If Turkey’s Erdogan Had Fallen, Israel Wouldn’t Weep, But…

[This analysis by Yossi Melman is based on an article he wrote for The Jerusalem Post on July 16, 2016, after it became clear that the attempted coup by elements of Turkey’s army failed — and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently restored normal relations with Israel after several frosty years, has survived.  Melman is co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and of the current history of Israeli intelligence and security, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]

The great irony in the coup attempt that failed in Turkey was obvious. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried for years to stifle the operating freedom of social networks and has accused them of being dark forces attempting to undermine his rule. It was these same social media networks which helped him to put down the coup.

Erdogan broadcast from his smartphone — using Apple’s FaceTime — a statement to the people. He tweeted to his supporters and relied on the media, even those whom he deathly hates, to spread his message in the critical first hours of the coup attempt when uncertainty gripped the country.

In this respect, the attempt was reminiscent of the failed coup by the national guard and the Greek military junta in 1974 against the rule of Cyprus President Archbishop Makarios III. Makarios succeeded in sending out a weak radio signal saying that he was alive. Voice of Israel radio monitor Miki Gordus received the signal and broadcast the message to the whole world. As a result of that failed coup, the Turkish army invaded and partitioned Cyprus into two parts.

In the case of Turkey, it seems that those involved – apparently relatively low-ranked officers – would not have succeeded in their operation even if Erdogan would not have been able to deliver his broadcast.

The rebellion initially appeared to be going by the book. The rebels gained control of the bridges over the Bosphorous Strait in Istanbul, which connect Europe and Asia, as well as major junctions. Pilots involved in the plot bombed the parliament building in Ankara, the MIT intelligence agency’s headquarters and some military strongpoints, including tanks near the presidential palace.

They even took control of the state-run TV station, TRT, and forced a remarkably poised female newscaster to read their statement that they had taken over the government to preserve democracy, to remove Erdogan, to suppress terrorism, and to change the Constitution.

However, it appears that the number of soldiers in their command – apparently a few thousand – was insufficient to complete the job.

How Pres. Erdogan Called on People to Defy the Coup

How Pres. Erdogan Called on People to Defy the Coup

In Turkey’s previous four military coups since 1960, tens of thousands of soldiers took part, if not the entire army. This time, the rebels kidnapped the chief of staff and a number of other senior commanders, who have since been freed, but most importantly they failed to capture Erdogan, who was vacationing at a Marble Lake resort. Capturing the Turkish leader was probably the first thing they should have done.

Erdogan succeeded in broadcasting his remarks to the people, calling on his supporters to take to the streets, and they answered his call. They blocked the rebel soldiers’ path and together with the police, which remained loyal to Erdogan, fought them and took many of them prisoner.

The masses taking to the streets was reminiscent of the attempted coup by a group of Soviet officials in August 1991 against President Michael Gorbachev — in the hopes of preventing the fall of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. That rebellion was put down because of the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, who was then the head of the Russian Federation of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was dismantled in the wake of the coup attempt.

Turkey has previously experienced four military coups. According to the Constitution, since the establishment of the Turkish Republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the army is the defender of democracy.

Anytime that the military commanders believed that the civilian leadership was straying from the constitution, they did not hesitate to carry out a coup, take rule into their own hands and eventually put a democratic government back in place.

For years now, there has been disillusionment within the army and the secular public with Erdogan, the leader of the Islamist AKP party. As prime minister and elected president he instituted a dictatorship in the hopes of establishing himself as a 21st century sultan, while increasing the influence of religion in the public sphere. This is also the reason that Erdogan purified institutions in the state and instituted changes within them to strengthen his hold on power.

He put his loyalists in key positions in Turkey’s intelligence agency, police, justice system, education system and the army. He harassed the media, trying to take it over and marginalized business leaders who he saw as hostile to the throne.

It can be assumed that now, with the defeat of the coup attempt, he will immediately increase his efforts to strengthen his hold on power and oppress his opponents. His supporters are already accusing his arch rival Fethullah Gulen, a powerful cleric who lives in exile in the U.S., of organizing the rebellion. Gulen has denied involvement, but that will not stop Erdogan from  persecuting Gulen’s supporters.

In Turkey, conspiracy theories that Erdogan himself planned the coup in order to make himself stronger are even being voiced.

Despite the fact that the U.S. and most members of NATO, to which Turkey belongs, condemned the coup and voiced support for Erdogan and the elected government, there is no doubt that there is increasing concern among them about instability in the country.

For months, Turkey has been subject to an onslaught of terror from Turkish Kurds and ISIS (the so-called Islamic State in neighboring Syria feeling that he betrayed them after secretly aiding them for years).

The war on terror hurts tourism and the economy, and now the coup attempt is liable to throw one of the most important countries in the Middle East into a period of uncertainty and disquiet.

As for Israel, which just recently signed a reconciliation deal with Turkey, the failure of the coup will not affect relations between the countries and the status quo will continue.

However, it can be assumed that the Israeli government, the defense establishment and the intelligence community would not have shed a tear if the coup had succeeded, Erdogan had been ousted and the army had taken power.

July 16, 2016

Israel and Turkey Restore Relations: Key Goal is a Cooperative Trio with Egypt

[Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller on Israeli espionage and security, Every Spy a Prince, and the current book Spies Against Armageddon, wrote this for The Jerusalem Post in early March.  Today (June 27), Israel and Turkey are announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations after long, difficult negotiations.  What’s likely to happen now?]

Even if Israel and Turkey soon announce an end to their diplomatic crisis, which began almost six years ago as a result of the Mavi Marmara flotilla ship incident, relations between the two countries will not go back to how they once were.

The golden era of cooperation in the security and intelligence fields between the two countries up until a decade ago will certainly not come back. 

Turkey was a large and important market for Israel’s security industries, which provided drones, intelligence systems, tank and planes upgrades, and more. For years, there was close cooperation between the Mossad and Turkey’s intelligence agency, the MIT, which included meetings, an exchange of each countries’ situational assessments and more.

This cooperation began in 1958 with the initiation of an intelligence pact between Iran’s SAVAK, under the Shah, the Mossad and Turkish intelligence. The codename in Israel for this pact was “Clil” (Complete).

Prime Minister Erdogan

Prime Minister Erdogan

These intimate relations were ended by Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he rose to power in 2002, first as prime minister, and currently as president. It was a gradual process that deteriorated after the Marmara incident. However, the 2010 flotilla was merely a symptom of a deeper issue. Yet, despite the security and intelligence disconnect and the diplomatic crisis, both commercial and tourism ties did grow under Erdogan.

The initiative for a turnaround in relations has come from Ankara … Erdogan’s foreign and defense policies have failed miserably. He saw himself as the renewer of the days of the Ottoman Empire and as a modern-day, 21st century Sultan. He aimed to turn Turkey into a regional power, and perhaps into the strongest force in the Middle East, but this did not happen.

Instead, Turkey finds itself in a conflict with Russia and Iran over Syria, where Erdogan hoped to see President Bashar Assad ousted. Erdogan supported the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and now he finds himself at odds with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Because of Turkey’s uncompromising fight against its Kurdish population, as well as in Syria and Iraq, Ankara is also losing its influence with NATO and with the U.S.

 Turkey is now more isolated than ever and is therefore interested in renewing ties with Israel, in the hope that the Jewish state can help Ankara improve its standing in Washington. Turkey also needs natural gas from Israel in order to diversify its sources of energy and to reduce its dependency on Russian gas.

Most of the disagreements between Israel and Turkey stemming from the Marmara incident have already been rectified. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the incident in which nine Turkish citizens were killed. Israel has already made clear that it is prepared to pay some $25 million in compensation to the families of the victims. Turkey has deported senior Hamas military wing official Salah Aruri from the country and has tightened its supervision of the organization’s members at Israel’s request. Ankara has also agreed to institute special legislation that will prevent IDF commanders from standing trial for the Marmara incident.

However, the bigger problem to be solved is connected to Hamas in Gaza. Turkey is looking for a foothold in the Strip.  [The Israeli government view is that] Erdogan broke the rules, and therefore he bears the responsibility for rectifying the situation. Egypt’s Sisi as well is not prepared to easily forgive and grant Erdogan a prize for his behavior, as if nothing happened.

If the golden formula is found, and the crisis is indeed solved, it will be part of a three-way deal: Israel-Egypt-Turkey, in which the strategic alliance with Egypt is much more important to Israel than rehabilitating ties with Turkey.

June 27, 2016

U.S. Prepared Huge Cyber-Attack on Iran, In Case Israel Bombed Iran and a War Started

In his latest documentary, “Zero Days,” the award-winning Alex Gibney reveals that the Obama Administration believed an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities — which seemed in 2012 to be a very real prospect — would draw the United States into war.  To prepare, the NSA created a set of cyberattacks — code named “Nitro Zeus” — which could have crippled Iranian industry, transport, and other modern services.  

“Zero Days” was the opening feature of the AFI Docs festival in Washington, DC, on June 22.  Gibney was interviewed by Dan Raviv for the CBS News Weekend Roundup radio magazine; and Yossi Melman is seen in the film as an expert commenting on Israeli motivations in confronting Iran’s nuclear program.  Melman also credited in the film as a consultant.

Raviv and Melman are co-authors of five books, including the current history of Israeli intelligence — Spies Against Armageddon.

Here is part of an article Melman wrote for The Jerusalem Post in February 2016, when the documentary was first screened at the Berlin Film Festival.

Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and the NSA, is in the film and claims the goal of a potential Israeli strike on Iran would be to drag the U.S. into war.  The film also quotes other sources in the US intelligence community who accuse Israel of disrupting a joint covert operation to sabotage computers used in Iran’s nuclear program by acting rashly and in opposition to agreed-upon plans.  As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars that were invested in the operation went to waste.
A graphic from the documentary "Zero Days"

A graphic from the documentary “Zero Days”

The film contains testimony from NSA and CIA operatives who worked together with Israeli colleagues – from the 8200 Military Intelligence Unit and Mossad – to develop several versions of a deadly virus that penetrated computers at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in Iran. The testimony is delivered anonymously by an actress whose face remains hidden.

According to the claims in the film, the hasty Israeli action prevented the carrying out of a number of further planned actions that were intended to sabotage computers at a second, more fortified uranium enrichment facility at Fordow. The film also reveals another planned cyber unit covert operation code-named NZ (Nitro Zeus).

