A U.S. Navy plane maneuvers on the runway of the Incirlik Air Base, in Adana, Turkey in July 28, 2015.

Spying on the U.S.

How Iran Tried to Recruit Spies Against the U.S. in Iraq

A U.S. Navy plane maneuvers on the runway of the Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey, in July 28, 2015. Photo: Emrah Gurel/AP

The Iraqi had a lot to prove to his Iranian spy handler. For years, the Iraqi had secretly spied for Iran, providing valuable intelligence about American operations in Iraq. But when the United States withdrew most of its troops and reduced its presence in Iraq in 2011, he had little new information that interested his Iranian minders. With the Americans pretty much gone, the Iraqi was cut loose by the Iranians.

By 2015, he had a job in Iraq’s security service, but he still needed money, so he came back to the Iranians to apply for his old job as a double agent.

It had been so long since he had last spied for the Iranians that he was dealing with a new intelligence officer who only knew what he had done by reading old files. Now, the Iraqi was classified merely as a spy “candidate,” like a job applicant.

His new handler had to be convinced that he was worth it. So during a clandestine meeting, the Iranian intelligence officer told the Iraqi to run through everything he knew that might be of interest to Iran.

There was one thing the Iraqi said that made the Iranian officer really take notice. The Iraqi said he had a friend who was also interested in spying for Iran. And the friend was working for the United States at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. He could thus spy on the Americans for Iran.

This spy story emerges from an archive of Iranian intelligence cables that were obtained by The Intercept in an unprecedented leak. Hundreds of top secret reports from Iranian intelligence reveal in astonishing detail the extent to which Iran influences neighboring Iraq and how its spies have penetrated the country. The Intercept first published stories based on the leaked documents in 2019, including one article jointly published with the New York Times. Since then, The Intercept has continued to research the documents and publish additional stories.


Leaked Iranian Intelligence Reports Expose Tehran’s Vast Web of Influence in Iraq

The leaked reports are from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS, and deal primarily with Iran’s intelligence operations in Iraq. The archive is highlighted by field reports and cables, dating from 2013 to 2015, from the intelligence service’s offices in Iraq and sent to MOIS headquarters in Tehran. The leak marked the first time that a large cache of documents from the highly secretive Iranian government has ever been obtained by a Western news organization.

In addition to documenting Iran’s influence in Iraq, the leaked files show how Iraq serves as a battlefield for American and Iranian spies. Iran’s deep influence over the Iraqi political landscape means that Iran’s two major intelligence organs — the MOIS and the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — have been able to operate freely throughout Iraq for years, developing an enormous network of secret sources throughout the country.

Iran’s thorough penetration of the country made Iraq the place where Iranian intelligence officers went to recruit spies against America, particularly when the American military presence in Iraq was at its height. Now that the U.S. presence has been reduced, the Americans and the Iranians have turned back to the shadows for their secret intelligence battles. But Iraq remains a key battlefield in their spy wars, and Iran continues to benefit from its longstanding influence there.

After the Iraqi mentioned that he had a friend working at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, the Iranian intelligence officer gave him an assignment. The Iranian officer told the Iraqi to meet his friend on his next trip to Turkey. He could prove himself to the Iranians by recruiting the friend.

At their next meeting, the Iraqi updated his Iranian handler about meeting his friend in Turkey.

“In last month’s visit as promised, I visited him and talked with him about his cooperation with Iran,” the Iraqi told the Iranian officer, according to one of the cables obtained by The Intercept. “He is very likely to cooperate with Iran.”

Security at the Incirlik base would make it difficult for his friend to communicate with the Iranians regularly, the Iraqi reported: “Since the American forces tightly control the elements working inside Incirlik Air Base, leaving the base and traveling around the cities would get one in trouble.”

But that wouldn’t be a problem for long. His friend had just gone to the United States for a two-month training course, and when he returned, he would be working at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. “At that point, it will be easy to establish contact with him,” the Iraqi told the MOIS officer.

The Iraqi’s handler, an Iranian officer identified in the report by his internal code number #3141153, was impressed by the Iraqi’s efforts.

“Initial stages of the file on his cooperation completed, and he is ready to receive the cooperation code,” the officer wrote of the Iraqi in his report. He was prepared for the next step in his employment as a spy, “based on the guidance of the honorable General Director 364.”

The leaked MOIS cables do not show whether the Iraqi’s friend ever actually spied for Iran from inside U.S. military bases in Iraq or Turkey.

A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment.

A picture taken during a press tour organised by the US-led coalition shows a view inside Ain al-Asad military airbase housing US and other foreign troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, January 13, 2020.

A view inside Al Asad air base housing U.S. and other foreign troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar on Jan. 13, 2020.

Photo: Ayman Henna/AFP via Getty Images

The case of the Iraqi and his friend at Incirlik was hardly the only time that Iranian intelligence officers have tried to use Iraq as a platform from which to spy on the United States, the leaked files show.

A story jointly published by The Intercept and the New York Times in 2019 reported on one leaked Iranian cable that showed the MOIS had recruited — or was attempting to recruit — a spy inside the U.S. State Department. The individual was not identified by name but was described as someone who had worked for the State Department on Iraq issues. The Intercept only obtained an undated portion of the internal Iranian report about the case.

