Smoke, mirrors, cloaks and daggers

Journalists Nissim Mishal and Michael Bar-Zohar delve into the shadowy world of Israel’s secret espionage wars in new book on Mossad, which turns out to be a uniquely Zionist organization.

dubai cctv 311 (photo credit: AP)
dubai cctv 311
(photo credit: AP)
Syrian general Muhammad Suleiman was President Bashar Assad’s closest military adviser and the father of his country’s nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by the IAF in September 2007, after Mossad agents had, a few months earlier, planted Trojan horse software in the laptop of another senior Syrian official thus obtaining detailed plans of the project. Suleiman, who was well known to the Mossad, immediately started planning the rebuilding of the reactor on another site. He was also in charge of liaison with Iran, supervising Syria’s weapons of mass destruction program, and smuggling missiles to Hizbullah.
In the summer of 2008, he traveled to Rimal al-Zahabia, a pleasant town on the coast in northern Syria, for a weekend with friends and family. On August 2, he hosted a dinner on the veranda of his beach house facing the ocean.
As night fell, an unidentified yacht approached in the dark. Two frogmen, carrying sniper rifles, swam underwater and took up position in front of Suleiman’s house. A wireless signal alerted them. They stood up in the shallow water and fired one bullet each. The bullets hit Suleiman in the forehead and he fell forward, his head coming to rest in the plate in front of him. Nobody heard the shots. Nobody saw the sharpshooters, who quietly slipped away under the cover of darkness.
That, according to Mossad – The Great Operations, a book by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal which was published in Hebrew last month, is how Suleiman met his end.
The book tells the story of the Mossad’s greatest operations from the elimination of Suleiman, the assassinations of Hizbullah’s operations officer Imad Moughniyeh and of rogue scientist Gerald Bull, who was developing a supergun for Saddam Hussein, through to the the kidnappings of Adolf Eichmann and Mordechai Vanunu, the smuggling out of the Soviet Union of Nikita Khrushchev’s speech in which he denounced the crimes of Josef Stalin, our man in Damascus Eli Cohen, the operation to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel and the elimination of Black September’s leadership, but also the organization’s greatest failures such as the the killing in Norway of an innocent Moroccan waiter mistaken for Black September leader Ali Hassan Salameh (although the Mossad finally got its hands on the arch-terrorist six years later in Beirut) and the botched attempt to assassinate Khaled Mashaal in Jordan.
So how do Mishal and Bar-Zohar know the precise details of Suleiman’s death and other operations and where does the border lie between fact and fiction?
“All the stories are, to the best of our ability and the limitations placed on us, accurate and as close as possible to what really happened,” says Mishal, a leading television personality and the author of The Great Events in Israel’s History and coauthor of a book on 2000 years of Judaism with former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.
Bar-Zohar, a former Labor MK and prolific author with some 35 titles to his name, including official biographies of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres, describes the book as a “historical documentary.” “There is a lot of open source information out there that is fabricated or exaggerated or just fantasy because obviously the Mossad can’t confirm or deny operations,” he says. “There are journalists who allow themselves to write anything. Part of our work was to sift out the real material.”
The idea for the book was born about two and a half years ago when Mishal made contact with the Mossad and suggested writing a book about the history of the agency otherwise known as the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations.
“At first they were interested,” says Mishal, “but when push came to shove they were a little frightened about cooperating in exposing the organization. Then about a year ago, I went to my publisher Yediot and said, ‘If they don’t want to, let’s go it alone.’ As a journalist it’s better for me to work alone than to have someone authorizing my work. Then I suggested the idea to Michael, who is an authority on the subject and has written several books. We hit it off immediately and we spent a year working night and day to get the book out.”
“We gathered material from the press, from interviews, from books, from documents. When you start researching a subject and scratch below the surface you’ll always find someone to talk,” says Bar-Zohar when asked how they were able to divulge operational details.
“Besides,” he quips, “the State of Israel wasn’t born, it was leaked.
“Some people don’t talk, with others you just have to press the right button,” Bar-Zohar continues before recalling a breakfast in Paris with Moshe Dayan when Mossad agent Haimke Levakov walked in and without hesitation started telling of his work. “Haimke had been in Iraq with the Kurds. He was a very colorful figure and he started talking about operations and methods. We were stunned.”
Does the Mossad have an interest in creating an aura, in letting Israel’s enemies know about its reach?
