When I see news of a political activist's slaying, the first thing I look for is how the crime was committed. Often, the modus operandi will have characteristics in common with those from other cases of politically motivated murder that I have investigated in the past. The path to finding answers in some of those cases can be crystal clear, but investigators in others must follow a very murky trail, especially in those carried out by state-sponsored actors.
On Nov. 9, the Reuters news service reported on the murder of Iranian political activist Ahmad Mola Nissi, who was shot to death on a street in Amsterdam. Dutch police arrested a suspect who had fled the scene after the attack, but he has since been released from custody. Curiously, Nissi had been part of a group seeking to establish an independent state inside Iran, an aspiration that points toward a state-sponsored suspect in the case. As our Threat Lens team wrote: "The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been implicated in carrying out surveillance on targets of interest in Europe, and could certainly carry out hits like this one. While nothing concrete so far links Iran to the killing, no motives more compelling than silencing a separatist have been put forward."
Patience and persistence are two key characteristics of good investigators. But, the agent's job becomes a kludge when perpetrators cross international borders and assassins are provided safe havens. One of the biggest offenders in this space is Iran, who has a long history of reaching out and killing enemies of the state.
In 1980, I was at the scene of a shooting in a quiet, upscale neighborhood, as a medic with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. An assassin, dressed as a mail carrier, shot and killed an Iranian exile by the name of Ali Akbar Tabatabai at the front door of his home in Bethesda, Maryland. Those who follow my writings or read my books know that the community inside the Beltway is not immune from terrorist attacks or intelligence-related actions, as evidenced by the July 1, 1973, killing of Israeli military attache Col. Joseph Alon, which I chronicle in my book Chasing Shadows. In reflecting back on Tabatabai's shooting, I don't recall knowing anything about the victim at the time of the attack, other than he was in pretty bad shape. In the role I was filling at the time, the last thing that crosses your mind is the possibility of a state-sponsored assassination. You are focused on trying to save a life.
Police identified the killer as David Belfield, an American convert to Islam who had changed his name to Dawud Salahuddin. Interestingly, but not surprisingly based on the nature of the attack and the victim, the killer fled to Iran. A few years later, as a special agent with the State Department, I revisited that case in an effort to bring the killer to justice. I knew that the only way he would be tried in a U.S. court would be to get him to leave Iran, with which the United States has no extradition treaty. I knew it would be a long shot, and, unfortunately, I wasn't successful in luring Salahuddin out from his safe haven.
In that dark world of state-sponsored murder, assassins and intelligence operations always seem to resurface. In 2007, Salahuddin name was linked with another crime: He was the last person known to have met with Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent turned CIA contractor who was kidnapped and held hostage in Iran. As far as anyone knows, Levinson is still there.
Iran possesses an extremely capable and ruthless intelligence service with international reach. It would not surprise me in the least to learn Iranian agents had the Amsterdam dissident's blood on their hands, just like they did in the hit in Bethesda in 1980.