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Enigmatic Turkish Airlines Flight TK183 to Caracas

Sean Goforth wrote the book  “Axis of Unity: Venezuela, Iran & the Threat to America”. In his book, he indicates that in 2008 a handful of U.S. congressmen began calling for Venezuela to be declared a state sponsor of terrorism. While this may raise awareness, political realities prevent legislative action. The “state sponsor” label would necessitate trade sanctions, and Venezuela supplies the United States with around 10 percent of its oil.’ Also, because of porous borders and a history of corruption among Venezuela’s military, Venezuela harbored FARC, a Colombian guerrilla group that was formed in 1964 as a Marxist movement, terrorists even prior to 1999. Threatening to crack down on FARC camps now risks giving the impression that the Chavez government is being targeted when previous administrations were not. If the United States labeled Venezuela a terrorism sponsor it would needlessly feed tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, a conflict which Chavez frequently cites as a potential staging ground for a U.S. invasion of Venezuela to seize the country’s oil.

The 2006 attempts to blow up the U.S. embassy, followed by frequent indications of Hezbollah’s activities in Venezuela, are Iranian deterrence at work. U.S. policymakers are aware of the threat, although they often refrain from acknowledging it because doing so would, in effect, be an admission that Iran has a lever to pull when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, and it may lead to public outcries to brand Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism. As STRATFOR (A global security analyst firm) notes, “the threat is real” but it also “is not likely to be exercised.” Clear-cut evidence of Hezbollah’s presence serves as a warning to the U.S. intelligence community. Hezbollah is active in America’s backyard, and it is sending a message—Iran has global reach and an attack on Iran will bring retaliation not just in the Middle East.

How exactly can Iran and Venezuela maintain such a high level of cooperation? Transit between the two countries has been made easier by direct flights. In March 2007 Iran Airlines inaugurated the Caracas-Damascus-Tehran route under the name Conviasa. The number of Iranians living in Venezuela consequently, increased from two hundred to more than two thousand in two years, largely thanks to the ease of direct travel, according to an Iranian businessman. Sympathetic portrayals of this nexus see this as a collaborative effort to develop infrastructure in Venezuela. But being the world’s only commercial air route to link two countries on the U.S. “state sponsors of terrorism” list to a lone third locale brought some suspicion. Charges arose that the flights were meant to transfer unsavory “people and things,” as one Western source put it.” Apparently, unlike other air carriers that try to woo customers on the basis of price or luxury accommodation, Conviasa’s key draw was being hassle-free. Very hassle-free, in fact. Security screening of passengers onboard Conviasa flights is lax or nonexistent. As the 2008 “Overview of Terrorist Activities in the Western Hemisphere” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notes: “Passengers on these flights were not subject to immigration and customs controls at Simön Bolivar International Airport.” Not only is there no reliable passenger screening, but according to DHS, “Venezuelan citizenship, identity, and travel documents remained easy to obtain, making Venezuela a potentially attractive away station for terrorists.” This makes the route a near perfect artery for the direct transmission of terrorists between Latin America and the Middle East. Conviasa flights routinely raise eyebrows as new bits of intelligence trickle out. Reza Kahlili, a pseudonym of a member of the Revolutionary Guard who became a CIA informant, claimed that the Caracas-Damascus-Tehran “special flights” are integral to the creation of an Iranian terror network with global reach, bringing Iran’s presence a pace from America’s door. Kahlili also believes that the Conviasa flights carried Imad Mughniyeh from Iran to Caracas before his assassination in 2008. 47 Others share the opinion of the former CIA director Michael Hayden, who insisted, “These concerns are not just in the abstract. We saw people traveling who made us wonder. “Most recently, in August 2010, the State Department bemoaned the route. Weeks later, Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, said he was “very troubled” about the flights because “Iran is the largest supporter of terrorism of any country on the face of this earth.”

CNN looked into the matter, first contacting the Venezuelan government for an explanation. In a written response to CNN, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, replied: “There is absolutely nothing untoward about these flights—which take place between two countries that have shared relations for over 50 years.” Disregarding the Damascus leg of the route, he went on, “One can also fly to Tehran from Frankfurt, Germany, amongst other cities, so I still remain confused as to why this should be of any concern. Should you or your staff want to see for yourself, I greatly encourage you to take one of these flights. ” Another Venezuelan official told the news outlet that passengers arriving from Iran and Syria are subject to regular screening and customs checks, and there “has never been any evidence that flights carried suspected militants.”. Taking up the ambassador’s invitation, CNN tried to book a flight in late August 2010, but to no avail: “It was unclear whether seats were available to the general public—or whether the flight, which began in 2007, was even running at all.” In follow-up conversations with representatives from Conviasa, an agent said that round-trip fare was $ 1, 450, and flights departed from Tehran on Thursdays and then back from Caracas on Tuesdays. The agent then disclosed that there were no seats available for the next four Thursdays, and after that, the flight was not offered? Yet another Conviasa representative told CNN that while the flight from Venezuela to Syria was still running, the leg from Syria to Iran had not been operating for some time, seemingly contradicting the Venezuelan statement made a few days before about passengers from Iran and Syria being subject to screenings. Picking up the scent, Fox News reported that officials from the CIA and Israeli intelligence believed that purchasing tickets for the flights required the permission of the Iranian or Venezuelan government. So, Fox tried to buy up all the round-trip tickets linking Caracas, Damascus, and Tehran. Fox also noted that booking flights involved calls being rerouted to a cell service in Argentina, “curious” given that all other Conviasa flight matters were handled at the company’s offices in Caracas. The bit of stagecraft between CNN and Fox News worked, A month later Conviasa announced an end to the flights. 

Following CNN and FOX News footsteps, we attempted to find out what is the route connecting Iran to Caracas. Using the website Flight Connections There isn’t any nonstop flights between Iran and Venezuela nor between Qatar and Venezuela.

However, we did find a single direct flight from Iran’s neighbor and close ally Turkey where there are many nonstop flights between the two neighboring countries. Flight TK 183 from Istanbul to Caracas with an 80-minute stopover in Havana, Cuba on Turkish Airlines. Suspiciously, this “every Saturday and Tuesday” flight (TK183) does not show up on any flight booking search engine other than the official Turkish Airlines’ website.

This leads us to believe that after booking the flight we might be contacted by Turkish Airlines to cancel the flight for a possible made up reason. Allowing 3rd party flight search engine websites to book the flight could result in unwanted attention to the nature of this flight. We expect the flight is moving gold from Caracas to Turkey based on a Bloomberg Report. Therefore, the only way to book the flight is directly through the Turkish Airlines website.

Hopefully, intelligence agencies should take notice and further investigate Turkish Airlines flight T183 operating from Istanbul with the final destination in Caracas.

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