Yossi Cohen: The Mossad spy chief who stole Iran’s secret nuclear archives

#1: Yossi Cohen

Yossi Cohen (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yossi Cohen
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was not the first time Mossad director Yossi Cohen took the elevator up to the CIA director’s office on the seventh floor of the building known as Langley. But this meeting in March 2018 was different. This was not a regular courtesy call. Cohen was about to update one of his closest allies – CIA director Mike Pompeo – with information that had the potential to change the world and the course of history.
In his three-and-a-half years as the Mossad’s spy chief, Cohen, 58, has transformed the organization into a hard-hitting, risk-taking, history-altering machine. This applies to the Iran arena, to hunting down Hamas’s weapons development, and to convincing African nations as well as Sunni Arab states to go more public about their ties with Israel.
He is the gutsy spy who personally ordered and managed the Mossad’s daring raid to steal Iran’s secret nuclear archives from the heart of Tehran in January 2018. His meeting with Pompeo two months later, but before anything was publicly revealed, was to update him on what the Mossad had found.
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Many analysts credit Cohen’s operation with serving as the platform US President Donald Trump used to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal his predecessor Barack Obama had reached with Iran, and to instead launch his maximum-pressure campaign on the Islamic Republic.
Sources close to Cohen have told The Jerusalem Post that the information the Mossad seized in Tehran is “still being used right now” – as Cohen likes to tell his men – to glean high-quality and valuable intelligence. A map of nuclear sites captured in the operation has yet to be made public. These revelations “even go beyond Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s revelation of the Abadeh nuclear site” in early September.
When Cohen met Pompeo in March 2018, the CIA director was wowed by the Mossad’s mythic achievement. Cohen tells those close to him that Pompeo praised the Mossad for redefining “daring and boldness.”
To this day, even after Pompeo was appointed secretary of state, Cohen still speaks to him in real time about developing events.
Pompeo was not the only one impressed by Cohen’s seizure of Tehran’s nuclear secrets. Skeptics from Europe and in academic communities in North America, who might have wanted to dismiss the findings at the outset, were overwhelmed by the breadth of the data that the Mossad produced and revised many of their views of Iran’s nuclear program.
HOW DID the Mossad pull off one of the greatest capers in its history?
First, the agency spent extensive resources in 2016 finding the old site where the files were held and then following the files when they were moved in 2017.
Dozens of agents were involved between surveillance missions and the heist itself, making it one of the largest operations ever carried out by the Mossad.
After carefully studying the security measures at the seemingly abandoned warehouse, they struck at night, knowing that this was the night shift when security was most lax.
Neutralizing any electronic surveillance that could expose them, they spent a jaw-dropping six hours and 29 minutes nabbing Iran’s secret nuclear files, which were kept in 32 specific safes that agents had identified before the operation.
They used special torches which reached 3,600 degrees in order to efficiently slice into these safes.
Once they had loaded the vast nuclear files onto trucks to get them to the border, according to foreign reports, they used Iranian smugglers to get the files across the porous border – though the “just pay me and don’t ask, don’t tell” Iranians had no idea what it was they were smuggling.
It has not been revealed to date how the files were brought from Iran to Israel, but the presumption is by air or by sea.
Sources close to Cohen explain that since its seizure, the Iranian nuclear archive essentially has served as a nuclear map for the Mossad.
Netanyahu’s public revelation of Turquzabad as a site containing concealed radioactive material (to date Iran has refused IAEA requests to clarify the background and purpose of that material, after its concealment was revealed) and of Abadeh as a nuclear weapons development facility both came from what is essentially a nuclear map uncovered in the archive.
The reason the analysis of the archive is taking time, Cohen has explained to friends, is because, first, native Farsi-speakers and nuclear scientists need to go through the vast materials to understand the technical terms found in the documents. Then, they need to be analyzed and processed into layman terms.
Cohen supported making the Mossad operation public, though many former Mossad officials have said they would have preferred the information to be given only to Pompeo and other intelligence allies.
“It had a massive diplomatic impact,” he tells people.
Beyond the diplomatic significance, as in Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal, the archives also radically altered the spy agency’s understanding of the intricate details regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Now, the Mossad has a profoundly deeper understanding of how Iran’s nuclear weapons program works, both strategically and tactically, down to the smallest details.
Old estimates of what the Iranians could and could not do, how they did things and how long it might take them to progress have been tossed out the window and replaced by a treasure of actual hard data that analysts normally never get their hands on.
This information could be crucial in estimating Iran’s breakout time should the nuclear standoff deteriorate. Guessing the timing will be a crucial advantage.
The Islamic republic has received outside guidance of five different ways to build a nuclear core and for wrapping Uranium-235 – the fissile material Iran would use to build a bomb – sources close to Cohen revealed. Building a nuclear core and wrapping the nuclear material for storage and transport are important steps in the process of developing a nuclear weapon.
Cohen lives and breathes intelligence. Born in 1961 (he emphatically tells those close to him that he celebrates his Hebrew birthday, not his secular one) in Jerusalem to a family with a strong rabbinic background, he enlisted in the IDF’s Paratroop Brigade in 1979.
Nicknamed “the Model” for his posh dress and attention to his appearance, he is known for wearing smart suits and crisp white shirts. He works out regularly and can be caught in a polo shirt and shorts in his large and modern home in Modi’in. Cohen and his wife, Aya, have four children, all born during his more than 30 years in the Mossad.
