[This is the announcement released in Hollywood by a public relations agency for the production company, Studio 8.]
A MOST DANGEROUS MAN
– Studio 8 has finalized the deal for A MOST DANGEROUS MAN. The film is based on the article ‘The Strange Case of a Nazi Who Became an Israeli Hitman’ written by journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman for the New York based weekly Forward. Raviv and Melman also have a book proposal based on the story.
– William Brookfield & Oded Ailam are attached to co-write the screenplay. William most notably adapted KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN for Informant Media, directed by Daniel Alfredson (director of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Swedish film series) starring Anthony Hopkins and Sam Worthington.
— Oded Ailam worked in the Mossad for more than 22 years. At the time of his retirement, Ailam served as the Deputy Head of Global Operations. Prior to attaining this position, he served in various other capacities in the organization such as the chief of the Counter Terrorism Center.
— William Brookfield and Oded Ailam are represented by Camille McCurry at United Agents and Echo Lake Management.
— Dan Raviv is represented by Russell Galen at Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency. Yossi Melman is represented by Asaf Carmel Associates. Raviv and Melman’s non-fiction books include the national best seller EVERY SPY A PRINCE and the current SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON.
– Tanya Seghatchian is attached to produce for Studio 8, alongside John Middleton and Alex Foster at Middleton Entertainment and Amotz Zakai at Echo Lake Entertainment will executive produce.
– Jon Silk, Chris Goldberg and Rishi Rajani are overseeing for Studio 8.
– True Story, Action, Thriller genres
– Logline: The true story of Otto Skorzeny, a high ranking Nazi special forces soldier and Hitler confidant who was considered by the Allies to be “the most dangerous man in Europe”. After the war, Skorzeny was located and recruited by an intrepid Mossad agent to work with him as a double agent to eliminate Nazi rocket scientists working on a secret Egyptian rocket program.
-- Tanya Seghatchian was a co-producer and then executive producer on the first four HARRY POTTER films, and produced MY SUMMER OF LOVE. She was later appointed Head of the Development & Film Funds at the BFI/UK Film Council. During her time there, she worked on BRIGHT STAR, THE IRON LADY, SHAME, THE KING’S SPEECH and UNDER THE SKIN. After overseeing the merging of the Council with the British Film Institute, Tanya struck a first-look deal with Studio 8. She most recently executive produced Peter Morgan & Stephen Daldry’s upcoming Netflix series, The Crown, for Sony Pictures Television.
— Formed in 2016, The Middleton Media Group is the Production Company of John Powers Middleton and Alex Foster, who serves as President of Production. In addition to partnering with Roy Lee’s Vertigo Entertainment, Middleton also recently launched The Affleck/Middleton Project (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) with Casey Affleck. Middleton served as an executive producer on Spike Lee’s OLDBOY, RUN ALL NIGHT, POLTERGEIST, THE BOY and the upcoming films, DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, THE STAND and DEATH NOTE remake, as well as SLEEPLESS on which Alex Foster is also an executive producer and the TV series, BATES MOTEL. Middleton was also a co-producer on THE LEGO MOVIE and associate producer on the upcoming film, RINGS.
— Studio 8 is a filmmaker driven company focused on building longstanding relationships with filmmakers in order to develop, produce and acquire both potential tentpoles and prestige pictures. Studio 8 is funded in partnership with the Chinese investment management firm Fosun Group and with Sony Pictures Entertainment, which will distribute up to six films worldwide annually. Studio 8 has secured $1 billion in financing. The company’s initial film projects include SOLUTREAN, which is currently in post-production, WHITE BOY RICK, which is currently in pre-production with Yann Demange directing, and Ang Lee’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (November 11, 2016) in partnership with Sony’s TriStar Pictures.
October 28, 2016
[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.
The 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
[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
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.
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
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
[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.
The 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.
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
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.
Raviv 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
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
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
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
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
[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
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
[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
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
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’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)
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
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made his choice: the new head of the Mossad, Israel’s famed but secretive agency for espionage and innovative missions worldwide, will be Yossi Cohen. Agency chief Tamir Pardo is retiring.
Israeli newspapers, impressed by Cohen’s good looks and affable demeanor, note that he was a debonair operative for the Mossad starting in 1983 and was involved in a host of clandestine operations.
The result: headlines alluding to James Bond. “My name is Cohen. Yossi Cohen. And I’m the head of Mossad.” (To see him and judge for yourselves: click here and here.)
A few decades ago, it was illegal in Israel to name (or show a photograph of) the directors of the Mossad and the domestic security agency Shin Bet. Now spy chiefs are like celebrities — although their work is still conducted in secret, and their deputies and agents are not named.
On a serious note, Cohen’s top priorities will include secret diplomacy — and what officials hint as “unprecedented, astounding cooperation” — with intelligence chiefs of Egypt, Jordan, and Arab countries that don’t have open relations with Israel (Qatar, the UAE, and even Saudi Arabia). Cohen is said to be fluent in Arabic.
Yossi Cohen already has a good working relationship with the Obama Administration. As the head of Netanyahu’s National Security Council in recent years, he did a lot — to coordinate covert operations against Iran and its nuclear program — with his American counterpart, Susan Rice.
He also worked with the Americans when he was deputy chief of the Mossad and head of the Operations Directorate.
Cohen will have to keep the Mossad’s operational capabilities at a very high level, as Israel perceives itself surrounded by dangerous challenges. The agency is expected to continue as Israel’s clandestine long arm: for secret liaison relationships, collecting vital intelligence, and sabotage and assassinations where deemed necessary.
Yossi Melman (co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon, wrote for The Jerusalem Post):
The ascent of Yossi Cohen to serve as the twelfth head of the Mossad should not come as a surprise, because he was the leading choice among the three candidates. However, because the prime minister struggles to make decisions and postpones them until the last minute, on Monday evening Netanyahu delivered his statement on Cohen almost an hour after it was scheduled — causing unnecessary drama over the appointment.
In the past, the appointment of a new Mossad chief was made in a conversation between the prime minister and the various candidates, after which a written statement was released to the media and the public.
However, this time, perhaps in order to heighten the drama and paint himself as a decisive leader, Netanyahu made the announcement live on camera, in a sort of press conference, but without allowing reporters to field questions.
Already in the midst of Netanyahu’s address, in which he described his considerations in choosing the candidate, he spoke of the diplomatic experience required of a Mossad chief, who sometimes must act as a kind of “second Foreign Ministry.” The moment that the prime minister said this, it was clear that his choice would be Cohen.
Cohen has the experience in all three areas which the prime minister discussed: in the diplomatic field, from his time working as Tamir Pardo’s deputy Mossad chief, and also from his tenure as head of the National Security Council; in the intelligence field, from his time as the head of the most important branch of the Mossad, the organization’s “bread and butter” – Tzomet (intersection) – the division responsible for locating, enlisting and running agents in order to gather the intelligence necessary to make decisions; and third, the operational aspect, in which Cohen also has abundant experience.
During his three decades in the Mossad, the organization was focused on exposing Iran’s illict nuclear progress. According to reports (and our book), impressive operations inside Iran included sabotage and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Netanyahu deliberated about the other two candidates up until the final moment. They each served as deputy Mossad chief as well. Ram Ben-Barak, who today serves as director-general of the Intelligence Ministry and “N,” who served as deputy Mossad chief up until a few weeks ago, are no less capable than Cohen — and they were certainly worthy candidates.
