The General Vanishes
Sometime on February 7, a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards general named Ali Reza Asgari left Istanbul's bustling, worn airport and headed towards downtown along roads that worm their way past breached Byzantine stone walls, and Ottoman palaces. It has been subsequently reported that he arrived at a modern hotel overlooking the Bosporus, that dark sliver of water that divides Europe from Asia.
And then he disappeared.
Despite hundreds of newspaper articles and almost as many reports and rumors, when, how and why Asgari vanished is still very much unknown. But Pajamas Media's exclusive investigation in Istanbul has uncovered some surprising twists in the Asgari mystery.
Ali-Reza Asgari, sometimes spelled Askari, was a major figure in Iran's government. He is widely known to have been at the center of seemingly every major Iran-backed terrorist operation in the last 30 years. Rare photos of him show a graying man with alert eyes and carefully trimmed beard.
General Ali-Reza Asgari
Given his background, Asgari is a "gold mine for western intelligence," said an Israeli defense source, who claimed that the Mossad had been following his career since the 1980s.
Asgari prospered in and climbed to the rank of deputy defense minister under the "reform" presidency of Mohammed Khatami. He was present at the creation of Hezbollah, the terrorist group that is second-largest killer of Americans, and was a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s. He may have knowledge of the attacks on the U.S embassy in Beirut and the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks, which cost some 300 American soldiers' lives. Later, he became Hezbollah's direct liaison to Tehran, allegedly bringing to Lebanon money, arms and orders.
Asgari may also know the whereabouts of missing Americans and Israelis, including Ron Arad, an Israeli pilot captured by Hezbollah and reportedly sent to and held in Iran.
After 1997, Asgari joined Khatami's cabinet as deputy defense minister. In this capacity, he briefly appeared on Iranian television, an American intelligence analyst told Pajamas Media.
Later, Asgari was, according to the London Sunday Times , "pushed aside" when his longtime rival, Ahmadinejad, became president.
But he was not forgotten. After this move, he was, it is believed, given an important post running anti-coalition operations inside Iraq.
Debkafile, the Israeli web site whose accuracy would be impressive if it were the batting average of triple-A ball player, said Asgari was behind one of the most daring attacks ever mounted on U.S. forces-- the January 20, 2007 Karbala provincial headquarters raid.
In that raid, men in uniforms with American-style SUVs overwhelmed guards and kidnapped four Americans, who were later killed.
Less than three weeks later, Asgari would be reported missing.
Nearly everything about his disappearance would be and has been disputed. As Pajamas Media learned, even the few agreed-upon facts turn out to be disinformation.
Depending on who you believe, either Asgari disappeared on February 7, or according one of his two wives, on February 9. (Other accounts say he disappeared in December, but these seem hard to credit.)
By some accounts, he was headed to the luxurious Ceylan Inter-Continental Hotel in Istanbul, According to news reports, "two non-Turkish citizens" made a reservation for Asgari at the Ceylan. They paid in advance and in cash. Or did they?
In Istanbul the Ceylan looms up against the skyline, a 400+ room white tower with a commanding view of one of the busiest ship channels in the world. After you pass the uniformed sentries in top hats and cycle through the revolving glass door of the Inter-Continental, you are greeted by a metal detector and a guard, fidgeting from a lack of nicotine. The hotel does not let the staff smoke while on duty, and in Turkey this policy is always a constant source of complaint.
Once past the magnetometer, a large marble-floored lobby beckons. Sunlight spears in through an atrium, half a football field away.
The uniformed front-desk staff do their best to seem politely Edwardian. Their smiles vanish as soon as I start asking about Asgari. They tell me that they are not allowed to speak on the subject; that I must wait for the public relations officer.
I lunch, just off the lobby, in "The English Bar," complete with green leather couches and brown wainscoting. It takes two-thirds of the length of a post-lunch Montecristo no. 2 before a member of the staff appears. His name is Tamur and he too comes to conquer, but conquer politely.
In a soft voice, he tells me that hotel has no record of Asgari. He is aware of the case but routinely directs all inquiries to the Turkish police. As he tells me he sounds like he is reading from an invisible teleprompter. Tamur says that he wasn't on duty the day in question (Feb. 7), but, yes, he followed the case in the Turkish press. "It is very mysterious," he ventures. We agree, at least, on this.
On the way out, I stop at the front desk. I would like to make a reservation for a friend of mine, I say. They become animated. Could I make it in cash for all of his expenses and incidentals?
Cash? No, sir. We only take major credit cards for reservations. Sorry.
But I heard that you sometimes take reservations in cash?
No, you are mistaken. It is not allowed. My computer won't let me do it.
So Asgari may or may not have come to the hotel, but his Turkish friends certainly did not make a reservation for him in cash.
According to other news accounts, Asgari never went near the Ceylan. Instead he checked into Hotel Ghilan, invariably described as "more modest" or "the economical Hotel Ghilan."
Google "hotel ghilan" and you get a few dozen stories in various languages that refer to Asgari and describe the hotel as "modest" or "economical." What you don't get is an address, an indication of location, or a hotel web page. Hmmmm....