“Considering his responsibilities in the U.S. State Department and record and knowledge, he has good access” to secret information, the MOIS cable stated.

In 2020, the FBI made an arrest in another Iran-related spy case in Iraq. Mariam Thompson, a translator from Minnesota working for the U.S. military in Iraq, was charged with passing information that identified U.S. undercover informants to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group. This month, a court filing in her legal case showed that she is planning to plead guilty.

Iranian intelligence’s analog methods may work to defeat American surveillance in part because they rely more on legwork than the latest technology.

But the leaked cables obtained by The Intercept show that Iranian intelligence operations are usually conducted throughout Iraq with little interference from American investigators. The cables show that one reason for their success may be that the Iranian intelligence officers operating in Iraq use gritty, old-fashioned tradecraft to avoid detection while meeting their sources. Their analog methods may work to defeat American surveillance in part because they rely more on legwork than the latest technology.

“I left the base by foot an hour before holding the meeting, and after twenty minutes walking on foot and carrying out the necessary checks, took two taxis through the neighboring streets to the site of the meeting and then once more, while checking on foot for ten minutes, returned to the site and, after the meeting I again took two taxis and returned to the base,” a MOIS officer wrote in one report about a meeting with an Iraqi informant.

“After leaving place of residence and taking a walk, got into the car and drove to the bazaar,” a MOIS officer wrote in a report about another meeting with a source in Erbil, Kurdistan.

“While driving a distance, went back to the desired site Majidi Mall. I got into source’s car near Fawq Market and went for a distance from the place. Meeting held in one of the city’s suburbs, inside the car. We then got out of the car. … Source’s behavior and state were normal. … Aforementioned wanted an increase of his wages, giving as the reason financial difficulties and his parent’s illness.”

An helicopter flies over the shrine of Imam Hussein during the Ashura commemorations that mark his killing on November 4, 2014 in the central city of Karbala, Iraq.

A helicopter flies over the shrine of Imam Husayn during Ashura commemorations, on Nov. 4, 2014, in the central city of Karbala, Iraq.

Photo: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP via Getty Images

The Iranians are also creative in how they take advantage of religious and cultural institutions and events in Iraq for intelligence purposes. Many of their Iraqi agents are, like Iranians, Shia Muslims, and so personal visits to Shia religious sites in Iraq provide the MOIS with good cover for their spy meetings.

Many of their Iraqi agents are, like Iranians, Shia Muslims, and so personal visits to Shia religious sites in Iraq provide the MOIS with good cover for their spy meetings.

“A meeting was held with [a source code-named 118511001] on Saturday, in the Shrine of Aba Abdullah al-Husayn (Peace Be Upon Him). At the beginning of the meeting, he described the situation in the fields of Najaf and Karbala during the past few days, with attention to the pre-determined fronts. Then, after going to Imam Husayn’s shrine, he visited and inspected some centers and gathering places of the Shirazi sect. … Later, after he left the pure shrine, we went together to the area around it and visited the scholarly seminaries. … He then invited me to have lunch and the conversation continued for hours.”

Another MOIS officer arranged a meeting at a political photo exhibition with an exiled Bahraini dissident visiting Karbala from London.

“Now present in Karbala … [the dissident] has been contacted and told that an exhibition about martyrs of Bahrain has been set up. … On Saturday night, in the company of other brothers [MOIS officers] we made a joint visit to the photo exhibition of crimes committed by the government of Bahrain. During a short meeting, it was decided to meet with him the next day. This meeting happened on Sunday with the noon call to prayer and began after noon and afternoon prayers, and continued an hour later.”

In order to avoid the betrayal of their spy operations in Iraq, the Iranians were more willing to trust informants who were Iraqi Shias with some family ties to Iran. One MOIS report about an Iraqi intelligence officer who wanted to spy for Iran noted that his father took refuge in Iran in the 1970s and that the potential agent “spent three years of elementary school in Iran.”

The Iraqi informants that the Iranians often prized the most were those, like the Iraqi with a friend at Incirlik, who proved useful in helping them gain access to American personnel and facilities. “Source went to the aforementioned base in Baghdad airport on the excuse of giving gifts to some of the [Iraqi] commanders,” including one commander who “is a corrupt bribe-taker and a CIA agent in the Iraqi Army,” one MOIS officer wrote in a report about his informant. “While giving gifts to several of the Americans present in that base, he took souvenir photographs. (These pictures will be sent by messenger.)”

While the Iranians operating in Iraq relied heavily on shoe leather and personal and cultural relationships, the leaked cables also show that the Iranians did sometimes depend on electronic technology to conduct their espionage operations in Iraq. But like other spies around the world, the Iranians sometimes found their technology to be frustrating. In one cable, a MOIS officer angrily reported on the failure of their efforts to conduct electronic surveillance on one of their Iraqi informants, to make sure he was giving them accurate information. The MOIS officer reported that the informant had discovered their surveillance equipment, and the suspicious Iraqi had insisted on a change of plans for their meeting.

As the cable noted, “The bugging device we had in source’s work place as well as the telephone bugging device was exposed to him by satanic agents, and so the meeting was held in the open, outside his workplace.”

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