“We spent millions on this operation to sabotage all of the computers of the Iranian infrastructure in the instance of a war,” a source quoted in the film said. “We penetrated the government, electricity lines, power stations and most of the infrastructure in Iran.”

 
The deadly virus that was implanted at Natanz was named “Stuxnet” by computer security experts, but it had a different name among the Israeli and American intelligence communities: “Olympic Games” — as revealed by New York Times’ journalist David E. Sanger.
Conventional wisdom holds that the implanting of the virus marked the first time that a country, or two countries in this case (the U.S. and Israel), engaged in cyber warfare against another country (Iran). Up until then, the majority of attacks were carried out by individual hackers for their own enjoyment or for political purposes, by criminals for the purposes of fraud and thievery, or by companies engaged in industrial and commercial espionage.
Vice President Joe Biden is quoted in the film as saying in a meeting that the Israelis “changed the code” of the deadly virus’s software.  As a result, the virus spread from nuclear program computers to many other computers in Iran, and from there to computers around the world — even harming the computers of American companies.
The unplanned spread of the virus led to the exposure of the operation and enabled the Iranians, with the help of information security experts from Belarus and Russia, to invent a “vaccine” for their computers to better defend the nuclear program.

According to the film, the premature exposure of the operation caused by Israel’s action’s also caused the virus software, which was among the most classified and most advanced in the world, to leak to Russian and Iranian intelligence.

“Ironically,” it is said in the film, “the secret formula for writing the code for the virus software fell into the hands of Russia and Iran – the country against which it was developed.”

June 23, 2016

Hezbollah’s Military Chief, Killed in Syria — By Whom? Many Enemies, Israel Among Them

[This post is adapted from an article for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books.]

The circumstances of Hezbollah “Defense Minister” Mustafa Badreddine’s death are shrouded in mystery, as was most of his life in the underground. Hezbollah released an official statement on Saturday, saying that he was assassinated a few days ago by Syrian rebels near the Damascus airport.

This was startlingly different from previous assassinations of senior Hezbollah commanders.  The Lebanese Shi’ite group used to always — like a habitual reflex — blame Israel.

The official announcement seemed to clear Israel of responsibility for killing Badreddine — a mere eight years after his brother-in-law and powerful predecesssor, Imad Mughniyeh, was assassinated in Damascus.  The Mughniyeh killing was the result of a joint Israeli-U.S. intelligence operation, according to several sources, although neither government has acknowledged liquidating one of their most virulent enemies.

True, Arab media did quote a Hezbollah politician in Lebanon — as well as several former Iranian generals — as saying “the rebels” are working under the orders of “the Zionists.”  But all in all, it is clear that Hezbollah does not wish to escalate its war against Israel — not at this time.

It remains unclear how Badreddine was killed.  There are reports that he died in an artillery blast, and others which claim he was hit by a missile, and even some reports that the missile was fired from an airplane.  In any event, it is clear that those who planned and carried out the assassination had precise intelligence information.

Hezbollah Issued This Photo of Badreddine After His Mysterious, Violent Death

Hezbollah Issued This Photo of Badreddine After His Mysterious, Violent Death

Israel did not officially comment on who might have killed Badreddine, but politicians in the government in Jerusalem tried to add an air of mystery by acting as though the whole matter is too delicate to say anything about.

The United States government did state it was not involved in the Hezbollah leader’s death.

Yet it is strange that no one claimed responsibility for the killing — not even one of the Sunni Muslim rebel groups in Syria.

The list of those who wanted Badreddine eliminated was long.  In addition to the U.S., Israel, and Syrian rebels, the governments of France, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others must be glad that one of the most cruel and wanted terrorists in the world is dead.

The possibility has also been raised that he was killed by one of his rivals within Hezbollah, but that is most likely disinformation being spread by some intelligence agency’s psychological warfare department.

However, it is reputed that Badreddine did have some sharp arguments with other senior Hezbollah commanders in recent years — as the Lebanese Shi’ites increasingly sustained losses in the Syrian civil war, obviously ordered by their Iranian paymasters to plunge into that war with gusto.

Badreddine is also said to have had disagreements with the Iranian Al-Quds Force, led by General Qassem Soleimani, who practically is in charge of Shi’ite militias and violent organizations around the world.  These arguments developed because of Badreddine’s operational ideas — which seemed to border on crazy hallucinations; as well as a reckless lifestyle that seemed to emulate his hero, the assassinated Mughniyeh.

Yet it has not been the practice of Hezbollah and Iran to settle accounts within their own ranks, within “the family,” so to speak, by liquidating non-conformists.

In rare cases, Hezbollah and Iran have put people on trial for espionage or treason — and those cases naturally ended in executions.  Yet in cases of disobedience, Hezbollah men are simply stripped of their positions.

It also would not make sense for Iran and Hezbollah to get rid of one of their most important commanders, right in the middle of a crucial stage in Syria’s civil war.  Three years ago, Hezbollah sent 6,000 combatants to fight the rebels — in order to save the Bashar al-Assad regime, an objective later backed emphatically by Russia’s military.

Killing Badreddine would require Hezbolla to replace him with a less experienced commander.

So who did it?  Similar to the outcome (spoiler alert!) of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, it is even conceivable that all of Badreddine’s foes — or an unusual group of them — teamed up to find him and eliminate him.

Israel may have had a hand in that.  Or not.  But further weakening of Hezbollah’s capabilities and morale is certainly a good thing for Israel’s strategy.

 

 

 

May 15, 2016

“Ready for a Challenge?” Job Ads Placed by Mossad — Looking for Cyber Aces

[This post is based on an article in Hebrew by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books, in the newspaper Maariv.]

The Mossad — Israel’s famed foreign intelligence agency — placed unusual advertisements in several Israeli newspapers on Wednesday.  It is not the first time that the Mossad published “want ads,” announcing that jobs are available for the right men and women.  This one also seems to be polishing the secret agency’s image as a cutting-edge, entirely modern and exciting place to work.

Mossad ready for challengeThe ad shows rows of numbers, apparently meant to represent computer code on a screen — and among the digits are English letters that read: “ARE YOU READY FOR A CHALLENGE?”

At the bottom, in Hebrew, is the official symbol of the Mossad — with its motto quoting the Bible: “Where there is no counsel, the nation falls; but there is salvation in a multitude of counsel.”  (Proverbs 11:14)

And intriguingly at the bottom is — apparently — the name of the Mossad department looking for brilliant employees: “The Operational Cyber Arm.”

The agency’s website also invites job applications.

Mossad.gov.il came into existence only about 15 years ago.  In part that was part of a new wave of relative openness: acknowledging that the Mossad exists and making it legal to publish the name of its director (Yossi Cohen this year replaced Tamir Pardo).  Also, the website is part of a recruitment effort — in Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic, and Farsi (Persian) — which suggests that working for Israeli intelligence can give a person amazing experiences.

It was also, in the past 10 to 15 years, that the Mossad — instructed by Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert — stepped up its efforts to derail and sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.

 

May 11, 2016

The Secrecy-Shrouded Nuclear Reactor at Dimona — It Might Have to Close in 7 Years

[This article is based on an item written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books on Israeli defense, intelligence, and culture.]

A moment of truth for Israel’s nuclear policy is nearing. Haim Levinson’s article in Ha’aretz (in Hebrew on April 26) regarding the defects in the core of the nuclear reactor in Dimona only emphasizes this fact.

Such reactors are normally taken out of service after 40 years or so. Ultrasound examinations found 1,537 flaws in the metal core in Dimona, a scientist from the facility reported — according to Levinson in Ha’aretz.

These are not defects that can develop to the level of large cracks, that would at this stage cause nuclear radiation emission from the reactor and endanger the surrounding population and environment.

Israel Atomic Energy Commission logo pngThe awareness of these flaws — and the likelihood of how they would progress — were known since the inception of the nuclear reactor. In 2004 similar findings were revealed at a symposium at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, where senior officials of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is responsible for the reactor in Dimona, admitted that they were encountering difficulties in upgrading the safety of the reactor.

The reactor in Dimona — which France built for Israel — began to function in 1963. According to the manufacturer’s standards, the lifetime of reactors of this type is forty years.

At that convention 12 years ago, the CEO of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission — Gideon Frank — said that in the United States, techniques were developed that allowed for a 20-year extension of the lifetime of reactors.

However, the reactor core, which is made from metal and wrapped with a thick layer of concrete that defends against the tremendous radiation from within, cannot be replaced, as there is a leaking water heater there that cannot be fixed.

Today, the reactor in Dimona is 53 years old and has repeatedly received “anti-aging treatment.”

Israel used the most advanced techniques in the world, but they will be effective until when? If we rely on the words of Gideon Frank from the convention, then the reactor has another seven years to its life. By then there will be no alternative but to disable the reactor.

The technological problems create a huge dilemma for the longtime Israeli strategy of deterrence. The reactor that Israel acquired from France, had, according to foreign reports, a 24-megawatt capacity and was to be used for research purposes. According to these same sources Israel increased its output to 50 megawatts, possibly even more.

According to foreign reports, since its activation, Israel’s reactor has been manufacturing uranium and plutonium. Those are the fissile materials for the construction of nuclear weapons. These reports said that the proponents of Israeli nuclear development believed that nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent and secure Israel’s existence for generations.

Concurrently, they also formulated the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity, which neither admitted nor denied the existence of nuclear weapons.

In my opinion, the brilliance and boldness of the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity proved and continues to prove itself strategically.

The success of this policy is evident in the fact that no superpower has demanded of Israel to disarm nuclear capacity, which the world claims Israel has.

However the policy of nuclear ambiguity also prevents Israel from signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which bans the production, stockpiling and spread of nuclear weapons.

This is the predicament in which Israel exists today. Israel does not possess the ability and the materials to build a new reactor and is in need of foreign or international assistance. If Israel were to sign the NPT it would be able to receive nuclear reactors for the purpose of research and generation of electricity, but it would also be mandated that Israel disclose everything it has.

The foreign reports indicated that during the years of its reactor’s operation, Israel constructed approximately 200 nuclear bombs of all types and sizes as well as the means to launch them, according to one report. According to another more recent report, Israel is in possession of “only” 80 bombs.

This substantial arsenal could continue to ensure Israel’s deterrence policy, even if the reactor were to close and could not manufacture additional bomb-making materials. But the gleaming dome of the reactor is also a symbol of Israel and its nuclear capability.

