ITV News can reveal the assassination plot commissioned by associates of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, as ITV News' Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports
Iranian spies offered a people-smuggler $200,000 (around £158,290) to assassinate two news presenters codenamed “the bride and the groom” outside their London studio, to show critics of the regime they “could do harm to them at any time”.
The organisers can be named, and their plans laid bare, thanks to an ITV News investigation, which obtained video recordings and text messages exchanged as part of the plot.
Last autumn, the spies made plans to strike the studios of Persian language news channel Iran International, based in a business park in West London, with a car bomb.
But over the course of a month, as their ambitions and anxieties grew, their plans had to change, and instead orders were sent to “simply stab [the presenters] using a kitchen knife.”
Their plot was foiled, however, by the very people-smuggler who they hired to arrange the atrocity.
The smuggler-turned double-agent - who we are calling Ismail - shared details with ITV News about the plot. Multiple officials have verified his account.
According to Ismail, his commanders told him in October last year: “This London thing must be done in any circumstances.”
“We must finish them,” they apparently told him, referring to the TV presenters.
The evidence reveals the methods used by the Iranian spies, which included the hiring of cross-border criminals, like Ismail, rather than ideologues to conduct their assassinations abroad.
This was a tactic aimed at exploiting access to firearms, while offering Tehran a chance of plausible deniability.
The evidence gathered by ITV News found despite trying to cover its tracks, the group behind the plot was Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is the primary branch of the Iranian Armed Forces.
A change of plan
The scheme to plant a car bomb outside Iran International’s studios was changed at the last minute when leaders of the IRGC decided a knife attack had a greater chance of success.
Panic set in among members when reconnaissance trips found many security guards were protecting the studios. They decided to attack the targets inside their homes instead.
“It had to be done where they live, in their residence,” Ismail said in response to questions from ITV News. “In their home, in the lifts, on the stairs or in the corridors.”
When specialist officers from Scotland Yard caught wind of the plan they stepped in and alerted Iran International.
As a result, the television channel started broadcasting from the US rather than London in November last year.
But this was the only outward evidence of a spies plot that was still very much in progress.
An attack on the media
Iran International, which aims to be an impartial source of news, was targeted because the spies believed its presenters were causing the state “a lot of humiliation in the media,” Ismail said.
“They accuse Iran of committing any kidnap or assassination [on television] and we must finish them and make an example of them to anyone who will run the channel after them, so anyone who will take their place in the channel will learn a lesson from what happened to them,” he added.
The two presenters only learned they were the target of the assassination plot over a year later, when contacted by ITV News.
One of the presenters was Fardad Farahzad, a former BBC News reporter who was based in London before his nightly show was relocated to Washington DC before the plot.
“I didn't know there was a specific threat against me until now” Fardad told ITV News at his US studio.
“Hearing it firsthand makes it more real. It’s shocking to see people who are casually talking about harming me” he said after viewing the evidence obtained by ITV News.
On November 6, 2022, the presenter was designated a target by commanders at Unit 840, a designated group within the IRGC that is tasked with staging assassinations abroad.
The “Bride” was journalist Sima Sabet, who has a PHD in political science, she previously presented a talk show at 9pm on Iran International.
“The fact that they tried to kill me shows I did my job well, I was effective... I didn’t betray people and I stood with them, even with my life on the line,” she told ITV News.
Commands were sent out by one of the group’s senior organisers, who today can be unmasked as Muhammed Abd al-Razek Kanafani. He has close ties to Syrian dictator President Bashar al-Assad.
Kanafani sent Ismail screengrabs of the two anchors’ Instagram profiles, instructing him to find a way to kill them. He followed up later with telephone calls.
But the real mastermind behind the attack was Mohammed Reza Ansari, a commander from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to officials.
Ansari, who also has links to the family of Mr al-Assad, had recently been sanctioned by the US State Department.
ITV News found Ansari instructed Kanafani to help arrange the plot, which they referred to as “the wedding” in conversations to try to avoid detection.
In a phone call on October 22, 2022, Kanafani instructed Ismail to target directors at the channel rather than presenters.
In recordings of the conversation, which have been reviewed by ITV News, Kanafani sent his “recruit” the logo of Iran International to help him identify its offices on the busy industrial park, where many other companies are based.
“I want its director,” Kanafani told him. “The director and his deputy, and five to six people. The director is the most important.”
Ismail said he was also told agreeing to do the task would “change his life financially.”
