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Israeli embassy, U.S. tourists among likely targets of Bangkok bomb plot

By Robert Windrem
NBC News

Police raids in Bangkok, Thailand, which netted a suspected Hezbollah operative Thursday and the makings of bomb-making materials Saturday, represent "one of the most credible Israel-focused threats overseas in a long time," said NBC News analyst Roger Cressey, and "very much the real deal" adds NBC News analyst Mike Leiter.

The two analysts referred primarily to the Saturday raid where police confiscated more than 8,800 pounds (4,000 kilograms) of urea fertilizer and several gallons of liquid ammonium nitrate found in a warehouse in Samut Sakhon, on the western outskirts of Bangkok.

Officials in the U.S. and Israel said Hezbollah could have been planning an attack on the Israeli embassy in downtown Bangkok, near various tourist sites, say Cressey and Leiter. Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Islamist group in Lebanon backed by Syria and Iran, is on the U.S. blacklist of foreign terrorist organizations.

The raid caused both the U.S. and Israel to issue public travel warnings urging their citizens to be cautious.

Information that led to the raid was relayed to Thai police by Israeli intelligence. Police detained a Swedish national of Lebanese origin with alleged links to pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants on Thursday. The intelligence indicated a plot could be carried out between between Friday and Sunday.

Cressey said the fear was that Hezbollah was constructing a large bomb that would have caused a devastating blast in an area that many Americans visit.

"There would have been a lot of collateral damage," said Cressey, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council staff.

Moreover, both analysts note they've been told the threat may not be over, that at least one other operative is being sought. Leiter, former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, says there is a fear about plots against "secondary targets", either tourist or Jewish, in the Thai capital.

As for the rationale for the attack, Cressey said, "All theories make sense. Can't rank order them yet," while Leiter noted, "It's pretty consistent with the increase in tension between Israel and Iran." Iran has vowed revenge for the killings of its nuclear scientists, which it has blamed on Israel and the U.S.

One possibility raised by both is Hezbollah revenge for the Israeli killing on Imad Mugniyah, the Hezbollah leader who died in a car bombing in downtown Damascus nearly four years ago on February 12, 2008.  Mugniyah was responsible for many anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983, the Marine Barracks bombing in 1983 and the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. Hezbollah vowed revenge for that killing but never carried out attacks that it tied to Mugniyah's death.

Background on the incident from the Associated Press:

National police chief Priewpan Damapong told reporters the suspect, named as Atris Hussein, had given police an address where bomb-making material was being kept.

Priewpan said the suspect had maintained that his group had not planned an attack in Thailand but intended to transport the substances to a third country, which he would not name.

Asked about the discovery, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told reporters: "I have been informed. I would like to ask people not to panic. We are currently in control of the situation."

Thai officials have seemed irritated by travel advisories issued by the U.S. and Israeli governments, followed by several more since Friday. Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaikul said diplomats from countries that had issued warnings would meet with him for an explanation on Monday.

Tourism is a big money-earner for Thailand, and ministers are keen not to deter travelers, especially after the hit to tourism from severe flooding in 2011 and political unrest in 2010.

Yingluck also instructed the defense ministry to consult U.S. embassy officials to discuss its terror warning and seek a retraction.

However, an embassy spokesman later said the terror warning to its citizens was valid and the United States had no plan to rescind it.

Defence Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapha told reporters in the northern city of Chiang Mai on Sunday that Thailand was not the target, although officials have also said that areas of Bangkok frequented by Westerners and Israelis could be hit.

Yuthasak said that a second suspect had managed to leave the country.