However, the prime minister chose Cohen because he has been close to him for the last two-and-a-half years. As Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor, Cohen led secret delegations abroad and provided recommendations on various issues tied to the prime minister’s activities.
Netanyahu held an orderly process of consultations, including personal meetings with the three candidates. He turned to outgoing Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and his predecessor Meir Dagan for their opinions of the candidates. Dagan told him that Cohen would be the best candidate.
A difficult task
Cohen, 54, is a married father of four and grandfather of one. He studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem and joined the Mossad at the very young age of 22. In 1983 he trained to become a katsa (field intelligence officer), and from there began to climb the ladder of the organization.
He was the head of a station in Europe – locating, enlisting and operating agents from enemy states and terror organizations. He later served in various roles at headquarters near Tel Aviv, until he was appointed by Meir Dagan to be the head of Tzomet. He next was appointed Tamir Pardo’s deputy.
In announcing that Cohen would get the job, Netanyahu also discussed the importance of cyber warfare and the need to be at the technological forefront. Indeed, for more than a decade, the Mossad has leaned heavily on technology and its capabilities in the field do not fall short of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Unit 8200, although on a smaller scale.
However, despite the Mossad’s impressive abilities, Cohen will have to adapt the organization to be able to face the new challenges posed by the shifting reality of the Middle East. This reality includes the disintegration of traditional states and the rise of terror organizations, including Islamic State, Sinai Province and Syria’s Nusra Front.
The Mossad, whose most basic strength is humint (human intelligence), will continue to operate as the main body in this field, but the goal of penetrating and enlisting agents in the new terror organizations will be much more difficult.
In the past, the Mossad, together with Military Intelligence, succeeded in gathering information and knowing what was happening in organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas (with the cooperation of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency). However, in the face of the unstable reality of brutal and religious terror organizations, such as Islamic State – this will not be an easy task.
December 8, 2015
Netanyahu on TV, December 7th (government photo)
“Citizens of Israel, this evening we are lighting the second candle of Chanukah. Chanukah symbolizes the great victory of our people in ancient times, the victory of light over darkness, in those days at this season.
My first goal as Prime Minister is to strengthen the security of the State of Israel in the face of the major global upheaval being led by dark radical Islam. Radical Islam is led by two forces – by Iran and by Daesh. They are using violent aggression and terrorism in our region, and not just there; they are threatening the Middle East and the entire world.
Radical Islamic terrorism has hit Paris, London, Istanbul, Mali, and California, and it is attacking us as well. Palestinian terrorism is driven by opposition to our very existence, and more and more by religious and mendacious incitement, according to which we purportedly seek to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Against our enemies’ appetite for blood, we fight back. IDF and Israel Police units go anywhere and operate anywhere. My government gives them full freedom of action and full backing. Our forces are stopping terrorists, demolishing murderers’ homes, are on the alert in defense and are taking the initiative in offense. A very great contribution to our security is made by the ISA, which operates tirelessly to foil terrorist attacks.
And now I would like to say a few words about the Mossad. The men and women of the Mossad operate around the clock, throughout the year. They operate with exceptional daring and great imagination, at times at personal risk. They do this in order to ensure the security of Israel in the face of terrorist threats, the Iranian threat and additional threats.
The Mossad is an operational agency. It is also an intelligence agency. It is also an agency that frequently paves the way to diplomatic relations, especially with countries with which we do not have official ties. In appointing the next head of the Mossad, I took into account these three components. The operational side: The Mossad will continue to build up our strength and foil threats to the security of the state and it will do so through actions and operations that are best left unspoken about. The intelligence side: The Mossad must adapt its capabilities to the age of cyber and advanced technologies. It must continue to be among the best intelligence agencies in the world.
Whether on the operational or the intelligence side, the Mossad will continue to assist me, as Prime Minister, to develop diplomatic links around the world, including with Arab and Islamic states. These ties found expression last week in Paris where I met with many leaders. They very much appreciate the State of Israel for standing steadfast in the face of radical Islamic elements and for waging a determined struggle against terrorism. The head of the Mossad must have the ability to lead the organization with daring, wisdom and professionalism.
The choice among the candidates to head the Mossad was difficult. On this score we are blessed with the problems of the wealthy. The three people whose candidacies I considered were excellent, talented, experienced and capable. I considered things with responsibility and due seriousness and in the end I decided that the next head of the Mossad will be Yossi Cohen.
Yossi has served as head of the National Security Council in recent year. He has a wealth of experience and achievements, as well as proven abilities in the various aspects of Mossad activity. He has leadership skills and a professional understanding, which are both necessary for one who is to lead the organization.
I would like to thank Tamir Pardo for his commendable work as head of the Mossad; I will yet have much to add on this score. I would like to thank the other two excellent candidates who contended for the position: N, whose identity is still classified and who works in the Mossad and does great work there, and Rami Ben-Barak, who is the director general of the Intelligence Ministry. The merits of both men are considerable and the people of Israel owe them much. I am certain that they will continue to faithfully serve the State of Israel, each one in his own way. I thank them and wish the chosen head of the Mossad much success.
A happy Chanukah to you all.”
December 8, 2015
[This is an adaptation from Chapter 1, “Stopping Iran,” in the history of Israeli espionage, Spies Against Armageddon by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman. We pick up the story somewhere around early 2008.]
Israeli and American intelligence agencies evaluated the sanctions and determined that they were too soft. The assessment was that only stronger, crippling sanctions might have some effect on Iran’s leadership.
It seemed that the kind of steps required would include a ban on buying Iranian crude oil and its byproducts. China and Russia refused to lend a hand to that effort. Sanctions thus were not hobbling the determination of Iran’s leaders to keep up their nuclear work.
Meir Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012
The Mossad concluded that more drastic measures were needed. Mossad director Meir Dagan’s battle plan called next for sabotage. That took various shapes. He encouraged joint planning and, eventually, joint operations on the Middle East’s clandestine fields of battle.
A CIA suggestion was to send a physicist, a Russian who had moved to the United States, to Iran to offer his knowledge to the Iranian nuclear program. The caper was ridiculously mishandled when the CIA altered a set of nuclear warhead plans that the physicist was carrying, but neglected to tell him. The Iranians would have received damaging disinformation. Unfortunately for this scheme, the ex-Russian noticed errors and told the Iranians that something was flawed. He simply did not know that the CIA wanted him to keep his mouth shut and pass along the materials.
Despite imperfect penetrations at first, the entire concept of “poisoning” both information and equipment was attractive; and the Mossad, the CIA, and the British kept doing it. These agencies set up front companies that established contact with Iranian purchasing networks. In order to build up trust, they sold Iran some genuine components. But at a later stage, they planted – among the good parts, such as metal tubes and high-speed switches – many bad parts that damaged Iran’s program.
The results of this international sabotage began to show. Iran found itself having trouble keeping control of the equipment that it had bought from overseas.
The peak of these damage operations was a brilliantly innovative computer worm that would become known as Stuxnet. Though its origin was never officially announced, Stuxnet was a joint project by the CIA, the Mossad, and Aman’s technological unit. The malicious software was specifically designed to disrupt a German-made computerized control system that ran the centrifuges in Natanz.
