Surgical precision - The story behind Israel's targeted killings

The inside story behind the November assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata in Gaza.

‘EACH FLOOR had two apartments and each apartment had three rooms’: The home of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata after it was hit by the Israeli strike that killed him, in Gaza City on November 12, 2019 (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
‘EACH FLOOR had two apartments and each apartment had three rooms’: The home of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata after it was hit by the Israeli strike that killed him, in Gaza City on November 12, 2019
‘One minute to launch,” Lt.-Col. Issachar whispered into his headset. On the screens in front of him he watched a thermal live feed from a drone up above the Gaza Strip. On another screen he watched as an Israeli Air Force F-15 fighter jet flew somewhere over the Mediterranean.
The room, in a base in the sandy Negev Desert, was packed with soldiers and agents from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Israel’s counter-terror spy organization. Each person had their workstation. One was listening to what was happening at the target, another was getting updates from agents on the ground; a third was tracking the airspace.
But Issachar was focused. This operation was not supposed to be much different than any of the dozens he had overseen as the operations commander in the IDF Southern Command, responsible for operations in the Gaza Strip. It was like the hundreds of missions he had carried out as an air force navigator. But this one was different. A few miles away, in a forest inside Israel just along the border with Gaza, his son was sleeping out in the open. He had left earlier that morning for a school camping trip.
Issachar knew that what he was about to do would put his son in direct risk. Dropping a bomb into the Gaza Strip in the middle of the night and striking the target he had been tracking for the past few months would definitely lead to a serious escalation. His 12-year-old son would be in the firing line of the terrorist rockets that would surely be launched.
But the target needed to be removed. He needed to die that night. Baha Abu al-Ata had been causing trouble for Israel for far too long. Born in 1977 in the Shejaiya neighborhood in Gaza City, al-Ata did not know much beyond fighting Israel in his 41 years of life.
AL-ATA (center) attends an anti-Israel military show at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City in June 2019 (Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
AL-ATA (center) attends an anti-Israel military show at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City in June 2019 (Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
In the Shin Bet, responsible for the war against Palestinian terrorism, al-Ata was referred to as the “Troublemaker.” Almost every rocket attack against Israel in 2019 was carried out by him and his men. In the late 1990s after receiving a BA in sociology, al-Ata joined Islamic Jihad and quickly climbed the ranks. He was sent to Syria for training in 2007 and a year later was appointed commander of the group’s Northern Brigade, its premier fighting unit.
Those who knew al-Ata feared him. With his neatly trimmed beard, trademark tan-colored baseball hat and same-colored button-down shirt, he was one of the more powerful men in Gaza. At anti-Israel rallies, the crowd would split when he walked through. He was the lead attacker against Israel and people respected it.
Proof of a status higher than a local commander came just a month earlier when in October 2019, Egypt invited him to Cairo for talks. It was the first invitation he had received of its kind and it meant a lot to al-Ata and his supporters. Their commander, it turned out, wasn’t just a field operator; he was someone the Egyptian Mukhabarat (General Intelligence Directorate) believed was important enough to speak to directly. So al-Ata put on a suit and crossed into Egypt for a few days of talks. The Egyptians showed him respect, taking him out to dinner and showing him a good time around Cairo.
Smaller than Hamas, Islamic Jihad is a terrorist group directly financed and backed by Iran and, as a result, takes a more radical approach to Israel. While Hamas has held indirect negotiations over the years with Israel about a possible ceasefire, Islamic Jihad dismisses the notion. Israel, it believes, needs to be destroyed. There are no compromises in this radical religious war.
It also wasn’t the first time that Israel had tried to take him out. Two previous attempts had been made on his life. One was in 2012, when the Israeli Air Force fired a missile at an apartment building in Gaza City where a group of Islamic Jihad commanders had gathered. Al-Ata was there, but he managed to slip away. In 2014, the IAF bombed his home in Gaza City. He wasn’t there at the time but the message was clear – Israel knew who he was and what he was doing.
