Tehran’s Unlikely Assassins
5:05 PM, Aug 20, 2012 • By MATTHEW LEVITT
Within months of the revolution that led to the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Tehran had recruited a stable of violent extremist supporters it could call upon around the world to carry out acts of terrorism. In the United States, one group of concern was the Islamic Guerillas of America. In an interview for a documentary film, former State Department special agent Lou Mizell recalls that it “was sponsored by the Iranian intelligence service, operated out of Washington, D.C., and primarily recruited black African American Muslim converts to do their bidding for them.”
In 1980, Dawud Salahuddin (aka David Belfield), an American convert to Islam and a reported Islamic Guerillas of America operative, was recruited by the Islamic Republic of Iran to assassinate Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a former press attaché at the Iranian embassy in Washington. Tabatabai had become a vocal critic of Ayatollah Khomeini and founded the Iran Freedom Foundation, an organization opposed to the Islamic revolutionary regime.
A year earlier, the Iranian embassy’s chargé d’affaires Ali Agha had offered Salahuddin a post as a security guard. Salahuddin was moved to a head security post at the Iranian Interest Section at the Algerian embassy after the United States and Iran severed diplomatic relations in April 1980. While there, according to Salahuddin, he was contracted and paid $5,000 to kill for the Iranian government. Dressed as a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier, Salahuddin carried a parcel concealing a handgun to Tabatabai’s front door on July 22, 1980. Salahuddin shot Tabatabai three times when the latter answered the door to his Bethesda, Maryland, home.
Following the killing, Salahuddin fled to Canada and purchased a ticket to Paris. Eventually, he arrived at the Iranian embassy in Geneva and received a visa to Iran, where he was accorded a private meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini. Charged with murder in the United States, Salahuddin was employed in Iran by the Iranian intelligence service, according to Mizell, the former State Department agent. He remains a fugitive of American justice to this day.
Another episode occurred three years later. In December 1983, U.S. authorities foiled an attempt by pro-Khomeini students to firebomb a Seattle, Washington, theater where a large number of pro-Shah theatergoers were attending a performance by an Iranian singing group. The FBI and local law enforcement agents learned, by interviewing pro-Khomeini students, that the group planned to bar the doors of the theater and set the building on fire. Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1988, Oliver (“Buck”) Revell, then the FBI’s executive assistant director of investigation, reported that the students “had in hand not only the plans, but also the explosives and the gasoline to carry out these fire bombings.”
By 1985, the CIA would warn that “radicals in the Khomeini regime are committed to spreading their Islamic ideology, and many clerics view terrorism as a legitimate, effective tool of state policy, particularly against the U.S. position in the Middle East.” But Iran could also turn to individual radicals worldwide to carry out acts of terrorism abroad, “including some in the U.S.” The CIA noted that “Iran provides its surrogates with money, equipment, training, and intelligence,” making them more capable than they would otherwise be operating on their own.