Israel will try to extend the lifespan of the reactor as much as possible before its inevitable expiration, when the efficacy of the “anti-aging” remedies will also expire.

May 8, 2016

Oil, Intelligence, Suicide Drone — Israel’s Hush-Hush Relations with Azerbaijan (Bordering Iran)

[This post is adapted from an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israel’s intelligence agencies, Spies Against Armageddon.]

The longtime head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who died of cancer on March 17, was known to be a great traveler.  Years ago he went on a journey to central Asia and visited Azerbaijan.  Knowing that he was an avid chess player and “not a bad one” — as he once put it — his hosts  took him to a local chess club.  Dagan had the heady experience of playing simultaneously against a group of teenagers.  He lost to all of them.

His Azeri hosts (apparently counterparts in security agencies, but they have not been identified) felt embarrassed.  They did not want an honored guest from such a friendly country, Israel, to be humiliated.

Israel, the Jewish state, is indeed considered a good friend to the Muslim, former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.  Diplomatic relations were established in 1992, only a few months after Azeri independence was achieved with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Relations are excellent, and the improvement has been based on shared strategic interests.  The two countries are getting even closer, against the background of renewed violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia, another former Soviet republic.  They are fighting over a district, Nagorno Karabakh, where civilians caught in the middle are again suffering death and destruction.

Azerbaijan’s forces have been noticed using Israel-made weapons.

The two nations are certainly an odd couple.  The Azeris are predominantly Shiite Muslims, and while they vote in elections they do not truly have a Western democracy.  The country has been run since 1991 by a single family, which is accused of corruption and suppressing independent media.  Investigative journalists have been harassed and jailed there.

The CIA's Map of Azerbaijan: Nestled Among Strategic Neighbors

The CIA’s Map of Azerbaijan: Nestled Among Strategic Neighbors

Israel, however, has a long record of not being too picky in choosing its undemocratic friends — certainly not when it comes to weapons sales and other national interests.  A quick look at the map can explain Israel’s priorities.  Azerbaijan has borders with four countries including Iran — Israel’s most dangerous enemy.  The capital, Baku, is on the Caspian Sea — which affords interesting ways to get in and out.  Azerbaijan is a major oil producer and invests 5 percent of its GDP in its military.

IAI Harop drone bomb

Israel’s Harop, Displayed for Sale

According to foreign reports, The Mossad runs a big station in Azerbaijan taking advantage of the geography. Iranian spokespersons have accused their neighbor of allowing Israeli intelligence to carry out — from Azeri territory — espionage missions in Iran which include recruiting and planting agents, communications interception, and aerial reconnaissance. More than a year ago, Iran claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone.  Israeli officials have refused to comment on such reports.

Yet it was President Ilham Aliyev himself who was quoted in a cable — published by WikiLeaks — sent from the U.S. Embassy in Baku, as saying: “Bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Israel are like an iceberg. Nine-tenths are below the surface.”

Another WikiLeaks document from 2007 showed more frankness and openness expressed by Arthur Lenk, then the Israeli ambassador in Baku (now serving in South Africa).  He told the U.S. ambassador that the two countries have a security agreement and that one of Aliyev’s assistants — during a visit to Israel — met with Israel’s deputy defense minister and “Mossad officials.”

In 2009 Azeri security services exposed a joint plot designed by an Iranian intelligence agency and Hezbollah to target the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community in Baku.  That would have been part of their attempt to take revenge for the killing, a year earlier, of Imad Mughniyeh — the “defense minister” in charge of Hezbollah operations.  The car bomb that killed Mughniyeh in Damascus was attributed to the Mossad, and recently a CIA role in the assassination was reliably reported.

Tips from the Mossad to their Azeri counterparts in 2009 foiled the conspiracy in Baku and led to the arrest of several suspects, while others managed to escape to Iran.

The joint combat against terrorism is just one glue strengthening the relations between Azerbaijan and Israel.  Another sign of the prosperous allience can be seen in the annual trade. which is currently $5 billion, more than the total trade between Israel and France.

The details are not fully revealed, but it consists most of Azeri oil sold to Israel — and Israelis weapons and intelligence technologies purchased by Azerbaijan.  The best promoters of the military sales and ties have been Israeli defense minister and officials who have visited the Caucasian nation.  Most recently it was the current minister, Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon, who went to Baku in Otober 2014 to meet with his counterpart — and even with President Aliyev.

The security and intelligence ties began modestly. In the 1990s Israel sold light weapons, mortars, and ammunition worth a few millions of dollars.  In addition, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI, now renamed Israel Aerospace Industries) maintained the aircraft fleet of Azerbaijan Airlines.

Israel Aerospace Industries Exports the Harop: a Drone Bomb

Israel Aerospace Industries Exports the Harop: a Drone Bomb

In recent years, according to foreign reports, the volume expanded to billions.  That made Azerbaijan the second biggest market in Asia, after India, for Israeli weapons.

According to the French newsletter “Intelligence on Line,” Israeli sales include drones, ground stations, control and command posts, and advanced intelligence equipment.

It was also reported that IAI was the first bidder to offer Azerbaijan a spy satellite valued at $150 million — plus the ground station and the launching cost.  U.S., French, and Russian compaanies later joined the bidding, but experts assume that the Israeli company has the best chance of winning the contract because of IAI’s long-standing, intimate contacts with Azerbaijan.

The French publication also reported that Haifa-based Israel Shipyards has an advantage over its French and other competitors to build 12 light vessels for the Azeri coast guard.

This month the Washington Post gave the world a narrow peek into the mostly secret relationship by publishing a video and photos of an Israel-made “suicidal drone,” flying over the frontlines of the civil war in Nagorno-Karabakh — reportedly exploding itself onto a bus carrying Armenian combatants.  Seven people were killed, and the Armenian government protested to Israel.

The drone, called “Harop.” is just one model in a line of products that are hybrids of drones, missiles and bombs.   They can carry cameras and be recalled back to ground by their operator but also are equipped with up to 20 kilograms of explosive which the operator can lead to collide with the target and detonate it .

This past week, a few days after the incident, Israeli military journalists visited IAI facilities and were briefed on the various products from drones to satellites which the company has to offer.  An IAI spokeswoman was asked if the company was behind the Washington Post publication.  She refused to answer, but she clearly smiled when one reporter commented that such photos and video are good for business.   They promote sales which can be labeled “battle proven.”

April 16, 2016

Israel and Jordan: Air Forces Patrol Jointly, Confronted Russian Warplanes — Secrets from King Abdullah

[This blog is written by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, whose current book is Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.  In 1989, they revealed decades of Israeli-Jordanian contacts and cooperation in their book, Behind the Uprising.]

Jordan’s King Abdullah gave private briefings to members of America’s Congress in January.  That is rather routine.  But apparently detailed notes leaked out, recently, and among other things the depth of Jordan-Israeli military cooperation — and strategic alignment — is revealed.

David Hearst, longtime journalist for The Guardian in Britain, published excerpts at his Middle East Eye site.   (Click here for one of Hearst’s articles on the revelations.)

Abdullah of Jordan w troops 2008He writes that the king told about a midair confrontation between Russian planes — which intentionally were straying southwest of Syria’s border to test Israel’s air defenses — and Israeli and Jordanian F-16 jets which operated together.  Abdullah said: “The Russians were shocked and understood they cannot mess with us.”

Israel and Jordan have had diplomatic relations ever since signing their peace treaty in 1994.

Abdullah told the members of Congress that he has spoken about Syria with Russia’s government and feels that he is speaking “on behalf of Israel.”  He coordinates his positions with the director of Israel’s espionage agency, the Mossad.

That fits in with the Mossad’s traditional role as an alternative foreign ministry, when there are missions that don’t easily fit the daily duties of Israel’s official diplomats.

Abdullah did mention a significant disagreement he has with Israel.  He wants the Al-Nusra Front, considered an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Syria, to be bombed by the Russians.  Israel, however, sees some positive value in Al-Nusra as an enemy of Hezbollah (the Lebanon-based Shi’ite organization directed by Iran and involved in fighting in Syria).

The king said Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has genuine reasons to want to destroy Islamic terrorists — such as the bomb that blew up a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai last year — adding that Putin listens to Jordan’s advice 90 percent of the time.

 

April 3, 2016

Our Revelation: The Mossad Recruited a Famous Nazi Colonel — Who Became a Hit-Man for Israel

[This is the beginning of our article, written for The Forward newspaper, revealing the Israel used Otto Skorzeny as an agent — and what the famous Nazi Waffen-SS colonel did for the Jewish State.]

On September 11, 1962, a German scientist vanished. The basic facts were simple: Heinz Krug had been at his office, and he never came home.+

Skorzeny Special Missions book coverThe only other salient detail known to police in Munich was that Krug commuted to Cairo frequently. He was one of dozens of Nazi rocket experts who had been hired by Egypt to develop advanced weapons for that country.+

One Israeli newspaper surprisingly claimed to have the explanation: The Egyptians kidnapped Krug to prevent him from doing business with Israel.+

But that somewhat clumsy leak was an attempt by Israel to divert investigators from digging too deeply into the case — not that they ever would have found the 49-year-old scientist.+

We can now report — based on interviews with former Mossad officers and with Israelis who have access to the Mossad’s archived secrets from half a century ago — that Krug was murdered as part of an Israeli espionage plot to intimidate the German scientists working for Egypt.+

Moreover, the most astounding revelation is the Mossad agent who fired the fatal gunshots: Otto Skorzeny, one of the Israeli spy agency’s most valuable assets, was a former lieutenant colonel in Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS and one of Adolf Hitler’s personal favorites among the party’s commando leaders. The Führer, in fact, awarded Skorzeny the army’s most prestigious medal, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, for leading the rescue operation that plucked his friend Benito Mussolini out from the hands of his captors.+Skorzeny scar book cover

Key to understanding the story is that the Mossad had made stopping German scientists then working on Egypt’s rocket program one of its top priorities. For several months before his death, in fact, Krug, along with other Germans who were working in Egypt’s rocket-building industry, had received threatening messages. When in Germany, they got phone calls in the middle of the night, telling them to quit the Egyptian program. When in Egypt, some were sent letter bombs — and several people were injured by the explosions.+

Krug, as it happens, was near the top of the Mossad’s target list.