In the beginning of 2019 though, the Jewish state was trying to negotiate a new ceasefire with Hamas that would include the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held by the group. The problem was that al-Ata kept getting in the way. Every week, he launched a round of rockets into Israel or had a sniper fire at some IDF soldiers deployed along the border. It could have been written off as just a nuisance, but it got in the way of the ceasefire talks since Israel had to respond. Politically, the government could not be seen as weak by ignoring incessant attacks.
AN ISRAELI Apache helicopter fires a missile towards the Gaza Strip in July 2014. (Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
AN ISRAELI Apache helicopter fires a missile towards the Gaza Strip in July 2014. (Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
BUT AL-ATA was smart. He knew that Israel was after him and constantly switched homes. One night he would sleep with his wife and children and the next he would be in a bunker somewhere under a home, school or hospital.
What sealed his fate was a rocket attack he ordered in mid-September. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting the port city of Ashdod for a campaign rally when right as he started speaking, an air siren went off. The premier’s security guards raced to the stage and started pulling him away. He held on to the podium and asked the attendees to leave the hall quietly right before his guards pulled him into a nearby bomb shelter.
For a politician who campaigned on being tough on terror, it was a bad image. Netanyahu was furious. Later that night, he was briefed on the attack and the terrorist behind it – none other than al-Ata.
By the end of October and after a few more rocket attacks, Netanyahu convened his security cabinet. The ministers received briefings on al-Ata, what he had done, how he was undermining ceasefire talks with Hamas and how he was in the midst of plotting additional attacks – some with explosives-laden drones and others with snipers – against Israel. The vote was unanimous. Israel was going to kill al-Ata.
A few days later, Issachar was called into his commander’s office at the IDF’s Southern Command and briefed on his new mission. Located in the desert city of Beersheba, the Southern Command was founded in 1948, responsible for the southern front and defending the country against the largest enemy it faced in the South at the time – Egypt.
After peace was reached with Egypt in 1979 and Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, the Southern Command shifted its focus to a more immediate but less strategic threat – terrorism in the Gaza Strip.
As head of the Southern Command’s Attack Center, it was Issachar’s job to prepare any operation of the kind the cabinet had just approved in Gaza. He was briefed on the target, given some details about the significance of the mission and sent on his way. While a date for the operation had yet to be decided, Issachar knew the clock was ticking. Al-Ata was a threat and needed to disappear.
Heading back to his office in a small caravan-like structure, Issachar convened the men and women on his staff to brief them on what they were going to be doing for the next few weeks. Before taking up his role, he had served for more than a decade as an air force navigator, flying on Israel’s most advanced F-16 fighter jets, known as the F-16I or Sufa (Storm).
In the Israeli Air Force, navigators start off like pilots in the prestigious Pilots Course and after six months all cadets are then divided into distinct fields of expertise based on qualifications – some are made fighter-jet pilots, others pilots of attack helicopters, and others navigators.
While navigators have been around since the dawn of attack aircraft doing exactly what their name says – helping pilots navigate – the centrality of their role has significantly increased in recent years with the arrival of Israel’s more sophisticated fighter jets – the Sufa as well as the F-15I Ra’am (Thunder), both two-seat aircraft with advanced electronic weapons and intelligence-collection systems. Navigators like Issachar no longer just navigate. They are the ones who light up targets with targeting pods and then drive the missiles all the way to their targets, sometimes in the literal sense, with a joystick that enables them to put the missile exactly where they want it. Like his colleagues in the IAF, Issachar had done this dozens of times before.
This time, however, he would be overseeing the targeted killing of al-Ata – not from a cockpit but from the second floor of a plain-looking gray-colored structure in Southern Command headquarters. On the outside, the building doesn’t look memorable, but inside is where the IDF oversees all of its operations in the Gaza Strip. There are seven rooms, named for the “Seven Species” or the seven agricultural products – two grains and five fruits – listed in the Bible as special products of the Land of Israel.
Al-Ata’s life became Issachar’s. When he woke up, Issachar woke up. Where he went, Issachar followed from above. Al-Ata didn’t know it, but Israel was watching his every move.
