Those security guards at the Iranian mission to the United Nations sure are avid shutterbugs.
At least four times in the last five years, U.S. authorities have spotted them conducting highly suspicious camera shoots around New York City. (No telling how many photo sessions went unnoticed.)
Over the last two years, FBI counterintelligence officials found three of the incidents so alarming that they expelled the Iranians from the United States for "activities incompatible with their diplomatic status."
This euphemistic language means the Iranians were using their diplomatic accreditation (and immunity) to do work other than diplomacy. Of course, an official at the Iranian mission denies any such mischief, saying: "Like anybody who visits New York, they [security guards] visit tourist sites - sightseeing and videotaping themselves, looking at the Metropolitan Museum [of Art], places like that."
Now it's true that the Iranian mission security guards did videotape some predictable N.Y.C. landmarks such as Times Square, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Statue of Liberty.
But the pair most recently expelled from the U.S. also videotaped MTA buses and were noted trying to shield the camera with their bodies.
Over the last five years, security guards from the Iranian mission also were found filming critical infrastructure and transportation nodes such as the Brooklyn Bridge, a Queens subway station, the Queens-Midtown tunnel and the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Should we be concerned about Iranian security guards running around the Big Apple taking happy snaps? Heck, yeah! These aren't security guards at all. They're members of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) or perhaps even of the paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
And it's safe to say they weren't sightseeing. They were out gathering intelligence for possible terrorist strikes on N.Y.C. targets.
Videotaping is an excellent way to case a potential target. Terrorists have been doing it for years.
A number of videotapes containing surveillance footage of potential terrorist targets were found in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
The discovery of one set of videotapes in December 2001 helped avert a major terrorist attack by Jemaah Islamiya (al Qaeda's Southeast Asia franchise) against the American, British, Australian and Israeli embassies in Singapore.
Both the MOIS and the IRGC have strong working relationships with terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, providing these groups with funding, safehaven, training and weapons.
These Iranian security services also have a relationship with al Qaeda. Iran is harboring a number of senior al Qaeda operatives, including Osama bin Laden's son, Saad bin Laden, and Saif al Adel, mastermind of the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Iran has provided safe haven to members of the Iraqi al Qaeda-associated group Ansar al Islam as well.
The 9/11 Commission recently noted in one of its reports that Iran's terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda collaborated on the 1996 bombing of the American barracks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
And don't forget that in 1983, Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah killed 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut, Lebanon.
Are Iranian or Iranian-supported attacks in the United States on the drawing board? Most likely.
Supporting this assertion: a) the suitability of the places the Iranians videotaped for terrorist attacks; and b) Iran's cozy relationship with international terrorism. (The State Department fingers Iran as the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism.)
Would Iran provide videotape and other valuable targeting information to al Qaeda or Hezbollah - both of which have terrorist cells in the United States and Canada? If history is any indicator - undoubtedly.
The words of a top, hard-line IRGC ideologue, Hassan Abassi, only add to the concerns about an Iranian-facilitated attack. "We will map 29 sensitive sites in the United States and give the information to all international terror organizations," Abassi said recently.
It's no secret that relations between Washington and Tehran are strained over Iran's nuclear (weapons) program, its sponsorship of international terrorism and Iran's (political, religious and insurgent) meddling in Iraq.
Because of this, the FBI (and others) must crack down aggressively now on any suspicious activities in New York. With thousands of tourists and high-rolling politicos (including President Bush) descending on the city for the Republican convention this summer, the Big Apple is a ripe target for a terrorist strike.
The dots of terrorism are appearing again - this time we have to connect them before it's too late.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
First appeared in the New York Post