The project required studying, by reverse engineering, precisely how the control panel and computers worked and what effect they had on the centrifuges. For that purpose, Germany’sBND– very friendly to Israel, in part based on a long habit of trying to erase Holocaust memories – arranged the cooperation of Siemens, the German corporation that had sold the system to Iran. The directors of Siemens may have felt pangs of conscience, or were simply reacting to public pressure, as newspapers pointed out that the company was Iran’s largest trading partner in Germany.
For a better understanding of Iran’s enrichment process, old centrifuges – which Israel had obtained many years before – were set up in one of the buildings at Dimona, Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear facility in the southern Negev desert. They were nearly identical to the centrifuges that were enriching uranium in Natanz.
The Israelis closely watched what the computer worm could do to an industrial process. The tests, reportedly conducted also at a U.S. government lab in Idaho, took two years.
Virtual weapons of destruction such as Stuxnet can conceivably be e-mailed to the target computer network, or they can be installed in person by plugging in a flash drive. Whether hidden in an electronic message or plugged in by an agent for the Mossad, the virus did get into the Natanz facility’s control system sometime in 2009. Stuxnet was in the system for more than a year before it was detected by Iranian cyber-warfare experts. By then, it was giving the centrifuges confusing instructions, which disrupted their precise synchronization. They were no longer spinning in concert, and as the equipment sped up and slowed repeatedly, the rotors that did the spinning were severely damaged.
The true beauty of this computer worm was that the operators of the system had no idea that anything was going wrong. Everything at first seemed normal, and when they noticed the problem it was too late. Nearly 1,000 centrifuges – about one-fifth of those operating at Natanz – were knocked out of commission.
Iranian intelligence and computer experts were shocked. The nuclear program was slowing down, barely advancing, and falling way behind schedule. Stuxnet, more than anything else, made the Iranians realize they were under attack in a shadow war, with hardly any capability to respond.
In late 2011, they announced two more cyber-attacks. One virus, which computer analysts called Duqu, showed signs of being created by the same high-level, sophisticated hackers who authored Stuxnet: U.S.and Israeli intelligence.
If that were not enough, like the Ten Plagues that befell ancient Egypt, the Iranians were hit by yet another blow – this time, a lethal one. Between 2007 and 2011, five Iranian scientists were assassinated by a variety of methods. One supposedly was felled by carbon monoxide from a heater in his home. Three others were killed by bombs, and one by gunfire: four attacks by men on motorcycles. That was a method perfected by the Mossad’s Kidon unit.
It was noteworthy that the United States flatly denied any involvement. American officials even went so far as to publicly criticize the unknown killers for spoiling diplomatic hopes, because the chances of negotiations with Iran became slimmer after every attack. The Americans, in private, said that they were chiding Israel.
July 13, 2015
[This article and interview are adapted from an item written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of books including Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars — a history of the Mossad and other security agencies.]
Michael Morell, the CIA veteran who recently retired and wrote his memoirs, understands why Israel’s prime minister rejects President Obama’s strong desire for a deal with Iran. And, having heard that Israel may have some tacit understandings with the al-Qaeda affiliate, Syria, Morell strongly counsels against that path.
Michael Morell (on CBS This Morning)
From his vantage point of 33 years as a professional intelligence officer, Morell has strong advice for to Israel. “Don’t make deals with them. Pressure them. Fight them. Turn against them, otherwise they will turn against you.”
The former deputy director of the CIA’s comments were made in response to a question regarding reports in the Arab and international media that – in order to maintain peace and tranquility along its border with Syria — Israel has reached some understandings with the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Nusra controls most of the Syrian side of the border along the Golan Heights.
“From my experience following al-Qaeda, I think and believe that you must not try to cut deals with them. Pakistan tried to do it with these guys telling them: ‘We won’t attack you if you don’t attack us.’ But it is a dangerous game. Even if you cut a deal with them, they won’t honor it.”
Morell knows the Israeli intelligence community very well. He has visited Israel and met in Washington many times for professional meetings with his Israeli counterparts from the Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Aman — the military intelligence agency known in foreign encounters as Israeli Defense Intelligence.
Last week, he granted a special interview to The Jerusalem Post, the first of its kind to an Israeli media outlet. It coincides with the publication of his book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qaeda to ISIS, which he wrote with Bill Harlow, a former longtime spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Morell was born in 1958 in a small town in Ohio. He finished his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Akron and Georgetown University, respectively, and was recruited to work as an analyst in the CIA.
He spent most of his career in the Directorate of Intelligence of the agency, and in addition to reaching the No. 2 position in the CIA, he also served twice as acting director: once in 2011, after director Leon Panetta became secretary of defense, and a year later, after Gen. David Petraeus stepped down as a result of his extramarital affair.
After Morell’s retirement two years ago, he joined the private sector as a consultant to Global Beacon Strategies and to CBS News.
One of his most exciting and prestigious assignments was to serve as the CIA’s daily briefer for “Customer No. 1” – the agency’s nickname for the President of the United States. In that capacity, after nine months on the job he found himself traveling with President George W. Bush to visit a school in Florida. It was September 11, 2001. At 8 in the morning, Morell walked into the President’s hotel suite.
“Michael, anything of interest this morning?” Bush asked his intelligence briefer.
“On the most important day of President Bush’s tenure,” recalls Morell, “his intelligence briefing was unremarkable, focusing on the most recent developments in the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Contrary to media reports, there was nothing regarding terrorist threats in the briefing.”
With impressive honesty, Morell admits that when he first heard that an airplane had hit one of the twin towers in New York City, “my guess at the time was a small plane had lost its way in bad weather and, by accident, had crashed into the World Trade Center.”
Later, the Secret Service rushed the President and his staff to Air Force One, and they took off to an undisclosed destination. America was under attack.
Morell was aboard, trying to figure out what really was happening.
When the media reported that the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine, led by Nayef Hawatmeh, was responsible for the attacks on U.S. soil, Morell told Bush that the DFLP “is a Palestinian rejectionist group with a long history of terrorism against Israel, but they do not possess the capability to do this.”
A little later, while the information was still blurry, Morell was ready to take a risk and speculate, “I would bet every dollar I have that it’s al-Qaeda.”
Nevertheless, he doesn’t conceal his self-criticism that 9/11 exposed the failure of the American intelligence community, led by the CIA, to anticipate and prevent the attacks.
At the same time, he is very proud of the agency’s success in eventually tracking Osama Bin Laden and killing him in 2011 in his Pakistani hideout.
Yet the CIA, according to Morell, can’t rest on its laurels. He thinks al-Qaeda is still a very dangerous organization posing a serious threat to the U.S. and the West.
Question: More than Islamic State?
“I distinguish between the two only because everyone does. But I think that both groups have the same goals, both believe in the same ideology, both are equally violent and evil. And actually I believe that al-Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. and the West than Islamic State.”
“Because al-Qaeda has better and greater capabilities. I am worried about the situation in Yemen where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is located.
In the past, the government there fought against terrorism. But now because of the civil war they stopped. AQAP has very good bomb-makers. The bombs were so sophisticated they were not detected by airport machines. Only due to good intelligence, several of their lethal plans to bomb airplanes were prevented.