The home of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata after it was hit by the Israeli strike that killed him, in Gaza City on November 12, 2019. Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
The home of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata after it was hit by the Israeli strike that killed him, in Gaza City on November 12, 2019. Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
THE WATCH was endless but important. Over the years, terrorists around the world learned the weakness of their Western adversary and knew that if they were to hide behind women and children and embed themselves in civilian infrastructure, it would be harder to get them. Israel had tried to keep up, adapting its doctrines and operational orders as it went along.
Issachar knew it firsthand. On one mission in 2014, he was sent to bomb a five-story building in the Gaza Strip being used by Hamas as a command center and weapons storehouse. IDF intelligence had told him the house was empty. He punched the coordinates into his F-16 weapons system and flipped the missile switch. But then everything went wrong. While the missile struck the building, it failed to detonate. Something in the detonation wiring malfunctioned. Issachar watched and prepared to fire another missile but then observed a group of about a dozen people run out of the home.
“The building was supposed to be empty,” he said to the pilot with him.
Something was off with the intelligence. They called back to headquarters and were asked to hang tight.
“We will get back to you,” the control center responded. After a half-hour they received the green light. Issachar fired his missile and the building came tumbling down. No one was inside.
“The enemy hides behind children,” Issachar often found himself telling his soldiers. “Our job is to wait for the right moment when the children are not around. The target can delay our strike, but he cannot run away forever.”
Once the intelligence is collected and the target is in Israel’s sights, three questions remain.
1) The first is when to attack – at night, during the day, while the target is on his own or when he is with other people? Each option has its risks and benefits. During the day, more people are around so if al-Ata is driving down a street in a car, striking the car could kill or injure innocent bystanders.
At night, a strike is easier, assuming Israel knows where the target is located. But then there is the difficulty of knowing who else is in the building with him, and ensuring the strike is limited. If he is in a four-story building, for example, how do you only kill him and not bring down the entire structure with all of its occupants? Gaza, after all, is one of the most densely populated places in the world with over 40,000 people per square mile.
2) The second question is what weapon to use? Is the attack carried out by the IAF or ground forces and then – based on whichever one chosen – what way? If the air force, is the missile fired by a helicopter, a fighter jet or an armed drone, which Israel reportedly has in its arsenal but does not admit to using? Each platform has its advantages; each, its disadvantages. The advantage of a drone is that it is relatively quiet, can usually stay in the air for longer periods of time than helicopters or fighter jets and can get closer to a target. The disadvantage is that the payload a drone can carry is substantially lower than what can be placed under a fighter jet. An F-15, for example, can carry over 28 GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs). Drones can reportedly handle much less.
3) And then there is the third question, which guides the previous two – which method will ensure the least civilian casualties and collateral damage?
“The room we sit in oversees the greatest number of attacks in the entire Middle East,” Issachar would frequently remind his men. “One mistake by us, a missile hits the wrong target and we could be at war.”
After two weeks of tracking al-Ata, Issachar and his men had a good idea of how he spent his time and where the best place would be to try to remove him. Together with the Shin Bet, which provided intelligence from agents on the ground, Issachar began building a picture of al-Ata’s life – where he went, how he spent his time, where he ate, when he went to sleep and where he slept. Like other terrorists, al-Ata had a number of safe houses.
There was one place, in Gaza City, where he would often spend time, sometimes on his own and sometimes with his family. Issachar felt this was the perfect spot to attack – late at night, while he would be sleeping in his bed. To do it right, though, Issachar needed to know the layout of the apartment, which room al-Ata slept in, how many other people spent the night there with him and every other possible detail he could get his hand on.
This wasn’t just any operation. It was going to be the first targeted killing by Israel in over five years. It had to be done right.
THE ANSWERS he needed were about 100 kilometers to the north, in Tel Aviv. There, in a base located smack in the center of the city – but if you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t find it – sits 9900, one of Military Intelligence’s most classified units.
