NICOSIA, Cyprus — Iran has emerged as the spearhead of a "troika of terrorism" and many of the terrorists are being trained at a religious school in the holy city of Qom, Western intelligence officials say.
Several alumni of the Hojjatian Religious School have been arrested in recent months, shedding light on the school's clandestine activities, amid growing fears of an upsurge in Iranian terrorist activity.
Those fears have been fueled by recent bloody attacks on Iranian dissidents and Iranian threats to retaliate for U.S. and European intervention in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian terrorist activity has come into sharper focus since Libya and Syria, long identified by the United States as sponsors of international terrorism, were forced to pull in their horns.
Kadafi in 'Back Seat'
Ian Geldard of the London-based Institute for the Study of Terrorism says Iran has taken the lead in what he called a "troika of terrorism." He notes that Libya's Col. Moammar Kadafi "has taken a back seat" since the U.S. air raids on Tripoli and Benghazi in April, 1985. And, said Geldard, the Syrians later "got their fingers burned" over allegations they were involved in the attempted bombing of an Israeli airliner in London.
"The Iranians are more fanatically anti-Western than Syria or Libya," Geldard said. "They believe that a new age of Islamic supremacy is dawning, with them in the forefront of this \o7 jihad\f7 , or holy war."
In recent months, Iranian agents have attacked opponents of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fundamentalist regime in Pakistan, Britain, Austria, Greece and Turkey and assassinated several people.
One Qom alumni is Fouad Ali Saleh, a Tunisian Shia Muslim arrested in France last March. He is believed to be the leader of an Iranian cell in Paris controlled by Iran's hard-line intelligence minister, Mohammed Rey-Shahri.
2 Iran Cells Cracked
Another is Mohammed Moujaher, 33, also arrested in Paris last March. France's counterintelligence agency, the Directoire de la Surveillance du Territoire, or DST, has identified him as an agent controlled by officials in the Iranian embassy.
The DST was able to crack at least two Iranian cells, made up mainly of Tunisians, through the defection of a third Qom graduate, a 32-year-old Tunisian code-named Lotfi by French officials.
He walked into the DST bureau in the Loire Valley city of Tours in central France last February and informed on his comrades in return for immunity and relocation in the United States.
Lotfi implicated Iranian terrorists in 1986 bombings in Paris, in which 13 people were killed and 200 wounded and which had earlier been blamed on Lebanese Christian radicals. He also fingered other Tunisians recruited by Rey-Shahri's ministry.
Religion and Terrorism
According to intelligence sources, Lotfi said he went to Iran out of religious fervor after Khomeini's Islamic revolution toppled the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
At the Hojjatian school in Qom, he received religious indoctrination and terrorist training, Lotfi said.
Graduates of the school, particularly non-Iranian Shias who are less suspect, are sent abroad to spy on Iranian exiles and set up cells activated by Tehran agents posted in Iranian embassies.
Lotfi's interrogation led French security authorities to Wahid Gordji, a translator at the Iranian embassy in Paris who was linked to the 1986 bombings.
Gordji, suspected of controlling Iran's underground network in France, holed up in the embassy. That triggered a diplomatic war with Tehran that led to a rupture in relations last July.
Links were restored in December after the French government made a deal with Iran to free French hostages held by Iranian-backed Shias in Lebanon in return for letting Gordji leave the country.
The scale of Iran's web of terror has emerged from interviews with specialists in terrorism, Iranian dissidents with contacts in Tehran and Western intelligence sources.
Paul Bremer, head of the State Department's counterterrorism agency, said in a recent magazine interview: "Iran is a state which supports terrorism. It has supported terrorism in the past and continues to support terrorism."
Active Since 1979
Iranian-backed Shia terrorists have been active since 1979.
Among their victims were more than 240 American servicemen killed in a suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut in 1983.
And 21 foreigners, including eight Americans missing in Lebanon, are believed held by Iranian-backed Shias. This hostage crisis has dragged the United States, Britain, France, West Germany, Ireland and other countries into the maelstrom of Iran's revolutionary politics.
Iran's terror network comprises at least two identifiable tiers, one controlled by the Internal Security Ministry in Tehran that works through Iranian embassies abroad. The other is a loosely structured alliance of Iranian-backed groups that include "wild men who often act on their own," Geldard said.
Terror Escalation Seen