[Read the rest at: http://forward.com/news/336943/ht/]

April 1, 2016

“There Was Something Sexy about How the Mossad Approached the Nazi Colonel — Like Wife Swapping or a Couples Game”

Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent who is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, was interviewed on “The World,” a radio co-production of PRI and the BBC, by host Marco Werman.

Their 5-minute chat included a retelling of the “sexy” recruitment of former Waffen-SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny by the Mossad in 1962 in Madrid.

PRI banner The WorldRaviv and Yossi Melman, in an article for Forward, revealed this week that Skorzeny became an agent — and even an assassin — for Israel’s intelligence agency.

Here is the audio, from “The World”:

March 30, 2016

BBC and British Papers Fascinated by (Our) Revelation: A Famous Nazi was an Agent and Assassin for the Mossad

Our article appeared in the Forward weekly newspaper this past weekend, and on-line (click here).

We have learned that Otto Skorzeny — a daring commando officer in the Waffen-SS who was a favorite of Adolf Hitler — was recruited by the Mossad in 1962 and carried out assignments for Israeli intelligence.

Why would he do that?  And didn’t the Israelis feel moral qualms about employing a Nazi — to pursue, locate, and even kill Nazis?

That issue fascinates many in the global media.

Click here for Yossi Melman’s interview with BBC World Service’s Dan Damon — heard in the 5 a.m. hour across America on Wednesday.

Here is another of the interviews we have done since the weekend: This one, on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight:

March 30, 2016

Israel’s Mossad Recruited a Famous Nazi to Find and Attack Other Nazis: A Tale of Media Repeats

This past weekend, the weekly Forward newspaper — famous as a progressive Jewish news source for many decades — ran our article about Otto Skorzeny, who was one of Hitler’s favorite military officers.  We reveal that during his postwar years living in Spain and Ireland, he worked for Israel’s Mossad.

For some reason, he seemed to take pleasure in being a secret agent for the Jewish state’s famed and feared spy agency.

Our article (click here) suggests some reasons he would do it — as well as discussing the debate within the Mossad about the morality of employing a Nazi.

Meanwhile, we were surprised (and generally pleased) to see our story repeated and reported in news media around the globe.  But some of the repeats gave credit to the Israeli newspaper (and website) Haaretz.

It turns out that Haaretz has an arrangement with Forward to run some of that New York-based newspaper’s features.

On Tuesday, the German newspaper Bild told our story — with our exclusive details about Otto Skorzeny and his Mossad handlers — but cited only the Israeli paper Haaretz.

Come to think of it, Bild didn’t see fit to mention our names — or Forward.

Oh — and the respected British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph?  They also didn’t notice, apparently, on the Haaretz site that the story was from Forward.com.   They just credited Haaretz, as though that Israeli paper unearthed this historical nugget.

Nor did the Telegraph see fit to mention our names.

That’s part of how the modern media’s echo chamber works, in circulating, repeating, and sometimes distorting or amplifying stories.

March 29, 2016

Terrorism in Brussels — An Israeli Perspective

[This analysis is adapted from an article written by Yossi Melman for The Jerusalem Post.  In addition, Dan Raviv‘s 43-minute radio special on the March 22 terrorism in Brussels — and his interviews with pundits and experts on terrorism — can be heard by clicking here.]

TEL AVIV – There are eleven security and inspection points at Ben-Gurion Airport. They spread from a roadblock at the airport entrance, through the security checkpoints that all travelers expect, all the way to the gates where passengers board their flights.

That is a lot to do – involving plenty of personnel and other expense – but Israel considers it a necessary investment.  Lives must be saved, and the travel industry must not be destroyed by bloodshed.

The multi-layered security is affordable — not just because Tel Aviv’s international airport is relatively small, but also because of a holistic security doctrine engraved by nearly 50 years of experience marked by blood and tears.

Since some early tragic failures, Israel has improved and upgraded its security measures on land and in the air. For decades, security experts from international airlines, police forces and security agencies have come here to learn Israeli know-how and doctrines.
Unfortunately, the non-Israelis stand up and take notice only after spectacular terrorist attacks — such as the 1988 Pan Am bombing and 9/11.

It took Western democracies a while to reach the conclusion that human life is at least as important as human rights. Most probably it will happen this time, too.

Three Muslim Bombers at Brussels Airport: The Man in the White Jacket Fled

Three Muslim Bombers at Brussels Airport: The Man in the White Jacket Fled

Sure, there is no hermetically sealed security, and terrorists will always take advantage of gaps. But there is no need to be a genius to understand that what happened in Brussels this week was a colossal security and intelligence failure.

Belgian authorities admit that they knew there was a high probability of an “imminent terror attack.” Yet neither the country’s police nor its security forces increased their presence in the streets or by adding checkpoints at the entrances to the airport. No wonder three terrorists managed to enter with suitcases heavily laden with explosives, screws, and bolts. Two blew themselves up, within a minute of each other; and it was lucky that the third man lost his nerve and fled.

The Brussels tragedy – with more than 30 people murdered and almost 300 wounded – was the result of years of negligence.

For decades, Belgium’s police have been afraid to enter rough Muslim neighborhoods such as Molenbeek, in the capital. These areas first became havens for criminal gangs dealing in drugs, protection, and weapons. Then they turned into hotbeds of radical Muslim and anti-Western trends.

In recent decades, such neighborhoods across Europe have become fertile recruiting grounds for young Muslims attracted by the slogans of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or known by the Arabic acronym Da’esh).

Now, radicalized Muslims – hundreds and potentially thousands of them – are returning from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields.

They are ideologically hardened and militarily trained. “For a terrorist,” former CIA deputy director Michael Morell says, “there is no better training than actually fighting in a war.”

To gather intelligence, security agencies need to penetrate terrorist networks, recruit agents, and intercept communications.

It seems that the Belgian police were either afraid or reluctant, or they lacked the determination to take the necessary steps. Perhaps all of these. These years of negligence resulted in a reality for which the Belgian public – and the world – pay the price.

Belgium’s security services lack necessary intelligence. The writing was on the wall for a long time. Since 9/11 – and then atrocities in Madrid, London, Turkey, Bali and more – the international community should have come to realize that it is at war.

Some measures were taken, but the leaders of major countries – and security agencies – were slow, even reluctant, to draw the necessary conclusions.

Islamic State surely puts its highest priority on maintaining and growing its “caliphate” straddling the Iraq-Syria border.  But the group also seems determined to strike cities in Western countries.  Some say that began only after the West started attacking ISIS.  But exporting terrorism – and sending Muslim extremist recruits back to their home countries – was always going to be part of the ISIS playbook.

March 23, 2016

Meir Dagan, Mossad Chief 2002 to 2010, has Died — A Strong Voice for Hitting Iran Quietly, and Keeping America Friendly

Meir Dagan, the head of Israel’s espionage service Mossad from 2002 through the end of 2010, has died at age 71.   He had been battling cancer — the one enemy that he could not outwit and outrun.  

Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, looks back at Dagan’s career — and his role as the key architect of secret sabotage aimed at Iran’s nuclear program.

On Thursday morning, after learning that retired General Meir Dagan had died, the current Mossad chief Yossi Cohen expressed — on behalf of the organization’s employees and its past chiefs — deep sorrow at the news of his death and sent condolences to the Dagan family.

Meir Dagan appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes (with Lesley Stahl) after his retirement

Meir Dagan appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes (with Lesley Stahl) after his retirement

Dagan, the tenth “Ramsad” (Rosh ha-Mossad, meaning Head of the Institution), was appointed by his close friend Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and served atop the organization from 2002 until December 2010.

He is most identified with clandestine operations to prevent and thwart Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions to produce an atomic bomb.

During Dagan’s tenure, he implemented far-reaching structural changes in the Mossad with the aim of making it a more operations-based organization.

While Dagan headed the Mossad, a number of operations were attributed to the organization, including the assassination of five Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotage of equipment in Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the implanting of viruses into the computers that operated the centrifuges to enrich uranium at the Natanz facility in Iran.  Some of these projects — though not the assassinations — were conducted in cooperation with America’s CIA and NSA.

Another important intelligence feat that is attributed to the Mossad under Dagan was a huge amount of information obtained from a laptop computer used by the chairman of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission. That intelligence was the smoking gun which shaped the decision by then-Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, with the tacit approval of President George W. Bush, to bomb the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.  Israel has never publicly confirmed destroying that reactor.

Dagan enjoyed the privilege — which was very rare among Mossad chiefs, and other heads of world intelligence agencies — of befriending President Bush, who liked him and his creative mind very much.

Showing the Mossad’s impressive ability to operate in the capital city of the most hostile Arab country, Hezbollah’s military chief — Imad Mugniyeh — was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. Well placed sources described the operation as a joint effort by Mossad agents on the scene, with the CIA playing a role.

Dagan was born in the Soviet Union in 1945 to parents who were Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel after the founding of the Jewish state. He lived in Bat Yam and enlisted into the Paratroopers Brigade, becoming the commander of the Rimon reconnaissance unit which operated in the Gaza Strip during the height of a Palestinian terror wave in the early 1970s. Afterward, he was promoted to fill a number of roles in the IDF command, reaching the rank of Major General.

Among other things, Dagan is considered one of the developers of guerrilla warfare doctrine in the IDF, based on fighting — often ambushing — Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and later in south Lebanon.  These operations cemented his image as a daring combatant who was ready to sanction any means to achieve his aim or target, including the assassination of terrorists.

During his time in the IDF, and especially during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Dagan was considered a confidant of General Ariel Sharon.  After Sharon became prime minister, he appointed Dagan to head the Mossad, despite some discontent expressed among the rank and file of the organization.

Dagan was known to have, at least in his early days, hawkish political views. He even joined the Likud Party.

However, during the course of his work for the Mossad, and after he left the organization, his world view became more moderate.  He urged that a peace agreement be reached with the Palestinians.  He argued with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minster Ehud Barak about various security and diplomatic issues.

While in the Mossad, and even more so afterward, Dagan expressed his opposition to a military strike on Iran.

Dagan  last year addressed a political rally of  opposition parties that called on the public not to vote for Netanyahu.

In January of last year, Dagan expressed his fears about the future of Israel.  “I don’t trust the leadership. I think that the prime minister and [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett are leading Israel to be a bi-national state, which in my eyes is a disaster and the loss of the Zionist dream.”

