A Young Mexican spy narrates the details of an operation executed in Teheran
José Carlos García Tolentino, a former student at Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM), feigned a religious conversion to Islam as part of his mission to infiltrate the world of Islamic extremism. In early 2011, after gaining the trust of the Iranian ambassador to Mexico, he was able to enlist in a 2 month-long course in Islam at Al Mustafa University in the sacred city of Qom in Iran.
García Tolentino, then only 19 years-old, was a member of a group of young individuals, many of them UNAM alumni, that decided to expose an alleged hacking, intelligence, and cyber terrorism operation that was being launched against the United States.
Univision journalists, Jorge Mota and Guillermo González del Campo were able to interview García Tolentino in April of 2011
C an you please tell me your name and profession?
José Carlos García Tolentino, I was studying [at UNAM], unfortunately I was unable to register for classes due to questions about my return from the course [in Iran]. At the moment, I continue to support my friends -Juan Carlos and the team- through issues of transcriptions and accompaniment.
How did you get involved with the group?
It was my mother; she was working as a nurse three years ago, taking care of Juan’s father while he was still alive. My mother would tell me about Juan, that he was a good person who always took care of his father and his family, that, well, he was a good example for me, mainly because I was just in high school and she wanted me to pursue a higher education degree.
After, I contacted him, because while my mother was working with him, I had never met him. When I wanted to get into UNAM, he was basically the only person we knew from UNAM.
How did the idea of going to Iran come about?
By visiting doctor [Mohammad Hassan] Ghadiri at the [Iranian] embassy. It was something that Juan had been planning. It took a lot of effort, first to get the appointment, to gain the confidence of Dr. Ghadiri. After he extended the invite, he left the country because his mission had ended and we had to manage the whole situation, but directly with Iran, through Husseini, an ex-embassy adviser who, like Ghadiri, was also in Iran.
What was the purpose of the trip to Iran?
Dr. Ghadiri spoke to me about theology, he told me to go back to Mexico (after the course), to join a mosque, to become a Sheik, so that I could spread Islam here…; but really he told me about theology, about going back to Mexico after the course was done, about opening a mosque, about me becoming a Sheij, spreading Islam here…but really it’s not that much since they pay for your 2 month course, they pay for your flight and all that. It’s even more complicated than that.
All he did was try and convince me to go to Iran, study, to become familiar, to learn everything they had in their minds Their ideology, more than anything, is to instill a hatred for Zionists, they withdrew much of what theology entails.
Was it Juan Carlos that had you infiltrate the Iranian embassy so that they would offer you this course and so that you could go to Iran?
Juan Carlos, I don’t know what steps he took, but he only opened doors for me for all situations. For example, he would not talk openly with me about his plans, he would only explain as we went along: “You know, this is happening, I’m going to do this. Everything is going according to plan.” The main goal was to gain Dr. Ghadiri’s trust.
Why does a young man like you, who is studying law, want to go to Iran?
No, it really wasn’t to go study in Iran, but instead they had all of this planned out so that I could go there to record what they were doing so that I could bring it back to Mexico and show them what they were doing.
"They" are the Iranians?
The Iranians, yes. They also hid their true identities; for example, on the application they never mentioned Rabbani, an extremely important figure in Argentina that is wanted by Interpol.
A people like, for example, the director of the course, he also changed his name; they do it in order to for security reason and for fear that they will be recorded.
And were you able to gain Ambassador Ghadiri’s trust?
He was the one who introduced me (the people from the course) directly. He recommended me. (After) the application continued, it was also a series of questions about how much you know about Islam, what is it that you know, why do you want to study at the university, they ask you about your live, about whom you know in Iran.
Then University Al Mustafa would review the application. In the forms it looks like you are going to the university to study theology, but no, we were received by the Western Cultural Foundation, not University Al Mustafa.
It took a long time for them to respond, after they responded, they authorized us.
When did you go to Iran?
