The undercover man of many faces: On the job with a Shin Bet agent

A former Shin Bet agent goes undercover for the US and MI6 to bust drug lords and terrorists.

By
August 25, 2018 05:22
N. WITH his private, unpublished story

N. WITH his private, unpublished story. (photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)

How the hell did I end up here? “N.” asked himself, bewildered.

The former agent of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) was off the grid and being questioned – with no access to a lawyer – by the US Secret Service for illegal arms dealing.

“[I had] no way to tell my wife where I had disappeared to,” he told The Jerusalem Post Magazine.

And the irony of it all? N. was an undercover agent for the FBI and the US Drug Enforcement Administration, trying to trap and bust the very people the US Secret Service believed he was working for.

At that moment, he just hoped his FBI handler, Rick, would find him and get him out of this colossal mess.

Eventually, the FBI did find N., but it took some time to extricate him, as the bureau did not want to compromise details of the sting operation. But by that time, he had already been criminally charged.

Throughout the ordeal N. did not publicly reveal the sting operation’s details. Many others in similar circumstances would have gone to the press to fight for their freedom.

N.’s self-sacrifice to guard the operation would earn him decades-long trust with a variety of Western intelligence agencies.

He eventually helped those agencies take down around 10 major drug lords who were affiliated with terrorist organizations (some of whom the Mossad also wanted taken down). One case is ongoing and its details still cannot be revealed. Nor can N.’s real name be used, as he is still involved in undercover work for the US and for England’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

The Magazine recently interviewed N., confirming his activities with multiple sources from within the Israeli intelligence community.

While N., with his identity hidden, was also interviewed by Shani Haziza of Channel 1 in the summer of 2014, this report includes information he has recently revealed for the first time.

HOW DID an ex-Shin Bet agent end up as a private contractor working undercover sting operations for Western intelligence agencies? N. was born around 60 years ago on a small moshav.

When he was drafted into the IDF, he joined a special forces combat rescue unit.

From there, he joined the Shin Bet, serving from 1979 to 1984 as personal security for prime minister Menachem Begin, defense minister Ariel Sharon and other top officials. He continued his security affiliation in conjunction with El Al in Paris from 1984 to 1989.

Perhaps what most helped N. remain solid in highstakes situations was helping shepherd Begin through the crisis of learning his wife had just died.

N. recounts that in 1982, he had flown with Begin to California where the prime minister would try to confront criticism regarding the Sabra and Shatilla incident in Lebanon. That incident – in which the IDF failed to stop a Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia from murdering hundreds of civilians in two Beirut-area refugee camps – resulted in Sharon being forced to resign from his post as defense minister.

Begin was staying at the Sheraton Beverly Hills, preparing to address a gathering of 3,000 people the next day. The morning before the event, N. says the FBI gave him and the Shin Bet a warning.

Two Arabs had gone to a gun store in California and purchased shotguns. The suspicion was that they were planning to shoot Begin on his way to the event because of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.

He describes how he and the Shin Bet decided they would “send a whole convoy to the event with 18 motorcycles, a helicopter and a limousine.”

But secretly, all of that was a decoy.

Begin would not be in the limousine, but instead would be riding in a Hertz rental car with only the driver, N. and one US Secret Service agent.

The convoy left, minus Begin, and N and the prime minister started in the elevator down to where the rental car was parked.

Abruptly, N.’s commander from the Shin Bet, Avraham Rotem, called for them to return to receive an urgent call from Begin’s son, Bennie, in Israel.

Without being told, N. says at that moment he already understood that the prime minister’s wife, who was already sick, had died.

While waiting for Begin’s doctor to arrive for added emotional and medical support, N. stood next to the prime minister as he learned the news.

N., then only 28 years old, says he watched tears roll down Begin’s cheeks and then heard him ask, “How long will it take to get home?” The Shin Bet immediately tossed aside all their carefully laid plans and rapidly threw together a new set of travel and security arrangements.

N. then accompanied Begin, along with only his chief of staff and doctor, on an emergency flight aboard Air Force One from Los Angeles to New York and then to Tel Aviv in an 18-hour whirlwind.

Begin sat across from N. and did not eat, drink, sleep or speak the entire trip, says N. in retelling the story.

Though he was not working undercover at the time, N. says this and other experiences helped steel him for remaining calm in tight spots for decades to come.