I am also concerned about another al-Qaeda entity – Khorasan Group – sent from Pakistan by Ayman al-Zawahiri into Syria. There are indications that the two groups cooperate with each other.”
Al-Qaeda confirmed this week that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of AQAP, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. What is your answer to the claim that both al-Qaeda and Islamic State were created as a result of U.S. involvement in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the ’80s and the U.S. toppling of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003?
“It is ridiculous. It is an attempt to revise history. There are many reasons for extremism and these terrorist groups would have been created regardless of U.S. politics and actions.”
Morell shared an entertaining anecdote about Saddam in his book, which explains why the deposed Iraqi dictator grew a beard during captivity.
Morell says a clean-shaven Saddam was taken for medical treatment under U.S. custody, and tried to flirt with the nurse, to no avail. When he asked his U.S. debriefer – whom Saddam had become friendly with – why the nurse wasn’t interested, the American escort told the Iraqi dictator (in jest) that it was because American women like men with facial hair.
Saddam walked into the courtroom a few weeks later with a wild beard. Commentators concluded that he was trying to look Islamic to appeal to religious elements in court. “It was a humorous example of Saddam’s misjudging Americans,” wrote Morell.
But this could also be said about the United States – that it doesn’t understand the Middle East and that its actions in the war against the terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria are weak.
“Yes, I know. But I am convinced that the Iraqi government in the end will regain the lands Islamic State has captured from them. It will take a few years, maybe three or four, but it will happen. We can’t fight instead of the Iraqis.”
And what about Syria. It seems the U.S. has no clear strategy?
“Yes, Syria is a big mess. Everyone is fighting everyone. There is a war there between a dictator and his people. A war being fought between emissaries of Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Shi’ites and Sunnis, between secular groups and fanatic Islamist organizations.
I don’t think anyone has an idea or plan of how to resume stability in Syria. To be honest, I must admit that I can’t answer how to solve the problem there. I can only say that efforts must be made to ensure that the mess in Syria doesn’t spread to nearby states, like Jordan or Israel.”
You mentioned Israel. Could you describe the relationship between the CIA and the Mossad?
“I won’t go into details, and I am going to be careful. I can say that the CIA has ties with many intelligence agencies in the world. Some of these relationships are more developed, and others are less developed.
With Israel’s intelligence community – not just the Mossad – the relations are some of the best in the world.”
And the political problems and disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama don’t disrupt the cultivation of intelligence ties?
“One of the nice things about intelligence cooperation is that it goes under the political radar. Even in times of political crisis, the ties and cooperation continue and sometimes even help reach a solution.”
What do you think of the Israeli intelligence people you have met with?
“I think they are some of the best in the world. Not just professionally, but as people too. I have only praise and admiration for them.”
In the past, American intelligence officials have made remarks indicating that Israel manipulates intelligence information to influence them, is that true?
“I have never experienced anything like that, and I never thought that Israeli intelligence was trying to ‘sell’ us something that we didn’t believe or that we thought was untrue. Nevertheless, certainly, sometimes your political leaders take stances that are not compatible with your intelligence positions.”
Are you referring to the disagreements between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran’s nuclear program?
“Yes, that is true, with regard to Iran, but I won’t go into details. I can only tell you that the argument is not about whether Iran poses a threat, but rather how close and tangible that threat is.”
Does that mean you agree with the assessment that Iran poses a threat?
“Yes, of course. Completely. But keep in mind that the nuclear program has three foundations. One is to achieve fissile material. The second is to build a bomb, and the third is to have delivery means. Most of the world’s deliberations are focused on the first stage. And here, too, a distinction must be made. Everyone is trying to understand what happens at the facilities designated for enriching uranium. But Iran has already declared them, and we know about them.”
You mean the facilities at Natanz and Fordo?
“Yes. But I think we should be much more concerned that maybe Iran has other secret facilities that we don’t know about.
The facility in Fordo was covert, but it was exposed thanks to good intelligence. So why do we think that they built only one and not more facilities that still haven’t been discovered? That is the great danger.”
Explain the problem with the covert uranium enrichment facilities.
“If they don’t have a covert facility, it will take them three or four years from now to build one. If they started building it three or four years ago, then by today they would already have one that we don’t know about. What I learned in intelligence is that I don’t know what I don’t know.”
How far do you think Iran is today from a bomb?
“When I was working, it was two to three years. Since then, they have advanced in shortening time. Without inspection and a deal, Iran would be able to produce its first bomb in two to three months.”
Do you support a nuclear deal with Iran?
“Because I don’t know the details, I can’t say. There are differences between what the U.S. says and what Iran claims. I think the deal the U.S. agreed to is a pretty good deal because of the inspection regime.
As an intelligence officer, I also ask, what is the alternative? There are two alternatives: To go back to where we were, with no negotiations, sanctions continue and are even harder – and they continue to work on their program. What is the implication of that? That the time to a bomb, would be reduced from two to three months to weeks.
Another alternative is a war, which would send a powerful message that we will not allow them to have a bomb. I am worried about such alternatives. There is a debate in Iran about what they should do with their nuclear program. A military strike would strengthen the hard-liners, who would say it wouldn’t have happened had we had nuclear weapons. That would enhance their efforts to get the bomb.”
Still, do you understand the Israeli prime minister’s position?
“Yes I do. The difference between the President and the prime minister is easy to explain. The President focuses on getting a nuclear deal, which would take us from two or three months to one year from a bomb. The prime minister is focused on the bigger problem of Iran: What to do about their support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and insurgents in the region, such as in Yemen, and their desire for regional hegemony, and their calls for the destruction of Israel.
The prime minister focuses on all of these in addition to the nuclear program, and he says the sanctions are good, let’s continue – because the Iranian behavior will not change.”
June 19, 2015
From Toe to Heel, This Claim is Ridiculous — But Mossad’s Often Named in Fables
Asghar Bukhari, a Muslim activist in Great Britain, claims — on Facebook — that “Zionists” broke into his home. To intimidate him, he suggests, they stole just one thing: one of his shoes. One shoe.
Bukhari warns other anti-Israel activists that they should be on the lookout for similar antics, which he interprets as a message from the Mossad that they know where you live and can attack you anytime they feel like it.
The Mossad has had no response, of course. But many pro-Israel commentators have had a wonderful time making fun of Bukhari’s claim. In fact, a Twitter hash tag — #MossadStoleMyShoe — achieved instant popularity.
From @GeneralBoles on Twitter
A newspaper article in Haaretz has some good examples. How about the tweet that purports to show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordering Israeli agents to go out, grab their target (a black shoe), and don’t return until they have it.
Would the Mossad really risk some of its operatives on an illegal break-in in a foreign country, for the sake of taking a shoe and thus sending a well-heeled message? No.
But ridiculous inventions and conspiracy theories are nothing new, when it comes to the Mossad.
An Egyptian newspaper once wrote that the Mossad had trained sharks and was using them to spy on various facilities and people.
When it comes to Israeli intelligence’s prime target — Iran — an official of that country claimed 8 years ago that the Mossad employed squirrels to spy on Iran. In fact, over a dozen squirrels were taken into custody — but it isn’t known if they cracked under interrogation and talked.
