When Israeli intel, CIA caught mega-arms boat and changed history

Retired brigadier general Amos Gilboa reveals secret story of cooperation between Israeli intelligence and CIA in history-changing capture of Karin A mega-arms ship.

The Karine A in the Red Sea after the Israeli navy seized the ship carrying 50 tons of weapons and explosives (photo credit: IDF / AFP)
The Karine A in the Red Sea after the Israeli navy seized the ship carrying 50 tons of weapons and explosives
(photo credit: IDF / AFP)
‘Everything you say is well and good, but we have no boat!” exclaimed Lt. Col. “Yaron,” counter-terror chief for Israel’s naval intelligence, expressing frustration to his deputy, Maj. “Gal.”
Gal (full names kept secret to prevent identification) had just updated him on the first intelligence breakthrough in the Karine A Affair, which would eventually change history.
In the affair, the Israel Navy and Air Force units captured a large Palestinian Authority-owned freighter loaded with 50 tons of weapons, including 345 long range Katyusha rockets, from Iran with involvement from Hezbollah, in the predawn hours of January 3, 2002.
Had the weapons gotten through to then-PA President Yasser Arafat, he could have targeted larger cities like Ashkelon and possibly even Ben-Gurion Airport with rockets, changing the entire balance of war and peace in the region.
Until the 2008-2009 Gaza war, even as Hamas was firing mortars and short-range rockets on parts of Israel bordering Gaza for some years, they did not have long range rockets to fire on larger Israeli cities.
Until the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas never fired long range rockets on Israel in any significant volume.
Weapons and explosives found aboard the smuggling ship Karine A, intercepted by the Israeli Navy (IDF / AFP)Weapons and explosives found aboard the smuggling ship Karine A, intercepted by the Israeli Navy (IDF / AFP)
Iron Dome intercepts rocket over Ashdod
Hamas did eventually acquire long-range Katyusha rockets and other models by 2008-2009 and fired them in large volume in 2014.
However, Israel had deployed the Iron Dome missile defense system by then, significantly reducing the casualties which likely would have been caused had Katyushas been fired on Israel by the PA during the pre-Iron Dome days in 2002.
The full riveting intelligence backstory about uncovering the well-concealed plot and finding (just barely) the phantom boat, including work between Israeli intelligence and the CIA, is being told now for the first time after its declassification by Israeli intelligence for a Hebrew book about to come out called Drama in the Red Sea by retired Brig. Gen. Amos Gilboa.
The Jerusalem Post is the first media outlet to fully tell this captivating story following interviewing Gilboa and receiving a copy of the book, which was also sponsored by the Israel Intelligence Commemoration and Heritage Center.
Israeli naval intelligence officers Yaron and Gal were speaking sometime between October 3 and October 8, 2001 after having worked since August 15, 2001 on trying to put together a puzzle of some sort of major PA-related arms smuggling development.
Gal had just read on his closed-network computer intelligence reports that ship’s captain Omar Akawi, a lieutenant-colonel in the PA’s Coastal Police was working in Sudan with Adel Mughrabi, a senior PA figure close to Arafat and running PA weapons- smuggling operations as well as Riad Abdullah, a top ship operator and a crew of eight Egyptians.
Gal had deduced that Mughrabi’s involvement meant that the PA was involved in the smuggling operation at the highest levels and others involved had connections to Iran and Hezbollah.
Next, based on Akawi and Abdullah’s involvement as well as a crew of at least 10 total, he knew that the PA planned to smuggle the weapons by sea using a large commercial ship.
A MASKED Hamas supporter holds a mock missile at a Gaza celebration after last week’s cease-fire. (photo credit:REUTERSA MASKED Hamas supporter holds a mock missile at a Gaza celebration after last week’s cease-fire. (photo credit:REUTERS
But as Yaron pointed out to Gal, they did not know the name of the boat, where it was, where it would be, including where the weapons transfer would occur, and did not even have hard enough proof that there were weapons. That would be needed to get an Israeli Navy Seals capture operation authorized.
Cutting through PA weapons smuggling code, by October 9 Israeli intelligence had discerned that around the same time Palestinian Deputy Naval Police Cmdr.
Fathi Ghazem had paid $800,000 toward a “house” (code for a large commercial ship) and a “small car” (code for a small fishing boat).
On November 21, Israeli naval intelligence got excited when it received a report that confirmed that a ship which had left Sudan and sailed to Yemen with a variety of the key conspirators likely aboard was expected to pick up Riad Abdullah in Dubai on November 24. But the boat was still nameless.
Col. Research Division Naval Intelligence chief Gil*, Yaron’s boss, said, “What is the name of the boat? What does it look like? Without this we do not even have the start of something that is operationally useful.”
