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Report: Iran weighing plot to assassinate US ambassador to South Africa

Ambassador Lana Marks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa after presenting her credentials to the President. (U.S. State Department. U.S. Mission to Africa photo/Released)
September 14, 2020

A U.S. intelligence report determined Iran is considering a plot to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Politico reported, citing a U.S. government official close to the issue and another official who saw the intelligence.

Officials have reportedly been aware of an ongoing general threat against U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks since early this year, however, new intelligence has revealed more specific threats against Marks. According to the U.S. government official, the Iranian embassy in Pretoria, South Africa is involved in the plot.

The ongoing security concerns come amid an assessment that Iran is still seeking to retaliate against the U.S. for President Donald Trump’s drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad, Iraq airport in January.

Iran has a history of targeted killings and kidnappings beyond its borders. Iranian leaders have largely avoided directly targeting U.S. diplomats, however, Iranian-linked groups have attacked some U.S. diplomatic facilities and bases in Iraq, including an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad days before the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani.

Marks has been warned about the Iranian plot against her in accordance with an intelligence community directive known as “Duty to Warn,” which requires spy agencies to warn potential victims of an attack if intelligence indicates that person’s life may be in danger.

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Marks, 66, was sworn in to serve as the ambassador to South Africa in October 2019. She was born in South Africa and can speak some of the country’s key languages, such as Afrikaans and Xhosa. Marks has also known Trump personally for more than 20 years as a member of his Mar-a-Lago club and is a successful businesswoman and handbag designer.

Marks is reportedly one of several suspected targets of Iranian retaliation. Reports earlier in the year determined U.S. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), was also considered a top target by Iran. McKenzie has said in recent months that Iran continues to be “our central problem” in the Middle East and Iranian-linked proxy groups also complicated existing missions in the region, including counter-ISIS operations.

It is not clear why Iran has focused on Marks, as she has no apparent links to Iran.

South Africa may also be a prime location for Iran to take action, given its existing ties to the country, as well as a weaker partnership between the U.S. and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies as is common in other countries.

Reports found that Iran has operated secretive cells in South Africa for decades, which could prove useful in supporting an operation like the one reportedly targeting Marks. Al Jazeera reported on one network of Iranian operatives in South Africa in 2015 and said leaked intelligence documents showed the Iranian networks were working at the time to prop up front companies and diplomatic channels in an effort to avoid U.S.-backed economic sanctions.