June 14, 2015
[This article was originally written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Note some details of Mossad personnel’s careers are limited by censorship requirements in Israel.]
The hush-hush conversations in the hallways of the Mossad headquarters in Glilot, a few kilometers north of Tel Aviv, over the last few weeks have danced around the question: Who will replace the agency’s director, Tamir Pardo?
Curiosity surrounding his would-be replacement intensified when Pardo replaced his incumbent deputy – whom the censor has asked only be identified as N. – by a new person now known as A.
These deputies came from the two most prominent Mossad operational units. N., like Pardo, originated in and later commanded the unit known as Keshet, which directs surveillance and break-ins into “static objects” – offices and equipment belonging to adversaries, where bugs and cameras are installed and computers infiltrated.
A. comes from perhaps an arguably more critical unit, Caesarea, which is in charge of sending agents on operations in enemy lands. Since a decade ago when the Mossad was restructured, the deputy head has also overseen the Operations Directorate, which houses all of the organization’s operational units.
Pardo is no stranger to hasty in-house shuffling. In his four-and-a-half years in office, he has had four deputies. In this sense, he has continued the atmosphere of restlessness that permeated the tenure of his predecessor, Meir Dagan, who whimsically replaced his deputies like a new pair of socks.
Tamir Pardo, the Mossad director – Who’s next?
Nevertheless, the answer to the question of who will replace Pardo depends on another issue: Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extend Pardo’s term, which is due to expire at the end of 2015?
Unlike Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), where the head is legally limited to a five-year term with the option for the cabinet to extend it for another year, there is no Mossad law on the books. The Mossad, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Justice Ministry have been struggling for the last seven years to draft such a law.
Witness the results: The almost-mythological Isser Harel held the office for 11 years until 1963; his successor, Meir Amit, lasted just five years. Yitzhak Hofi served in the post in the ’70s for eight; as did Dagan, who served from 2002 to 2010.
The media adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to answer The Jerusalem Post’s questions on this matter. But insiders and officials familiar with the Mossad estimate that it is very unlikely Netanyahu will extend Pardo’s term beyond five years in December.
This is not to say that Pardo was a bad manager or failed in leading the Mossad in its new challenges and frontiers. While Pardo might lack some of Dagan’s charm and charisma, he has continued in the footsteps of his predecessor.
According to foreign media reports, the Mossad under Pardo was less involved in assassinations. Only one Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in 2011, in comparison to five when Dagan was in office.
But this does not indicate that Pardo is more hesitant and less daring than Dagan. It is more likely that those who were in charge of the assassination campaign – which was only one measure in a broader campaign to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons – reached the conclusion that the method was outdated and had exhausted itself as a useful tool.
Yet Pardo continued to see Iran as the Mossad’s number-one target — for gathering information, as well as other possible operations — with Hezbollah as the second.
Although the Mossad basically remained a human intelligence (humint) organization – recruiting and running agents as sources for information were its bread and butter under Pardo – it expanded its sigint (intelligence derived from electronic and communication messages used by the targets) and cyber capabilities; and it improved relations with its worldwide counterparts, especially America’s Central Intelligence Agency.
Indeed, last week CIA director John Brennan visited Israel and met with Pardo and other senior intelligence chiefs, exchanging estimates about Iran’s nuclear program and the likely impacts of the P5+1 negotiations – which are reaching a crucial point, as talks are set to conclude at the end of the month.
Another important development in the Mossad in the last five years is the enlargement and upgrade of its research and analysis department, to the degree that it is now almost equal to its big brother – the research department of IDF Military Intelligence, which is still charged with providing the cabinet with a national intelligence estimate.
It’s entirely up to Netanyahu
Yet Pardo will probably be replaced in six months, mainly because he didn’t get along well with Netanyahu. A well-noted incident occurred two years ago when Pardo, in a closed-door meeting with business executives, asserted that the Palestinian issue trumps Tehran as Israel’s biggest national security problem.
Saying that directly contradicted his boss, who time and again has beaten the Iranian drum, calling it an existential threat for the Jewish state.
In the corridors of the Mossad and the Prime Minister’s Office as well as in the media, four names are mentioned as potential successors to Pardo.
One is an outsider, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, commander of the Israel Air Force, and the other three are from within the Mossad.
It’s more probable that the next head of Mossad will come from within the organization’s ranks – and the remaining three candidates served in the Mossad’s operational units. One such candidate is the above-mentioned N., who until recently was Pardo’s deputy.
Another is Ram Ben-Barak, also a product of the Keshet department. As a young operative, he was arrested together with three team members by police officers near a building in a European city under suspicious circumstances.
The incident didn’t stain his career, and he reached the top echelon to serve as a deputy to Dagan; he then went on sabbatical and worked for the Brookings Institution in Washington, and most recently was director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
But the leading candidate is Yossi Cohen, who specialized as a case officer in recruiting and running agents from Arab countries, was head of the department charged with these tasks and served as Pardo’s deputy until two years ago. He was then chosen by Netanyahu to be his national security adviser and lead the National Security Council. Cohen, who managed to develop friendly – even warm – relations with Netanyahu’s family, is the favorite for the Mossad top job.
In an interesting twist, if he is nominated at the end of 2015, two out of three Israeli intelligence agencies will be led by persons by the name of Cohen – with the prospective Mossad head joining Yoram Cohen of the Shin Bet. [In Jewish tradition, the Cohens — or Kohanim — were the high priests: in this case, the high priests, perhaps, of espionage.]
June 13, 2015
Four years after retiring as director of the Mossad, the former spy chief Meir Dagan has thrust himself into the limelight during the Israeli election campaign.
Meir Dagan on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” 2012
Israelis will vote on March 17. Dagan is not running for office, but he delivered a detailed denunciation of Benjamin Netanyahu — and especially the prime minister’s speech to Congress in Washington — during an Israeli TV interview on Friday night.
Then on Saturday night, as tens of thousands of Israelis gathered for a rally in Tel Aviv — under banners that said, “Israel wants change!” — the featured speaker was Meir Dagan: the formerly secretive, apparently nonpolitical grand master of deception, sabotage, and assassination.
Declaring from the rostrum that Netanyahu is a single-minded politicians whose only goal is to win and retain power, Dagan summarized that while Israel is surrounded by enemies, “I am not frightened of our enemies. I am frightened of our leadership.”
The anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv (photo from IBA.org.il Israeli TV)
Dagan said Netanyahu’s actions have damaged efforts to stop or restrict Iran’s nuclear program. And he said the prime minister’s terrible leadership seems to be leading toward “a bi-national state.” Dagan said he wants his children and grandchildren to live in a Jewish state. (He was indicating that he wants to see the Palestinian Arabs living in their own Palestinian state and used the word “apartheid” as a situation that must be avoided.)
Dagan said the stand taken by Netanyahu in his Washington speech — urging rejection of the deal he believes is being negotiated by the United States with Iran — offers no reasonable alternative. According to Dagan, Netanyahu seemed to be threatening a military strike by Israel.
As he said since first speaking with a group of reporters — while still in his post at the Mossad in the final month of 2010 — Dagan hinted that sabotage and subversion could continue to delay Iran’s nuclear work. “There are other ways,” Dagan told Israel’s Channel 2 television.
