An S-300 missile system drives in front of the officials' stand during a military parade marking the annual Iranian National Army Day in Tehran on April 18, 2019. (AFP/Getty Images)
Terrorists linked to Iranian-backed Hezbollah were stockpiling bomb-making ingredients, including three tons of ammonium nitrate, in London in 2015 in what was described as a "secret British bomb factory," the Daily Telegraph reported this week.
The 2015 case was kept "hidden from the public" until now.
The discovery of the explosives cache in 2015, and the subsequent decision to keep that information from the public, occurred during a period of intense public debate over the nuclear deal between the Obama administration and Iran.
The Iran Nuclear Deal
On July 14, 2015, the United States, Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany reached an agreement with Iran broadly known as the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, lifted economic sanctions and allowed Iran to access an estimated $120 billion in reserves held in banks abroad.
Obama hailed the deal, claiming that, "Every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off." He also said he welcomed close inspection of the deal, saying, "I welcome scrutiny of the details of this agreement." But at the same time, he warned Congress that he would veto any legislation that tried to prevent the deal's implementation.
Although July 14, 2015, is generally viewed as the deal's effective date, the agreement wouldn't actually be finalized until Jan. 21, 2016, when Obama signed Executive Order 13716 into effect.
It was during this intervening period that Obama and his administration worked to sell the deal to members of Congress and U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe.
Notably, Obama never submitted the Iran nuclear deal to Congress because he knew it had no chance of passing. The Iranian parliament also never approved the actual deal, nor did the Iranian president ever sign it.
The Obama State Department acknowledged that the deal wasn't legally binding, in a letter sent to then-Rep. Mike Pompeo of the House Intelligence Committee. "The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document," wrote Julia Frifield, the State Department assistant secretary for legislative affairs, in the Nov. 19 letter.
"The success of the JCPOA will depend not on whether it is legally binding or signed, but rather on the extensive verification measures we have put in place, as well as Iran's understanding that we have the capacity to re-impose-and ramp up-our sanctions if Iran does not meet its commitments," Frifield wrote to Pompeo.
2015 London Bomb-Making Plot
The political shakiness of the Iran nuclear deal, combined with ongoing scrutiny of its various flaws makes the news of the fall 2015 discovery of a huge cache of ammonium nitrate-a common ingredient in homemade bombs-particularly noteworthy.
"Terrorists linked to Iran were caught stockpiling tons of explosive materials on the outskirts of London in a secret British bomb factory," The Daily Telegraph reported. "Radicals linked to Hizbollah (also Hezbollah), the Lebanese militant group, stashed thousands of disposable ice packs containing ammonium nitrate-a common ingredient in homemade bombs.
"The plot was uncovered by MI5 and the Met Police just months after the UK signed up to the Iran nuclear deal."
According to the Telegraph, the plot, which was uncovered in "the autumn of 2015," involved more than three tons of ammonium nitrate. By way of comparison, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people involved two tons of ANFO-a combination of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The Telegraph reported that, "A well-placed source described the plot as ‘proper organized terrorism,' while another said enough explosive materials were stored to do ‘a lot of damage.'"
The discovery was considered so serious that both "David Cameron and Theresa May, then the prime minister and home secretary, were personally briefed on what had been found."
For reasons unexplained in the article, the discovery of the explosives cache wasn't made public at the time and was even kept hidden from other U.S. and UK politicians. The Telegraph noted that the disclosure of the 2015 explosives cache involved a three-month investigation "in which more than 30 current and former officials in Britain, America, and Cyprus were approached and court documents were obtained."
Nor is this the first time there have been reports of efforts to keep information relating to Hezbollah and Iran from the public, at what were crucial periods surrounding the Iran nuclear deal.
According to a lengthy, detailed, and highly critical December 2017 Politico report, "The Secret Backstory of How Obama Let Hezbollah off the Hook," the Obama administration may have derailed a "campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah," known as Project Cassandra.
Begun in 2008, after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) amassed evidence that Hezbollah was engaging in drugs and weapons trafficking, along with other crimes, the investigation traced its way to the "innermost circle of Hezbollah and its state sponsors in Iran." According to the Politico report, "Hezbollah's network moved metric ton quantities of cocaine [to] launder drug proceeds on a global scale, and procure weapons and ... explosives."