It was approximately November when they told us that we could travel, they sent me a confirmed ticket, I met Ali Qomi, who introduced himself as the director of the course, I had videoconferences with him because he had to meet me personally before I went. We chatted about who I was, what I knew, why I wanted to go. He was also the director of my short-term course, the one who authorized my trip, and they sent me a paid for flight on KLM.
Were you nervous about going to Iran?
Yes. When I arrived at the airport in December I was told that I could not fly to Iran because I couldn’t fly over the United States, so I got back in touch with Sheik Ali Qomi. He became very worried about this and told me to get a ticket from Mexico that would allow me to get to Iran and that once I arrived they would reimburse me, so that I could get there soon and not waste any more time trying to solve the issue with the United States, who had put someone with my same name on the no fly list.
So you bought a ticket and went on a different airline?
Yes, I bought a different flight on Lufthansa, with a layover in Frankfurt. I missed a week of the course.
Where in Iran did you arrive?
So my mission was to be in the most major locations that I could get to so that I could send back the information that they were waiting for back in Mexico about the web virus Stuxnet. I first asked the course director, who went by the name Ali Qomi, he was the one who picked me up. The main goal was to get a meeting with them because they arrive, they give you classes, and then they leave. I told him, “You know I am bringing information from Mexico, can I give it to you? I can give it to you whenever you want.”
What did you study in Iran?
Theology. Knowledge of the Shia, gnosis, Islamic Revolution, learning the Qur’an, reciting the Qur’an.
Where there other Spanish speaking students?
Ye, there were Argentines, Bolivians, Colombians, Venezuelans, Spaniards, and Ecuadorians.
Are you still in contact with them?
No, I haven’t been able to. I haven’t communicated with, but I have saved some emails I’ve received from some of my classmates from over there.
Were those the people you knew the best in the course?
Yes, that’s who I spent the most time with, because we were in rooms of 12, so I spent the most time with them, and those are the ones who have been able to still send me emails.
And were they studying the same thing as you?
Yes, but they specialized in certain things: in opening new mosques. Their goal was to complete the entire course so that the foundation would give them financial support.
Because the course included, food, spending money, water, electricity, all expenses, but you had to justify all of it legally so that they could start sending money through the embassies.
What as an average day like there? What did you do?
An average day was getting up before 6 for the first prayer. You could go back to sleep or wait until breakfast which was served at 6 in the morning. You would prepare for your first class that was Qur’an study, you would learn the teachings, the words, the pronunciation. Next was Qur’an recitation, pronouncing all the words, learning how to recite them. There are three distinct ways to recite the Qur’an, you would learn which option to refrain from, which one to do, join the last two letters, there was a class on immediate prostration. The next class was the class with Rabbani, he would teach us about the Islamic Revolution, he would ramble on about being in the war, ramble on about “the United States, the Zionists, the empire, they are attacking us, we have always suffered all around the world, we have always come out on top…” The next class was with Abdul Karim, one of the Sheiks and he would talk to us about issues surrounding Iman Ali. The next one was (Sujeil), the final two sheiks were argentine, born in Argentina, but more well versed than those from Iran.
All of these classes were in Spanish?
They were in Spanish. The Iranians also speak Spanish, they speak it very well because they have spent a lot of time working in Argentina, the mosque in Argentina has been there for about 20 years. And every so often they send another sheik over there to perfect his Spanish and to finish that which the others had left pending, under the guise of going to work at the mosque and just teach theology.
So the day was spent studying?
Yes, the classes began at 9 am and ended at 10 or 11 at night and we had to do it all over again the next day. But more than anything, the difficult thing was going to bed at 11.
Were you communicating with Juan Carlos at all? Were you giving him information about what was going on?
Yes. At night when they gave us an hour or so of time, depending on how we had behaved, depending on how much we had participated in class, they would allow us to use the Internet, and at that time I was able to communicate with them and tell them about what we were doing. Sometimes we would be visited by Ayatollahs, and I would tell them all about that bit by bit when we were able to use the Internet. Because sometimes we had to go make appearance on Iranian television, speaking on programs that they had that were meant to spread Islam.