“The state wants every terrorist to know that their personal safety is endangered,” he says. “When you hit a senior official like Suleiman – one of the most secret, most protected – when you hit him in his home 160 kilometers north of Damascus that makes them say: ‘Even here I don’t have any security.’ The same goes for Imad Moughniyeh, who was killed in the heart of Damascus, or Wadia Hadad [the operations officer of George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], who was sent poisoned chocolate to his home in Baghdad.”
“It’s only the tip of the iceberg,” adds Mishal. “There are a lot of stories that we know about that we didn’t even put in the book because we couldn’t imagine that the censor would let them pass. Operations that will leave people with their hair standing on end when they are released in 30 years.”
FOR MISHAL, the whole experience of delving into the shadowy world of the Mossad is one that left him breathless: “I come from the world of politics; I’ve written about politics, about history. It was an incredible experience for me to dive into the world of mystery, of espionage stories where you don’t know where the border lies between fact and fiction, between reality and imagination, and where things seem incredible and leave you speechless. Michael comes from that world, he has written about it and knows it well; those kind of people are his milieu. For me it was an incredible experience.”
As an example he notes a meeting with the former Mossad chief Meir Amit. “A year before his death, Amit met with us and recalled how Ezer Weizman had told him, ‘Bring me a MiG 21.’ Amit replied, ‘How am I going to bring you a MiG 21?’ Weizman said, ‘Bring me the plane.’ And they brought the MiG from Iraq. Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, you don’t where the line is drawn.”
Bar-Zohar adds his own anecdote. “It’s like getting hold of Khrushchev’s speech,” he says, referring to how the Mossad smuggled out of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev’s speech before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 in which he exposed the crimes of Stalin. “It’s a novel. I could have written a novel about it, but my publisher would have turned up his nose and said it’s too fantastic.”
Both Bar-Zohar and Mishal note that the Mossad is not only an organization that stretches the boundaries of reality, it is an organization that is unique in the dangers undertaken by its operatives and in the scope of its operations.
“When you look at the Mossad you can see that it is the last organization that has retained some of the Zionist spirit of the founding of the state,” says Bar-Zohar. “Its agents are people who are willing to endanger their lives, even to sacrifice their lives for the State of Israel. That isn’t something that exists in other organizations. Here if someone is caught in Syria or Iran, that’s it, they’re done for. There are no spy swaps on a bridge between East and West Germany.”
“Mossad is not only an organization that conducts assassinations,” adds Mishal. “Take for example the operation to bring Ethiopian Jewry to Israel – that was a Mossad operation – or operations to track down Nazi war criminals. Then there is the story of the Syrian brides, where four graduates of Flotilla 13 come to Damascus to the square where Eli Cohen was hanged and endangered their lives, not to carry out an assassination, but to get Jewish girls out of the country because they couldn’t find husbands.
The Mossad is an espionage agency unique to Israel and to Israel’s national needs. It is an espionage agency that has also taken on itself national and Zionist missions. That is something that other agencies don’t do.”
THE MOSSAD IS not only unique, says Bar- Zohar, it is also the best at what it does. “If you compare the operations of the Mossad with CIA and MI6 you realize that they are at a lower level... The Americans aren’t willing to take the kind of chances we are. The problem with the Americans – and this is something we saw in the Iraq war – is that they rely too heavily on electronic surveillance, satellites etc.
“But you are dealing here with sophisticated people who know you are tracking them, who know you are photographing them. For example, the Syrians when they were building their reactor issued an order that none of the technicians and engineers could use their cellphones. Everything was done with notes by hand. When you’re dealing with people like that you need human intelligence. Israel makes sure to maintain the human intelligence component.”
Mishal goes a step further. “If the Mossad was given the job of eliminating [Osama] bin Laden,” he says, “then I assume that the results would be a lot better than those achieved by the Americans.”
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was one of the leaders of Hamas, responsible for the smuggling of weapons from Iran and Sudan to the Gaza Strip. Israel had another account to settle with him. The terrorist, who was born in 1960 in the Jabalya refugee camp, had been sent in 1989 to Israel on a special mission to kidnap and murder soldiers. Mabhouh and his men, disguised as haredim, kidnapped Avi Sasportas on February 16, 1989, and murdered him. Three months later they murdered another soldier, Ilan Sa’adon. Following the murders Mabhouh escaped to Egypt; knowing that the Israelis had discovered his identity, he took extreme precautions, changed his identity often, used several forged passports and when abroad, barricaded himself in his hotel room.

