The Mossad chief and the era of hi-tech hits as well as Israel’s strongman
By YONAH JEREMY BOB, ANNA AHRONHEIM
It seems that the most dangerous job for a Hamas, Hezbollah, Syrian or Iranian terrorists these days is in hi-tech.During the night between August 4 and 5, Aziz Asber, the head of Department 4 of the Syrian Scientific Research Center was blown up by a headrest car bomb – to date attributed by most sources to Yossi Cohen’s Mossad.Asber was responsible for developing advanced weaponry together with Iran and Hezbollah to pose a strategic threat to Israel’s military superiority.Taking out the hi-tech brains of Israel’s adversaries seems to be the calling card of Cohen, who has put his imprimatur on Israel’s elite spy agency since taking charge in March 2016.Some other similar high-profile assassinations attributed to Cohen’s Mossad include the assassinations of a Hamas electrical engineering expert in designing drones and rockets on April 22 in Malaysia and a Hamas aeronautical engineer who manufactured drones and unmanned naval vessels on December 15, 2016, in Tunis.There have been strong signs that Cohen’s Mossad has had ongoing operations in Syria and Iran. The January Mossad operation to appropriate Iran’s secret nuclear records involved a large number of agents and could not have been pulled off without a deep and wide network embedded in Tehran.If that operation goes down as Cohen’s most legendary one, and helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit the Iran nuclear deal with a major blow at a key moment, the series of assassinations of hi-tech weapons experts during Cohen’s term is probably his most distinctive legacy.AdvertisementIn the past, Hamas and other targets tended to be military commanders, major financiers and those who had masterminded terrorist attacks.A pattern of hits on engineers and scientists shows that the Mossad’s thinking has evolved to consider weapons experts to be the far larger and more irreplaceable threat, in comparison to military commanders.This goes along with Cohen’s increased focus on hi-tech, with the Mossad opening a fund for investing in technology start-ups for the first time during his reign.Cohen also seems to have learned lessons from a significant volume of what are presumed to have been Mossad hits and encouraged defections of Iranian scientists from 2005 to 2010. He seems to have successfully addressed a key problem.Under Cohen, even if everyone points a finger at the Mossad, there has been scant real evidence of Mossad involvement.Presuming Tunis was a Mossad operation, the agency under Cohen showed that the Mossad had found the answer to pulling off assassinations in an age where most everything seems to be caught on video.In contrast, the Mossad’s assassination pre-Cohen of top Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in 2010 in Dubai was considered a major failure because eventually video emerged that revealed the agents’ identities.Five to 10 foreign suspects were rounded up and questioned by Tunisia, but it appears that all of the suspects were duped or otherwise used by actual Mossad agents to carry out any transactions that could be videotaped.No video footage ever emerged, and Hamas and others complained that Tunisian investigators did not finish their probe.Four months after the Malaysia hit and a few days after the Syrian hit, there is no evidence to date proving the Mossad’s involvement, let alone identifying specific members of the assassination squad.Malaysian authorities have mentioned video footage of the assassins from the April hit, but the most they have shared to date is that they were possibly white and European-looking.There are no clear photos or videos with faces, and the murder weapons were never found. One report indicated that the motorcycle assassins’ faces may have been obscured by helmets.Without footage of their faces, the only chance at figuring out the assassins’ identities would be trying to track any preplanning and surveillance activities.There have been no reports of any details relating to the assassins in Syria.It has not hurt Cohen at all that he came in having served as Netanyahu’s close national security adviser – something that can only boost a Mossad chief’s authority.Around halfway through his term, Cohen has unquestionably taken ownership of the Mossad, and the agency’s enemies are back to scratching their heads about how to combat its audacity and ingenuity.Gadi EisenkotSecuring Israel from any sudden outbreak of war and bridging the gaps between the army and the people have remained top priorities for IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.And in less than six months he will be stepping down from his role, ending his career as Israel’s top military man without having overseen any major military conflict with Israel’s enemies.Born in Tiberias on May 19 1960, Eisenkot enlisted into the IDF’s Golani Brigade where he was promoted to various command positions – squad leader, platoon leader and company commander – before he ultimately commanded the brigade in 1998.He then was appointed Military Secretary to the President and Minister of Defense in 1999.During his career he also commanded the Bashan Armored Division, the Judea and Samaria Division at the height of the Second Intifada, the IDF Operations Branch and the Northern Command during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.He was appointed Deputy Chief of General Staff in 2012, and in November 2014 was selected to take over from former Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz as the 21st IDF Chief of the General Staff, a position he assumed on February 16, 2015, shortly after Operation Protective Edge.In February 2017, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman extended Eisenkot’s term as the head of Israel’s army, but in June he confirmed that he would retire on January 1, six weeks short of four years at the helm.As chief of staff he has drawn a fair amount of criticism from the Israeli public, especially surrounding the controversial case of former IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison.A day before the sentencing, Eisenkot said that Azaria “is not everyone’s son” who the nation should protect, but “a fighter, a soldier and he must give his life to protect us.”According to several polls, there was widespread public support for Azaria, indicating a significant gap between the views of chief of staff, top IDF brass and the Israeli public.But Eisenkot has been praised for many successes as well as changes he made to the IDF.As as part of the multi-year Gideon Plan, he has focused on changing the face of the IDF by shortening the time of service and reducing the number of career soldiers in the army to 40,000 by letting go of some 4,000, including 120 officers with ranks of lieutenant-general to brigadier-general.Eisenkot has also increased the amount of training for troops and reserve units and also restocked the military’s warehouses by investing millions of shekels into increasing supplies for combat operations, including ammunition, fuel, food, replacement parts and training schools.The ongoing wave of violence in the West Bank and the increasingly dire humanitarian situation – along with the weekly violent demonstrations at the Gaza border fence – have also kept the IDF on high alert.When he began his term he made it his mission to discover and destroy Hamas’s attack tunnels dug from inside the Gaza Strip and reaching into Israel. By using an advanced technological system which relies on a variety of sensors, the IDF has located and successfully destroyed at least 10 cross-border tunnels since October 2017.Eisenkot has also overseen the building of a 65 kilometer-long underground barrier which, once completed by late 2019, will effectively render all of the terror group’s tunnels useless.The war in Syria on Israel’s northern border has also been a focus of Eisenkot’s, especially in terms of keeping an advanced Iran from entrenching itself in the war-torn country and stopping advanced weapons getting into the hands of Hezbollah.Israeli officials, including Eisenkot, have repeatedly made it clear that Israel would not tolerate any Iranian presence on its northern border. As part of its effort, the IDF has under his watch stepped up “the Campaign between Wars,” overseeing more than a hundred sorties by the IAF and Special Forces operations in various arenas, especially in Syria.Under Eisenkot, the IDF successfully foiled an Iranian attempt in May to initiate an extensive retaliatory operation against Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights. While rockets were launched towards several of the IDF’s forward operating positions by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force under the command of Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the overall operation was deemed an Iranian failure.The chief of staff has also focused on surrounding himself with men he trusts in order to focus on his priority of increasing the IDF’s readiness in the event of a sudden outbreak of war in a region plagued by conflict.Eisenkot is due to leave office in January. If all goes well, he may just end up as one of Israel’s most successful IDF chiefs of staff.