Israel has arrested a Belgian citizen of Iranian extraction on suspicion that he was sent by the Iranian intelligence agency to spy for the Islamic Republic.
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The suspect, Alex Mans, was arrested by the Shin Bet security service and Israel Police at Ben-Gurion International Airport on his way out of Israel. The arrest took place two weeks ago but the information was not made public until Sunday.
Israeli security officials suspect that Mans’ business dealings were meant to serve as a cover for intelligence gathering and terrorism. They said Iran was also trying to use Mans to bypass the embargo on trade and financial transactions with Iran.
During his trips to Israel – the one this month was his third since last year – Mans tried to make contact with Tel Aviv businesspeople, presenting himself as a Belgian businessman who sells windows and roofing for stores and restaurants. Several websites and a Facebook page had been created to make him seem legitimate.
Mans was born in 1958, as Ali Mansouri, and lived in Iran until 1980, according to Israeli security officials.
As the Belgian citizen Alex Mans, he visited Israel in July 2012, January of this year and, in his most recent visit, September 6 until his arrest on September 11. Shin Bet officials said they suspect Mans was trying to develop business ties in Tel Aviv on behalf of Iranian intelligence.
On his most recent visit, Mans took photographs of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv as well as the customs area of Ben-Gurion International Airport and other sites in Israel, “including sites that interest Iranian security officials,” the Shin Bet said. It said the pictures of the U.S. Embassy, which were taken from multiple angles, were found on him when he was arrested.
Mans told the Shin Bet that in early 2012 he was asked to spy on Israel and was promised about $1 million to do so. He later received various assignments, including to forge business ties and sign deals with Israeli businesspeople, in an effort to secure him continued access to Israel.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is also known as Quds Force and which sent Mans to Israel, is responsible for several terror attacks and attempted terror attacks against Israeli targets, including an a car bomb near the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi last year, failed attempts in Bangkok and Tbilisi, and planned attacks in Azerbaijan, Kenya and Nigeria, the Shin Bet said.
Mans told his Israeli interrogators that he moved from Iran to Turkey, where he lived from 1980 to 1997. That year he received a visa for Belgium, where he expanded his business dealings. Nearly a decade later, he married a Belgian citizen and changed his name to make it less distinctly Iranian.
He later got divorced and flew around the world, living alternately in Iran, Turkey and Belgium. In 2007 he moved back to Iran and married an Iranian woman.
Mans said his Iranian handlers instructed him to set up a business infrastructure in Israel to conceal his intelligence gathering. He said his primary handler, Haji Mustafa from the special operations unit of the Quds Force, met with him and discussed his activities in Israel. Haji Hamid Na’amati was the main liaison between him and the special ops unit and Mahdi Hanbabai gave Mans his assignments within Israel.
Upon arrival in New York ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the United Nations General Assembly, the prime minister's entourage commented on the arrest. "At the same time as it condemns terrorism on American soil, Iran sends an agent to collect intelligence for a possible attack on a U.S. embassy," Israeli media reported the officials as saying.
The officials reportedly added that the arrest serves as further evidence that statements coming out of Iran do not match the criminal actions they take, and that the Islamic Republic continues to generate terrorism throughout the world.
Iranian media: Israel in 'damage control mode'
Responding to the reports in Israel, the Tehran Times said the arrest shows that "Israel has gone into damage control mode" following Iranian President Hassan Rohani's visit to the United Nations. "Since Israel is always trying to demonize Iran, the move comes as no surprise," the Times added, in a report posted in its english-language website.