Terror scout posed as tourist to spy on London Iranian TV channel

Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev remanded in custody and will be sentenced on Friday

Metropolitan Police handout image of a video grab taken from body camera footage of Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev being arrested by counter-terrorism police officers after he was seen filming the headquarters of Persian-language television channel Iran International. Wednesday December 20, 2023. PA
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A Chechnya-born Austrian citizen was on Wednesday found guilty of spying on a London-based dissident Persian-language television channel after Iran put it on a “wanted list".

Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev, 31, carried out hostile reconnaissance for people unidentified at TV channel Iran International in February.

At a trial at the Old Bailey in London, Dovtaev was found guilty of attempting to collect information for terrorist purposes.

Dovtaev made no reaction in the dock when the jury delivered its unanimous verdict on Wednesday after nearly seven hours of deliberations.

Judge Richard Marks KC remanded him in custody to be sentenced on Friday.

Iran International's journalists will not be 'cowed by threats'

Afterwards, Iran International spokesman Adam Baillie said backed its journalists to deliver uncensored news even in the face of threats.

“This trial was a reminder of the threats journalists and news organisations face," he said. "Journalism is under attack across the world from those who seek to suppress media freedom.

“We will not be cowed by threats. Our journalists will continue to provide the independent, uncensored news the people of Iran deserve.

“Today’s verdict sends a clear message that the UK remains a bastion of free speech where threats against journalists will not be tolerated.

“We are grateful to the Metropolitan Police for all they do to ensure our safety.”

Jurors had heard how Iran International had been highly critical of the Iranian government for years and publicly accused it of human rights violations.

Last September, it reported on the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained after wearing her hijab "inappropriately".

Amid the subsequent protests in Iran, the country’s Minister of Intelligence designated the TV channel a “terrorist organisation”.

In November, state-owned Iranian media described Iran International as being on a “terror blacklist”.

It stated: “Those operating the TV channel have been declared as ‘wanted’ by the Ministry [of Intelligence].”

Jurors were told of close political ties between Iran, Russia and Chechnya, where Dovtaev was born.

Since 2019, Iran has been in a strategic alliance with Russia.

Chechnya was described as a “subject” of the Russian Federation and had sent forces to fight in Ukraine last year, jurors heard.

Dovtaev travelled directly from airport to headquarters of Iran International

On February 11, IT worker and married father of three Dovtaev boarded a plane from Vienna to Gatwick.

He took a taxi from the airport and in the footage played during the trial, he can be heard playing the role of a tourist, asking where he should visit and at one point telling the driver he might find some “nice English girls”.

“How is the English girls? Are they good with men or are they crazy?” – to which the driver responded that “the best thing” for him to do would be to go clubbing near Piccadilly Circus.

He travelled directly to the headquarters of Iran International and carried out “hostile reconnaissance” for an unidentified individual or group, the court was told.

He sought to “identify and exploit” vulnerabilities in the security of the company’s premises in Chiswick Business Park, West London, jurors heard.

When initially questioned, he told security guards he was meeting a friend.

He was arrested by police at a nearby Starbucks cafe after he was seen filming the Iran International building on his phone.

In a prepared statement to police, he denied being involved with any terrorist organisation and claimed he had taken a video “to show to my three children as there was a lake there”.

The court heard Dovtaev’s trip was the most recent in a series of similar visits by “others unknown” to identify weaknesses in security that could be exploited by those planning an attack.

Iran International employees 'all became targets for violent reprisals'

“As a result of the Iranian authorities’ attitude towards Iran International, the organisation and its employees all became targets for violent reprisals," prosecutor Nicholas de la Poer KC said.

“As such, the security at their place of work was of very real and practical interest to those who might wish to carry out such reprisals.

“The very fact that the defendant went to collect information shows that planning by others was already under way.”

Giving evidence, Dovtaev denied wrongdoing and claimed he had been “set up”.

He claimed not to know why he had been sent to the business park and said he felt tricked by his contact, whose identity he did not know.

Asked why he appeared to take an interest in the building and its surroundings, he said he “quite simply liked it” and was “in wonder at the architecture”.

Dovtaev said he had been sent to the UK to do something he “didn’t understand” and that he had “no reason” to help the Iranian government to attack its enemies in England.

Met counter-terrorism chief says police alive to Iranian threat

Police are “very alive to the threat posed by Iran” having foiled 15 plots linked to the hostile state, the Met’s counter-terrorism chief said after Dovtaev's conviction.

Even though police cannot say whether or not Iran was behind Dovtaev’s activities, Cmdr Dom Murphy said he believed “very strongly” that they were for the purposes of terrorism.

The head of the Met’s SO15 Counter-Terrorism Command said: “For a considerable amount of time, we’ve been worried about threats projected into the UK from Iran, although we can’t say why Dovtaev conducted this activity.

“Clearly, we had enhanced security in that area as a result of the media company being based at Chiswick Business Park.

“This was an individual conducting hostile reconnaissance, gathering information that may be useful to terrorists or for terrorism.

“At this time, we don’t know why Dovtaev was conducting this activity except to say that we believe very strongly that it was for terrorism.

“We don’t know who did it but we have always been concerned about threats projected into the UK, and in this case, particularly against Persian language media.

“I’m pleased to say the company are still broadcasting from London but just in a different location now.

“It’s only thanks to our work with the security staff on enhancing the security at that site that we were able to uncover his plan," he added.

Dovtaev gave various reasons for his interest in the Iranian TV channel but the fact he went straight there from the airport was “very concerning”, Mr Murphy said.

Involvement of second state in Dovtaev plot not ruled out

Mr Murphy declined to be drawn on whether a second hostile state could be involved, but said: “We do know that some states like to use other individuals to conduct activity on their behalf and that’s always a very concerning thing.

“We work extremely closely with our intelligence security partners here in the UK to ensure that when that does happen, we’re able to identify those individuals, whether they’re criminals or individuals that have just been tasked by those states to conduct activity of this type.”

Counter-terrorism police also work closely with the Home Office, which decides on whether to proscribe organisations. Iranian forces are not proscribed in the UK.

“We’ve been very alive to the threat by certain states in the UK, and Iran certainly is one of them, and in this case the threat to a Persian language media organisation," Mr Murphy said.

“So irrespective of their proscription, we remain entirely focused on keeping the public and these organisations safe from any state that wish to do us harm.”

On Dovtaev's guilty verdict, Mr Murphy said: “I’m very grateful to the jury for their efforts in this case and ultimately we will continue to focus on people like him to keep people in the UK safe.

“I don’t think it’s a new threat emerging. This is something we’ve been aware of which is why such effective plans were in place to disrupt Dovtaev’s activity this time around.

“As I say, we’ve disrupted 15 plots previously, they were threats to individuals or groups here in the UK from Iran, so we remain extremely vigilant towards any activity by hostile states that may wish to do us harm here in the UK.”

'People committing Terrorism Act offences at Israel-Gaza war protests'

Mr Murphy also spoke about terrorist charges arising from recent protests in Britain over the war in Gaza.

"I’ve been in counter-terrorism now for 20 years," he said. "For the first time, we’ve seen pretty widespread indications of people committing Terrorism Act offences at protests.

“That’s not to say they’re terrorists, necessarily. But, of course, they are undertaking activity which shows support for a terrorist organisation.

“That’s the first time we’ve seen that. So I think the landscape has changed. And, of course, world events will always have an impact on security here in the UK.

“But I think you’ve seen from the policing response, we remain extremely vigilant to everything that’s happening at protests and working with our communities to ensure that protests take place peacefully – but where they don’t we will provide a robust response.”

Updated: December 20, 2023, 9:36 PM