The Truth About the Mossad

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The recent,
outlandish assassination in Dubai may prove the most damaging yet
in the Mossad’s history of high-profile, bungled operations. How
did it squander its reputation for ruthless brilliance?

Last November,
a sharp-eyed Israeli woman named Niva Ben-Harush was alarmed to
notice a young man attaching something that looked suspiciously
like a bomb to the underside of a car in a quiet street near Tel
Aviv port. When police arrested him, he claimed to be an agent of
the Mossad secret service taking part in a training exercise: his
story turned out to be true – though the bomb was a fake.

No comment
was forthcoming from the Israeli prime minister’s office, which
formally speaks for – but invariably says nothing about –
the country’s world-famous espionage organisation. The bungling
bomber was just a brief item on that evening’s local TV news.

There was,
however, a far bigger story – one that echoed across the globe
– two years ago this week, when a bomb in a Pajero jeep in
Damascus decapitated a man named Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh was the
military leader of Lebanon’s Shia movement Hizbullah, an ally of
Iran, and was wanted by the US, France and half a dozen other countries.
Israel never went beyond cryptic nodding and winking about that
killing in the heart of the Syrian capital, but it is widely believed
to have been one of its most daring and sophisticated clandestine

The Mossad,
like other intelligence services, tends to attract attention only
when something goes wrong, or when it boasts a spectacular success
and wants to send a warning signal to its enemies. Last month’s
assassination of a senior Hamas official in Dubai, now at the centre
of a white-hot diplomatic row between Israel and Britain, is a curious
mixture of both.

With its cloned
foreign passports, multiple disguises, state-of-the-art communications
and the murder of alleged arms smuggler Mahmoud al-Mabhouh –
one of the few elements of the plot that was not captured on the
emirate’s CCTV cameras – it is a riveting tale of professional
chutzpah, violence and cold calculation. And with the Palestinian
Islamist movement now vowing to take revenge, it seems grimly certain
that it will bring more bloodshed in its wake.

The images
from Dubai follow the biblical injunction (and the Mossad’s old
motto):"By way of deception thou shalt make war." The
agency’s job, its website explains more prosaically, is to "collect
information, analyse intelligence and perform special covert operations
beyond [Israel’s] borders."

Founded in
1948 along with the new Jewish state, the Mossad largely stayed
in the shadows in its early years. Yitzhak Shamir, a former Stern
Gang terrorist and future prime minister, ran operations targeting
German scientists who were helping Nasser’s Egypt build rockets
– foreshadowing later Israeli campaigns to disrupt Iraqi and
(continuing) Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear and other weapons.

The Mossad’s
most celebrated exploits included the abduction of the fugitive
Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who was later tried and hanged
in Israel. Others were organising the defection of an Iraqi pilot
who flew his MiG-21 to Israel, and support for Iraqi Kurdish rebels
against Baghdad. Military secrets acquired by Elie Cohen, the infamous
spy who penetrated the Syrian leadership, helped Israel conquer
the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war.

It was after
that that the service’s role expanded to fight the Palestinians,
who had been galvanised under Yasser Arafat into resisting Israel
in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The 1970s saw the
so-called "war of the spooks" with Mossad officers, operating
under diplomatic cover abroad, recruiting and running informants
in Fatah and other Palestinian groups. Baruch Cohen, an Arabic speaker
on loan to the Mossad from the Shin Bet internal security service,
was shot in a Madrid cafe by his own agent. Bassam Abu Sharif, of
the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was badly
disfigured by a Mossad parcel bomb sent to him in Beirut.

Steven Spielberg’s
2006 film Munich
helped mythologise the Mossad’s hunt for the Black September terrorists
who massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Eleven of
them were eliminated in killings across Europe, culminating in the
small Norwegian town of Lillehammer, where a Moroccan waiter was
mistaken for Ali Hassan Salameh, the Munich plot’s mastermind. Salameh
was eventually killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 1979 – the
sort of incident that made Lebanese and Palestinians sit up and
notice last year’s botched training episode in Tel Aviv.

Some details
of the assassination of Mabhouh last month echo elements of the
campaign against Black September – which ended with the catastrophic
arrest of five Mossad agents. Sylvia Raphael, a South African-born
Christian with a Jewish father, spent five years in a Norwegian
prison; she may have been among the young Europeans in Israel who
were discreetly asked, in nondescript offices in Tel Aviv, if they
wished to volunteer for sensitive work involving Israel’s security.
Other agents who had been exposed had to be recalled, safe houses
abandoned, phone numbers changed and operational methods modified.

Over the years,
the Mossad’s image has been badly tarnished at home as well as abroad.
It was blamed in part for failing to get wind of Egyptian-Syrian
plans for the devastating attack that launched the 1973 Yom Kippur
war. Critics wondered whether the spies had got their priorities
right by focusing on hunting down Palestinian gunmen in the back
alleys of European cities, when they should have been stealing secrets
in Cairo and Damascus. The Mossad also played a significant, though
still little-known, role in the covert supply of arms to Ayatollah
Khomeini’s Iran to help fight Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as part of
the Iran-Contra scandal during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

It has, in
addition, suffered occasional blows from its own disgruntled employees.
In 1990, a Canadian-born former officer called Victor Ostrovsky
blew the whistle on its internal organisation, training and methods,
revealing codenames including "Kidon" (bayonet), the unit
in charge of assassinations. An official smear campaign failed to
stop Ostrovsky’s book, so the agency kept quiet when another ostensibly
inside account came out in 2007. It described the use of shortwave
radios for sending encoded transmissions, operations in Iran for
collecting soil samples, and joint operations with the CIA against

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22, 2010

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