• 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
    operations.

    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
    Hezbollah.

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    February
    22, 2010

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