Cohen is among those closest today to Netanyahu – he served as the prime minister’s national security adviser from 2013 to 2016 – but he does not view his job as political. No matter the identity of the next prime minister, Cohen tells people, he will continue to perform his job faithfully. He knows Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who served as IDF chief of staff during his term as head of the National Security Council.
A few weeks before the recent election, news reports claimed that Netanyahu had named Cohen and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer as the two best people to succeed him once he leaves office.
Cohen tells those close to him that “it is too early” for him to talk politics and that Netanyahu “only speaks for himself.” At the same time, the spy chief is clearly eyeing the political arena at some point after he steps down from his Mossad post and crosses through the three-year “cooling off” period mandated by law.
His children might not appreciate the public attention that a political career would entail, but if he feels he can help the State of Israel by entering that arena, his family would understand that it may be hard to stop someone “with such a strong vision” from contributing his unique talents.
Cohen is expected to stay on for at least another year to get to five years, like his predecessor Tamir Pardo, but does not dismiss going beyond that point if asked to do so by the prime minister.
While Iran has been Cohen’s central mission, it has hardly been his sole focus.
In December 2016, Muhammad al-Zawari was assassinated in Tunis, and in April 2018 Fadi Muhammad al-Batsh was assassinated in Malaysia. No one ever took responsibility, and no culprit was found, but all fingers were pointed at the Mossad.
Cohen would never admit to a specific operation. However, he chuckles in a knowing fashion when friends compliment him and the Mossad for their alleged involvement in making these men “disappear.”
With a wink, Cohen tells people close to him that whoever is getting rid of these men, who are at the heart of “helping Hamas develop more advanced weapons,” is totally “justified” since these terrorists represent a greater threat than any field commander.
When addressing his predecessor’s operations, like the Mossad’s assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010, in which many of the agency’s personnel were caught on camera, according to the press, Cohen’s view is that the Mossad learned a lot from these experiences.
If Cohen’s Mossad was behind the operations in Tunis and Malaysia, the spy chief can take pride in ensuring that not a single operative was caught on camera, unlike what happened when Mossad operatives were filmed in 2010 as they prepared to assassinate Mabhouh, a top Hamas operative. In today’s digital world, this is not a simple feat and might be a testament to new tactics such as using more clever disguises and technology to cover operatives’ tracks.
In October 2018, Cohen gave a speech about facial recognition, which he has called “one of the great challenges” of this era for a spy agency. The Mossad under him continues to invest heavily in new technologies to enable agents to operate abroad without getting recognized or caught.
Cyberwarfare, Cohen tells people, has not replaced HUMINT, and is effective only when used correctly.
Cohen is a multi-tasker. People who meet him talk about someone who can be laser-focused in a conversation that is constantly interrupted by phone calls and text messages on multiple cellphones.
This works well into his ability to manage cutting-edge military-style operations against Israel’s enemies, while running almost his own foreign ministry and working to help Israel establish foreign relations with countries in Africa and the Middle East.
It was Cohen who set the groundwork for former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gadi Eisenkot to publicly announce a new depth of cooperation between Israeli and Saudi intelligence in November 2017.
Nevertheless, he has come under criticism for taking away some of the authority of the Foreign Ministry. In talks with friends, Cohen dismisses these objections and does not view them as even the majority view within the ministry.
Further, sources close to Cohen say emphatically that it has “always been the Mossad’s role to conduct foreign relations with countries where there are no formal ties.” That he has had great success should not disturb anyone, but rather, should be a source of national pride.
Cohen’s view is that relations with Sunni countries in the Gulf are “not as much about personal trust, but about overlapping national interests” – especially when it comes to standing together against Iran.
For example, while Cohen would be against sharing sensitive Israeli technologies with the Saudis to combat the drone threat they face from Iran – demonstrated by the recent attack on their oil fields – he would seek to help states in the Gulf combat Iran together in other ways.
Regarding the Palestinians, sources close to Cohen indicate that he does not believe anything will move on the peace process until Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas leaves office.
Cohen’s view is that Abbas has shown an extreme tendency toward nationalism and irrationality by refusing to speak to the US at all, let alone hear the American peace offer that includes a multi-billion dollar economic package as outlined in June in Bahrain.
But he likes to reiterate that there is a unique and very real chance of reaching a regional deal with moderate Sunni Arab states in the region.
Though some would say he trumpeted this possibility at a public speech in July just to make headlines, officials say that he genuinely believes there is an opportunity, even if the nature of the agreement will not become clear until Abbas leaves the scene.
But his view is that there are clear facts and messages which the Saudis, Oman and other Gulf states now understand. “This includes that Israel is an irreversible fact,” he tells people. These nations, officials close to Cohen say, now understand that Israel cannot be removed and that the Jewish state can help them in the fight against Iran, with intelligence and technology.
But when it comes to his main challenge – Iran – Cohen offers people a sober perspective. He recognizes, like some of his predecessors, that the Mossad’s clandestine operations can only delay Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear capability but not completely stop it.
While that is true, sources close to Cohen explain that delays can still be “a strategic achievement,” depending on the geopolitics of the moment.
Nonetheless, and if all else fails, even Cohen recognizes what many have before him – military force might be needed in the end to stop the Iranian race to a bomb. What would America do in such a case? Officials close to Cohen claim that in the Mossad chief’s opinion it is possible the US would participate in such a mission or even lead it.
Until then, we can be sure of this: Yossi Cohen and the men and women of the Mossad will continue to do their utmost to keep Israel safe in the years to come.