Officially known as “The Terrain Analysis, Accurate Mapping, Visual Collection and Interpretation Agency,” Unit 9900 is responsible for collecting, analyzing and interpreting all of Israel’s visual intelligence, otherwise known as VISINT. These could be images captured by one of Israel’s spy satellites or pictures taken by reconnaissance flights over areas of interest, like Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and beyond.
It also serves as the IDF’s personal geospatial agency, responsible for making the maps the military uses in Israel and behind enemy lines.
But if in the past 9900 needed to track the Syrian military’s armored divisions or Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile launchers, today it needs to help locate an enemy that is more slippery than ever before, that embeds itself within urban terrain, hides missiles beneath hospitals and schools and uses sophisticated networks of tunnels to infiltrate across the border.
To the average eye, a picture of a forest in Lebanon or a field in Gaza might not look exceptional, but for the soldiers of 9900, a bush out of place or a sand dune bigger than it should be could mean that underneath is a Katyusha rocket launcher or the opening to an attack tunnel.
The specific team Issachar and his men reached out to has a particular specialization – in architecture. The men and women who serve on this team are engineers, architects and intelligence analysts whose job is to analyze specific targets and provide as much information as possible.
In the case of al-Ata, for example, the air force needed to know what the exact makeup was of the apartment chosen for the attack. What room was the master bedroom and where would the children be sleeping? What was the building made of? Were the external walls concrete or also steel? And where were the windows located?
“We explain how buildings behave and the buildings tell us a story,” F., the colonel who heads the team, explained. “A small window can mean there is a bathroom on the other side, an air-conditioning unit hanging near a window leads us to pipes leading us to the room and beyond.”
The team’s members are longtime veterans of Israel’s intelligence agencies. The youngest is 20. The oldest is in his 80s. Each has a specialty. Some are civilian engineers or architects, some are soldiers doing their compulsory service. Others have worked on construction projects across the country. They study and analyze construction in all of Israel’s areas of interest, from Gaza and Lebanon and Syria. Every potential target of strategic consequence is reviewed and analyzed.
What the unit then does is build 3D simulations of the targets, turning them into models that a pilot, for example, can look at from different angles to understand exactly how to fire a missile that would need to go through a specific wall or land at a specific angle. This is not only for pilots. Infantry forces who enter enemy buildings are also given a clear picture of how their target looks on the inside, and are able, ahead of a mission, to virtually go floor by floor and room by room before they even cross enemy lines.
A few days before the planned targeting of al-Ata, F. received a phone call from Issachar’s team and immediately got to work.
The team first looked back though archival satellite and drone footage taken of the Gaza Strip, located the building in the initial days when its construction had begun and watched as it continued. While the interior of an apartment can always change, the concrete internal walls usually stay the same. Based on the size of the rooms as well as the traditional layout of homes in Gaza, it was possible to predict – with high probability – what room was what and who was where.
In the case of al-Ata’s building, the construction was fairly standard for the Gaza Strip. The ground floor was commercial and the two top floors were residential. On the roof were the standard water tanks. Each floor had two apartments and each apartment had three rooms.
Once F. and his men located the main bedroom, they highlighted the best path for the missile to take. The idea was simple – kill only al-Ata, not his children or anyone else in the building.
MOURNERS CARRY al-Ata’s body during his funeral on November 12, 2019. The IDF killed just the target and his wife, with no injuries to their five children sleeping in the next room.  (Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
MOURNERS CARRY al-Ata’s body during his funeral on November 12, 2019. The IDF killed just the target and his wife, with no injuries to their five children sleeping in the next room. (Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
IN THE meantime, in the IAF, work was still being done to hone the method that would be used to take out al-Ata. A number of options were debated and considered. Each had its advantages and disadvantages.
Col. A., head of the IAF’s Joint Division, the unit responsible for planning missions that are conducted outside the air force in partnership with other IDF units, explained that the selection process is like a tender.
“I had a few different options,” recalled Col. A. “We had a number of aircraft and munitions. You check the available aircraft, what the target is, what platform is best against that target, what the materials are made of in the target and only then make a decision.”