When did they discover that you were there undercover and how?
What happened was that, the first day, I told them what had happened to me in Germany, that they had detained me the entire time I was there for my layover. Sheik Ali Qomi is the most extreme, the most cautious in that respect. It was at that moment that he began to doubt me, and he told me so straight up. He asked me if they had given me cameras and microphones in Germany so that I could record them. And from then on he called me a spy, but in a scornful way and only to those in whom he had the most trust. From the moment I arrived and told them that was when he began to call me a spy, he even had some of my classmates watch me when I accessed the Internet and watch everything that I did.
The first night he searched my clothes to see if I had cameras and microphones hidden in my buttons. He did that the first day.
But he didn’t find anything. Throughout the entire course he would nag me, asking me if I had a GPS on me that I would turn on in order to give the Zionists the exact location of all the most important places that they would take us, but more so, the identity and location of the ten Ayatollahs that they would take us to meet, the ten most important Ayatollahs of Iran. That was throughout the entire course, but he could never prove that I was doing anything because I was very careful with my things and more importantly I did everything late at night.
They found everything and took everything, the computer and the cameras, on February 28. The course had already ended and I had already had trouble with getting flights because they wouldn’t let me get on, and all my classmates had already left. The course officially ended February 17, and my classmates all left by the 19th, so when they found everything it was because I was completely alone in a small hotel room with everything in my bags. They pretended to be friendly, that they trusted me, and it was precisely that that caused them to discover that I had all the things hidden in a different place, hiding them in a location that was far from my bags…
What did they find?
They found four buttons, which were used for recorded; they found a watch that was also used to record. On March 1 they showed up in my room in the morning to search the computers, the cameras, the cell phones that I had, and the hard disks. They didn’t ask, they came with the sole purpose of searching my computer, the hard disks, because they knew what I had but they hadn’t found anything yet. After interrogating me, which lasted from 10 am to the evening, they came back to the hotel and they began to search all the beds because they said somebody had told them that in Germany I had been given microphones and cameras, and they had hidden it in my equipment and in my bags.
I didn’t have them exposed, I had them hidden still, but they kept searching little by little and they found four buttons, and the recording watch " that was all they were able to find.
And what did they tell you when they confiscated all of this?
One of them was extremely angry, he made a phone call " we were on the first floor " he left the hotel, he came back and all he told me was that they were going to take everything that they had right then and that they would be back at 10 am, so I should have my bags packed because they were going to take me somewhere else. Once they left, I got in touch with my brothers to let them know what had happened, that they had found the cameras, but they hadn’t found the photographs, the videos, the audio that I had, because Juan Carlos had shown me how to protect them and hide them inside the hard disks.
How long were you at the Spanish embassy?
I got to the embassy in the morning and I left in the afternoon, I was only there for a few hours. They told me that my situation was very difficult because they had to send me to a hotel and if they sent me to a hotel there was the risk that the Iranians would search for me, find me, and take me from the hotel.
They didn’t consider asylum because it was an issue that they had to send to Spain for Spain to revise and decide on, and at that time they couldn’t submit the application immediately, they still had to send what I had written to Spain for the powers that be in Spain to analyze and authorize the grant of asylum and from there they would be able to begin to handle my exit from Iran, but it was difficult because there was the fear that the Iranians were already searching for me.
I went to the Mexican embassy. I was at the Mexican embassy from March 2 and I arrived here in Mexico on March 12. I arrived in Mexico March 12.
So it was Mexico that secured your return?
Yes. The Secretary of Foreign Affairs secured my exit, she got my trip and paid for my ticket, but they wanted to charge my parents. The same people who were supposedly going to inform my parent as to how I was doing.