Dagan warned that Netanyahu was damaging Israel’s relations with the United States and bringing the ties to the brink of disaster.  That, the ex-Mossad chief insisted, could be extremely costly for Israel.

Living in the shadow of the Holocaust — even showing visitors a photograph of his grandfather being humiliated by German Nazi soldiers — he was a strong advocate that Israel must have a  strong military.  Yet he also insisted that Israel needed to nurture its friendship with the United States and make peace with its Arab neighbors.

“I want to live in a Jewish state. I don’t want to be a slave master and have second class citizens,” Dagan said.

“Unfortunately, between the Jordan River and the sea, there are more than six million Palestinians, some of whom are Israeli citizens, and more than six million Jews.  The policy that we are employing is very problematic on the Palestinian issue.  And on the matter of our behavior toward our greatest ally, the United States. I am very worried,” Dagan added.

“After [the] Yom Kippur [War], I feared for the existence of the state of Israel. If we survived that and managed to make it, I was sure that we could deal with anything. I admit today that I have difficult questions about the directionin which the Israeli leadership is leading us,” the former Mossad chief said.

 

March 17, 2016

Hezbollah Military Chief Could Have Been Assassinated Earlier: Was It Foolish Not to Act?

[This article is based on an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and other books about Israeli security and diplomacy.]

In May 2000, the IDF’s Military Intelligence branch (the agency known as Aman) obtained reports and photographs from observation points and aerial patrols proving that senior Hezbollah figures were coming to tour southern Lebanon.  The Lebanese Shi’ite officials would be checking on the IDF’s preparations to withdraw from the security belt which Israel’s army had held since 1982.

Hezbollah believed the IDF would leave that July, and the group hoped to come up with a plan to sabotage the withdrawal and launch an attack on the retreating troops.

“They wanted to turn the withdrawal into an inferno,” says Brig.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilboa, who has written a new book that explores the issue: Dawn. The Real Story of the IDF’s Withdrawal from Lebanon (available soon, only in Hebrew).

“Dawn” was the IDF’s codename for the operation to withdraw from Lebanon.

The full menu of aggression planned by Hezbollah’s commanders included rocket launches, gunfire, setting off roadside bombs and car-bombs, and dispatching suicide bombers.

The IDF began a series of discussions about what could be done to stop senior Hezbollah officials from patrolling in southern Lebanon. On May 21, Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Malka held a meeting that included “Little Mofaz.”  That referred to Shlomo, the brother of then-IDF chief Shaul Mofaz.

Shlomo Mofaz was the head of the terrorism department in Military Intelligence’s research division.

“Mofaz presented information that the most senior officials in Hezbollah are coming to south Lebanon.  It’s a certainty, and we have already made preliminary operational and intelligence preparations among ourselves.  This is a one-time opportunity to assassinate them, or at least, their most senior member.  We’ll present this to the IDF chief,” the book quotes Malka as saying.

“Shlomo,” Gilboa writes, “thought deeply about it and suggested that we transfer the responsibility to decide — from his brother the IDF chief, to the prime minister or defense minister,” who was then Ehud Barak.

The following day, a meeting was to take place to decide whether to take advantage of the opportunity and try to assassinate the senior Hezbollah officials.

What Gilboa does not write in his book and this writer has already published, is that the senior officials in question were “the Fab Five” of Hezbollah’s military wing.

They included the head of the military wing, Imad Mughniyeh, whom Israel, it was claimed, had failed to assassinate on a number of occasions.

Imad Mughniyeh's official Hezbollah portrait

Imad Mughniyeh’s official Hezbollah portrait

Also in the group: his deputies, Talal Hamia and Mustafa Badr a-Din (Mughniyeh’s cousin and brother-in-law), who is the Shi’ite group’s military commander today; and two others, one of whom was a senior officer in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who was supervising Hezbollah plans against Israel.

At a meeting between Barak and Gadi Eisenkot, the current IDF chief of staff who was then Barak’s military secretary, the following day, “Gadi got into a car with the prime minister and the defense minister and updated him on the planned assassination of senior Hezbollah officials that Malka was suggesting.  Barak listened, and his face lit up when he heard the name of the most senior Hezbollah official [Mughniyeh],” Gilboa writes.

Later, Malka presented the issue of the assassination at a meeting that included Barak and senior IDF officers, including Malka, Shlomo Mofaz, division commander Moshe Kaplinsky and Col. Benny Gantz, who was then the head of the IDF’s liaison unit in Lebanon.

However, it was clear to those present that Barak was distracted. After a few minutes, Barak stopped Malka and declared: “Continue with the intelligence gathering against the object of the assassination.”  His meaning was clear. Barak was not authorizing an assassination.

In Gilboa’s words: “The assassination that the meeting was meant to discuss was thrown in the garbage.”

IDF officers present at the meeting and senior Mossad officials who were aware of the plan, were disappointed since everything was ready.

Had Barak given his approval, the entire leadership of Hezbollah’s military command would have been erased from this Earth.  Hezbollah would have been beaten.

A golden opportunity was wasted, and it would take Israel eight more years and a war (The Second Lebanon War of 2006) until intelligence and operational feasibility would converge again to enable the assassination of Mughniyeh.

According to foreign reports, the assassination of Mughniyeh in February 2008 — in Syria’s capital, Damascus — was mainly a Mossad operation aided by and carried out in coordination with the CIA.

Barak had refused to approve the action in Lebanon because he feared the ramifications it would have on his bigger plan – to fulfill his election promise to bring the IDF back from its 18-year presence in Lebanon.

Initially, Barak had hoped the withdrawal would be carried out through an agreement or understanding between Israel and Syria mediated by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

However, in 2000, after just a few months, he understood that the chances of reaching such an agreement were slim, and Barak ordered IDF Chief of Staff Mofaz to prepare for a withdrawal without agreement.

The timing of the withdrawal was dictated mainly by the rapid collapse of Israel’s mostly Christian allies — the South Lebanon Army (SLA) — to which the IDF turned over control of some of the outposts it evacuated.

When Barak understood that the SLA could not hold the outposts, he gathered IDF commanders on the evening of May 22 – the same day on which he had earlier rejected the assassination operation – and announced that he had ordered Chief of Staff Mofaz and OC Northern Command Gabi Ashkenazi to complete “their preparations to withdraw all IDF forces and prepare them to redeploy starting tonight.”

“Mofaz almost fell off his chair — he was so shocked,” Gilboa writes.

As a strategic decision, the withdrawal could be considered the crowning glory of Barak’s achievements as prime minister and defense minister.  The IDF withdrew without casualties.  But the price of the withdrawal was indeed heavy.

In the security, political and social arenas, history will judge Barak unfavorably.

True, it was impressive that Hezbollah did not succeed in sabotaging the withdrawal. However, the pullout exposed Israel’s betrayal of the 2,500 SLA soldiers who had worked with the Jewish state for years in cooperation and coordination.  All of a sudden, in the dead of night, the SLA men and their famlies found themselves running for their lives to Israel.

In the wake of these events, the unanswered question remains: Did Barak err by not ordering the assassination of Mughniyeh and the other senior Hezbollah officials?  In 2000 it would have changed the reality between Israel and the Shi’ite organization that fought a frightening and bloody war in 2006 and now has armed fighters helping Syria’s regime in that country’s civil war.

March 14, 2016

Israel Rushed — Iran Computers Could’ve Been Sabotaged More: New Documentary, “Zero Days”

Israeli hastiness blew operation to sabotage Iran’s computers, U.S. officials say:
‘Zero Days’, Alex Gibney’s film premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, explores the joint U.S.-Israeli operation to develop the Stuxnet virus and sabotage Iran’s nuclear program
• By YOSSI MELMAN  (for Maariv and The Jerusalem Post)

If Israel were ever to bomb Iran and its nuclear facilities — according to Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and the NSA — Israel’s goal would be to drag the United States into war.

MIchael Hayden, in the film "Zero Days"

MIchael Hayden, in the film “Zero Days”

Hayden makes the remark in a documentary film premiering this week at the Berlin International Film Festival.  The film also quotes other sources in the U.S. intelligence community who accuse Israel of disrupting a joint covert operation to sabotage computers used in Iran’s nuclear program by acting rashly. The sources say Israel did not stick with the agreed-upon plan.

As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars that were invested in the operation went to waste.

The film, Zero Days, was directed by Alex Gibney, whose film Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2008.

His new film includes testimony from NSA and CIA operatives who worked together with Israeli colleagues – from the 8200 Military Intelligence Unit and Mossad – to develop several versions of a deadly virus that penetrated computers at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in Iran.  The testimony is delivered anonymously by an actress whose face remains hidden.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney

Filmmaker Alex Gibney

According to the claims in the film, the hasty Israeli action prevented the carrying out of a number of further planned actions that were intended to sabotage computers at a second, more fortified uranium enrichment facility at Fordow.

The film also reveals another planned cyber unit covert operation code-named NZ (Nitro Zeus).

“We spent millions on this operation to sabotage all of the computers of the Iranian infrastructure in the instance of a war,” a source quoted in the film said. “We penetrated the government, electricity lines, power stations and most of the infrastructure in Iran.”

As seen in "Zero Days"...

As seen in “Zero Days”…

The deadly virus that was implanted at Natanz was named “Stuxnet” by computer security experts, but it had a different name among the Israeli and American intelligence communities that was not revealed in the film. The code-name of the entire operation, as was revealed by New York Times journalist David Sanger, was “Olympic Games.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the implanting of the virus marked the first time that a country, or two countries in this case (the U.S. and Israel), engaged in cyber warfare against another country (Iran).

Up until then, the majority of attacks were carried out by individual hackers for their own enjoyment or for political purposes, by criminals for the purposes of fraud and thievery, or by companies engaged in industrial and commercial espionage.

America’s Vice President Joe Biden is quoted in the film as saying in a meeting that the Israelis “changed the code” of the deadly virus’s software.  As a result, in contravention of the plan, the virus spread from nuclear program computers to many other computers in Iran, and from there, to computers around the world — even harming the computers of American companies.

LInes of code of Stuxnet, seen in the film

LInes of code of Stuxnet, seen in the film

The unplanned spread of the virus led to the exposure of the operation.  That enabled the Iranians, with the help of information security experts from Belarus and Russia, to invent a “vaccine” for their computers to better defend the nuclear program.