Mossad chief Meir Dagan proposed killing Mabhouh during the terror chief’s visit to Dubai. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu authorized the operation.

Soon afterward, many agents set off for Dubai. In an unprecedented event in the history of undercover operations, the pursuit and killing of Mabhouh were recorded by hundreds of closed-circuit security cameras spread all over Dubai, from the international airport to the hotel hallway. They enabled hundreds of millions of TV spectators throughout the world to follow the secret, and lethal, operation of a hit team.

WAS THE MABHOUH operation a failure or can it be defined as a success because the target was achieved without casualties or arrests?
Bar-Zohar: “First of all," replied Bar Zohar, "If you look at the bottom line; the operation succeeded. Mabhouh was a bad man, the Mossad operators came and took him out without anyone being caught.
Secondly, I can promise you that if you were to meet any of those people filmed on security cameras at immigration and in the hotel, you wouldn’t be able to identify them."
“As for the issue of the cameras, either that is a terrible mess-up or we are talking about another story altogether. When there is an operation you have a preparatory team and for the preparatory team to not notice the cameras – especially since according to some reports they were supplied by an Israeli company – seems very strange. So either we are talking about a screwup or that the Mossad decided because of the presence of cameras to flood Dubai with agents – between 27 and 39 according to reports.
“The hotels were teeming with agents who went up to their rooms, down to the lobby, walked the corridors and in some cases even changed costumes in front of the cameras. The result is that you don’t know what is part of the operation and what isn’t. The only significant thing that could have been photographed, the agents going into Mabhouh’s room, wasn’t filmed. There were 648 hours of closed-circuit television recordings and that is missing.
“The result was exactly what we wanted. No one was hurt and no one was caught with the exception of [Uri] Brodsky in Germany, who is suspected of helping someone else obtain a passport and who will get away with a fine or a suspended sentence.”
ON JANUARY 12, 2010, at 7:50 a.m., Prof. Masoud Ali Muhammadi left his home in Teheran on his way to Sharif University of Technology. When he entered his car, a powerful explosion shook the quiet neighborhood. The police established that Muhammadi had been killed by an explosive charge concealed in a motorcycle parked by his car. The media accused the Mossad of carrying out the operation.

Muhammadi was a nuclear scientist. If there were any doubts about the real character of his research, his funeral provided the answer. About half of the 1,000 mourners were members of the Revolutionary Guards, the Islamic military organization constituting the power base of the ayatollahs’ regime. Muhammadi’s coffin was carried on the shoulders of Revolutionary Guards’ officers, a proof of his involvement in the secret plans of the Iranian regime.

Another Iranian nuclear scientist, Ardashir Hosseinpour, died in January 2007, and Stratfor, an American intelligence company, attributed his death to a “radioactive poisoning” by the Mossad. British experts claim that the assassinations of the two scientists were only a part of the Mossad operations in Iran, carried by double agents, assassination squads, front companies and a vast network of spies and informers.
The book goes on to note the Mossad’s failure in penetrating the Iranian nuclear project for more than 15 years. At first the Mossad and other Western agencies had believed Teheran intended to buy nuclear weapons and nuclear scientists from the Soviet Union. What the Mossad didn’t know is that in 1987 Iran had signed a secret agreement with Pakistan which was to supply hundreds of centrifuges to regime of the ayatollahs with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Islamic bomb, to train the Iranians.
It was only in 2002 that the Mossad discovered the huge centrifuge instillation in Natanz. Stopping Iran’s nuclear program became the Mossad’s main focus.
In January 2006 a plane carrying several scores of Revolutionary Guards officers crashed south of Teheran. A month earlier a military transport aircraft had crashed in an apartment building in Teheran with 94 officers and reporters on board. In November 2006 another crash: 36 Revolutionary Guards were killed when their aircraft exploded on its way to Shiraz.