The first hint of a name, at least the ship’s old name, “Rim K,” came to Gal on December 4 in a report about a ship needing repairs where the report also mentioned names of persons connected with Mughrabi.
This helped Israeli intelligence locate photos of the boat, to start to study it and to analyze the likelihood that it was in fact a weapons smuggling boat, based on its characteristics and suspicious travels to date.
By December 7, there was enough certainty that the ship was a serious weapons smuggling danger and that it was in Dubai that Israeli intelligence obtained authority to task a satellite to focus on finding the ship at Dubai’s port.
A major turning point happened on December 10 when Israeli intelligence collection led to connecting the dots between some seemingly unimportant reports in mid-October and recent reports.
Collecting a range of commercial ship and other intelligence, Israeli intelligence finally discovered that the current name of the “Rim K” was “Karine A.”
All in a matter of moments, this breakthrough changed the ship from a theoretical intelligence issue into a top priority operational issue. Multiple arms of the navy, air force, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and others quickly started to plan the commandeering of the boat and the post-commandeering show.
Yet, there was still a critical piece of the puzzle which could have left months of careful intelligence work and all of the operational preparations as wasted effort.
Open questions included: Where exactly was it in Dubai, when would the boat leave Dubai, what was its destination and how would Israel track it sufficiently to coordinate taking it over? Much of December 11 to 16 was frantic. There were intelligence reports that Karine A had left Dubai, but even with an Israeli satellite tasked to the issue, the reports could not be confirmed. If it had left, it had disappeared and was nowhere to be found.
Its disappearance even led Israeli naval intelligence to backtrack and question whether they had been wrong all along about the PA sending out one weapon smuggling boat – maybe there were two boats and Israel had been following a commercial decoy! The ship’s disappearance and the rising possibility that it might need to be intercepted in the Red Sea, far away from Israel’s naval comfort zone in the Mediterranean made things even more desperate.
By December 12, all of this led Israeli Naval chief Maj.-Gen., Yedidya Yaari to order his staff to ask the CIA for help to locate the ship.
Parts of Israeli naval intelligence were opposed to this as asking for help could also mean the CIA taking over the operation. But Yaari ordered it, and after getting the Mossad and Israeli military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Malka’s approvals, a December 13 meeting was set.
The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency representatives and a US naval intelligence attache, a woman the book refers to as “S,” attended the meeting.
S told the Israeli intelligence officials assembled “we will check and we will get back to you” and left with copies of slides of an English-translated classified presentation.
Nothing was heard from the CIA or S before December 17, adding to the sense of desperation among Israeli intelligence. If playing the CIA card did not work, there were few cards left to play.
December 17 was another lucky day for Israeli intelligence.
S called Israeli naval intelligence chief Brig.-Gen. Chazi Mesita and said, “I am coming over to you.”
Twenty minutes later she was in his office and gave him the following definitive report, “Karine A was located this morning December 17 near Aden, Yemen. The US will continue to follow the ship.”
Pressed as to whether she was certain this was the disappeared ship, S assured Mesita “we are sure.”
Although the CIA never formally revealed to Israeli intelligence how they found the ship, it is widely known that at the time the US was performing wide ranging aerial surveillance to try to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Those efforts, far beyond Israel’s surveillance capabilities, could have led to finding the ship. S continued to give Israeli intelligence regular updates on the exact location of the ship which was invaluable to the Israeli navy planning its interception operation two weeks later.
This is the never before told story of how Israeli intelligence and the CIA found and captured the Karine A. This is the drama and life of intelligence officers, Gilboa explained to the Post. Yes, there are singular breakthrough moments when lightning strikes and a blank picture comes suddenly into focus.
But most of the time, intelligence is a long painstaking process of small discoveries which only incrementally become a meaningful mosaic – sometimes only after cooperation with allies.
Here, only the high level of specialized expertise that Israeli naval intelligence officials had accumulated allowed them to connect the crucial dots between seemingly disconnected intelligence reports from October and December.
In the very current debate within intelligence communities worldwide about whether intelligence analysts should focus in specific areas or become generalists and rely more on new data mining technologies, Gilboa came out clearly in favor of continuing traditional specialization.
Only with continued specialization that goes beyond what data-mining generalists are capable of could the Karine A mystery be solved, Gilboa told the Post.
Two weeks after the CIA weighed in, the continued joint efforts between the CIA and Israeli intelligence led to the capture of the Karine A.
Israel placed the ships’ tons of rockets and other weaponry on display before the global media.
These intelligence officials changed the course of history, not only saving Israel from a rocket attack prior to the country having a viable missile defense; in addition, the Bush administration seeing the volume of weapons and the Iran connection, was finally convinced that the true priority of Arafat’s PA was conflict and began to isolate him diplomatically.
In a soon-to-be published follow-up article on Gilboa’s book, the Post will, for the first time, tell the inside intelligence story of the ship’s capture.