From the outset, the inclination was to use a fighter jet, due to the capability to launch the missile from a standoff position and to be able to carry more than one bomb if follow-up strikes were needed. In the end, the aircraft chosen was an F-15. The missile was one manufactured in the United States for a different kind of mission but had undergone adaptations so it could be used in the kind of strike that would be needed against al-Ata.
Debates between the IAF, Issachar’s team and 9900 continued up until the operation. At one point, one of the veteran air force mission planners came into Col. A.’s office and said he wasn’t sleeping well.
“The mission we planned has a 90% chance of success,” the officer said. “We can do better.”
The questions that remained pertained to the apartment and getting a better understanding of who would be in the room next to al-Ata and how certain the mission planners could be that the small bomb they were planning to use would get the job done.
“It is a constant process of trying to improve and to get the mission as perfect as possible,” A. explained.
The mission was scheduled for 4 a.m. on November 12. The F-15 was flown by a veteran pilot, commander of the squadron. The IDF top command wanted to keep mistakes to a minimum. Control of the mission was now in Issachar’s hands.
His team gathered in the one of the “Seven Species” rooms. Each officer was at his or her desk tracking their different sensors. One screen showed al-Ata’s house; another the location of the F-15; a third screen was supposed to track the missile from launch until it hit its target; and a fourth was following other aircraft that were put on standby.
With one minute to launch, Issachar called out to everyone to go through their checklists a final time. The room was quiet. So quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Issachar gave the pilot a green light and the first missile was dropped.
Another one was fired a second later. Two, to be certain that al-Ata would not emerge alive.
The air could be cut with a knife as the men and women in the operations room tracked each missile as they flew over the Gaza Strip and until they hit the target just above the bed al-Ata was sharing with his wife. The first one hit; the second one followed within a matter of seconds.
Yet Issachar could not rest. The operations room now had to shift its focus to the battle to come and to the missions that would be needed to stop Islamic Jihad’s retaliation. But before that, he had something pressing to do. He left the operations room, grabbed his phone and called his son’s teacher.
“You need to pack up and head home,” Issachar told the startled teacher. “Move fast.”
The teacher promised he would get everyone up and out of harm’s way. Within two hours, the class had safely evacuated the campsite.
ISLAMIC JIHAD terrorists ride on pickup trucks during a symbolic funeral for Ramadan Shallah, a former leader of their group, in Gaza City on June 7. (Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
ISLAMIC JIHAD terrorists ride on pickup trucks during a symbolic funeral for Ramadan Shallah, a former leader of their group, in Gaza City on June 7. (Credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
THE TARGETED killing of al-Ata was not that different from the many others the IDF has carried out over the past decade. It was characterized by meticulous planning meant to reduce collateral damage, precise intelligence and the utilization of advanced technology, aircraft and munitions.
But it also shows the results of an amazing journey the State of Israel has taken over the past 20 years, going from dropping one-ton bombs on apartment buildings in the Gaza Strip to take out a single terrorist, to firing a missile with amazing precision onto a bed, killing just the target and his wife and not injuring their five children sleeping in the next room.
Around the world, a story like this would not make headlines. Instead, the focus would be on the damage caused to Gaza and the death toll. People would ask why al-Ata’s wife had to die with him. They wouldn’t focus on the length of the mission, how much detail and effort went into its planning and how precise it was in execution.
This journey, though, is unique to Israel. Other Western countries fighting terrorists around the world rarely invest even a fraction of the effort Israel does to minimize collateral damage. Issachar recalled a large international air drill he had participated in a few years ago where he met pilots from Italy, Turkey and other countries. Almost all the pilots he met, he recalled, asked why Israel waits so long and invests so much.
“They are shooting at you,” the foreign pilots said. “You need to respond.”
The success Israel has met is the result of three key components – intelligence, technology and the values that make up the backbone of the IDF.“This is a Jewish value,” explained former IAF chief Eliezer Shkedi. “This is who we are.”
How did the IDF become one of the most lethal and precise militaries in the world? This article is the first in a series that will look at this evolution and try to piece together how it happened.