How bright lights of Pattaya seduced Iran's bungling Bangkok bombers

Numerous clues were left in the red-light district of the Thai resort by terror team. Peter Popham reports

Peter Popham@peterpopham
Saturday 18 February 2012 01:00

It was the week when rumours of a new war with Iran became unstoppable, when all the talk was of red lines being crossed and options narrowing. But it was to culminate in a bloody farce.

On Monday, Tal Yehoshua Koren, the wife of an Israeli diplomat, was being driven through the heart of Delhi to the American School to pick up her children when she became aware of a motorcycle drawing close to the car and something being slapped on to its side.

The driver hit the brakes and Mrs Koren was half-way out of the door when the car blew up, destroyed by a sticky bomb similar to those which had killed several nuclear scientists in Iran in recent months.

Mrs Koren was taken to hospital with shrapnel in her spine and her legs apparently paralysed. She recovered consciousness only the next day. Revenge by Iran for a succession of clinically efficient attacks – widely believed to be the work of Mossad, though Israel always denied it – appeared to be under way. On the same day, a similar assassination attempt was foiled in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

But if the attacks in Bangkok were meant to be co-ordinated with those in India and Georgia, the bombers in Thailand had got strangely out of kilter.

The planning for their assaults had been painstaking. A 28-year-old Iranian woman called Rohani Leila rented a two-storey house at Soi Pridi Banomyong 36, a leafy side street in the affluent Ekkamai district of Bangkok, well in advance. She then returned to Iran. The bombing team, which consisted of at least three and perhaps four Iranian men, then flew into the country on 8 February via Phuket, the resort island 850km south of Bangkok.

If sex tourism was their cover, they took it pretty seriously. From Phuket they travelled the same day to Pattaya, the notoriously sleazy resort one hour's flying time south of Bangkok. One of the team, Saied Moradi, checked into the Top Thai hotel, a six-storey establishment down an alley near the night-life heart of the strip, where checks on guests were minimal.

Moradi was lugging a heavy backpack; soon after checking in he called an acquaintance, Mohammad Khazaei, who turned up similarly laden. Both men were well dressed and polite, staff remembered, so they paid them little attention. "Mr Moradi was good-looking and dressed neatly, like a young entrepreneur," said one of the hotel's employees. "He was also polite. I could not believe he was a bomber."

The two men kept themselves to themselves, leaving their room neither for breakfast for lunch. The only time they came out was at night, but then they allowed themselves to relax a little.

One of the team, Mohammad Khazaei, approached a Pattaya prostitute identified only as Nan and asked her to take him around because his English was so bad. She found companions for the other two, and three of the men and two of the women were snapped on Nan's mobile phone in a Middle East-themed bar in the resort where they smoked hookah pipes, slumped around a low table laden with drinks, including at least one bottle of beer. On at least one occasion, Nan accompanied Khazaei back to his room in Top Thai. She later told police she noticed nothing out of the ordinary in the room, though when she approached a closet he barred her from doing so.

Last Monday, the day of the attacks in Delhi and Tbilisi, the crew members made their move, checking out of their hotels and heading for Bangkok. There they moved into the safe house rented for them by Rohani Leila, and were joined by an older-looking, white-bearded man, who was filmed by surveillance cameras as he went in and out of the house carrying packages.

At 2pm on Tuesday everything suddenly went disastrously wrong: three large explosions tore the roof off the house and at least three men ran out into the street. Two of them, Khazaei and Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh, managed to flee but the third, Saied Moradi, 28, staggered into the street, bloody and disorientated. He flagged down a taxi which slowed, but when the driver got a good look at him he accelerated away.

Furious or confused or both, Moradi threw a hand grenade at the taxi and another at an approaching police car. Four Thais were injured in the blasts, and when one of the grenades bounced back, it exploded at Moradi's feet, tearing off one of his legs.

A mobile phone camera snapped him seconds later, his face a mask of agony, his right hand waving hopelessly, as a crowd of Thais looked on, stunned. He was taken to hospital where his other leg was also amputated. He remains in intensive care.

As police scoured the safe house and the bars and hotels of Pattaya for clues, it emerged that Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, had been due to visit Bangkok on Thursday. After the explosions, the visit was cancelled.

Khazaei was arrested at Bangkok's airport trying to leave the country; Zadeh got as far as Malaysia where he was detained. Yesterday, Thai police said they were looking for one other person they believed was involved in the attacks.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister, Moshe Yaalon, claimed that all the attacks were co-ordinated and were the work of the Quds Force, a covert arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

"We see what is happening in India, Georgia and Thailand," he said. "It is the same pattern: the same bomb, the same lab, the same factory."

Iran has denied any involvement.

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