Intelligence officials fear revenge attacks from Iran after its diplomat was sentenced for trying to blow up a Paris rally

antwerp assadollah assadi iran trial
Police officers patrol outside a courthouse in Antwerp, Belgium, during the trial of Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi on February 4, 2021.

  • A Belgian court sentenced an Iranian diplomat to 20 years in prison over a foiled bomb plot in 2018.
  • Assadollah Assadi is the first Iranian official to be convicted and jailed in Europe since 1979.
  • Intel officers tell Insider they are bracing for attacks and kidnappings of Europeans around the world.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Intelligence officials in Europe are expecting revenge attacks from Iran following the conviction and sentencing of one of its diplomats on Thursday, sources told Insider.

A court in Antwerp, Belgium, sentenced the Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi to 20 years in prison after finding him guilty of a plot to bomb the June 2018 meeting of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled dissident group, in Paris.

Assadi and his three Iranian co-defendants, some of whom hold dual citizenships in Europe, were convicted after a Europe-wide investigation caught them transporting explosives to target the 2018 rally. The plot was ultimately foiled by French, German and Belgian police. 

Though the Islamic Republic had been accused of numerous violent operations in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s, Assadi – whom European intelligence sources have described as an intelligence operative under diplomatic cover – is the first Iranian diplomat to be convicted and jailed in Europe since 1979.

“Assadi is a Quds Force guy,” said a Belgian military intelligence officer who works under diplomatic cover in the Middle East, referring to the external-operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

All the sources interviewed for this article cannot be named due to the sensitive nature of their work, but their identity is known to Insider.

“We have collected explicit intelligence that he was responsible for European operations targeting Iranian dissidents around Europe using his diplomatic post in Vienna as a base of operations,” said the official, adding that this was why prosecutors did not consider diplomatic immunity for Assadi.

“But our certainty about his role also very much confirms the Iranians will see this as far beyond a normal law-enforcement operation, they will see it as an operation against them and could very well respond quite aggressively, as Assadi threatened us.”

In March, Assadi had reportedly warned Belgian police that his official role as an Iranian operative meant that Belgian or European targets could be hit or pressured to force his release should he be convicted – a threat Belgian intelligence concluded is credible.

The Belgian official told Insider that security around key sites in Europe and abroad would be examined, and in some cases likely increased, in the wake of the Thursday sentencing.

Belgians citizens living and working in Lebanon, Iraq, and parts of the Gulf would also be warned about possible security threats, the official added.

“Our counterparts across Europe are doing the same,” they said.

iran Assadollah Assadi sentencing
Police officers seen at a court building during Assadi’s hearing in November 27, 2020.

Intelligence officers are also bracing for increased kidnappings of foreign nationals by Iran in the near future.

“Of course they can retaliate, and [the Iranians] have a long history of targeting specific passport holders for kidnapping or arrest to later trade,” the Belgian officer told Insider.

“Iran has done this in the Gulf, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as inside Iran itself, in the past, so the threat, the capability and the willingness to act are all consistent.”

“The Iranians never bluff about things like this,” added a retired Israeli intelligence official who remains a consultant for his government. 

“They had people under arrest in Kuwait in the 80s, and they and Hezbollah kept kidnapping and hijacking people until they were finally released during the first Gulf War,” the Israeli told Insider, referring to the kidnapping of dozens of foreign hostages in Lebanon between 1984 and 1992.

“It’s even easier to detain someone inside Iran to use as leverage,” the source added. “They do this regularly.”

Before Assadi’s sentencing, Iran had been demanding an exchange for a Swedish-Iranian scientist, a dual national, who was arrested in Tehran and sentenced to death for espionage.

One European intelligence source told Insider that Iran was clearly trying to leverage European countries against each other.

Multiple sources interviewed by Insider have raised concerns that Djalali could be executed at any moment in response to the sentencing.

“It’s a classic technique of playing allies off against each other,” said the European official. “They can’t get a Belgian but they have [a] Swede, so they threaten to kill the Swede so that Sweden pressures Belgium to do a swap.”

“It’s both transparent and effective.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

A growing number of countries are banning flights from the UK to protect their citizens from the new variant of fast-spreading coronavirus

BA Flight
A British Airways Airbus A319 lands.

  • Fears around a new, more transmissible variant of COVID-19 have prompted multiple countries to cancel flights from the UK.
  • The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Italy, France, Ireland, and Israel are among the nations that have placed restrictions on travel with the UK.
  • Eurostar has canceled all journeys between London, Brussels, and Amsterdam.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A growing number of countries, including France, Germany, and Ireland, announced that they will be restricting travel with the UK over fears of a fast-spreading variant of COVID-19.

The mutant coronavirus is believed to be up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain. In order to stop its spread, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that London and surrounding areas would suddenly be plunged into lockdown.

Dutch authorities confirmed at least one case of this COVID-19 variant had reached the Netherlands. Consequently, it was announced that flights carrying passengers from the UK would be banned until January 1, 2021.

Belgium followed suit. The country brought in a 24-hour ban on all UK entrants, starting midnight on Sunday.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Belgian broadcaster VRT: “Of course, that could be extended should it appear that we have more conclusive data.” 

Eurostar has since suspended all trains between London, Brussels, and Amsterdam.

