The Mashaal profile

The Mossad brief on Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal indicates a charismatic leader with a distorted perception of reality.

Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal holds a press conference in the Qatari capital Doha on July 23, rejecting a cease-fire in the Gaza battles. (photo credit: AFP)
Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal holds a press conference in the Qatari capital Doha on July 23, rejecting a cease-fire in the Gaza battles.
(photo credit: AFP)
After a botched 1997 assassination attempt in Amman on Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, Israel was pressured by Jordan to supply an antidote to the poison the Mossad operatives had sprayed him with.
If the assassination had succeeded would his successor have been more moderate? Without him, would Hamas have dared embark on this summer’s Gaza onslaught? Would a cease-fire and long-term agreement have been reached quicker? Would Jordan really have cut off diplomatic ties with Israel as it threatened to 17 years ago? Historians say these questions are not relevant but they surely are food for thought.
On July 30, 1997, two suicide bombers detonated their explosive vests in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Sixteen Israelis were killed and Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just one year in office and fearing he would be portrayed as a weak leader, convened the heads of the defense establishment for urgent deliberations. The meeting concluded with Netanyahu ordering Mossad director Danny Yatom – also a newcomer to that job – to bring him a list of Hamas targets for assassination.
Yatom returned to Mossad headquarters and tasked the heads of the secret service to compile a list of potential targets. The list they came up with included at least eight names. First was Izz a-Din Sheikh Khalil, a senior operative of Hamas’s military wing. A Damascus-based former Gazan, who resided in Damascus, he was in charge of initiating terror attacks in the West Bank and the one in the Mahane Yehuda market. Khalil met all criteria for a target. As Yatom wrote in his Hebrew memoir “Secret Partner”: “The list of targets I presented comprised, among other things, the importance of the person with - in the organization; the importance of getting rid of him; the level of difficulty in reaching him; and the results of the assassination.”
Assassinating Khalil would have disrupted the operational capabilities of Hamas but there was insufficient intelligence information on him and it would have been hard to reach him at his safe house in Syria. He was killed seven years later when his car exploded outside Damascus. Nobody claimed responsibility for the action, but the Arab and international media pointed their fingers at the Mossad.
Jordan also had issues with him. When Khalil was assassinated, Jordan did not shed a tear. That was ironic since, seven years earlier, Jordan had been furious about the assassination attempt on his boss Mashaal.
The list also named Ziad Nakhla of the Islamic Jihad, which was not involved in the Jerusalem attack, but was involved in many others. Nakhla, by the way, is now the group’s deputy leader and served as its representative at the cease-fire talks in Cairo.
A few representatives of Hamas based in Europe, who were involved in money transfers to fund terror and recruitment, were also on the list. In the end, those tasked with choosing the targets decided to write them off, if only due to a lack of intelligence and fear of diplomatic backlash from the countries where these targets were located.
No. 5 on the list was Moussa Abu Marzouk, today the deputy chief of Hamas’s political wing, who lives in Cairo and is also a delegate to the cease-fire talks. Over the course of three years, until 1995, Abu Marzouk served as the political head of Hamas until he was expelled from Jordan and sought exile in the US, where he had studied and even received citizenship.
Upon reentering America, he was arrested by the FBI.
Mashaal was chosen as his replacement.
Marzouk, who eventually was expelled from the US, returned to Jordan and later moved to Cairo THE MOSSAD’S top echelon concluded that Abu Marzouk was the top candidate for assassination, but Netanyahu vetoed the move on the grounds that wiping out an American citizen would lead to problems with Washington.
And that’s how, by default, it was decided to assassinate No. 6 on the list, Khaled Mashaal.
“With regard to Mashaal,” Yatom wrote in his book, “the professional ranks of the Mossad believed that assassinating him would not actually achieve the sought-after goals as it would only cause temporary chaos in Hamas and he would easily be replaced.”
Preparation time was short – about two months. Meanwhile, on September 4, 1997, Hamas carried out another deadly attack in Jerusalem, killing four people and wounding 200 on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.
The blood of every top Israeli official, from the prime minister to the head of the Mossad, boiled. Netanyahu was impatient and kept urging Yatom to carry out the mission.
The operations portfolio prepared on Mashaal contained a great amount of materi al, but there were still intelligence gaps. The portfolio was filled with explanations of why this target deserved to be killed. In a way, it was like a judicial indictment listing past misdeeds and appraisal of the threat he posed.
The Mossad file on Mashaal, known in the organizational jargon as a “red” file, also contained analyses prepared by psychologists.
It was a review of his personality, based on information gathered by covert sources such as agents, as well as his public remarks in speeches and interviews (including his voice and body language), along with other evidence, information and findings.
The psychological profile described a borderline personality disorder – over-confident with megalomaniac tendencies, a charismatic leader with a distorted perception of reality.
