What can Israel's past assassinations tell us about the Fakhrizadeh hit?

INTELLIGENCE AFFAIRS: Understanding the anatomy of an assassination

FROM LEFT CLOCKWISE: Imad Mughniyeh, Khaled Mashal Mohammed al-Mabhouh and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS & REUTERS)
FROM LEFT CLOCKWISE: Imad Mughniyeh, Khaled Mashal Mohammed al-Mabhouh and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
In September 2019, sources close to Mossad director Yossi Cohen told The Jerusalem Post that the game changer from the January 2018 raid on Iran’s secret nuclear archive was Iran’s nuclear program map.
Yes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously said at his April 2018 news conference to “remember that name” about Iran military nuclear program chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. But he and the Mossad had known who he was for a while.
The sources emphasized the map.
What if the map did not merely unlock for the Mossad all of the sites where the Islamic Republic was possibly hiding pieces of its nuclear program’s military dimensions, but also revealed where and how it could track nuclear scientists – including, say, Fakhrizadeh?
According to foreign sources, Fakhrizadeh was assassinated by Israel on November 27. If it was Israel, how long was Israel planning the operation? When was it decided to pull the trigger, and what were the key strategic and diplomatic considerations for the timing and final decision to green-light or red-light the operation?
The truth is that the Israeli intelligence community is at an unusual level of radio silence because of the concern of possible retaliation from Tehran.
But from speaking to various intelligence sources and piecing together reports about past assassinations and attempted assassinations, the Post can give some educated estimates about what happened with Fakhrizadeh.
Khaled Mashaal
In past interviews former Mossad chief Danny Yatom has given to the Post, in his book The Labyrinth of Power and from other sources, the amount of detail about the planning and timing for the attempted assassination of Mashaal, who was the leader of Hamas at the time, may be unprecedented as compared to any other Mossad assassination event.
On July 30, 1997, Yatom was in the airport in Eilat when he got a call about a terrorist attack in the Mahaneh Yehuda market which killed 16 and wounded 200.
He went straight to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the other security chiefs.
Already at that meeting, Netanyahu instructed all intelligence services to come back to him with Hamas targets that could be attacked in response.
Most histories of the attack skip over the next bit to the date of the attempted assassination.
But what followed and didn’t follow are a fascinating story on its own and give us more insight into the Mossad’s timing and planning in general.
In fact, after all of that, it was not until an additional massive terrorist attack on September 4 that the need to respond took on a sense of immediate urgency.
It was only then, more than a month later, that Yatom presented a list of eight names, with Mashaal being fifth from the top of the list. The Mossad chief had him that far down on the list for a few reasons.
At the end of the day, though Mashaal was Hamas’s leader in the symbolic sense, there were other senior operatives actually directing Hamas terrorist operations on a daily basis, and it was judged that eliminating them would be a greater concrete setback. The Mossad’s professional echelon believed killing Mashaal would cause only a temporary shock.
Moreover, Yatom was concerned that acting in Jordan could undermine newly budding Israeli-Jordanian peaceful relations.
Netanyahu overruled these concerns.
The Mossad’s operational planners were directed to try to pick a method of killing that would avoid creating tension with Jordan.
Yatom, along with H, head of operations, and Mishka Ben-David, head of the intelligence department, met with Netanyahu and set a series of conditions – such as the absence of bodyguards and family members and nothing that might lead to the agents’ capture.
If any conditions were not met, the order was to abort.
The Mossad operatives, who entered Jordan under fake Canadian identities, spent some indeterminate amount of September in Jordan surveilling Mashaal and preparing for the ideal moment to strike.
September 25, 1997, was the last day they had to carry out the operation before their orders would be to return home. They carried it out, despite, according to Yatom, violating the conditions for the operation.
Mashaal was poisoned, but the Mossad ended up giving him a cure to save his life as part of a deal to get back its captured operatives who bungled their escape plan.
Putting the result aside, this was the Mossad moving at light speed. It executed an operation in approximately three weeks, though Mashaal was certainly being watched even before July 1997.
Part of why the Mossad moved so fast was the enormous political pressure on Netanyahu after the multiple horrid mass terrorist murders.
Note that if there had not been a second attack on September 4 – a month had passed without the Mossad even presenting its target list – the attack probably would not have been in September.
The original plan was likely to carry something out after several months of planning.
Concerns about relations with Jordan were set aside.
The symbolic value of Mashaal as well as the analysis that he was on the extreme end of the spectrum, even within Hamas, led to Netanyahu’s final decision to go after him and fast.
This likely made the Mashaal assassination atypical and could also be part of why it flopped.
Imad Mughniyeh (according to foreign sources)
Hezbollah’s military chief Mughniyeh was at the top of both the US’s and Israel’s hit lists for decades.
This was after he pulled off operations that had killed hundreds of Americans and Jews in Lebanon, Argentina and elsewhere, dating back to the 1980s.
Unlike Mashaal, who lived and operated in plain sight, Mughniyeh was always in hiding.
He was never taken off the hit list. Yet, there were almost no sightings of this shadowy figure, and a unit cannot stay razor-focused on a target that cannot be found.