Anxiety is rising
But a series of conversations over the following fortnight indicated a growing sense of anxiety among IRGC officials about delays.
After curt exchanges about the ways Ismail could pay another associate to carry out the attack, Kanafani showed signs of irritation.
“This matter can no longer be delayed” he said, in a conversation in early November. “It can’t be more than two or three days, it won’t succeed.”
He told Ismail: “… give me a notice about when it’s going to happen … but you told me it will take two or three days to act.”
Shortly after, Kanafani suddenly switched plans and ordered Ismail to instead focus on a “quiet wedding” – a knife attack rather than a car bomb, requiring less planning and equipment.
“Today we changed the entire strategy regarding the wedding… Now there is [still] a bride and groom,” he said. “Quietly. Bride and groom; bride and groom.”
Ismail confirmed: “In other words they do not want to have a party? They want something intimate, closed off?”
Kanafani responded: “With god’s help. Even with a kitchen knife.”
At this point, the planners seemed to be unaware that Mr Fardad had already moved to the United States. Miss Sabet, however, was still living in London.
Scotland Yard stepped in shortly afterwards and warned Iran International about threats to some staff, then the channel went public.
“Two of our British-Iranian journalists have, in recent days, been notified of an increase in the threats to them” a statement published by the channel on November 7 said.
“The Metropolitan Police have now formally notified both journalists that these threats represent an imminent, credible and significant risk to their lives and those of their families.”
But the channel officials were referring to two of its directors in their statement, unaware that it was two different journalists who the plotters had decided to target.
The head of security for Iran International, Roger MacMillan told ITV News: “Ultimately, they want to take us off air.
"You will achieve that by either attacking the physical building or rendering it impossible to broadcast or you'll send a message by removing key executives or in this case two lead presenters from the equation.
"If you do that you’ll deliver a message... look what we’ve done we've been able to reach in, right to the centre of your business and remove your key presenters from it.
"These are unprecedented times."
Ismail claims his involvement with the IRGC began in 2016. The group was aware of his cross-country criminal work and connections across Europe but had originally contacted him to work for them in the shipping industry.
But conversations reconvened in late 2022 when Iranian spies wanted to arrange an assassination in London.
But what they didn’t know was Ismail had become a “double agent” for a Western intelligence agency, which cannot be named.
So as the Iran International plot developed, Ismail relayed details of the conversations he was having with Kanafani to his Western intelligence handler.
ITV News has seen recordings of some of these conversations.
In October 2022, Ismail explained to the intelligence agency that Kanafani had recruited him with the promise of as much as $200,000 as well as a new identity.
According to Ismail, Kanafani told him: “We can pave the way for you to live well and move easily from Syria to Iran without the need for passports or documentation. I will send a ship to take you to Syria, and from there to Iran, so you can board a plane and pass through airports without having to present documentation.”
In separate recordings responding to questions from ITV News, Ismail said Kanafani assured him that he was a senior figure in the Iranian group, despite being based in Syria.
“It is not only on the Syrian level, we are dealing with the elites. He laughed and said: “So you get it now?” I told him: “Yes I get it! I totally get it, sir. I understand that it is Iran, the elites of Iran.”
Ismail told his handlers that over the course of several phone conversations with Kanafani last autumn, they started to have specific conversations about Iran International in London.
Kanafani urged Ismail to act quickly. “He said: ‘Excellent, I need you in the UK.’”
Ismail told Kanafani he had sent a “friend” to scope out Iran International’s headquarters and take a picture for him.
“I asked him to give me the [home] address, because the Iran International building is heavily guarded, and nothing could be done there.”
Our evidence from inside the terror network demonstrates Iran’s intentions to strike the UK and the role played by its proxies when planning international terror attacks.
“The wedding plot” was commissioned not from Tehran but from Damascus by associates of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
A spokesperson for the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London said they "categorically reject" the findings of ITV News' report, calling it "baseless accusations".
The statement read: "The unsubstantial claims presented in the above mentioned report are not only devoid of factual merit but also appear to be rooted in preconceived notions and a Hollywood-style narrative to pursue their malicious scheme and goal against the Islamic Republic of Iran which was in the agenda of some war mongers inside the UK for a while.
"Iran as a responsible and transparent state is committed to its obligation according to international law and norms to not interfere in the internal affairs of any country.
"It is disheartening to observe commissioned reporting that exemplified by the recent ITV coverage, is not only condemned by strongly rejected."
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