Drug connection goes bust

An idea to cooperate with drug dealers in enemy states has wrought unforeseen consequences for one Israeli intelligence unit.

504 unit 521 (photo credit: IDF spokesperson)
504 unit 521
(photo credit: IDF spokesperson)
Revadim is a small kibbutz halfway between Tel Aviv and Beersheba, the capital of southern Israel. For decades, the authorities have used the local cemetery to bury the bodies of enemy soldiers, terrorists and other unclaimed deceased.
In January 2004, undertakers from the Israel Defense Forces arrived at Revadim, dug up some graves and transported the bodies to the Galilee, to a border crossing with Lebanon.
The bodies, mainly of Lebanese and Palestinians, were part of a larger prisoner swap between Israel and the Shi’ite Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
On the other side of the border, members of the Biro family waited for the arrival of the remains of their patriarch Mohammad. He was a renowned drug dealer who had died of natural causes several years earlier in an Israeli prison.
When the anxious family relatives opened the coffin they were shocked to find when tests revealed that it did not contain the remains they had been expecting. Due to a matter of mistaken identity, someone else’s body had been sent. Hezbollah was furious and believed it was not an innocent mistake. Israel apologized and the mistake was soon corrected.
Biro’s remains were sent to south Lebanon and buried in the family village.
Behind the macabre story of Mohammad Biro hides a larger, even more embarrassing tale: the clandestine relationship and friction between Israeli intelligence and Middle Eastern drug dealers. To be more precise, contacts between Unit 504 of the IDF Military Intelligence and drug dealers.
Unit 504, which was created shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, is in its essence a human intelligence (Humi nt) unit. Its main duty is to locate, recruit and run agents in the border zones between Israel and neighboring enemy states. In recent years, the unit’s plainclothes case officers have also operated in the Palestinian Authority-run West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The unit has a secondary mission of interrogating prisoners of war and terrorists, as well as being involved in military special operations behind enemy lines.
For years, the IDF censor has tried to prevent the publication of any information about 504, which is considered “out of bounds” to the media. And when censors failed in efforts to shield the unit, the civilian courts were deployed to rescue 504 from public exposure by issuing gag orders. Sometimes the secrecy and paranoia verge on the absurd; the Israeli media is forbidden from publishing stories and information already released by their foreign counterparts. The feeling among respected, veteran security and military reporters is that rather than protecting genuine state secrets, the courts and the censor are trying to prevent leaks that could embarrass Israel and the defense establishment.
The reputation of Unit 504 has been tarnished on several occasions in the last quarter century, as, despite the layers of secrecy, information has reached the media and, in particular, the foreign press. Some Unit 504 case officers have been accused of drug smuggling from Lebanon. Another, Jean Elraz, was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a security guard at a northern kibbutz during a robbery in which he stole the kibbutz weapons arsenal and sold it to Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank.
At his trial, Elraz claimed that the roots of his problems began during his military service, arguing that in the unit he had learnt how to kill and was involved in the elimination of terrorists and collaborators who had betrayed the unit.
Another distasteful episode from 504 involves “George” (a court order forbids the exposure of his true identity), who served as a senior interrogator with the unit, and who interrogated and tortured Mustafa Dirani, a highranking military commander of the Amal Shi’ite movement in South Lebanon. Dirani was abducted in the early 1990s by an elite IDF force, brought to Israel and questioned by “George.” Israel had hoped to glean from him information about its missing air force navigator Ron Arad, who had been held in 1986 by Dirani’s militia.
To “persuade” Dirani to reveal what he knew, “George” pushed a baton between his buttocks and threatened to rape him.
When Dirani sued Israel in an Israeli court for the torture, “George” defended his behavior by arguing that such a method was “common practice” within his department.
