Op. Harpoon: How the Mossad and an Israeli NGO destroyed terrorist money networks

A newly released book sheds light on a secret operation that put a halt to terror funding for some of the organizations that threaten the Jewish state.

Top secret materials (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Top secret materials
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Former government sources have told The Jerusalem Post that Israel’s Operation Harpoon, carried out by a range of Mossad, Shin Bet and other operatives, was revolutionary in that it was “not just about following the money, but about destroying terrorists’ money networks.”
Sources who had close personal contact with Meir Dagan (1945-2016) indicate that the idea of elevating the thwarting of terrorism financing to a primary mission of intelligence agencies was an uphill battle for the legendary Mossad chief and Harpoon founder.
“When Dagan started Harpoon as part of his role at the National Security Council, no one was interested. Not the Mossad, Shin Bet, IDF intelligence..., and there was almost nothing in place to combat terrorism financing,” the sources told the Post.
With his close relationship with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, his ingenuity and singular will power, Dagan, who later became Mossad chief, turned Harpoon into an operation that dealt Hezbollah, Hamas, Fatah’s Yasser Arafat and other terrorist groups major blows.
The development and achievements of Harpoon against terrorism financing, including by groups of lawyers such as the Shurat Hadin NGO, is capturing the headlines now as a new book about the operations and the lawsuits has been released.
Cover of Harpoon (screenshot)Cover of Harpoon (screenshot)
Though Harpoon has been previously revealed in its general outlines, Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters, by Shurat Hadin director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Samuel Katz, breaks new ground on several fronts.
Ex-government sources said that Shurat Hadin was one of several law firms/NGOs that Harpoon operatives approached (and ultimately the most successful) to get at terrorists’ financing, where targeted-killing operations were illegal, not feasible or considered too aggressive.
Darshan-Leitner’s group, initially housed in a tiny apartment in Petah Tikva, and others proved decisive, said the sources, in taking down Hezbollah-connected banks such as the Lebanese Canadian Bank, which once had over $5 billion in assets.
Before 9/11, only Israel, Dagan and a smaller group of lawyers were in the terrorism-financing busting business for the longhaul.
But the former government sources explained that after 9/11 they helped get the US intelligence community, the Treasury and Justice departments quicker than the CIA and FBI, turned on to going after terrorism financing as a long-term strategic problem and not a mere short-term tactical issue.
Sources said that the CIA and FBI were quickly onboard with “following the money” of a particular terrorist cell to seize it. However, only the Treasury and Justice departments understood Dagan’s strategic concept of taking out terrorists’ ability to bank and of driving up their cost of moving money globally.
Former government sources said that both their intelligence operations as well as lawsuits by Shurat Hadin and others “dramatically impacted Hezbollah’s budget and ability.”
The book discloses intelligence assets in the Lebanese banking system, such as LCB fraud auditor Munir Z. The breakthroughs did not come without loss, with Munir Z. eventually caught and killed by Hezbollah in 2009. Intelligence operations rarely come without risk and complex calculations about balancing agents’ safety with pushing them to obtain information breakthroughs.
For Darshan-Leitner, her being chosen by Harpoon to get privileged information, though never paid, to help her file terrorism finance lawsuits, was life-changing.
In a comical part of the book, her secretary calls out to her, “Pick up on line two... I think it’s the U2s.”
It was September 2009.
The U2s the secretary was referring to had nothing to do with the famous Irish band.
They were part of Dagan’s elite intelligence unit and were called the U2s, as they were referred to in the book as Uri L. and Shai U.
For Darshan-Leitner, such a call from the “U2s” always meant an interesting meeting was around the corner.
An astounding revelation made in the book is the contention that Israel’s final blow to bring an end to its most recent war, the 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge) with Hamas, came about not because of attacks on Hamas’s fighters, but “by incinerating the Hamas finance minister’s millions of dollars in cash for salaries he was delivering to suicide terrorists.” Targeting money with missiles was an extension of Dagan’s strategy to disrupt terrorists’ fund-raising networks.
The book recounts that Israeli intelligence “had learned that the elite of the Hamas force... were rumbling to their wives and families over not being paid... their salaries in weeks. Their anger was close to undermining the entire military campaign... The lack of money meant that the families of the fighters couldn’t buy food and clothing... Hamas leaders warned of insurrection. Calls were made for an emergency delivery of dollars.”
On August 23, 2014, Israel’s intelligence services picked up the trail of a main in his 20s traveling across Sinai with $13 million in cash packed inside four large leather suitcases.
He eventually arrived at “a tunnel, well illuminated and ventilated [that] had been dug underneath the safe house... At just before dawn, the envoy sent a brief SMS message to his patrons... waiting for the money on the Gaza side of the tunnel... The text consisted of a code word indicating that the courier was coming across; the phone... was destroyed immediately after the message was sent,” the authors recount.
After an hour, when the man was almost across the tunnel and “a smile came over his face. The cash had been delivered. His mission was over... A black Mercedes... was waiting for the luggage. Inside the car was Mohammed el-Ghoul, Hamas’s head of payroll.” He connected Hamas with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qatar and the various Gulf Arab states – and sources of money generally.
The celebration was interrupted by an Israel Air Force AH-64D Longbow attack helicopter that, with the push of a button, sent a single AGM-114 Hellfire antitank missile slamming into Ghoul’s Chinese-made car.
“The sedan evaporated into a fireball and a cloud of black smoke... the skies turned green as a storm of singed $100 bills cascaded onto the dusty streets of Gaza City.... The payroll’s incineration was a major blow to Hamas. Without the cash they could not maintain the struggle. Hamas asked for a cease-fire,” says the book.
The Gaza war ended 48 hours later.
In some areas it is hard to concretely estimate the effect of Harpoon, shepherded by Dagan, the Mossad and Shurat Hadin, on Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 20 years.
But former government sources, including those with operational backgrounds, indicated that the program was of massive strategic importance, in some ways far exceeding what even the most successful tactical operational successes could achieve.