In April 2006, a huge explosion shook the underground facility at Natanz, where thousands of centrifuges were already churning. Scientists, engineers and generals had assembled in one of the vast production halls to watch the first chain activation of a line of centrifuges called a “cascade.” The explosion, the investigation concluded, had been caused by tiny explosive devices that had been fastened to the centrifuges by foreign saboteurs.

In January 2007 another delay was caused by defective isolation pads that had been purchased abroad. The Iranian services discovered that the Mossad had set up several front companies that were selling faulty materials to Iran. In November 2008 an Iranian businessman, Ali Ashtari, was hanged by the Iranian authorities after he confessed to importing faulty equipment into Iran, or planting listening devices into computers and communications equipment sold to the Iranian secret services.
THOSE OPERATIONS weren’t the last. In February 2007, Reza Ali Askari, Iran’s former deputy defense minister and one of the major figures in its nuclear project, disappeared. In July 2009 it was the turn of Sharam Amiri, a leading scientist at the Qum nuclear center. Both resurfaced in the US with American sources revealing that Mossad had organized their defections together with the CIA. Amiri, though, returned to Iran earlier this year after taking refuge in the Pakistani embassy in Washington. He said that he was taken to the US against his will.
Bar-Zohar describes Mossad’s Iranian campaign as “an ongoing operation that has delayed the completion of the program. The Mossad can’t prevent the program, but it can delay it and that delay is very important. Even [Egyptian daily] Al-Ahram has said that thanks to [Dagan,] the Iranian program has been delayed and has declared him the ‘Israeli Superman.’” In fact, he has an entire chapter devoted to him, the only one in the book not to focus on an operation.
Dagan came to the Mossad as an outsider, brought in by Ariel Sharon in 2002 after he had retired from the army three years earlier. Sharon and Dagan had worked together in Gaza in the early 1970s, taming the refugee camps with unorthodox methods. Sharon joked of Dagan that his expertise was “separating an Arab’s head from his body.”
After the failure of the Mashaal operation and others had dealt a blow to the Mossad’s prestige and following the tenure of Ephraim Halevy, who had a reputation as a diplomat and analyst but not as a fighter, Sharon wanted to bring in someone with a “dagger between his teeth.”
“Halevy liked diplomacy and international connections; he liked to present sophisticated research to the government,” explains Bar- Zohar. “Meir Dagan understood that wasn’t what we needed and that’s why Ariel Sharon brought him in. Sharon brought him out of retirement, when he was already home painting and sculpting, and told him, ‘Operations, we need operations.’ Dagan is always thinking about operations, not all sorts of learned studies that didn’t do anything. Today you have a very dynamic Mossad with a very strong operational preparedness, and that is what we need in the current environment.”
Another difference between Dagan and Halevy, notes Bar-Zohar, is that “ the Mossad’s cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies is much greater than in the past. In the past the Mossad was afraid to hand over its secrets. It was Meir Dagan, who is no diplomat like his predecessor, who was the one to say, ‘Talk to them; cooperate with them.’”
Do they expect Amos Yadlin to continue the same line if he indeed replaces Dagan as expected?
“I can’t say,” replies Bar-Zohar. “I know he is an outstanding head of Military Intelligence, but what will happen in the job I don’t know. In jobs like that you can’t know until someone takes on the job. There are great successes that you don’t expect and great failures you can’t understand.”
Is there too great a focus on Iran at the expense of other fields?
“Of course,” replies Bar-Zohar, “but what is more important than Israel’s existence. Let me quote Ben-Gurion, who once said to me” – Mishal interrupts telling him to do in a Ben- Gurion accent – Bar-Zohar complies with a short, sharp, heavily accented: “Bar-Zohar, when you get up in the morning, decide what’s important and what isn’t. Don’t do what isn’t important!”
Bar-Zohar and Mishal are asked what each of them views as Mossad’s greatest operation and its greatest failure.
“Adolf Eichmann at the time was considered the greatest,” replies Bar-Zohar. “Afterward there was Black September. Despite the failure in Lillehammer it was an operation that went exactly to plan. Zvi Zamir and Aharon Yariv said to Golda [Meir]: ‘If you want to eliminate Black September, you have to eliminate all its leaders. Eliminate its leaders and it will cease to exist. The Mossad eliminated its leader and there was no more Black September.”