WHILE ACCOMPANYING various officials for the Shin Bet, N. made a lot of high-level connections in Africa and bonded with African culture.

After leaving the Shin Bet, he spent 1989-1994 in the Congo and Sierra Leone developing a large business.

Israel had no embassy in Sierra Leone and N. became a default messenger to the country for the Mossad and the Israeli government.

These African connections would prove crucial in 2013 for one of his most important sting operations against an African warlord who also worked with terrorists.

By the mid-1990s, N. had moved to Florida, though the Magazine cannot reveal his exact location.

N. sold electrical products, mostly to South Americans, gradually learning that some of his clients’ money was linked to organized crime.

At times he was paid with valuable items. That eventually led him to a pawnshop to sell one of those items.

At the pawnshop, N. met someone from the Dominican Republic. The two men went out for coffee as the man tried to gauge whether N. could help him acquire Israeli weapons to sell to Mexico.

N told the man that he would ask around.

But shortly after their meeting ended, as N. was driving home, the pawnshop owner called and told him to return to the shop immediately, saying it was very important. Making a quick decision, N. made a literal U-turn and returned to the pawnshop where he met Rick, the FBI agent who would become his first handler.

Rick asked N. to help the FBI trap the Dominican man.

N. says he had the impression that Rick already knew of his Israeli intelligence experience. An FBI background check would have shown that N. was on various lists for having had a diplomatic passport when he worked security for El Al.

It turned out that the Dominican man was actually an undercover agent for the US Secret Service who thought he could trap N. and find other illegal arms dealers.

In a surreal moment, N. tells of driving down a main road in Miami one day when he noticed that the normally crowded road was abandoned.

Suddenly, a loud voice came out of nowhere and started shouting, “Gray Bentley, pull off to the side of the road!” “At first I thought it was the radio... but then I saw four to five cars with flashing lights coming up fast from behind,” he recounts.

N. realized that the voice came from a helicopter overhead and that he had become the target of a high-speed chase.

After he was caught, agents arrested him at gunpoint, threw out his cellphone, ignored his pleas to call Rick (they assumed the story of an FBI handler was a lie) and charged him in court. That catches us up to the beginning of this story above.

Through 48 hours of interrogation and detention, N. kept his mouth shut and did not reveal his true undercover role, not even to the court.

Rick eventually found N. and asked him to keep things under wraps while the FBI agent tried to negotiate with the Secret Service.

After 48 hours in which the Secret Service still would not agree to release him, N. finally got permission to tell the court in closed session who he was.

At that point, he was released, and after a six-month judicial process in which he did not go to the press, the charges were finally dropped N. says that despite the disaster, his steadfastness in maintaining his and the FBI’s cover, even at heavy personal cost, “got lots of trust for me from the Americans.”

FAST FORWARD to 2013. With many successful undercover entrapment operations now under his belt, N would soon confront one of his greatest challenges.

A combination of the FBI, DEA, MI6 and French intelligence called on N. to target Guinea Bissau’s military, drug and illicit arms trade powerhouse, R.-Adm. Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto.

Bubo Na Tchuto was flourishing after a military coup “turned Guinea Bissau into the most popular destination in the world for terrorists’ training, distributing drugs and arms trafficking,” says N.

He adds, “[Even] the Mossad had found out that many terrorists with origins from different countries who it had captured had told it, ‘We got trained in Guinea Bissau.’” The FARC guerrilla movement of Colombia was sending massive amounts of cocaine by air to Guinea Bissau on a daily basis in exchange for arms.

All the intelligence agencies wanted to eliminate this crossroads of drugs, arms and terrorism.

“The American DEA built a task force with US Navy SEALs, MI6 and French intelligence... they needed to get rid of this troublesome Guinea Bissau figure and bring him to justice in the US,” N. recounts.

Former top-level DEA agent Derek Maltz ran much of the operation that included a variety of teams over an extended period. N. said Maltz saw him as the perfect undercover agent for the job.

While traveling in London, N received a call asking him to meet up with the team in Lisbon.

The lead agent on the operation “put his arm around me and took me to the balcony. He said ‘We know what you did before. That’s the key. We’ve built a huge operation in Africa. Then we researched all over and you are the only one who can deliver the goods [and entrap Bubo Na Tchuto].’” N. was debriefed about the rear admiral and “they showed me a terrible video” of his atrocities. But it had taken them four years even to get a picture of the Guinea Bissau official. “How can I reach him?” he asked.