The best way to find a hotel is through another hotel. Camped out at the Istanbul Hilton, I asked the staff to phone the Hotel Ghilan. I enlisted the help Cigdem and Nilay, the two female receptionists on the Executive Floor. I use an innocent ruse, saying that I met a guy on the plane named "Ronald Smith" who said he was staying at the Hotel Ghilan, but add that I can't find it.
They promise to find it, but can't. First, they check the hotel's computer network. Nothing. I ask them to try "118," the Turkish equivalent of 411. Nothing. I ask them to google it in Turkish. Nothing. Finally, I ask them to call the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, which maintains a complete of every hotel in Istanbul. A long conversation in Turkish follows. No Hotel Ghilan.
Perhaps it is a typo for Hotel Ghilad? Nothing.
The two hotels that were the one solid part of the Asgari tale; the bits agreed on in every published account, have either no record of Asgari or seem not to exist at all. Then, Nilay gets a bright idea. Maybe Ghilan is a mispronunciation of Hotel Divan (pronounced Di-Wan here) of Istanbul.
I walk over to the Divan, which sits across the road from the Ceylan Inter-Continental Hotel near Taksim square. Perhaps Asgari diverted the taxi driver here at the last minute, to throw any pursuers off his trail.
Across a cobble-stoned courtyard crammed with taxis, I slip under the metal and glass awning of the Divan. The guard waves me through the metal detector.
The smoke hits me immediately. Lounging on brown armchairs, Germans and eastern Europeans are waving their cigarette hands as they talk beneath a blue cloud.
At the reception desk, a short slim woman with brass nameplate I can't read, says they have no record of Asgari. Naturally. He could check in under any name.
Can you make reservations in cash? No. But you can pay in cash as you leave, if you want. The credit card is only a guarantee, she adds.
Did the police visit the hotel as part of their investigation? She seems alarmed by the question, but shakes her head "No."
Another dead end.
When Asgari's disappearance become public the Iranians demanded an Interpol investigation. The Lyon, France-based association is a network of police departments that track international fugitives. 186 nations belong to Interpol, including Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States.
I filed an official request for comment with Interpol.
Two days later the international police agency responded with a textbook non-answer:
"Dear Mr Miniter,In other words, ask the Iranians and the Turks, not us. Not very helpful.
If or when police in any of Interpol's 186 member countries share information with the General Secretariat in Lyon in relation to investigations and fugitives, this information remains under the ownership of that member country. Interpol does not therefore comment on specific cases or individuals except in special circumstances and with approval of the member country concerned. With regard to your request in relation to those individuals, we would advise you to contact the authorities in the countries where you believe there may be an investigation ongoing."
With some sleuthing, I discover that the police in charge of the Asgari investigation are in the Beyoglu district. I trudge up the hill, past the Inter-Continental hotel, through the famous Taksim square, which is crisscrossed like Frankenstein's stitches by tram lines, and make my way down a narrow shopping street to a watch store, where I turn right. A few blocks up, I find a police man with a pup-tent hat and an AK-47. He is waving away a small boy, who is trying to offer him a bag of potato chips.
He points down an alley, choked with small police cars. Ah, the entrance to the police station.
I explain my mission to desk officer, who has me repeat it to another one.
Finally, I am taken to see an inspector in a back office. It a small cramped and cluttered space. Someone has painted over the windows, giving the sunlight that oozes in a cold fluorescent feel. The desks are piled with sheaves of papers. Some woman is crying on a plastic chair in the corner.
In the center, seated behind the desk is a Turkish policeman. He has a trim mustache and clean uniform. He seems to be very much in charge.
As I explain my mission involving what happened to Asgari, he looks me in the eye, with impatience. "What was stolen?"
"Nothing. I am here to ask about..."
In perfect English, he says: "Come back with a translator. I can't understand you."
Later, when I get a native Turkish speaker to set up an appointment for me, I am told that the police do not comment on ongoing investigations.
At the Akademi Cafe, Professor Hasan Koni, an expert in security policy and international affairs who runs the American Studies program at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, orders another Bailey's and milk.
Koni is the man to see in matters like these.
Most of military, intelligence and diplomatic corps have been his students. He ran Turkey's National Security Academy, where senior military officers and diplomats are trained, from 1996 to 2003. Before that, he was a sought-after instructor at the War Academy, Turkey's equivalent of West Point.
Through Koni's sources, he has some more surprises for me--and some ideas about Asgari's escape route from Iran.
Prof. Koni cited an senior general who he talked to recently about the Asgari affair. "It is a shameful situation," the general told him, clearly incensed. "For our allies to do this on our soil, without telling us about it before or after."
But which allies did it?
That is thing, Koni said. The Turkish general still doesn't know and that is part of what made him angry. Turkey, a key Cold War ally and home of the second-largest armed force in NATO, was not seen as trustworthy enough to tell.
Koni doesn't know either, but the identity of the secret service that snatched Asgari--assuming that is what happened--is a hotly debated topic inside Turkish military, intelligence and police circles.