But an even more sensitive issue was drugs and drug dealers. In the modern annals of intelligence agencies, there are many tales of drug contacts and the use of traffickers and dealers to enhance operations. In many cases, intelligence organizations turned a blind eye: The CIA did it with the military leader of Panama, Manuel Noriega, and in other instances in South America and the Middle East, on top of using human beings as guinea pigs to explore the effects of drugs such as LSD; the British MI6 used drugs in its efforts to recruit agents in Northern Ireland; the French DGSE ran drug dealers in its African colonies; and the Soviet KGB was surely maintaining cordial relations with its own favored drug dealers. So, in that sense, Israel is no exception.
A new book recently published in Hebrew sheds new light on this murky side of intelligence operations. “A Window to the Backyard” by Yair Ravid-Ravitz chronicles the sad, seesaw relations between Israel and Lebanon, its neighbor to the north.
Ravid-Ravitz was a senior career officer who recruited and ran agents in Lebanon and Syria, first in his capacity as a lieutenant colonel with Unit 504 in the 1970s and later in the Mossad, where he worked in its Humi nt department – codenamed Tzomet (junction).
Ravid-Ravitz founded the Mossad station in Beirut when Israel occupied sizable chunks of Lebanon in the 1980s and was also the spy agency’s station chief in Vienna and Milan. He retired two decades ago.
In a chapter titled “Drugs with everything,” Ravid-Ravitz describes how as a senior officer in Unit 504 he became acquainted with Lebanese drug dealers, including Mohammad Biro. Despite lacking any formal education, Biro had joined the Lebanese custom services in the late 50s, and was stationed at the Beirut international airport as part of an anti-drug unit. There he witnessed the extent to which his colleagues were being bribed by drug dealers and came to the conclusion that if you can’t beat them, join them. Soon after , he decided to resign from the service and begin his own drug business, which expanded into a worldwide operation using networks of local and expatriate Lebanese. In his cynical and colorful narrative, Ravid-Ravitz writes that Biro “was a well-known saint in south Lebanon.
He was one of the biggest drug dealers on earth wanted by numerous police and law enforcement forces around the globe.”
Instead of turning him over to the various police forces who asked for Biro’s extradition, Israeli intelligence protected him and used him as a source of information, a recruiter of other drug dealers and an agent of influence.
In the late 1970s, Ravid-Ravitz met Biro at the latter’s “palace” in his south Lebanese village. “He was ready to work for us but had one concern,” writes Ravid-Ravitz. “He asked me that we would not interfere and obstruct his ‘business.’” Ravid-Ravitz acquiesced, but countered with his own condition: Biro would run his drug operation wherever he wished, excluding Israel. “Do not smuggle drugs into Israel,” warned the intelligence officer. Biro agreed, but did not keep his word. In 1986 he smuggled one ton of cannabis from Lebanon into Israel.
He was caught by the Israel Police. At his trial, Biro tried to save himself by revealing that he had worked with Unit 504, but the court was unimpressed.
Biro was sentenced to 18 years in jail, from where he continued to run his worldwide operation assisted by his sons.
But then the Biro family switched sides, and from the mid-1990s turned their backs on Israeli intelligence to work for Hezbollah. One of Mohammad’s sons, Kaid, had gone to the Shi’ite terrorist group and pledged the family’s allegiance.
The deal was the same: information and assistance in special operations in return for having a free hand to continue with their thriving drug trade.
Thus, in 2001, Kaid, together with an Israeli Arab drug partner, conspired in a sophisticated operation on behalf of Hezbollah.
They offered a lucrative drug deal to Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli reserve colonel and heavy gambler who was fleeing his creditors. Tannenbaum fell into the trap: He flew via Brussels to Abu Dhabi and there was kidnapped by Hezbollah operatives who took him to Lebanon. He was released three years later in the 2004 prisoner swap that included the body of Mohammad Biro. The drug deal had come full circle.
What began as an Israeli operation to work with drug dealers has ultimately backfired.
Today Israel is flooded with drugs from Lebanon. They enter with a seal of approval from Hezbollah, who could argue: It was you, the Israelis, who came up with the idea of drugs in return for intelligence and special operations.
Yossi Melman is a commentator on security and intelligence matters for Walla, a Hebrew news website, and co-author of the recently published ‘Spies against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret wars’ Levant Books, NY.