According to the film, the premature exposure of the operation due to Israel’s actions also caused the virus software, which was among the most classified and most advanced in the world, to leak to Russian and Iranian intelligence.

“Ironically,” it is said in the film, “the secret formula for writing the code for the virus software fell into the hands of Russia and of Iran – the country against which it was developed.”

The development of Stuxnet and the planning of Operation Olympic Games began in 2006, during George W. Bush’s term as president.  He fervently wanted to thwart the Iranian nuclear program.

Hayden, with his long experience in both the CIA and the NSA, declares in the film that “President Bush did not want to be left with the choice of ‘to bomb or be bombed.’”

Revealed too much: Ahmadinejad's Visit to Natanz

Revealed too much: Ahmadinejad’s Visit to Natanz

According to the film, experts from both countries came up with the idea of trying to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities, and in particular their computers.  News photographs of then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the Natanz facility helped the experts obtain needed intelligence on the computers.  The computers, their configuration and their rear connections can be seen clearly in the pictures.  Eventually, these entry and exit points served as portals to implant the virus.

Iranian nuclear experts accompanied Ahmadinejad on his tour of the facility.  One of those photographed at Ahmadinejad’s side was assassinated a few years later, in an operation that was attributed to the Mossad.

On Bush’s orders, exact replicas of the centrifuges were built at the national laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which is also used to produce nuclear weapons, and at Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.  The deadly virus was implanted in the centrifuges and their rotors were damaged and broken.

Intelligence operatives brought the broken rotors to the White House situation room, showed them to President Bush and explained what the sabotage could do.  Bush was impressed, saying, “Go and try.”

He ordered a greater investment in offensive, covert cyber warfare and approved the operation.

According to the film, offensive cyber warfare against Iran was increased even more during Barack Obama’s term.  A key reason was his concern that Israel — under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak — would take military action against Iran.

Hayden reveals in the film that America’s fear was that “the real goal of an Israeli attack [against the nuclear facilities in Iran], would be to drag us into war,” because Israel’s own attack capabilities were limited.

Hayden continues: “Israel has an excellent air force, but it’s small. The distance is great and the facilities are spread throughout Iran.”

In order to calm Israel down, and to prove that the administration was working diligently to thwart an Iranian nuclear weapon, Obama ordered the intelligence community to increase its efforts and its cooperation with the Mossad and Unit 8200.

He did so despite having some doubts about the operation. Obama expressed concern that “the Chinese and the Russians will do the same thing to us,” and insert viruses into nuclear facilities and other strategic sites in the United States.

However, Obama’s greater fear was of an Israeli attack.  “The goal was to gain time,” Hayden added, “in order to force Iran to come to the negotiating table.”

According to the film, British intelligence also secretly took part in the operation through GCHQ, its unit responsible for telephone surveillance, communications interception, code-breaking, and cyber warfare.

“But the main partner was Israel,” the film says.  “And in Israel the Mossad ran the show.  8200 provided technical help.  Israel was the key to the whole story.”

In the beginning, the virus succeeded at its mission, according to the film.

“As far as we knew, but they weren’t telling us everything,” an NSA source told Alex Gibney’s team. “The virus was implanted in the computers, probably by the Mossad, through its infiltration of two software companies in Taiwan that were working with the Iranians.”

The plan was for the virus to harm the digital and computerized electric boxes made by the German company Siemens, which were hooked up to the computers that operated the centrifuges.  About a thousand of the 5,000 centrifuges were damaged without the Iranians discovering the cause of the problem.

“The plan did what it was supposed to do,” an anonymous American intelligence operative said. “The centrifuges blew up without leaving a trace.”

The sabotage operation also had a psychological goal: to instill in the Iranian leadership and in the community of scientists a feeling that they were helpless and did not understand what was happening.  An additional goal was to drive a wedge between the scientists on one side — and Iran’s political and military leadership.

It did turn out that Iranian authorities accused their experts of failure and began firing them and threatened them.

According to testimony gathered by the filmmakers, several hundred programmers, mathematicians, and computer engineers worked in Tailored Access Operations (TAO) teams at CIA headquarters and the cyber command in Fort Meade, Maryland.  Only these teams were authorized to infiltrate computers outside of the U.S., including those in Iran.

The sources quoted in the film say the U.S. and Israel developed a few different versions of the Stuxnet virus.  Each new version was more powerful than its predecessor.  The idea was to gradually implant increasingly stronger versions of the virus.

In addition, it was established that each country had the right to act independently, as long as it informed the other of its actions.  However, according to the film, as a result of pressure from Netanyahu on the chief of the Mossad to “show results,” it was decided in Israel to use the most deadly version of the virus prematurely.

“We operated at a low profile,” an NSA source said. “The Israelis, on the other hand, constantly pushed to be more aggressive.”

In this way, after the strongest version of the virus was implanted in order to increase the force of the damage to the centrifuges at Natanz, the virus, according to German information security expert Ralph Langer, began to “jump from computer to computer,” until it was out of control and unintentionally spread to thousands of computers, networks and systems, including computers in the United States.

“Our friends from Israel took a weapon that we developed jointly, among other things in order to defend Israel, and did something crazy with it, and actually blew the operation.  We were very furious,” an American source said.

The film reveals that the presidential orders of Bush and Obama to activate the cyber weapon were based on their authority to use nuclear weapons.

As a result of this American-Israeli cyber warfare, Iran began to develop and to enhance its own attack tools.  A few years ago, in revenge and as a message of deterrence, it attacked 30,000 computers belonging to the Saudi oil company Aramco and computers belonging to American banks.

Against this backdrop, the film also delves into the philosophical-theoretical issue of the world’s need to establish international treaties and rules of what’s legal and illegal in cyber warfare, like the international conventions that govern the laws of conventional warfare.

In addition to Hayden, other U.S. officials are interviewed in the film, including Richard Clarke, an anti-terrorism and cyber warfare consultant in the Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations; John C. Inglis, former deputy NSA chief; Gary Samore, formerly with the Obama National Security Council; and the head of information and computer security branch of the Department of Homeland Security.  The New York Times’ Sanger also served as consultant to the film’s director and producers.

On the Israeli side, interviews were conducted with former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, current National Infrastructure, Energy and Water and former Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, as well as the writer of this article, who also served as a consultant to the filmmakers.

Computer security experts from the American firm Symantec appear in the film, as well as the German expert Ralph Langer and Eugene Kaspersky, who is considered one of the best-known computer security experts in the world.  Kaspersky was formerly a Russian intelligence operative and is considered to have close ties to the Kremlin.

February 16, 2016

New Man in Charge of Israel’s Domestic Security — Who’s the New Shin Bet Chief?

[This item is based on an article originally written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and the best seller Every Spy a Prince, for The Jerusalem Post.]

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Nadav Argaman on Thursday as the next head of the Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency).

“Nadav Argaman has a rich track record of commanding and operative experience in the Shin Bet,” Netanyahu said. “I am certain that under his leadership the Shin Bet will continue to strengthen its operational and technological domains and continue to ensure Israel’s security.”

Nadav Argaman (courtesy Israel Security Agency)

Nadav Argaman (courtesy Israel Security Agency)

Argaman, 55, will become the 13th head of the internal security service, succeeding the outgoing Yoram Cohen (not to be confused with Yossi Cohen, who took the job of Mossad director just last month).

Argaman served in Shin Bet for 33 years and is a product of the agency’s operations department, which increasingly — in recent years — depends on signals intelligence (SIGINT): the use of intercepted communications for operations.

A native of a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, he joined the agency in 1983, after serving as an officer in the IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.

At Shin Bet, he rose through the ranks of the operations unit until he became chief of operations in 2003, a position he held for four years.  In 2007, he became the organization’s representative in the United States — so he surely knows a lot about America and how to cooperate with the FBI.

Afterward, he was appointed deputy head of the Shin Bet, and three years later, in September 2014, he was loaned to the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. (He is likely to have been involved in counterintelligence programs aimed at preventing foreign spies from closely examining Israel’s nuclear potential.)

Outgoing chief Cohen welcomed the prime minister’s decision, saying, “I’m convinced that Nadav’s wealth and range of experience gathered during his years of service in the security services, combined with his personal and professional abilities, will enable him to lead the organization successfully in the face of present and future challenges.”

President Reuven Rivlin congratulated Argaman on his appointment Thursday evening and said he is “standing behind him, right from this very moment.”

“You’re the right man in the right place,” Rivlin continued. “I am confident that your years of experience and your professional capabilities will allow Israeli citizens to continue to live life as normal as possible in these difficult times.”

Argaman has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Haifa, a master’s degree in political science and another master’s degree in security and strategy from the same university, from which he graduated summa cum laude.

His appointment indicates the sea change the agency has been undergoing in the recent years.  Since the 1967 Six Day War, the Shin Bet has occupied itself primarily with the struggle against Palestinian terrorism.  Accordingly, the three chiefs over the past 16 years have emerged from the field of operations aimed at combating that threat to Israeli security.

While Shin Bet has learned to utilize more electronically intercepted communications, the agency has still remained focused on human intelligence – running agents on the ground.

Argaman has to fine tune the Shin Bet for the current wave of Palestinian terrorism – which is characterized by young “lone wolf” kind of perpetrators, with no organizational affiliation or signature. This makes the mission to collect information about their plans almost impossible.

During his term in the next five years, the Palestinian Authority may disintegrate or at least stop its cooperation in the security field with Shin Bet and the IDF.  Such a decision may lead the West Bank to complete chaos and anarchy and force the Shin Bet to become an even more repressive security service.

No less challenging is the danger that more Israeli Arabs will join Islamic State. In all these challenges, Argaman’s Shin Bet will have to walk the tightrope of balancing between Israel’s security needs and its democratic values.

Shin Bet also devotes time, energy, and planted agents to detect and undermine Jewish terrorism — including actual cells plotting attacks against Palestinians in order to intimidate them, or in the name of “revenge.”

February 14, 2016

Israel’s Official Intelligence Projection — Many Dangers, No Major War on the Horizon

by Yossi Melman [written first for The Jerusalem Report]

Is the glass half empty or is it half full? That is the question one is left asking, after hearing about the contents of Israel’s NIE — the National Intelligence Estimate for 2016.  Depending on one’s point of view, or even bias, Israel’s situation can be viewed in different ways. Objective analysis shows there are risks out there, but also opportunities.