“For me the assassination of Imad Moughniyeh was the ultimate expression of the Mossad’s prowess,” Mishal says. “This man who was afraid to leave the triangle of Beirut, Teheran, Damascus; he knew he was being tracked, underwent countless operations to change his appearance, replaced his assistants all the time, didn’t speak on the phone and despite all of that the Mossad got his hands on him and eliminated him. The Mossad’s deterrence soared.”
AS FOR THE GREATEST failure, Mishal and Bar- Zohar concur on the attempt to assassinate Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal. “How do you determine a failure?” says Mishal. “It is not just the fact that the operation didn’t succeed. The failure here was that it also led to a massive crisis with King Hussein that threatened to destroy diplomatic relations. There was an enormous drama and in the end Ahmed Yassin was released from jail and it took a long time to restore relations to normal.”
“There was also an element of bad luck here,” continues Bar-Zohar. “Luck is a crucial factor in operations. Mashaal was followed for weeks on his regular path from home to work. On the day of the operation, one of the teams that was supposed to report his position didn’t notice that his two young kids had entered his car and reported that he had left home. When he arrived at his office, he comes out, the hit team approaches and then his young daughter who nobody knew was there starts shouting, Baba! Baba! [father, father, in Arabic] and then everything starts going wrong.
“The hit team didn’t see the operation commander across the road signalling to them to abort. Then the can of Coke [which was supposed to distract Mashaal] doesn’t open – they tried it 500 times in Rehov Dizengoff. The agents jump into the getaway car but don’t notices that a Hamas guy is chasing after them. He sees them get out of the car and they get into a fight. The agents beat him up and throw him onto the side of the road, but he recovers and chases after them and the police arrive and arrest them. They tell the police they are Canadian, but the Canadian consul comes and says, ‘These guys can be anything, but they’re not Canadians.’ So in operations you need a lot of luck.”
THROUGHOUT THE conversation Bar-Zohar and Mishal are in complete agreement, but when it comes to Gilad Schalit they differ as to why it is that Israel hasn’t been able to find him.
“If you ask me that is a failure of the entire Israeli intelligence community,” says Bar-Zohar.
“I disagree with you,” Mishal hits back. “I think Israel knows where Schalit is.”
Bar-Zohar: “So why don’t they do something?”
Mishal: “If he is in a basement connected to bombs and if we break in he won’t get out alive, and the question is will the soldiers be killed as well. Let me go further. If you were the prime minister and you were told he is at such and such an address and we can get there, but the location is booby-trapped and there is no doubt that some of the soldiers who break in won’t return, and he certainly won’t return would you take the decision to go in?”
Bar-Zohar: “Let me answer that in two parts. First of all, in that situation, as you said earlier, the Jewish brain, the innovative, original mind, should find an answer. Secondly, in all past cases when hostages were taken, even when there was a danger that hostages would be killed, that soldiers would be killed, we always took action. Here we have lost our deterrent power.”
Mishal: “It’s human life versus deterrent power.”
Bar-Zohar: “Yes human life. The IDF’s new instructions are that if a soldier is kidnapped, you shoot at the escape vehicle even if that means there is a chance the soldier will be killed.”
Mishal: “You can’t endanger soldiers’ lives for an operation like that.”
Bar-Zohar: “You can."
Mishal: " Look at Nachshon Wachsman. Wachsman wasn’t in Gaza, he was in the West Bank when we knew exactly were he was, and and we had the plans for the apartment where he was being kept. He was killed and a soldier was killed."
Bar-Zohar: "His parents were proud that the operation was undertaken.”
Mishal: “I’m not sure that if you asked Schalit’s parents, they would agree to an operation where the chances of bringing him back were minimal. I’m not sure they would agree.”
Bar-Zohar: “You’re talking about the parents; parents are something else. I’m talking about the State of Israel as a state, and I see it as a failure. The Jewish brain has to find a solution to the issue. There has to be a way. There isn’t anything you can’t solve if you invest enough effort.”