But it seems that prime minister Ehud Olmert gave a new push to take him out in summer 2006 after the Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah.
Sometime in 2007, the Mossad caught a break when a mole it had inside Hezbollah gained access to Mughniyeh’s cellphone.
There was far more time to plan this operation, and the results were much better, with no traces left behind and no Israeli agents captured.
Still, the timing was impacted both by diplomatic considerations, since it was a joint Mossad-CIA operation, and by concerns of collateral damage.
It seems that the Mossad wanted to carry out the operation already by summer or early fall 2007.
From then until December 2007, CIA Director Michael Hayden kept sending his technicians back to the drawing board to develop a car bomb that would be smaller and less likely to strike innocent bystanders.
It seems that Mossad and CIA operatives were probably in Damascus, where they decided to carry out the attack, even earlier.
Damascus was picked so as to avoid Hezbollah retaliation and with the hope of creating a cloud of confusion about who was responsible, including throwing suspicion on some Syrian rivals of Mughniyeh.
Reports indicate that the joint Mossad-CIA group may have had dozens of opportunities to kill Mughniyeh, but held off because he was always with someone.
It was not until February 12, 2008, that they took him out.
Even then, they delayed taking him out when he was first passing by the car bomb until others with him left. (Ironically, the others were Syrian general and nuclear program chief Muhammad Suleiman and IRGC Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani, who would be assassinated in later 2008 and 2020, respectively).
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh (according to foreign sources)
Hamas’s al-Mabhouh had been on Israel’s radar screen for decades after direct participation in a number of prominent terrorist operations.
But by 2009, he had been out of the field for years. Long before, he had switched to the Hamas upper management back-office role of financing and directing the smuggling of Iranian weapons to Sudan, Sinai and eventually Gaza.
According to some narratives, what changed by 2009 and made him a priority target once again was that Mabhouh was directing Iran-Hamas efforts to smuggle Fajr-3 rockets to Gaza.
The Fajr-3 packed a 90-kg. payload and had a 75-km. range which could wreak destruction in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, far overshadowing any weaponry Hamas had acquired to date.
In January and February 2009, Israel even undertook the rare measure of sending F-15 and F-16 aircraft 1,300 km. to bomb trucks in Sudan that were transporting the rockets.
But Mabhouh was considered a logistical genius who would continue to come up with other creative ways to get the Fajr-3 rockets into Gaza. The timing for taking him out was based on disrupting the Fajr-3 rocket plans.
On March 31, 2009, Netanyahu – who had been out of power for around 10 years – became prime minister again.
At some point after that which is still unclear, but was likely in mid-2009, it was decided to take out Mabhouh.
Although there was likely more time to plan than with Mashaal, this operation may also not have been planned far in advance in Mossad terms, since the first crack at it in November 2009 in Dubai failed.
In order to track Mabhouh to plan for the operation, the Mossad had managed to insert a Trojan horse into his laptop which allowed them to monitor his transactions and movements.
Like with Mashaal, the Mossad tried to take out Mabhouh using a poison (in Mashaal’s case, in the ear; in Mabhouh’s case, in his drink). But Mabhouh only got sick and did not die.
It was not until January 19, 2010, that the Mossad got another shot – this was the next time that he took a trip abroad.
The timing of the operation took into account that it would be much easier to reach him abroad. It would be easier to sneak into Mabhouh’s stopover spot in Dubai without getting caught, than to risk Beijing’s tougher security measures and diplomatic ire by trying to hunt him down at his final destination in China.
On the one hand, there was again a short time to plan. But on the other hand, this was a second run. The Mossad had already gotten to Mabhouh physically in Dubai once in November without being detected.
Mabhouh was ultimately killed. However, most of the agents involved were identified, creating a crisis between Israel and the UAE and other countries whose citizens’ passports the agents had used.
In all three of the above cases, it took at least two months, if not multiple years, to decide, plan and give a final green light.
For all three cases, there was some major strategic reason to take out the individual which went beyond the general danger that he usually had presented for some time.
In all three cases, there were messy diplomatic and humanitarian considerations, which led to choosing poison twice as the assassination weapon and to using a smaller car bomb than originally planned.
Remarkably, in the cases of Mabhouh and Mughniyeh, there were multiple attempts or opportunities before the target was actually killed.
MAYBE THE Mossad was tracking Fakhrizadeh even before January 2018.
Maybe he was killed on November 27 only after multiple failed attempts.
Unlike the other three, it appears that he did not leave Iran much, that the assassination was always going to need to be there and include removing any protection he had, as opposed to finding him unattended.
Like the other three operations, Israel hoped to deny and cover up its involvement.
There was likely a variety of strategic and diplomatic considerations regarding the nuclear standoff and the status of the outgoing Trump and incoming Biden administrations.
In terms of covering up its involvement, the Mabhouh operation is credited for teaching Cohen to revolutionize how these operations are undertaken so that fewer agents can be caught on candid camera. To date, Iran has still shared very little of what it knows, while dropping hints that it has started to uncover aspects of who was involved with the hit.
Public knowledge of the where, why and how will probably have to wait for some months or years until the situation is calmer and Netanyahu, Cohen, Trump or Pompeo decides to publish a book with new revelations.•