The NIE was drafted by the research department of Aman (the large Military Intelligence agency) with input from the research departments of Mossad (the external espionage agency) and the Israel Security Agency (the domestic service – known as Shin Bet). The Estimate is not published, but the major points were described by senior military officers in strictly limited briefings.

Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)

Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)

The most important part of the new report is the assessment that the probability of war this year is low. Senior military sources tell The Jerusalem Report that this applies on all fronts: from Gaza in the South to Lebanon and Syria in the North. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas have plans or any interest to initiate a war against Israel.

Hezbollah is bleeding in the killing fields of Syria.  Five years from the outbreak of the civil war there, the Lebanese Shi’ites of Hezbollah become ever more deeply embroiled in the conflict — with a permanent contingent of as many as 7,000 fighters, nearly half its conscripts, fighting alongside Iran to defend the regime of Bashar Assad.  The Russian air force has provided significant air support.

These Shi’ites from the neighboring nation also have 15,000 reservists who are called to duty for training or field missions for up to 40 days a year – similar to the IDF reserve system. So far, Hezbollah has lost nearly 1,500 soldiers, killed in action–many of whom belonged to its elite units– and more than 6,000 have been wounded.

Hezbollah’s losses are a heavy blow to its military capabilities and have dented its morale to go to war with Israel. That, of course, is good for Israel.

Furthermore, Hezbollah is suffering from a serious economic crisis. Its annual budget is estimated at around $1 billion, 70 percent of which comes from Iran and the rest from taxes and trade, mainly in drugs and contrabands of cigarettes and electronic appliances. Due to the sanctions imposed on Iran (most soon to be lifted), Tehran in recent years has had difficulties providing much financial aid to its Lebanese proxy.

In the South, Hamas has not yet recovered from the war in the Summer of 2014, which inflicted heavy casualties on its military forces and capabilities and, even more importantly, caused severe damage to the civilian population.

Since the end of that conflict, two dozen rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel. But they all landed in open areas and caused no casualties or damage. None of them was launched by Hamas. All were fired by small renegade groups, either inspired by or identifying with the Islamic State (ISIS), which oppose the Hamas regime and try to provoke Israel into attacking Hamas.

In other words, deterrence is working both vis-à-vis Hezbollah, since the 2006 war in Lebanon, and Hamas, following Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Yet, senior military sources say there is a clear understanding that “deterrence is not forever” and that it is an elusive concept.

Indeed, the NIE takes into account the potential for escalation deriving from a minor incident along the border with either Hamas or Hezbollah that could get out of hand and escalate into a major confrontation.

These scenarios take into consideration,for example, that a rocket fired from Gaza might kill several Israeli citizens. Israel then would retaliate forcefully against Hamas, which it holds responsible for the situation in Gaza. Hamas can’t stand idly by and responds; and the vicious cycle of rockets and Israel Air Force bombings rolls into another major war.

A similar scenario could apply along the northern border if Israel takes advantage of the war in Syria – as it reportedly has done on several occasions – and bombs another convoy of weapons being delivered to Hezbollah or kills another of its commanders near the Golan Heights; and Hezbollah then might retaliate with a salvo of rockets.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are preparing for these scenarios.

Despite its financial and military troubles, Hezbollah has continued its preparation for a war against Israel, amassing an impressive arsenal of nearly 100,000 rockets and missiles capable of reaching every strategic and military site in the country.

But it’s more the quality — rather than the quantity — that is a major concern for Israel. Hezbollah, with the help of Iranian experts, is working hard to improve the accuracy of its missiles.

Israeli war planners estimate that, if war breaks out, Hezbollah will try, for the first time, to dig tunnels into Israel, to shift the battle to Israeli territory and try to conquer settlements near the border.

Thus, Hezbollah is considered the main military threat against Israel. The organization is therefore the prime target for intelligence efforts to gather information about its capabilities and intentions.

“The next war will be different from the wars we’ve seen in the past 20-30 years. The conflict will be very complex,” a senior military source told The Report. “It may last many, many weeks. Hezbollah has turned the majority of its Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon into massive strongholds.”

The sources, however, warn that in case of war, Israel will take a different approach and strike, with all its force, against all Hezbollah positions including inside the villages. That, the source said, “will create a huge refugee problem in Lebanon.”

Though Hamas doesn’t want to be dragged into a new round with Israel and is not ready for it, that Gaza-based group also continues with efforts to improve its preparedness. Hamas is manufacturing rockets and prioritizing efforts to increase their range and accuracy. (In Operation Protective Edge, Hamas hit Tel Aviv and fired unsuccessfully in the direction of the northern port city of Haifa).

Though caught between Israeli and Egyptian blockades and close security and intelligence cooperation, Hamas has never given up its efforts to smuggle weapons, explosives, and rockets via tunnels between Sinai and Gaza — though that has become much more difficult. Hamas is also continuing to dig tunnels and the IDF estimates that some– probably more than 10 – are very close to the Israeli border and may penetrate inside Israel.

The NIE also notes, though in very vague words, that the changes and turmoil in the Middle East have improved Israel’s strategic posture.

Though they occasionally mention Israel in propaganda bulletins, the Islamic State movement — even the branch in Egypt’s Sinai — as well as al-Qaeda in Syria, known as Jabhat al Nusra — have no interest or intention to turn their weapons against Israel. They have other priorities and more immediate enemies.

The Middle East is characterized by the growing schism between Shi’ites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and rifts inside the Sunni world between zealots and terrorists such as Islamic State.

The Iran nuclear deal is also seen by the IDF as an opportunity of sorts, in blatant contrast to the perception and rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There are advantages to the nuclear deal,” an IDF source said. “True, a better deal could’ve been reached, and there’s a bit of frustration because the deal doesn’t take care of the Iranian involvement and efforts to increase its hegemonic aspirations in the region. But the fact is that the amount of enriched uranium has been significantly reduced, as has the number of centrifuges, and Iran’s capability to produce plutonium at its nuclear reactor in Arak has also been dismantled. These are dramatic developments with which you can’t argue.”

The intelligence estimate sees February as a critical time for Iran’s future. Elections for the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, as well as the Assembly of Experts – a small but important body that is in charge of electing or removing the Supreme Leader – will be taking place. Twelve thousand candidates registered, but the election committee disqualified 40 percent of them, eventually leaving just 30 moderate candidates.

The constant rifts and battles between the conservatives and reformists that have taken place in Iran since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, nearly 30 years ago, are reaching a peak. The elections will determine the direction Iran will take in the coming years with serious consequences not only for its own people but also for the rest of the Middle East, Israel included.

“It’s clear,” an Israeli military source said, “that the majority of the Iranian people want more freedom and openness to the West and less religiosity, but will the conservatives in the judiciary, in the religious circles and in the Revolutionary Guards allow it to happen?”

In addition, the IDF estimates that Iran is set to receive tens of billions of dollars from its frozen bank accounts abroad and from the lifting of sanctions. Most of the money will be invested in improving the economy. Some will be used to cover past debts. Nevertheless, oil prices have dramatically dropped from more than$100 per barrel to under $30, endangering Iran’s hopes for quick economic recovery

Yet, Iran hasn’t given up the dream of regional hegemony. It will use some of its bonanza to fund Hamas and attempt to gain a foothold in the West Bank. It is also guiding and paying for terrorist infrastructures in the Syrian Golan Heights.

Military Intelligence and Mossad will continue to monitor Iran to follow its expansionist aspirations and to make sure it doesn’t violate its commitments under the nuclear deal.

Regarding the Palestinians,the NIE is also not fully in sync with the government led by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

The estimate talks about a high potential for escalation in the West Bank if the peace process is not resumed. The IDF hopes that the government will at least continue with its current policy of economic incentives by allowing 120,000 Palestinians to work in Israel and in Jewish settlements — and that the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas will continue to permit the cooperation of its security agencies with Shin Bet and the IDF.

Whether all of the above should be seen as cause for optimism or pessimism is a test of one’s worldview.

February 3, 2016

Stabbings and Other Attacks Aren’t Stopping — Security Agencies Wish Netanyahu Would Act

The attacks by Palestinians on Israelis — using knives and cars — since October have embittered both sides, and there is no sign that peace negotiations might start between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.  Yet the attacks are morphing — most recently including infiltration of Israeli homes in the West Bank, by young men who brutally stab women.

[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books.]

There are commentators who rushed to draw broad conclusions about the nature of ongoing Palestinian terrorism after two Palestinian teenagers infiltrated two Jewish settlements in the southern part of the West Bank, not far from the city of Hebron this past week.

One Israeli woman — mother to four children — was stabbed to death, and in the second case a pregnant woman was wounded. One terrorist was captured after two days, and the other was shot on the spot by a Tekoa resident.

[Another attempted stabbing of an Israeli security guard at a West Bank settlement made worldwide headlines on Saturday (Jan. 23), when the attacker — a 13-year-old Palestinian girl — was shot dead by the guard.  Israel said she had been in a dispute with her parents and rushed over to the settlement with the intention of ending her life.  Her parents said that was not so, and said she was just a little girl.]

Yossi Melman

Yossi Melman

Indeed, for the first time during the current wave of Palestinian terrorism – which can be called the “third intifada” – settlements were infiltrated. To that one can add the recent exposure of a terrorist cell in the West Bank that was recruited and sponsored by Juad Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah’s secretary-general.

Essentially there is nothing in these events to indicate that Palestinian terrorism is changing its direction or its nature, or that it is rapidly escalating.

The above-mentioned cases are just new variants, additional manifestations of the same phenomenon. It began four months ago and so far has claimed the lives of 29 Israelis and 152 Palestinians. Nearly 350 Israelis and more than 1,000 Palestinian have been wounded.

It is difficult to characterize the nature of the current wave of attacks, since it changes constantly with new or additional elements.

So far its perpetrators have come from all walks of Palestinian life, though most of them were young. Most of them were single, but some were married with families.

Most were male, but there have also been female terrorists.

Some came from poor families, but others from middle-class and well-off ones. Some decided to resort to terrorism because members of their families were killed or jailed by Israeli security forces.

The terrorists also cannot be geographically defined. They originated from all over the West Bank and east Jerusalem, though 30 percent of the participants were from the Hebron area, which is known to be Hamas turf, or were deeply religious.

Their motives are also a mixed bag. Some were incited via social media. Some were influenced by religious sermons promising they would become martyrs in heaven.

