Spies Against Armageddon details a highly unusual and complicated plot by Israel to enter Iraq
and assassinate Iraq’s then-president Saddam Hussein. He was considered a dangerous foe, and he had attacked the Jewish state with missiles that terrified Israelis — at the same time that an American-led coalition was pushing Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait in 1991.
Here is an excerpt from our Chapter 22, “Assassins,” which also has a lot of information about assassination missions conducted by Kidon (Bayonet), the ultra-special operations unit within the Mossad:
As the Gulf War was raging in early 1991, Saddam Hussein showered the Jewish state with 39 Scud missiles. Israeli leaders refrained from retaliating, because of restrictions imposed by the George H.W. Bush administration, and they felt humiliated. They believed that they somehow had to strike back – not simply for the sake of face-saving but to restore deterrence, always a key part of Israeli defense.
IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, a lover of special operations, concocted yet another plan that was truly unprecedented: a plot to assassinate the leader of a foreign country. The target would be Saddam, and the plan would involve Israeli soldiers penetrating deep into Iraq. Barak brought the idea to Defense Minister Moshe Arens. They were both very frustrated by America’s handcuffing of Israel. Arens okayed the preparations.
Israel, except for one case, had never before considered killing the leader of a country. The exception was Egypt’s Nasser.
As a general rule, Israel’s own leaders concluded long ago that if they started down the path of targeting the leaders of states, it would change the rules of the game. The Middle East conflict would be even uglier, and the tactic could backfire.
Therefore, heads of state were out of bounds – even during the heyday of extreme hatred and state-sponsored terrorism.
This deviation, trying to eliminate Iraq’s dictator, was justified by the notion that he had violated two taboos: His missile strikes tried to hit Dimona; and he had targeted the largest of civilian targets, Tel Aviv, the icon of modern Israel.
Still, there was a great deal of hesitation on the Israeli side. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had replaced Shamir and now also held the defense ministry portfolio, was reluctant.
Rabin found support in his skepticism from the Mossad chief, Shabtai Shavit, who succeeded Nahum Admoni in 1989. Rabin and Shavit concluded that it would be nearly impossible to get close to Saddam for a short-range hit by Kidon teams. They also knew that the Iraqi dictator rarely went out in public and often sent out body doubles instead.
Rabin gave Barak a green light only to practice the plan being developed, but without promising an okay for its final execution.
The plan, codenamed “Bramble Bush,” called for finding a day that President Saddam would be making a public appearance outdoors. Mossad and Aman collection units – which had the use of Israel’s first reconnaissance satellite – worked hard to keep track of Saddam’s schedule and movements.
Iraqi agents working for the Mossad provided the information that he would be attending a ceremony to inaugurate a new bridge over the Tigris River. The agents found a hotel that, while quite distant, would have a clear shot at the ceremony site.
A few Sayeret Matkal commandos were selected to be flown secretly into Iraq by helicopter, and agents would pick them up and drive them to that hotel. On a pre-chosen balcony, they would have a newly developed shoulder-fired missile dubbed “Beyond the Horizon.” Plans were made for alternate locations, as well.
On November 5, 1992, a year and a half after the Gulf War ended, the chosen commandos gathered at a large army training base in the Negev Desert for a dress rehearsal. In the audience sat the top brass of the Israeli military, including Barak, Aman chief Uri Saguy, and many intelligence officers.
Almost incredibly, considering their long track record of stunning successes, a fatal mix-up occurred. A missile that was supposed to be a harmless dummy, for what trainers called “a dry run,” was mistakenly the “wet run” missile. It exploded within a group of Sayeret Matkal soldiers, killing five of them.
The tragedy for Israel’s secretive commandos put an end to the plan titled Bramble Bush. Details started to leak out, as this accident was so major that censorship could not keep a lid on it. Non-Israeli newspapers reported that commandos died while planning to kill Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. Within a few months, it became known that the intended target was Iraq’s Saddam.
Prime Minister Rabin had never given the green light for the assassination mission, and the idea was dropped. Israel, since then, has not gone after national leaders — not even Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who publicly advocated wiping Israel off the map.