It’s a bird, it’s a shark, it’s a Mossad spy

Conspiracy theories involving the Mossad are a Mideast favorite, but not everyone takes them seriously.

The “spy” vulture – a raptor Saudis captured and accused of collecting intelligence for Israel – was finally freed on Monday after six days in captivity. Prince Bandar bin Saud Al Saud, the head of Saudi Arabia’s wildlife agency, confirmed the global positioning technology found on the bird was being used by scientists to track its movements.
"These systems are fitted to birds and animals, including marine animals,” he told reporters shortly before the release and chastised the press for irresponsible reporting. “Some Saudi journalists rushed in to carry the news about this bird for the sake of getting a scoop, without checking the information.”
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But the prince is fighting a lonely battle. In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world, Israel’s Mossad spy agency is regarded as an all-powerful, all-knowing and ever-present force, dispatching two-footed, four-footed and winged agents to gather information and cause mayhem.
In the last several months, the number – and, for many, the absurdity – of the Mossad conspiracies seems to have grown, most notably reports that the agency dispatched harks to attack bathers in the Egyptian report of Sharm el-Sheikh. On the other hand, the number of plausible Mossad operations has increased as well in the past two years.
Rasha Abdulla, chairwoman of the Journalism and Mass Communications Department at the American University of Cairo, said not all the Mossad conspiracy theories are taken equally seriously by the media or the public.
“Generally speaking it depends on what the situation is,” Abdulla told The Media Line. “A lot of the time people are very skeptical …  For example, the thing about the sharks in Sharm el-Sheikh, when that story came out people laughed at it.”
The Griffon vulture – reportedly dubbed R65, a moniker reminiscent of 007, by its handlers at Tel Aviv University --  was captured in a rural area of Saudi Arabia January 4 and quickly aroused the suspicions of locals that it was part of a “Zionist plot.” In fact, the vulture carried GPS technology, as well as tags identifying it as one of a group of birds whose migration university researchers have been monitoring.
That was enough. News of the vulture’s purported espionage quickly went viral throughout the region, resulting in hundreds of posts on blogs and news websites that the bird was specially trained to collect information for the Mossad.
“Basically these conspiracies are serving the societies from which they emerge,” Yossi Melman, who covers intelligence affairs for the Israeli daily Haaretz told The Media Line. “These conspiracies have nothing to do with Mossad, they have everything to do with societies and cultures,” he added.
A sampling of conspiracies laid to the Mossad include:
• The Palestinian Authority’s official news agency Wafa reported in July 2008 that Israel was using rats to drive Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem. “Dozens of settlers have come to the alleyways and streets of the Old City carrying iron cages full of rats. They release the rats, which find shelter in open sewage systems,” it said.
• Hamas police spokesman in the Gaza Strip Islam Shahwan claimed in July 2009 that group had uncovered a plot of the Israeli intelligence services to distribute libido-enhancing chewing gum in an attempt to “destroy” the young generation.
• Iran’s state-run Press TV reported in the wake of the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing of an airliner headed to Detroit by Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was in fact an undertaking of the Mossad in collusion with India's Research and Analysis Wing,. The goal was to spread “Orwellian-style trauma and project Yemen, as well as the African continent, [as] the brand-new focus of the American so-called ‘war on terror,” it said.
While the Mossad conspiracies usually spread through the blogosphere and in the popular press, a spate of shark attacks in the waters off the Sinai coast resort of Sharm el-Sheikh prompted a government official to hint of an Israeli conspiracy. Mohamed Abdul Fadil Shousha, the governor of Egypt’s South Sinai province, said it was “not out of the question.”
“What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark in the sea to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question. But it needs time to confirm,” Shousha told a press conference.
Indeed,  Abdulla  said many of the conspiracy theories originate in state-owned media outlets, or from the authorities themselves, which they see as a way of distracting public attention from the government’s failures.
“Certain theories may be advanced by the government as a means of distracting the masses from a shortage of effort  on their part in some places,” Abdulla said. “If it’s something that has to do with politics, then for a lot of people the conspiracy becomes a bit more plausible.”
When a Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria, Egypt, on New Year’s Eve, word rapidly circulated that Israel was connected to it, although experts warned it reflected the presence of Al-Qaeda in Egypt or the outcome of inter-communal tensions between Christian and Muslim, two subjects officials prefer not to have talked about.
In fact, some independent commentators were ready to accept the conspiracy theory. “The incident could lead to other interpretations, especially the application of the Zionist conspiracy against national unity in Egypt,’ Ammar Ali Hassan in the Al-Masry Al-Youm daily.
On the other hand, the government’s arrest last August of Tarek Abdel Rezek Hussein,  the 37-year-old owner of an import-export firm, has a firmer basis.  Hussein is charged trying to recruit employees of telecoms companies to spy in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, will stand trial later this month. The trial begins January 15 in Egypt’s the Supreme State Security Emergency Court, with two Israelis being tried in absentia. Israel has denied involvement in the affair.
“When you work underground you try and hide your actions,” Yossi Melman said.  “If you do some daring operations and even kill people, then there is a greater chance that people will think that you are capable of doing anything.”
Moreover, a spate of real incidents of assassinations and sabotage – most or all of them conventionally attributed to the Mossad have occurred over the last year.
Israel – though most as likely the Mossad’s last infamous colleagues in the Israel Defense Forces intelligence -- is widely believed that Israel is responsible for the Stuxnet computer virus that  reportedly caused severe damage to centrifuges in Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant. Likewise, a series of attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists have been attributed to the Mossad. In the latest incident, last November, two nuclear experts from Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Majid Shahriar  and Shahid Besheshti, were attacked in back-to-back bombings. Shahriar  was killed and Besheshti was injured.
Last January, Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who had been wanted by the Israelis for 20 years, was killed by a team of assassins whose images were captured on security cameras. Dubai’s chief of police blamed the Mossad, which has never confirmed nor denied its involvement in the incident.
The Mossad isn’t the only spy agency alleged to be at the center of conspiracies. The U.S Central Intelligence Agency is often cited and in Iran British spies are often blamed for espionage and sabotage.
But, under the leadership of Meir Dagan, the Mossad, has developed a more fearsome reputation than ever. Although the agency never takes credit for its operations, it is believed to have been especially active and successful in the last eight years in striking out against Israel’s foes, principally the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbullah and Iran, which it suspects of developing nuclear weapons.
Before that, the Mossad had suffered some embarrassing failures, most famously in September 1997, when two Mossad agents were caught in Jordan trying to poison Hamas’s political chief Meshaal. King Hussein of Jordan intervened, forcing Israel to provide an antidote to the poison, on the threat of severing diplomatic ties. Israel was also forced to release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, in order to secure the release of the Israeli agents.