Some were motivated purely by hatred of Jews and Israelis. Others wanted to avenge the death of their family members.

In a few cases, the decision to become a terrorist was made out of desperation over their poverty or even as defiance against parental authority.

Their weapons of choice were not very selective. They used knives, cars, stones, firebombs and, in only a few cases, firearms – in short, any tool that can kill, wound or cause bodily harm.

Israel is powerless in confronting this kind of Palestinian terrorism.

This helplessness was echoed in what Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said this week, when he addressed the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies.

He recalled the second intifada, which occurred a decade ago when he was commander of the IDF division in charge of the West Bank.

“What helped us then was a preventive anti-terrorist concept, based on intelligence superiority.”

In other words, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) managed then to penetrate terrorist cells, recruit agents among them, and bug and intercept their phone and computer conversations, e-mails and chats.

Thus, important information was gleaned, which led to the disruption of terrorists’ plans and the arrest of culprits.

This was possible because although the second intifada was a popular rebellion, it was initiated and organized by well known elements: the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat, the PLO-Fatah groups, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israeli security forces and the IDF had intelligence and military addresses against which to strike back.

Today’s terrorist acts are mainly carried out by individuals who make their own decision to attack. They are neither initiated nor structured nor organized by others.

True, Hamas is trying hard to jump on the terrorism wagon and hijack it to advance its agenda – to inflict casualties on Israel and the settlers in the West Bank; to spread terrorism from the West Bank to Israel; and to provoke the Israeli security forces to turn against the PA, its arch-rival, and thus weaken it. And all this while almost completely maintaining peace with Israel on the Gaza frontier.

Since the last war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, Hamas has not fired a single rocket against Israel. All the rockets from Gaza – some two dozen – were fired by anti-Hamas Salafist and jihadist groups. While Hamas continues to rearm and regroup by manufacturing more accurate, longer-range rockets and to build tunnels leading to Israel, thus preparing for the next round, at the moment it has no interest in confronting Israel in Gaza.

So far, Hamas has failed in its attempts to escalate the violent situation in the West Bank and Israel — with ambitious plans to again use suicide bombers.

Hamas’s failure is due to several reasons. First, because of the efficiency of Shin Bet and the IDF (Israel’s army). Second, because the PA led by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) continues to instruct its security services to cooperate with Shin Bet in the struggle against Hamas.

Third and most important, it is because the PA now — unlike in the time of Arafat — does not wish to join the terrorism and violent struggle. It doesn’t shed tears when Israelis are killed, and the West Bank media controlled by the PA have praised the terrorists (though, in the last month, much less vociferously), but it stops short of ordering its own personnel to take part.

Because of all these developments, it is impossible for Israeli security services to have early warnings and disrupt terrorists’ plans. Even the omnipotent Shin Bet cannot read the minds of the Palestinian individuals who decide — sometimes in a matter of hours, sometimes in a split second — to attack Israelis.

This harsh reality is also an outgrowth of what the government is doing or, to be more precise, not doing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government doesn’t wish to negotiate with the PA. Netanyahu would be willing to do so, only under its own preconditions while continuing to build more settlements and confiscate Palestinian land – 150 hectares (370 acres) this week in the Jordan Valley.

Instead of trying to move with good faith to the negotiating table, all the government does is “maintenance” – maintain the conflict with the hope and self-delusion that it will somehow miraculously succeed in bringing security.

In truth, however, the situation is fragile and slippery. Palestinian terrorism will not stay forever on a low flame. Sooner or later it will escalate and get out of control, either by more Palestinians joining the circle of terrorism or by Hamas taking it over.

This is of great concern to the IDF and Shin Bet, whose chiefs beg the government in closed-door sessions not to stand still.

But so far their advice has fallen on deaf ears in Jerusalem.

January 24, 2016

In-Depth on the New Mossad Chief: Action Man Turns Strategist — Yossi Cohen’s Test Starts Now

[This article was written for The Jerusalem Report, a magazine published by The Jerusalem Post, by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and other books, including the current history of the Mossad and Israeli security agencies: Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]

Yossi Cohen is taking over (on January 6) at Mossad headquarters in Glilot, north of Tel Aviv, as the intelligence organization’s twelfth director.  He is replacing Tamir Pardo who retires after 35 year in the agency, five of them as its head.

Yossi Cohen, Israel's new top spymaster

Yossi Cohen, Israel’s new top spymaster

For the last two and half years Cohen served as national security adviser to the prime minister and as head of the National Security Council. This capacity and proximity to Benjamin Netanyahu gave him the edge over two other senior Mossad officials in the running for the job.

Netanyahu trusts Cohen and assigned him secret and sensitive missions; among them mending relations with Turkey; improving ties with the Obama administration, which he did via his good contacts with his American counterpart Susan Rice; and clandestine meetings with Arab leaders and officials.

Cohen is 54 years old. He is a typical product of the Mossad, where he has served in various operational and managerial capacities since 1983; but he was not a typical recruit. He was born in Jerusalem in 1961 to a right-wing religious family with roots going back eight generations in the city. He graduated from schools affiliated with the National Religious movement, which is today represented by the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party.

When Cohen joined the Mossad as a young cadet it was rare to see a religious candidate wearing a kippa (yarmulka). Cohen, who later stopped wearing a head covering, was the only religious cadet in his class and as a result was the brunt of many jokes.

The Mossad, at the time, was practically off limits to people like him.

As years went by, he was labelled “The Model” by journalists for his dapper suits — with headline writers recently dubbing him “James Bond 007″ — in stark contrast to the typically informal Israeli dress sense.

Cohen was communicative, charming, easygoing, focused and manipulative; all the traits needed to be a good case officer, known in Mossad parlance as “katsa,” the Hebrew acronym for a collection officer.  A Mossad case officer is expected to be able to establish contact with potential agents, and if successful in recruiting an agent, running that agent and extracting the required information the agent may possess. The case officer’s main responsibility is in the field known as HUMINT — human intelligence.

Cohen rose through the espionage agency’s rank and file. He began as a low-level case officer running Arab agents in Europe and later became chief of a Mossad station, operating from the Israeli embassy in a major Western European city. After returning to Israel he was appointed by Meir Dagan, then Mossad chief, as head of the Tzomet (Junction) department in charge of case officers and their agents.

Meir Dagan on CBS's "60 Minutes," 2012

Meir Dagan on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” 2012

Cohen was in charge of covert actions against Iran and its nuclear program.

The years 2006-2010 — before Dagan retired and was replaced by Pardo — were the heyday of Mossad operations to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb.

Dagan put Cohen in charge of these efforts. From his Tzomet office he ran a special operations center that coordinated with all the other relevant departments.

During that period at least five key Iranian nuclear scientists were killed – their deaths were attributed by foreign sources to the Mossad – a few more wounded and probably many more warned that they would be well advised to stop working for the secret military project.

The Mossad, together with the U.S. National Security Agency, was also said to have created the Stuxnet computer worm which targeted systems running the centrifuges in the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran: a cyberattack that caused severe damage.

Other operations included preventing shipments from reaching Iran; either by damaging the equipment at the port of departure; or by threatening companies not to do business with Iran, or by asking local security services to intercept the shipments.

Another important operation during these years was the killing in 2008 in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh ,  the “Defense Minister” of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite-Lebanese organization. According to American media, the assassination was a joint Mossad-CIA operation but other foreign sources claim that though the CIA was privy to the planning and intention, its operational role was marginal and most of the work was “blue and white” – the colors of the Israeli flag.

mossad, kidon, spies against armageddon, israel covert operations, Iran nuclear

Mossad’s official logo

Yet, Cohen’s team was not immune to failure. The most damaging  of his failures was the case of Ben Zygier, an Australian Jew who was recruited to work for a European-based front company of the Mossad, which while selling equipment to Iran tried to penetrate its nuclear program. Zygier boasted about his role and exposed the operation. Agents had to be recalled and tens of millions of dollars were wasted. Zygier was jailed, and he committed suicide in an Israeli prison in 2010, causing some fuss when the case was publicized in the media.

It is hard to assess whether the daring Mossad operations, combined with international sanctions, prevented Iran from assembling a nuclear bomb or whether Tehran made a well calculated decision to stop short of an actual weapon.  Either way, Iranian scientists and military men have already mastered the know-how and acquired the technology, equipment and materials necessary to build a bomb should they decide to do so.

All these anti-Iran operations were carried out simultaneously and required above all agents in the right places, who needed solid and accurate information.  Although the reasons cannot be revealed, in 2011, then president Shimon Peres granted Cohen and his Tzomet team the Israel Security Award, and in the same year he was also promoted to deputy head of the Mossad.

Cohen’s return to the organization where he spent most of his career is being well received. Cohen knows the agency and most of its staff inside out.

The Mossad’s organizational behavior and culture are rooted in years of experience and meticulous care to detail, but the spy agency needs to be responsive and flexible in order to meet the challenges of the new Middle East reality.

This is a region where several states – Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya – are at various stages of collapse; American power and influence are dwindling and Russia is taking full advantage; new actors, such as ISIS and the Kurds are emerging, and the Sunni-Shia rift is widening.

These new realities create opportunities but also risks for Mossad’s new head. Although his years heading the prime minister’s National Security Council helped to upgrade his strategic understanding, Cohen is more of a skillful operative than a thinker and will have his work cut out for him.

Netanyahu decided (government photo)

Netanyahu decided (government photo)

Cohen wants to make the Mossad more combative and daring than it was under Pardo and return to the “good old days” when Dagan led the organization.

He strongly believes, like Netanyahu, that Iran remains Israel’s enemy number one – that it continues to support terrorism and has never abandoned its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. One of his major tasks will be to monitor and to verify that Iran is not once again deceiving the international community and violating the July 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers.

Cohen will also continue to carry out — on behalf of Netanyahu, often authorized solely by the prime minister — sensitive missions. These may include delivering messages to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey. Netanyahu hopes to establish an anti-Iranian coalition with those countries, but their leaders are reluctant to go out into the open and be seen in the company of Israel unless there is progress on the Palestinian issue.

The Mossad has no input on the Palestinian issue, perhaps Israel’s most challenging front.

Colleagues who know Cohen from their work in the agency say that from an early stage he dreamed of reaching the top. Now his dream has come true, and his test will be to provide the prime minister who appointed him a true picture of the reality faced by Israel — and not one that is tainted by politics.

January 5, 2016


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