fellow Iranian emigres.

She spoke about her boring job in a supermarket and how she missed Iran and her family, but never of the seismic political shifts in her homeland over the last decade.

If, as suspected by Belgian police, the woman and her husband were Iranian-backed terrorists living quietly in the Belgian port city of Antwerp, before launching a murderous mission against the regime’s opponents, they gave nothing away to those closest to them.

They didn’t hide – the letterbox of their flat on a busy street in southern Antwerp carries their names – but throughout the years they lived in Belgium, Amir Saadouni, 38, and his wife Nasimeh, 34, gave few signs of being secret plotters, one of the couple’s closest friends told The National.

Their arrest on Saturday in a Mercedes containing a half-a-kilogramme of homemade explosive and a detonator hidden inside a small washing bag has stunned their friend, a young woman who had also left Iran as a child with her family for political reasons.

“I was crying. My mother is still crying,” she said. “She can’t believe this - she was like her daughter and was every night with us.

“Her life had secrets,” she said. “If she didn’t come for two days, we’d call to say where are you? We never asked who she was with.”

The couple – named only by Belgian authorities as Amir S. and Nasimeh N. - were arrested on Saturday on the outskirts of Brussels after allegedly collecting material to attack a conference organised by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) group just outside of Paris later that day. The couple have been charged with terrorism offences.

The MEK is seen by Tehran as a criminal network aimed at bringing down the government and banned in Iran since 1981. The friend, who declined to be named, confirmed that Mr Saadouni had once been a member of the organisation, but she said that his motivation had not been to overthrow the regime. “Years ago, he was a member of the MEK but I think he was working with them because he wanted papers for Belgium” to prove he was fleeing from political repression, she said. “It was partly a ploy.

“He told us that he had problems with his family. He said: ‘I don’t want to live with them. I’m coming to Europe for freedom’.”

Nearly 12,000 Iranians, including those who have taken Belgian citizenship, have joined the 11 million population of the northern European country, according to official figures.

The majority of Iranians live in the northern Flanders region, where Antwerp is the largest city. Antwerp has been at the forefront of efforts to promote trade with Iran following the 2015 nuclear deal that opened up the country to trade after years of sanctions.

The city’s renowned diamond trade – which included Iranians among the 73 nations working in Antwerp – announced plans to promote links with Iran to tap into the likely increased wealth associated with the lifting of sanctions. That project has not yet gone ahead.

The port of Antwerp, one of the main European destinations for Iranian vessels, also signed a five-year cooperation deal in 2016 with officials from Iran’s main port of Bandar Abbas to boost trade.

With an attack on European soil allegedly planned on the eve of a visit by President Hassan Rouhani to curry favour with the continent’s leaders, the timing appears strange, said analysts.

A successful attack would also increase the profile of the MEK, which attracted 25,000 people to France on Saturday, but has little support within Iran. “It’s in Iran’s interests to have smooth relations with Europe at the moment,” said Tom Sauer, a professor and lecturer on security at Antwerp’s university. “This doesn’t make sense.”

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Read more:

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The proposed attack followed comments last month by Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, who suggested that Iran “conducts covert assassination operations in the heart of Europe” but gave no further detail. The claim surprised analysts with no recent killings in Europe officially attributed to Tehran.

Shashank Joshi, of the London-based security thinktank the Royal United Services Institute, said it was not clear if the Iranians would be prepared to take such a provocative step at this time.

“Ranking all the possibilities I would grudgingly have to put at the top that this was an attempt by the IRGC [Revolutionary Guard] to undermine Rouhani by blowing up his attempt of outreach to Europe. The timing is pretty suspicious.

“The Iranians tend to take aggressive steps but in targeted ways. Attacks on the MEK on European soil would be a bit more difficult to fathom.

Antwerp was in the spotlight last month after a company based in the city, Global Trading Group, was blacklisted by the US Treasury as part of measures aimed at Iran and Hezbollah following Donald Trump’s pullout from the nuclear deal.

The US Treasury had claimed that the company’s director Mohammad Ibrahim Bazzi was a Hezbollah financier operation through Belgium, Lebanon and Iraq. The company denied the claims.

Mr Saadouni first came to Belgium about 15 years ago, his friend said. They first met when they were part of a house-share in the city.

She said that he met his future wife via a dating website while she was still in Iran and they later married. She worked four hours a day at a supermarket to make ends meet and to pay for trips back to Iran three or four times a year, she said.

They first lived together for years in a tiny flat, close to Antwerp’s university. He worked in a ‘night shop’ for poor wages, selling cigarettes and alcohol, according to their friend.

They moved into the privately-rented flat next door to her about four years ago when it became vacant. It cost about 600 euros-a-month – affordable for a man who now spends two weeks in every three away in Rotterdam working at the port.

“I’ve known the man for 15 years, he’s a baby,” she said of Mr Saadouni. “A kind man. He was a good person he was playing football, Playstation, he was hanging out, drinking with my brother. He was okay. There was nothing bad.”