There is a sense, said Koni, who did not attribute this remark to any one person, that Asgari was kidnapped; that he did not defect. The primary reason for this belief? Asgari left a wife and children in Iran. "In Islamic countries," Koni said, "you would be expected to protect your wife and your children. Otherwise, it is not honorable."
Part of the mystery about Asgari's disappearance, he said, is fueled by the division of domestic intelligence agencies and the intense and long-lasting rivalry between the police and the army. Compounding the problem: different services report to different masters.
Civil or domestic intelligence, known as the MIT, report ultimately to the prime minister, who can serve as long as five years between parliamentary elections.
The police report to the interior minister, who is appointed by the prime minister.
JTAM, a branch of military intelligence that covers domestic matters, reports to the general staff of the army and ultimately to the president, who serves a 7-year term, and is elected separately from the parliament.
In Turkey the investigation of the Asgari disappearance is being handled by the police, in a manner that the military and intelligence people consider to be bungling, according to Koni.
Is it possible that JTAM, the military intelligence unit, knows something that it is not telling the police or the prime minister?
"Yes, it is possible the prime minister himself does not know," Koni said, adding that sometimes the army keeps certain secrets for itself.
Still, Koni's overall assessment is that no one in Turkey knows what happened to Asgari, except for those who did it.
I asked Egemen Bagis, the foreign policy advisor to Turkey's prime minister as well as his close friend, what he knew about Asgari's case. It was over a lavish Turkish lunch at restaurant in Ankara, Turkey's booming capital city. "Nothing besides what is in the papers," Bagis says.
Isn't there an ongoing investigation? Haven't you been briefed?
He acknowledged the investigation, but said that nothing had trickled up to him. Being an top advisor to the prime minister, or even prime minister, doesn't make you omniscient.
Back to Koni at Istanbul's Akademi Cafe, which overlooks a small lawn that abuts the water course leading to the Black Sea. Below, bleached-blonde college students chat and read as another city-block long oil tanker glides by.
It seems like the perfect place and time to ask about escape routes.
If you were a Western intelligence service, how would you get Asgari out?
Koni gestured to water. "With a good speed boat, you can be in the Greek islands in an hour. There is no one to check your passport. Boats leave Istanbul for those islands as easily as cars move from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
"Or, if you don't trust the Greeks not to turn over the Iranian, a decent boat can get you to the British naval base on Cyprus in about two days."
Land and air also present possibilities, he adds. If you can get Asgari in to a car, you could drive him to the U.S. base on Incirlik. From there a NATO aircraft could take him anywhere in the world. Koni pointed out that, by treaty, NATO aircraft may not be searched.
"That scenario," I said, "seems unlikely. Going overland presents a lot of risks. What if Asgari cries out when the car stops for gas?" Besides, there is straight-line highway from Istanbul, Turkey's northern coast to the U.S. base on its southwestern coast.
"The drive is about 18 hours or so," agrees Koni.
"But a car can get from Istanbul to Greece in about 4 hours," he adds. The risk? The Greeks might seize Asgari and return him to Iran.
"Then," Koni said, "consider the obvious. Grab Asgari in his hotel room, out the back entrance to a waiting car and drive into the Bebek hills, where the U.S. Consulate, in an historic chateau, peers over the coast like a stronghold.
"Once inside the consulate, the CIA could Asgari him in a NATO helicopter and take him anywhere in the world."
Koni continues his thoughts on 'the obvious.' All of this assumes that it was the U.S. snatched Asgari. The Israelis would either put on chartered boat bound for Tel Aviv, or use a helicopter to bring him to a secluded air strip, where a plane could fly him to Israel in less than two hours. Or they could use the cargo hold of an El Al flight out of Istanbul.
It all seems very James Bondian to me, and really just informed speculation. Like all the other "details," reported or rumored about the Asgari affair.
I asked Banafsheh Zand Bonazzi, who translates Iranian newspapers and broadcast outlets and puts the results on her site, Iran Press, to scrutinize one of the official sites of the Iranian regime, Baztab. "There is nothing, nothing new," she said.
After a few reports early on in the affair, Asgari simply vanished from Baztab like he did from Istanbul.
Perhaps the strangest element of the Asgari affair is that neither Iran nor the West mentioned Asgari in connection with the illegal seizure of 15 British sailors and marines. Iran did not ask for him back and he wasn't proffered by the British either.
Does that mean that Iran knows that Asgari is too valuable to return or does that mean that Iran knows the West doesn't have him? Is Asgari even still alive? Is he in the hands of an Iranian dissident group, a network of which honeycombs Europe and America, that is essentially auctioning him to the highest bidder?
When I discussed the case with a trusted source inside the American intelligence community, he thought a moment and then said one thing: "How do you even know he went to Istanbul?"
Explore that for a while and you realize you don't know, for certain, that Asgari ever came here. It could all be misdirection. He could have been snatched in Damascus. He could be dealing olive oil in Syria. Everything about the Asgari case, even the seemingly solid facts, shift and twist and then turn into vapor and fade like a dream when you awake.