While not taking responsibility for the assassination of nuclear scientists in Iran, he did say that when employees of the nuclear program are killed, that sends a huge deterrent signal to other Iranians — not to work for their country’s nuclear enterprise.
March 8, 2015
As historians and journalists who write about espionage, we find leaked documents fascinating — and the latest South African intelligence dossiers leaked to Al-Jazeera (and widely distributed by The Guardian) make for some interesting reading.
But hunting for a headline — by claiming there’s new proof that the Mossad disagreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public claims about Iran’s nuclear program? There’s not much there, there.
This analysis is based on an article in The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.
After promising a bombshell, Al Jazeera’s publication of documents on Monday fell short of that mark.
Al Jazeera did not obtain an original and authentic document from the Mossad, Israel’s foreign espionage agency.
What they published was a South Africa State Security Agency (SSA) document that is based on a briefing given to them by the Mossad. The document from 2013 contains no secrets.
In fact — any reader, or follower of public reports on Iran’s nuclear program, is familiar with the facts written in that document.
Netanyahu’s display at the UN in New York (Sept. 2012)
The Mossad provided details in its briefing, such as the quantities of Iran’s enriched uranium at its two levels – 3.5 percent and 20% – about the development of Iran’s nuclear reactor at Arak, and its statement that Iran is “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.”
That assessment was correct – it isn’t possible to utilize fissile material for a bomb only with 20% enriched uranium – an enrichment of 93% is required – and Iran did not have it at the time of the document’s writing. According to intelligence and International Atomic Energy Agency information, Iran still doesn’t have it now.
Certainly the South African document doesn’t present evidence of a wedge between the Mossad and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.
The Mossad has liaison relations with many spy and security agencies. These contacts are run by its Cosmos (Tevel in Hebrew) department. Some of the meetings and exchanges are very intensive and intimate.
Both sides often feel comfortable in each other’s company to share ideas and insights in a very candid and frank manner — even sharing very sensitive information. In rare cases, such meetings result in joint operations.
One case in point was the recent revelations that the CIA participated – though from the sidelines – in the assassination of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh seven years ago in Damascus.
Another example came to light this week from one of Edward Snowden’s documents, exposing a trilateral coordination among the signals intelligence (SIGINT) and eavesdropping agencies of Britain (GCHQ), America (NSA) and Israel (the military’s Unit 8200), to listen to Iranian leaders three years ago.
The Mossad-SSA relations are of a different nature. Thirty years ago in the heyday of the all-white Apartheid regime, relations between Pretoria and Jerusalem were excellent. The two countries cooperated in the military and nuclear fields, and Israeli security products were sold to South Africa.
After the collapse of Apartheid and the release of popular hero Nelson Mandela from prison, Israel reached out with a gesture of goodwill by giving an armored car to President Mandela — as a gesture of goodwill.
Since then relations have deteriorated. Mandela, who always felt fraternal warmth with the Palestine Liberation Organization, put his government on the PLO’s side in its conflict with Israel.
Today the intelligence ties between the Mossad and SSA are cordial and ordinary, but not close. It is somewhat surprising that representatives of the spy agencies met at all.
It is unlikely, therefore, that the Mossad either confided in the SSA or gave, during the encounters, dramatic and sensitive information or estimates about Iran’s nuclear program.
Yet there certainly are differences between the Mossad and Netanyahu. We don’t need a South African document to know that.
The spy agency’s analysts and the prime minister don’t differ about facts and details, but about the interpretations and ramifications. It is no secret that the Mossad and Aman (the Military Intelligence agency), both in the past and in the present, don’t share the warnings expressed by the prime minister.
Meir Dagan, when he was head of the Mossad and after the end of his tenure, said in numerous public statements that even with all its nastiness and hostility and secret nuclear plans, Iran did not pose an existential threat to Israel.
Tamir Pardo, the Mossad director
Dagan’s successor Tamir Pardo said in a private meeting, which was leaked, that the main troubling issue for Israel is the Palestinian problem. These were blatant contradictions of Netanyahu’s position.
Israeli intelligence estimates are that Iran is working to be a nuclear power – a few months away from the ability to assemble the bomb – but not capable of building it now. Iran has not made the decision to “break out” and create a nuclear weapon.
More than anything, Iran wants the United States and the rest of the international community to lift the economic sanctions.
Israeli intelligence researchers know that Iran is already on the verge of becoming a nuclear threshold state. It has the know-how, technology and materials to construct the bomb in a matter of a few months or perhaps a year, if and when the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives the order.
February 24, 2015
A few weeks after The Washington Post and Newsweek scored scoops by revealing that the CIA worked jointly with Israel’s Mossad to assassinate Imad Mughniyeh – the notorious Lebanese Hezbollah military commander blown to bits by a bomb in Damascus, this week 7 years ago – there’s now a second phase of revelations. Israelis who are close to the intelligence community apparently were concerned that the American side was taking too much credit. This report (summarized first at CBSnews.com) is based on the version the Israelis are telling to Western officials and diplomats.
By DAN RAVIV (CBS News correspondent and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon)
“Pe’al!” ordered the senior Mossad commander in charge of this extraordinary mission. Translated from Hebrew, this meant Go. Act. Push the button. The expert sitting beside the commander obeyed the order. He pushed the button. One hundred and thirty-five miles (215 km.) away in Syria’s capital, Damascus, an explosion tore a notorious terrorist to bits.
Imad Mughniyeh had been one of the most wanted terrorists on earth, second only to Osama Bin Laden at the time. Mughniyeh was the military and operations chief of Hezbollah: in effect the number-2 man in the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim faction that is heavily armed and financed by Iran.
The violent man’s life met its violent end, late at night on Tuesday, February 12, 2008: seven years ago this month.
A manhunt lasting a quarter of a century had come to an end. At Mossad headquarters at the Glilot Junction north of Tel Aviv there was great relief and even celebration.
In a most unusual example of operational cooperation, a CIA liaison officer was also in the Mossad HQ – part of the logistics and decision-making process for the assassination. The Israelis understood that officials at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, were also very pleased.
The leaks published in America last month – in one case, reportedly delayed for a year or more at the request of the CIA – highlighted the CIA’s leading role.
Yet Israelis close to their country’s intelligence agencies are telling Western officials something different: that the operation was almost entirely “blue and white” – referring to the colors of Israel’s flag – with hardly any “red, white, and blue.”
Some Israelis, it seems, object to seeing the Americans taking too much credit.
What follows is based on what knowledgeable Israelis have been telling Western officials and diplomats. They say the U.S. participated in the deliberations, the intelligence gathering, the surveillance, and some logistics of the assassination – but they call the assassination itself an Israeli operation: lock, stock, and barrel.
Imad Mughniyeh was born in 1962 in the Lebanese Shi’ite village of Tayr Dibba to a poor family of olive and lemon harvesters. He moved to Beirut as a child and despite his religious affiliation, he became active in the predominantly Sunni Palestinian al-Fatah movement.
In Lebanese Palestinian reports, Mughniyeh was even described as participating in the unit of bodyguards protecting then-PLO chief Yasser Arafat. But after the PLO chairman and his fighters were forced to leave Lebanon following the Israeli invasion in 1982 – just three years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran – Mughniyeh returned to his own religious cohort and joined Hezbollah, “The Party of God,” a heavily armed Lebanese faction established and nurtured by Iran.