On Sunday afternoon, Italian foreign minister Luigi di Maio said that the government would be suspending all travel from the UK to Italy.

He wrote on Twitter: “As a government, we have the duty to protect Italians. For this reason, after having notified the English government… we are about to sign an order to suspend flights with Great Britain.”

Shortly after, the Austrian government confirmed that air travel to and from the UK will be prohibited. The Israeli government has also banned entry to all non-Israelis flying from the UK, and earlier today, Israeli police escorted UK travelers to isolation at state-operated hotels.

Later Sunday, French officials announced that people in the UK would be prohibited from entering France beginning at midnight. Initially, the ban will last 48 hours, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said, to allow for discussion with other EU members states about extra safety measures.

German health minister Jens Spahn announced Sunday that all flights from the UK were banned beginning Sunday at midnight. He said the German government planned to address further restrictions on Monday, according to DW.

And leaders in Ireland on Sunday announced a 48-hour ban on all flights from the UK, though it said it would continue to allow ferries to operate between Ireland and the UK to preserve supply chains, according to a report from RTE. Officials said they planned to reevaluate the travel restrictions Tuesday.

Flights between the UK and Bulgaria were likewise suspended Sunday through the end of January 2021, the Sofia Globe reported, with travelers from the UK required to partake in a 10-day quarantine upon arrival.

Canada, a member of the Commonwealth, also announced a 72-hour halt on flights from the UK, effective midnight.

“While no cases linked to this new strain have been identified in Canada, work continues to identify if this variant is present or has been previously observed in Canada,” government officials said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Before-and-after photos show how the coronavirus pandemic emptied out Europe’s famous Christmas markets

pjimage__2_
Roemerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany before and after the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Christmas markets are a cherished tradition in Europe, and usually attract millions of visitors every year.
  • But this year, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced countries to cancel or diminish their Christmas festivities. 
  • Scroll down to see before-and-after photos of Europe’s famous Christmas markets.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Christmas markets are being canceled this year amid concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The markets are a cherished tradition in Europe, and usually attract millions of visitors every year.

But in 2020 the large squares where people would usually gather to drink mulled wine and eat festive Christmas treats, are looking eerily empty.

Scroll down to see before-and-after photos of Europe’s Christmas markets.

BEFORE: The city of Nürnberg in Germany has one of the country’s best known Christmas markets, drawing millions of locals and tourists every year.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
A traditional Christmas market in the square in front of the Church of Our Lady in Nuremberg, Germany, on December 1, 2017.

Some 85 million people visit Germany’s Christmas markets every year, according to Deutsche Welle.

Source: Deutsche Welle

AFTER: But Christmas festivities had to be canceled last month, leaving the city’s large square looking a lot emptier than usual.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Church of Our Lady in Nuremberg, Germany, on November 23, 2020.

BEFORE: In Frankfurt, Germany, the famous Christmas market usually looks like a Winter wonderland.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Roemerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany, on November 25, 2019.

AFTER: But this year, the square has been left vacant and visitors can only view a single, large Christmas tree.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Roemerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany, on November 27, 2020.

BEFORE: In Germany’s capital, Berlin, a Christmas market usually lights up the Gendarmenmarkt square.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
A traditional Christmas market in the Gendarmenmarkt square in Berlin, Germany, on November 25, 2013.

AFTER: This Christmas, the square looks like it does all year round, with not a single decoration in sight.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Gendarmenmarkt square in Berlin, Germany, on November 23, 2020.

BEFORE: In Dortmund, the Christmas tree is the annual attraction as it’s rumored to be the in the world.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Christmas Market in Dortmund, Germany, on December 17, 2018.

The tree, which is usually surrounded by festive stalls, measures up to 150 feet tall every year, according to the market’s official website.

Source: Dortmund Christmas Market 

AFTER: But this year, officials haven’t even put up the Christmas tree.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Dortmund, Germany, on November 23, 2020.

BEFORE: Other landmarks in Germany, including the Baroque Charlottenburg palace, usually also step up their decorations during the festive season.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
A traditional Christmas market in front of the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Germany, on November 24, 2008.

AFTER: But the Christmas market in front of Charlottenburg Palace has also been canceled.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Germany, on November 24, 2020.

BEFORE: It’s not just Germany’s markets that are being called off. In Prague, the Old Town Square is usually packed with gingerbread-eating visitors.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic, on December 5, 2019.

AFTER: But this year, nothing but a lit-up Christmas tree remains after the market had to be canceled.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic, on November 28, 2020

BEFORE: Strasbourg in northeastern France is known as the European capital of Christmas, with its incredible markets attracting 2 million visitors every season.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
Traditional Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, on December 20, 2016.

Source: Noel Strasbourg

AFTER: The city has still put up decorations and is running some activities, but officials have had to massively ramp down the usual festivities.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
A street decorated for Christmas in Strasbourg, France, on November 27, 2020.

BEFORE: Brussels is also a popular city to visit during Christmas time.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
The Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium, on December 18, 2019.

AFTER: But its biggest event of the season, Winter Wonders, had to be canceled last month.

europe christmas market coronavirus before after
The Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium, on November 24, 2020.

Read the original article on Business Insider