Israeli intel on Syria reactor: From 'sneaking suspicion' to 'smoking gun'

The role of Israel’s intelligence community was central to Operation Orchard, one of the most daring strikes in the state’s history.

Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
It was just before midnight on September 5, 2007, when eight Israeli jets took off for Syrian airspace with al-Kibar facility as their target.
Entering Syria via Turkey, their target was a nuclear reactor in advanced stages of construction in the northeastern province of Deir al-Zor, 450 km. northeast of Damascus.
The strike was carried out by four F-16s from the Israel Air Force’s Squadron 69, two from Squadron 119 and two from Squadron 253. These jets flew alongside four F-15s. They had taken off from the Hatzerim and Ramon bases, destroyed the reactor on the northern bank of the Euphrates and removed a nuclear threat to the State of Israel and the entire region.
The nuclear project was conducted over the years in the utmost secrecy – even the heads of Syria’s security establishment were kept in the dark. – But the IDF’s Military Intelligence branch was able to gather enough evidence to go from “sneaking suspicion” to “smoking gun” in less than three years.
The role of Israel’s intelligence community was central to Operation Orchard, one of the most daring strikes in the state’s history.
According to new information released by the IDF, Military Intelligence not only provided high-quality intelligence and accurate analysis of the Syrian nuclear program, it recommended the timing for the attack that would minimize collateral and environmental damage, and provided micro-tactical intelligence that allowed for precise aerial damage to the critical systems of the reactor.
The intelligence community had begun to gather material about clandestine Syrian activity that posed a threat to Israel back in 2004, including the identification of North Korean nuclear experts who were present.
During 2005 to 2007, Military Intelligence provided tactical, systemic and strategic intelligence that provided the basis which allowed the political echelon to green-light the attack.
By January 2006, Military Intelligence had acquired enough credible intelligence to conclude that the activity it had identified was for the construction of a nuclear reactor, and in April 2006, suspicious structures in Deir al-Zor province were identified as the reactor.
In November 2006, Israel identified additional activity, including intensive Syrian activity related to nuclear material that was required to operate a nuclear reactor.
Between January and September 2007, Military Intelligence and the Mossad strengthened their efforts in intelligence collection.
BY EARLY 2007, the Mossad had obtained around three dozen color photographs from inside the al-Kibar facility.
Meanwhile, the IDF had secured a visual follow-up of the site to accurately assess the status of the reactor. The visual follow-up revealed that the Syrians were moving forward in connecting the reactor to water infrastructure on the banks of the Euphrates River.
These provided conclusive evidence that allowed Israel to fully understand the precise status of the project. An assessment of the critical systems of the facility by the intelligence department found that the reactor would become operational toward the end of 2007.
The air force was readying itself for a strike that could be carried out on short notice and was practicing several options. The preparations including careful planning of fuel consumption, low-signature execution and radio silence. According to the IDF, this flexible planning allowed the air force to carry out the strike within 12 hours of being given the order.
The operation, which began at 11:30 p.m., ended with the return of the four F-15s and four F16s to their bases at 2:03 in the morning.
Following the strike, Military Intelligence estimated that the reactor was damaged beyond any possibility of being rebuilt. But fearing a possible escalation and a deterioration in the ability to defend the home front in various operational capabilities, it was decided not to reveal Israel’s role in the attack.
According to the IDF, “the success of the operation was measured then and today, in the three components defined by the chief of staff: destroying the reactor, preventing deterioration and strengthening deterrence.”
Then-defense minister Ehud Barak spoke with the squadron commanders, thanking them for carrying out the operation “at the highest level.” The operation not only removed a concrete threat to the State of Israel, he said, but “has revived and rehabilitated Israel’s deterrent capability.”
Then-IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said, “The objective of the mission was to destroy the reactor, and to prevent any deterioration into war, and strengthen Israel’s deterrence.”
Speaking with the commanders of the reconnaissance squadron, Ashkenazi said that all three goals were met, and that the manner in which the operation was carried out proves Israel’s capability of executing such a strike on short notice.
A decade later, the destruction of the reactor has added significance due to Syria’s civil war. Not only could it have been a tool for President Bashar Assad, who has already used chemical weapons on his own citizens, but the nuclear facility in Deir al-Zor could have fallen into the hands of Islamic State, which for a time overran the war-torn province.
“This is a operation that has more than one stage,” Ashkenazi stressed at the time. “This was not just about destroying the reactor, but about what happens next.”