He quickly involved himself in some of the most outrageous Hezbollah attacks, proving his loyalty and his skills. He was trained by the chillingly skilled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In a bloody two-year period – between November 1982 and September 1984 – he was a key player in several car bombing attacks against Israeli, American, and French targets in Lebanon. Among his trademarks: videotapes made by the suicide bombers and their accomplices nearby. The terrifying impact was thus magnified.
The attacks of those years included two assaults on Israeli military headquarters in the southern city of Tyre, which killed 150 Israelis and Lebanese.
He orchestrated the suicide bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and a French military building in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen, 58 French paratroopers, and six Lebanese civilians.
He was also a major actor in the bombing of the 1984 U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people. And this was just the beginning. His career would mushroom over the next two and a half decades.
In 1985, Mughniyeh personally participated in the hijacking of a TWA airliner. After it was forced to land in Beirut, a U.S. Navy diver among the passengers – Robert Stethem – was tortured and killed.
The first image of Mughniyeh, then just 22 years old, was first seen in the pages of the Western press when photographed waving his pistol near the TWA pilot’s head in the cockpit. That photo was the key evidence used by U.S. law enforcement officials to indict Mughniyeh for murder in that incident. But for Israel, it would take another seven years to realize his significance.
The Hezbollah man was the architect of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 29 people – including seven Israelis, among them one Mossad agent. This was Mughniyeh’s revenge for the Israeli helicopter attack that had killed Hezbollah’s top leader, Abbas Moussawi.
The Buenos Aires attack led Israel to acknowledge two important facts: One, that Mughniyeh would avenge every Israeli attack on his organization; and two, that Mughniyeh had to be wiped out
These realizations were further strengthened by an attack two years later, when along with his Iranian patrons, Mughniyeh masterminded the bombing of the Jewish community center in the Argentinian capital, which devastated the building and left 85 people dead.
From that point on, Israel used every opportunity it could to try to get rid of Mughniyeh. Numerous tentative plans were drawn up, but only three came into fruition.
In 1994, the Mossad conspired a devious plan to obliterate Mughniyeh: Lebanese agents working for the Mossad planted a car bomb aimed at Mughniyeh’s brother Fuad. Anticipating that Mughniyeh would attend his brother’s funeral, Israel planned to carry out their assassination of the Hezbollah military chief then: But Imad Mughniyeh, probably paranoid about possible attempts on his life, did not show up at the funeral.
A few months after Fuad’s death, Israeli intelligence managed to obtain precise information that Imad Mughniyeh was scheduled to board a flight from Damascus to Tehran using a false name.
The Mossad informed the CIA of Mughniyeh’s whereabouts, and the Americans orchestrated a redirection of the flight to Kuwait and dispatched a military plane from Saudi Arabia to bring Mughniyeh to justice in the U.S. courts.
But the CIA made a cardinal error: It disclosed to the Kuwaitis the identity of the wanted terrorist. Fearing retribution from Hezbollah should they accede to the U.S. demand, the Kuwaitis declined to order the passengers of the plane to disembark. Kuwait permitted the flight to take off to Tehran.
The next missed opportunity was completely the Israelis’ fault. After the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the senior echelon of Hezbollah – known as the top five – paraded along the Israeli border on a victorious patrol tour. Mughniyeh was among them.
Israeli reconnaissance photographed the five and transmitted the images to Aman (military intelligence) headquarters in Tel Aviv. They were identified; and an attack plan was put into motion. Drone aircraft that could fire missiles were launched.
Western intelligence sources say they were told by Israelis later that this was a “rare opportunity to disrupt Hezbollah’s leadership.” But the order to kill never came. Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was proud of ordering the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon after 18 years of occupation, feared that the relative calm would be disrupted if he had Hebzollah’s top leaders eliminated.
Senior officers in the Mossad were furious. Years of painstaking information-gathering efforts were wasted. But they had no choice but to accept their political leader’s decision and to wait for the next opportunity.
Mughniyeh, as the years went by, became more cautious. Israeli intelligence learned that he went to a plastic surgeon in Beirut to alter his appearance.
He also moved to the safe haven of Tehran, where he enhanced his professional and personal ties with the Revolutionary Guards commanders – particularly with the charismatic General Qassem Soleimani, who was head of the elite Al-Quds force.
After returning to his Beirut headquarters, Mughniyeh continued to travel frequently among the triangle of the capitals of Lebanon, Syria and Iran.
The Mossad hunters, experts in human weaknesses and knowing that nobody is immune to error, waited patiently – but desperately.
Mughniyeh did indeed make mistakes, basically feeling too safe in the Syrian capital. He went to Damascus for both business and pleasure.
For his bloody business, he would meet with his master and friend, Iranian General Soleimani, to coordinate and plot strategy. Often joining them was General Muhammad Suleiman, top security adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the man in charge of the regime’s nuclear reactor and its special military ties with Iran and Hezbollah.
After working hours, Mughniyeh would enjoy the pleasures that Damascus had to offer: good food, alcohol and women – most of which he would not risk indulging in back home in the religious Shi’ite neighborhoods of Beirut.
Mughniyeh had an apartment in the posh neighborhood of Kafr Sousa, home to Syria’s most wealthy businessmen and the military and intelligence cronies of the Assad regime. Feeling safe and secure due to his altered appearance and years of evading assassination attempts, Mughniyeh would travel in his SUV from Beirut to Damascus without bodyguards, often with his personal driver but sometimes alone.
Mughniyeh’s ease and confidence in the Syrian capital turned out to be hubris. The experts and spies in the Mossad and Israel’s military intelligence agency (Aman) slowly closed in on him.
The Israelis were surprised to learn, during strategic talks with their counterparts in Washington, that the Americans were just as eager to get rid of him.
Since 1975, the CIA had been forbidden by Congress to carry out assassinations – even of America’s worst enemies. But that policy changed after 9/11, when President George W. Bush ordered targeted killings using drone aircraft.
Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Bush administration – though not always understood by the Israelis – there was a huge difference between sending assassins and killing targets from the sky.
At a certain point during consultations with the Americans, then-Mossad director Meir Dagan proposed to his CIA counterpart, Gen. Michael Hayden, a joint operation to eliminate Mughniyeh.
Gen. Michael Hayden (as CIA director under President George W. Bush)
Hayden agreed, but he set two conditions: First, that no innocent people would be hurt: The Americans were very concerned by the proximity of Mughniyeh’s apartment to a girls’ school; second, that only Mughniyeh would be targeted – and that none of his Syrian or Iranian acquaintances could be touched. The United States was reluctant to stir up violent conflicts with sovereign states.
At least according to what Israelis have been telling Western officials, the Mossad did not need the CIA for active management of the operation. They had already gleaned all the details necessary about Mughniyeh’s daily routine and his hideout in Damascus.
The CIA was there, as they put it, to fill in any missing intelligence information and provide extra eyes in Damascus.
The Mossad certainly had its own excellent expertise, in its Kidon (Bayonet) special operations unit, when it came to killing terrorists. Still, the Israelis felt more comfortable having the CIA take part – even if the American role was seen as minor.
Ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan (Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012)
As agreed by Dagan and Hayden, a senior CIA official from its operations directorate was assigned to the Mossad team working on the project. The command center was in Tel Aviv.