It was at this point that political roadblocks by the Obama administration began to appear.
"As Project Cassandra reached higher into the hierarchy of the conspiracy, Obama administration officials threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way," Politico reported. "When Project Cassandra leaders sought approval for some significant investigations, prosecutions, arrests, and financial sanctions, officials at the Justice and Treasury departments delayed, hindered, or rejected their requests."
The Politico article quoted Katherine Bauer, a former Treasury official in the Obama administration, who had testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs:
"Under the Obama administration ... these [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down, for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal."
The Involvement of DOJ Official Bruce Ohr
As it turns out, there is also a tie to the ongoing scandal known as Spygate.
On Dec. 7, 2017, Justice Department (DOJ) official Bruce Ohr was demotedand stripped of his title as associate deputy attorney general after it was learned that the FBI used Ohr as a conduit for unofficial information from former MI6 spy Christopher Steele-who authored the now-infamous Steele dossier on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump-after Steele was formally terminated by the FBI. Ohr had failed to inform his superiors of his ongoing relationship with the FBI and Steele.
A month later, on Jan. 8, 2018, it was reported by Fox News that Ohr had been removed as the head of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) program.
While the Politico article makes no mention of the OCDETF or of Ohr, Fox News confirmed in January 2018 that Ohr, "as the head of OCDETF, was directly involved with Project Cassandra, the interagency investigation spearheaded by the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] that tracked a massive international drug and money-laundering scheme allegedly run by Hezbollah."
Several days after the Politico article was published, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Dec. 22, 2017, that the allegations in the Politico report would be reviewed:
"While I am hopeful that there were no barriers constructed by the last administration to allowing DEA agents to fully bring all appropriate cases under Project Cassandra, this is a significant issue for the protection of Americans. We will review these matters and give full support to investigations of violent drug-trafficking organizations."
Hezbollah Targeted by DOJ
Two weeks later, in early January 2018, Ohr was removed as the head of the OCDETF. Then, just days after Ohr's removal, Sessions announced the creation of the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT):
HFNT prosecutors and investigators are tasked with investigating individuals and networks providing support to Hezbollah, and pursuing prosecutions in any appropriate cases. The HFNT will begin by assessing the evidence in existing investigations, including cases stemming from Project Cassandra, a law enforcement initiative targeting Hezbollah's drug trafficking and related operations," a statement by the DOJ read.
Sessions was quoted in the statement as saying:
"In an effort to protect Americans from both threats, the Justice Department will assemble leading investigators and prosecutors to ensure that all Project Cassandra investigations as well as other related investigations, whether past or present, are given the needed resources and attention to come to their proper resolution. The team will initiate prosecutions that will restrict the flow of money to foreign terrorist organizations as well as disrupt violent international drug-trafficking operations."
On Oct. 15, 2018, Sessions broadened OCDETF's mandate, and in doing so, designated five different groups as the nation's top transnational organized-crime threats (notably, Hezbollah made the list):
- Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)
- Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG
- Cártel de Sinaloa (the Sinaloa Cartel)
- Clan del Golfo (the Gulf Clan)
- Lebanese Hezbollah (also Hizbollah)
Sessions selected the five groups based on recommendations he received from the FBI, DEA, OCDETF, and the DOJ's Criminal Division.
Sessions singled out Hezbollah for additional focus in his discussion and specifically noted the previously created HFNT task force:
"The subcommittee on Lebanese Hezbollah will be led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ilan Graff of the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. AUSA Graff is overseeing the prosecution of two alleged members of Hezbollah's External Security Organization, the first such operatives to be charged with terrorism offenses in the United States."
To date, we still have no official answer from the review of Project Cassandra announced by Sessions in January 2018. It isn't known if the investigation is still ongoing. The State Department issued a formal and innocuous statement relating to the report on the 2015 Hezbollah terrorist bomb plot, but didn't address why the finding had been kept from the public.
The United States declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1997, but the UK didn't do so until February 2019, more than three years after the bomb-making plot was uncovered.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced on June 9 that Iran has followed through on its threat to accelerate production of enriched uranium. Iran had previously threatened to quadruple its enriched uranium production-a move that appeared to have been designed to pressure Europe into providing assistance against U.S. sanctions.