Though he was a leader of a religious movement, it did not stop him from having a sip of good quality alcohol and chasing women from time to time. It was known that he had a Russian mistress who would visit him at various locations.
In that sense, his personal lifestyle was reminiscent of another wanted top terrorist – Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s “defense minister.” Mughniyeh, who was a good friend of Mashaal and, like him a womanizer, travelled from time to time from Beirut to Damascus for secret assignations with his lovers. During one such trip in February 2008, Mughniyeh was killed when his car was blown up, an assassination attributed to the Mossad. Incidentally, his death occurred after he met with Mashaal secretly in a safe house provided by Syrian intelligence. The purpose of their meeting was to coordinate their joint struggle against Israel.
After more brain-storming sessions, the Mossad decided to carry out a “silent” operation, which is always preferable to a “noisy” one. The weapon of choice selected for the task was poison, which according to foreign reports, was developed at the top-secret Institute of Biological Research in Nes Ziona, a small town southeast of Tel Aviv. The extremely toxic concoction was designed to bamboozle forensic pathologists and create the impression that death was due to natural causes, such as sudden heart failure.
Because of the short notice, preparations were insufficient. For example, members of the hit team trained by spraying soda water – simulating the poison – on passersby on busy Tel Aviv streets and only once embarked on a reconnaissance mission on the Amman streets where Mashaal lived and worked. Despite this, the assassination almost succeeded.
ON 25 SEPTEMBER 1997, although the Mossad assassins were surprised by Mashaal arriving at his office in a car with his young daughters, they managed to spray him with the poison. He collapsed on the pavement in front of his office building. The Mossad operatives fled in getaway cars. Mashaal collapsed and was rushed to hospital. His condition was deteriorating by the minute and puzzled doctors couldn’t determine what the problem was. In a matter of hours, or days, he would have died.
But then human error played its part. In the post-operation briefing, the Mossad unit leader who was in one of the cars admitted that, for some reason, he blacked out and misdirected the driver. Instead of making good their escape, they found themselves back at the scene of the crime. In another twist, a Hamas courier, who was making a routine delivery to the office, had noticed the car’s plate number, model and color when Mashaal collapsed in front of him. To his astonishment the same car returned, the courier screamed and two Mossad agents jumped out of the car while the driver escaped. Eventually they were arrested by a police officer who actually wanted to protect them from an angry crowd that had gathered at the scene. They operatives claimed they were Canadian tourists. They were taken to a nearby police station, while other operatives found shelter in the Israel Embassy. The other Mossad operatives involved in the operation managed to leave Jordan safely.
News of the botched operation reached Yatom in in the Mossad’s operations center within minutes. Jordan’s King Hussein threatened to order his special forces to storm the embassy if Israel didn’t surrender the two Mossad operatives hiding there. He also threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Israel.
Netanyahu faced a tough dilemma. Hussein was an ally. Just three years earlier, he had signed a peace treaty with Israel and brought the secret, three-decade old “love affair” between the two countries into the open. On the other hand, Israeli intelligence and its military had saved the king numerous times by warning him of plots against him. Israel was, and still is, Jordan’s best guarantor for survival in the region as a state and monarchy.
During the emergency meeting at Mossad headquarters attended by Netanyahu, some voiced the opinion that Israel should not surrender to the Jordanian threats. They contended that the Hashemite kingdom needed Israel much more than Israel needed Jordan.
But the prevailing mood at the meeting was that Israel had to do all in its power to make sure its agents were returned home soon and that Israel should not risk its relations with the king.
Thus, a decision was made to offer the king the opportunity to save Mashaal’s life by supplying him with an antidote that was prepared in case the agents were exposed to the poison.
And so it was. A Mossad intelligence officer and doctor who had remained on Jordanian soil gave the antidote to Jordanian intelligence and Mashaal’s life was saved.
Israel also agreed to release from jail Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas.
In return, the two arrested operatives were released and, together with the two at the embassy, were returned safely to Israel.
Relations with Jordan soon returned to normal. Some of the Mossad members involved still suffer from pangs of guilt in the wake of the abortive operation and one of the senior members of the hit team was eventually forced to leave the service, aggravating what had already become a very edgy and unpredictable personality.
Mashaal soon recovered and within months resumed his duties. His star rapidly rose with - in and outside the movement. Though Hamas is by nature a hierarchal organization with a religious consultative body (the Shura Council), military wing and political wing where decisions are made by consensus, Mashaal is considered to be first among equals.
He started to believe that his life was saved not by Israeli medicine but by providence – that it was an omen from heaven that he was more than an ordinary human being.
All the traits attributed to him in the Mossad’s profile have intensified and dictate his behavior, as can be seen in the way he conducted the current campaign against Israel from the comforts of his hedonistic lifestyle in the safe haven of Qatar.
He displays capricious behavior as well as determination and self-confidence. His attitude is condescending and lacks real understanding of reality, and, above all, manifests disregard for his own people’s miserable conditions and future.