ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkey has detained several people allegedly working for an Iranian intelligence cell that planned to murder or snatch Israeli tourists in Istanbul, local media reported Thursday.
The news of the bust came weeks after Israel ordered its citizens in Istanbul to leave immediately, warning of an imminent Iranian attack plot targeting Israelis in Turkey.
Among those who were being targeted for kidnapping were a former Israeli diplomat and his wife, Hebrew media reported, citing Turkish outlets. The diplomat’s name was not published.
Israel’s Mossad spy agency chartered a private plane to immediately bring the pair and others back to the country, reports said.
The suspects, who were not all Iranian nationals, were detained in a raid last week in three houses in Istanbul’s popular Beyoglu district, the IHA news agency reported. The outlet said eight people had been arrested.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper reported on Thursday that Turkish authorities detained five Iranian nationals on Wednesday suspected of involvement in the alleged plot to murder Israeli citizens in Istanbul.
Reports of the detentions came as Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrived in Turkey Thursday for high-level talks, amid a recent rapprochement between the countries after years of frayed ties.
The terror warnings had both strained ties as Ankara chafed at being portrayed as an unsafe tourism destination in international media reports, but also allowed the two countries to showcase newly revived ties by cooperating on intelligence and security.
According to Channel 13 news, Israel was considering somewhat walking back its warning following Lapid’s visit, with the travel advisory revised to state that only non-essential travel should be canceled rather than all visits.
The warning, however, remained in force as of Thursday evening.
“We will complete the work [of thwarting attacks] and we won’t hesitate to lower the travel warning, maybe in a few days,” a security source was quoted as saying by Channel 12 news.
“We’re at the beginning of the end [of the crisis],” the source added.
The network, without citing a source, also reported that there were believed to be three more Iranian cells in Istanbul.
Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war but tensions have ratcheted up following a string of high-profile incidents Tehran has blamed on Israel.
The Islamic Republic claimed Israel was responsible for the killing of Revolutionary Guards Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei in his Tehran home on May 22.
Khodaei’s assassination was the most high-profile killing inside Iran since the November 2020 killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
IHA said Iran sent agents disguised as businessmen, tourists and students to Istanbul to assassinate Israelis in retaliation for Khodaei’s murder and other attacks.
It said the Iranians had split into four groups of two assassins who could better track their Israeli targets.
The suspects rented apartments and hotel rooms in the area, and had $30,000 to set up a network of agents.
Police seized two pistols and two silencers in searches conducted in houses and hotels where the suspects were staying, according to the Hurriyet report.
“The hitmen in the assassination team, who settled in two separate rooms on the second and fourth floors of a hotel in Beyoglu, were [detained] with a large number of weapons and ammunition,” IHA said.
Later Thursday, Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which also handles operations outside the country, announced that it was replacing the head of its intelligence unit Hossein Taeb, who had held the position for over a decade.
Taeb has been repeatedly named in Hebrew media reports as the man behind the planned attacks on Israelis in Turkey.
Guards commander Major General Hossein Salami appointed General Mohammad Kazemi to head the intelligence organization instead, Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported.
The reported arrests were the first time that Turkish media had reported on the subject of Iranian attacks that have been making headlines in Israel for over two weeks amid warnings from officials of Iranian cells on the loose in Turkey.
A report last week claimed that several Israelis visiting Istanbul were whisked out of Turkey the week before by Israeli security officials, who were acting on intelligence showing that the visitors were at immediate risk from Iranian assassins.
Media reports that Israeli and Turkish intelligence were cooperating in rounding up a network of Iranian operatives and that several attacks were foiled, were confirmed Monday by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Bennett said that Israeli and Turkish security officials have worked together to foil attacks on Israelis in Turkey.
“In recent days, in a joint Israeli-Turkish effort, we have thwarted a number of attacks and a number of terrorists were arrested on Turkish soil,” Bennett said.
The prime minister did not include details on the number of attacks, how many individuals were arrested, or the nationality of the terrorists.
The outgoing prime minister also thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his cooperation.
Israel had issued a series of repeated harsh warnings to Israeli travelers in recent weeks to avoid visiting Turkey.
There are currently believed to be some 2,000 Israelis in Turkey. On Sunday, Channel 12 reported that fewer Israelis were heading to the country, without providing updated figures or sources.
Israeli media reports have said the Iranians have been planning attacks for months, apparently in revenge for the slayings of senior officers and others blamed on Israel.
Agencies contributed to this report.