The plot seemed absurd, at first.
An Iranian-born car salesman in Texas was on a mission to hire a Mexican hit man – who was secretly a DEA informant – to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Blowing up a crowded Washington, D.C., restaurant would be catastrophic. It also marked the first known instance of Middle Eastern terrorists uniting with a Mexican cartel to spill blood on U.S. soil.
FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who teamed up to take on the case, said there was apprehension up and down the chain of command when the plot came to light in June 2011. There also was certainty they couldn’t let a real threat slip through their hands.
FBI Special Agent Christopher Raia recalled a phone call from the DEA.
“I know this sounds crazy,” Raia, who is based in Houston, recalled a DEA agent saying. “… but I’m telling you the information is from one of our top informants in the division,” the agent continued. “I have a name for you. He wants to have something blown up, says he is going to do it for the country of Iran.”
Authorities declined to reveal exactly how Manssor Arbabsiar, who lived in Corpus Christi, was able to first make contact with the informant.
Portions of the investigation are now revealed in interviews with agents, court documents, including an in-depth psychological profile and a letter to the Houston Chronicle from the former car salesman, who in 2013 was sentenced to 25 years after pleading guilty.
The night the DEA called the FBI, the informant secretly recorded a meeting he had with Arbabsiar, as the two sat in a car in the border city of Reynosa.
Arbabsiar shared his plan
He was working for his cousin, a general in the Quds Force, a special forces unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The U.S. branded the unit as a state-sponsored terrorist group in 2007 for its attacks on Coalition Forces and other acts.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, head of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the Arbabsiar case stands as a warning.
“We know that international terrorist networks are expanding their ties to Latin American drug traffickers and creating risks to our nation’s borders and homeland security,” he said. “No better example illustrates this danger than the Iranian Quds Force attempt to work with a drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States on American soil,” said McCaul, a Republican who represents part of Harris County.
Arbabsiar emigrated from Iran in 1977 and earned a mechanical engineering degree in Louisiana.
When times were good, he had a penchant for bars and nightclubs, where he wined and dined women other than his wife. He was a smooth talker, quick with compliments, loved fast cars and always carried lots of cash.
During that meeting with the informant in Reynosa, Arbabsiar spoke of hiring him and his cartel team to kill the ambassador, then later doing other jobs, such as hitting the Israeli Embassy to the United States as well as Saudi and Israeli embassies in Argentina.
But first, Abel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, had to die – and Arbabsiar said Iran would pay $1.5 million for each attack on U.S. soil.
The informant flew to Houston the next day and shared a more than two-hour recording with DEA and FBI agents at the DEA’s Houston Division headquarters, not far from the Galleria Mall.
“It was evident to everybody who sat in the room and listened to that recording that whoever was on the other end of the recording thought he was hiring our guy to commit that assassination,” Raia recalled of the recording. “The way he talked, he was very calculating. He had a plan.”
Arbabsiar had been at a low point in his life. The car business he’d named after his son had gone bankrupt, and he was estranged from his family in Texas, including his third wife, who was from Mexico.
His cousin, the general, allegedly asked him if he’d be able to go back to Texas and use his connections along the border from his car-selling days to hire a cartel to carry out the hit to pressure Saudi Arabia, its Persian Gulf region rival.
Backup plan: explosives
There would be several meetings and phone calls as the plot came together, both between Arbabsiar and the Quds Force, and Arbabsiar and the DEA informant.
The trafficker said he’d need four men. In the event the ambassador could not be shot, the explosive C-4 would be used to kill him as he ate in a restaurant among as many as 200 diners.
Arbabsiar responded that mass casualties would not be a problem. Iran wanted the ambassador dead soon.
“Iran was basically a winner either way,” said FBI Special Agent James Walsh, who also worked on the case. “If it worked out, they succeeded in their mission. If it didn’t work, they had the ability to say, ‘We don’t know what you are talking about, it makes no sense, you have a used car salesman who has family in Iran and you blame it on us?’ ”
Everything kicked into high gear when $100,000 was wired from overseas to an undercover bank account in Manhattan.
It was proof not only that Arbabsiar’s connections were legitimate, but that he had major backing.
President Barack Obama was briefed.
But as everything was set, Arbabsiar was still in Iran and beyond the reach of U.S. law. As a result, the informant told Arbabsiar that the cartel had put a lot of time into the hit, and needed one more assurance. Either half the money had to be paid up front or Arbabsiar himself would have to be held in Mexico as human collateral.
Arbabsiar was told by his handler in Iran that he wouldn’t get any more money until after the job, and was warned against going back to Mexico.
Arbabsiar flew from Iran to Germany and on to Mexico City, but was turned away by Mexican customs officials, who had been tipped off by the United States. He was told that he’d have to leave, and was put on a flight to New York, where U.S. agents secretly sat among passengers to watch him.
Upon landing, agents arrested Arbabsiar, who was taken to a hotel room, given a meal and asked in a ploy if he knew of a bomb plot along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Agents said Arbabsiar not only waived his rights, but after hearing recordings of his conversations with the informant, spoke with them for 10 days.
He also voluntarily made several recorded phone calls to Iran, but agents later said his help ended abruptly.
“I am a nice guy, but everything has its limit,” Arbabsiar would later say. “I told them you want me to make another call, but that will put my family in danger.”
Tip could have been ignored
In a letter to the Chronicle, Arbabsiar said Iran has long been put in an undeserved bad light by U.S. media. He stressed that with regard to the assassination plot, he acted alone.
“The actions I committed were only the doing of one person – mine, and mine alone,” he said. “I was not there mentally and I went off the deep end. My country should not be held accountable for my actions. What I did had nothing to do with my government.”
Arbabsiar said he understood that he has to pay for his crimes.
“For some crimes, a fine will pay the debt and balance the books,” he said. “For others, it takes a prison sentence. For me, my debt is 25 years.”
FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Christopher Freeze, of the Houston Division, said the tip about Arbabsiar might have seemed outrageous.
“Given the facts of the case, some individuals would have easily dismissed the astonishing and seemingly outlandish allegations,” Freeze said. “But they were true, and that is why we do what we do each day.”