They explained that they had an agent on the inside named Patrick, whose fatherin- law the leader had killed and who wanted payback.

N. says his cover story was, “I was a very rich Israeli friend of Patrick’s who can deliver Israeli arms. But if something happened to me, they would never admit they hired me.”

The DEA’s Maltz even said the country was too dangerous for them to be willing to place an actual DEA employee there undercover (N was a private contractor).

It was as deep cover as you could get, though the US would quietly compensate his family if N disappeared in action.

The agencies “chartered me an airplane to make me look wealthier. There was a team working for me on the plane who were all secretly DEA.”

N. describes his first meeting with Bubo Na Tchuto, his senses kicking into overdrive not to miss even the tiniest detail which could help his mission.

On the way to meeting the rear admiral, he walked by a pickup truck with two or three soldiers in the back looking over five or six bleeding bodies they were carting off.

He says he felt and absorbed everything, “Who Bubo Na Tchuto was talking on the telephone with, what he was wearing, which pen he was writing with, what watch he was wearing.”

N. recounts the scene.

“You are an Israeli commando?” Bubo Na Tchuto asked.

“No, I am not an Israeli commando.”

“You are very rich?”

“I am not very rich, only a little. But you can make me richer.” Then N. made his first pitch.

“I heard you have petrol. I want a license to dig for the petrol,” he requested.

The rear admiral pleaded ignorance about having oil deposits and asked N. where in Guinea Bissau he thought these deposits were.

“I can’t tell you, because we found it with a satellite, but I want a license.”

Bubo Na Tchuto asked, “What will you pay for it?” N. replied, “Is there anything useful to you I can help with?” Eventually they agreed that N. would bring him military uniforms, some equipment (he did not need more guns), cash to pay salaries and a loan of €2 million.

N. says they shook hands (“I felt terrible and wanted to vomit”) and agreed to meet again in two to three weeks.

The US set a goal for N. for the next meeting: Be able to track the dictator at all times to develop intelligence about his network and movements in order to figure out the best way to nab him.

“I advised the Americans that he likes gold watches. So we got a watch with GPS which I wore,” he explains.

How did N. get the official to wear the watch? When they met this time, N. offered an offhand comment.

“Thanks to you, on my way here through the Zurich Airport I bought this new watch for myself. And I am so pleased, now we can do a deal and I can mine oil in your country.”

Bubo Na Tchuto took the bait, N. notes.

“That’s a really nice watch. Rose-gold, very beautiful.”

“You like it? Next time, I’ll bring you the same,” replied N.

“Are you serious?” asked the official.

“Yes. In fact, let’s check if it is the same size.”

Not by coincidence, it was exactly the same size.

“Now that is a watch. I see you like it very much. You keep it, I’ll get a new one,” said N., adding with a grin that from then on, “Even when he went to the bathroom, they [US intelligence] knew.”

THE FINAL step was entrapping Bubo Na Tchuto, which was much easier said than done. This was a man who was paranoid about stepping an inch outside of Guinea Bissau and who was constantly surrounded with heavily armed guards.

N. sold the Guinea Bissau official on the idea of transferring the €2m. in cash and equipment to him via N’s yacht, just off the shore of the country where no one would notice.

But the rear admiral sent a five-man team ahead to check out the yacht for any traps before he dared risk dipping his feet in international waters.

The only things the five men saw in their inspection were N., the ship’s captain and an attractive woman serving them beers and whiskey. N. also gave each of them an envelope of money.

The team sent word to the rear admiral that all was well, and he came to join them. Only when he arrived did he learn that the woman serving drinks was a DEA agent and that there were 17 Navy SEALs, CIA and DEA agents hiding in the cargo room below deck. He and his guards were all arrested before they could react.

“Bubo Na Tchuto was so shocked that he could not speak for two days,” says N smugly.

WHY IS N. revealing his story now – before he is out of the game and can divulge his full and true name? He says he is “in his 60s, at the end of his path in operations and I am sure if I don’t put things out there now, when my memory is great, then later my memory will be worse and the people who know me won’t be alive,” and his experiences will be lost.

There may more to this story than N. wants to share at this point, including a book in English he is writing.

But if there is, like most things in his life, he is likely only to fully share it at the exact moment and for the exact purpose for which he has meticulously planned.


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