And the Mexican ambassador told me, don’t worry because it’s all paid for and I want you to tell them when you get to Mexico how well you were treated here, that the service you received was extraordinary, that no Mexican would have received such treatment from any other country’s embassy…
How was your arrival in Mexico?
In every airport except for Turkey, in Sao Paulo, in Colombia, in Mexico, there were people waiting for me that had been sent there by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
What was your flight plan?
From Teheran to Turkey, from Turkey to Sao Paulo, from Sao Paulo to Colombia, and from Colombia to Mexico. That was the route that the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was able to find so that I could return to Mexico.
What did you learn during your time in Iran?
Well, they want to hide everything under the umbrella od the mosque. Everything. They arrive, they establish themselves, they put people to work, but the sheiks never truly dedicate themselves to spreading theology. They constantly send sheiks to all of their previously established mosques, but the sheiks deal with other things, I wasn’t able to ascertain what exactly they do because of time constraints and more than anything the lack of trust that they had in me.
What was it that stood out the most, or scared you the most, or seemed strangest?
The obsession with sacrificing oneself in order to reach paradise. They tell you that being a martyr gives you a direct ticket to paradise, it’s a corporeal gift that you offer if you sacrifice yourself, you kill yourself, or you do something in the name of Allah with the eventual goal of reaching paradise " you do all of that in the name of Allah. To be able to sacrifice yourself or kill people in the name of Allah and for Islam is something very beautiful to them.
Do you thing that through these teachings they were trying to insinuate that that was the best way to achieve some sort of mystical elevation or degree of holiness?
It’s not a mystical elevation, because that is here on Earth, what they were searching for was paradise after life on Earth. They search for paradise in Heaven, with Allah " they don’t care about their bodies, they are ready to blow themselves up wherever they want, in the name of Allah.
Everything is done for Allah. They also mix religion with politics a lot. They want to institute the politics from Iran in every place that they can, the same laws " they want to remove whatever government is in power in every country and institute their own, the word of Allah, the laws of Allah, because there is no greater law than Allah’s.
Were you able to speak with any of the other students that were there from Latin America? How did they feel about these teachings?
One of the Argentinian students I was able to chat with " one who had already spent a year there studying " told me that he a different view on the stonings and lashings that they gave people. That it was bad and all that but he said that after being there you realize that it is the correct thing to do and it is the best thing to do " that if you stone a person, that if you hang them and kill them, you save many lives. It’s an issue of convincing those that are already there so they leave behind their Western ways of thinking and begin to form the same beliefs as them about stoning a person, hanging a person in a public place, that people will change their mind and that everyone will be intimidated by such acts and that they will stop doing those things. Also giving their life for their religion is very important to them.
How do they feel about Christianity and other religions? Did they speak to you about that in the classes?
Yes. They insult everything, they talk bad about everything, but if any other religion dares to speak about Islam, that is when they go in there and kill the people, they go there and put bombs, they go and do things to them, but they are allowed to talk about whatever they want. They can talk bad about every other religion, they invent things so that they seem ridiculous, they ridicule everything that is in front of them, they ridicule it and they have experts dedicated to everything. Also, one of the sheiks, Ali Qomi, when I first gained his trust, he told me what they are now doing is waging an intellectual war, what they are going to do is prepare people intellectually so that they can attack the masses intellectually. That is what they are doing directly from Qom. Precisely in Qom.
One of your professors is wanted by INTERPOL, talk a little bit about that.
Yea, Rabbani, the sheik that was in Argentina. They spoke to us about that a little bit, but the version that they gave was that Rabbani was in Argentina in a mosque that was close to the Jewish center where bombs had been placed but somehow no Jews were killed. They detonated one bomb outside and one inside the center, but no one died in those explosions and that they tried to blame him but he had to leave the country due to the situation. But he had nothing to do with that and that now he unfortunately could not travel to any other country because he is wanted by Interpol. If he sets foot in any airport outside of Iran he will immediately be sent to prison and tried.