Kidon operatives, along with Aman signals intelligence Unit 8200, monitored Mughniyeh almost around the clock, zooming in on his safe-house and the parking lot nearby. Based on previous operations, it can be assumed that the team had some physical presence in the area. It was decided that the weapon of choice would be a bomb planted in or on a car parked near Mughniyeh’s apartment.
The CIA-Mossad relations hit a bump, for a while, when the Americans got cold feet and pulled out of the operation. The CIA began to reiterate its fears of the collateral damage that such an assassination would cause – concerned, despite Israel’s assurances, about the girls’ school nearby.
The Mossad was sorry to see the CIA pull out, but the preparations continued. Nevertheless, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the Mossad to make sure that the “killing zone” of the bomb be very narrow, so that only Mughniyeh would be touched.
The “toy factory” of the Mossad and the Aman agency – their technological units – began designing, assembling and testing the bomb. It was a laborious procedure, requiring dozens of tests, until the results were satisfactory and matched the guidelines stipulated by Olmert. The process was filmed, time and again, for analysis and dissection.
Ehud Olmert, when prime minister
Contrary to the recent reports in the American media, the process of developing the bomb was carried out in Israel. Not in the U.S.
Once Olmert was confident that the bomb would be highly accurate, officials say they have learned from Israel that Olmert brought the video clips to Washington. He showed them to President Bush and asked him to bring the CIA back into the operation. The video clearly showed that the diameter of the “killing zone” was no more than 10 meters. Bush was impressed.
The next day, while he was still in the U.S., Olmert received a call from Dagan informing him that the CIA was back in.
The bomb was smuggled to Syria via Jordan, whose intelligence ties with the CIA and the Mossad had been tight and intimate for decades. The involvement of the CIA gave the Jordanians a sense of security in cooperating, in case of Hezbollah retribution.
There were two main obstacles to executing the operation. Mughniyeh’s visits to his Damascus apartment were random and could not be predetermined by the surveillance teams. Secondly, it was difficult for the teams to ensure that they would be able to secure a spot for their rigged car to be parked near Mughniyeh or his vehicle.
Eventually, the conspirators found an undisclosed operational solution which would give them enough warning time ahead of Mughniyeh’s arrival to prepare the trap.
The day of the assassination arrived: On the evening of February 12, Mughniyeh’s car was spotted pulling into the parking lot. The Mossad planners breathed a sigh of relief. The school nearby was closed for the night. Even if the bomb was unexpectedly flawed, the innocent school girls were not at risk.
But to the agony of the project managers, when the car doors opened, Mughniyeh was not alone: Iranian commander Soleimani and the Syrian nuclear coordinator Suleiman exited the vehicle with him. At the command center in Tel Aviv, the order was given: Hold.
The three buddies went up to the apartment. In Tel Aviv, the Mossad project managers and their CIA liaison waited, nervously biting their nails, on the verge of losing hope. A few hours later, the information arrived that Soleimani and Suleiman had left the apartment and been picked up by a car. The planners could now only pray that Mughniyeh would not remain in the apartment overnight.
About half an hour later, the surveillance team reported that Mughniyeh had entered the parking lot and approached his car.
In Tel Aviv, the order rang out: “Pe’al!”
The master terrorist, the Hezbollah commander whose trademark was car bombing, fell victim to his own craft in a blast of poetic justice.
Neither the United States nor America claimed responsibility for the attack, but Hezbollah guessed who was behind it and vowed revenge on Israeli and Jewish targets.
Mughniyeh’s successor, Mustafa Badr Adin, ordered attacks on Israeli embassies and tried to assassinate Olmert and senior Israeli military officers and officials.
But Badr Adin repeatedly failed. His only success was in 2012 at Burgas airport in Bulgaria, when a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver.
Olmert, who is now facing additional corruption charges after being indicted in an Israeli court, is loathed by the majority of Israelis. But analysts who watch the country’s security and defense policies believe that in those areas he was far-sighted, showed determination, and was willing to take risks.
In September 2007, just five months before ordering the assassination of Mughniyeh, Olmert unleashed Israel’s covert operatives and then the air force to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor that North Korea had helped build in a remote area.
One can only imagine what the world would look like had the reactor been built and operated in an area now controlled by the brutal Islamic State (ISIS).
Six months after Mughniyeh’s assassination, Olmert approved a covert operation in which Israeli long-range snipers – apparently firing from a ship – assassinated Syria’s nuclear coordinator, Gen. Suleiman, while he dined with guests on the balcony of his villa overlooking the Mediterranean.
Days after Mughniyeh was killed, then Vice President Dick Cheney called Olmert and they exchanged congratulations for the successful operation. President Bush, too, held Olmert in high respect – reportedly telling someone he liked the Israeli leaders because “he has balls.”
Hezbollah has still not fully recovered from the loss of Mughniyeh. He played vital roles for the Shi’ite movement. He was Hezbollah’s military chief, mastermind of its most vicious terror attacks, liaison to its patron Iran for its “special operations” abroad, and responsible for the protection of his boss, Hassan Nasrallah. In short, for both Hezbollah and Iran, Mughniyeh was priceless.
Ironically, his son Jihad was killed by an Israeli airstrike on a Hezbollah convoy in January 2015. The Israelis, who have not officially acknowledged the attack in Syrian territory near the Golan Heights, were apparently not aiming specifically at young Mughniyeh – nor at the senior Iranian officer, Abu Ali al-Tabtabai, who was also killed.
Diplomatic sources said Israel was able to tell Iran, through channels, that it did not intend to kill Iranian soldiers in that strike. In addition, when Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel as retaliation for the death of Jihad Mughniyeh, Israel did respond emphatically.
The Israeli message was that – at this time, at least – war on the northern border was best to be avoided.
Some Israelis close to senior political and intelligence circles were not, however, willing to let the Washington Post and Newsweek versions of the assassination in 2008 stand uncorrected.
February 15, 2015
One should ponder why American officials would suddenly leak details of the assassination of Hezbollah’s military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, seven years after the lethal explosion in Damascus.
Why would they decide to tell reporters on the espionage beat that the CIA acted together with Israel’s Mossad? And why would they apparently emphasize that the CIA was on the spot in Damascus, doing the key job of planting the cleverly designed bomb – after the bomb was created and tested at a base in the United States?
The answer seems linked with the current, recently increased tensions between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is as though Obama wishes to remind Netanyahu that Israel still needs the United States: America’s expertise and long reach.
President Obama, annoyed at Bibi Netanyahu again
White House officials are obviously angry that Israel’s prime minister plans to come to Washington to address a joint session of Congress on March 3. The event designed by Republican leaders in Congress is aimed at adding pressure to their desire for legislation that would threaten tougher sanctions against Iran.
Netanyahu would love for such a bill to pass, but he seems to be ignoring Obama’s strong opposition to the bill.
Obama has explained that if Congress insists on threatening more sanctions now, that might give Iran an excuse to walk away from the nuclear talks – with the U.S. and five other nations – and some in the world may blame America for derailing the process.
Benjamin Netanyahu Plans to Address Congress — Over Obama’s Objections
Obama claims he gives the talks with Iran only a 50-50 chance of success, and he says U.S. military action against Iranian nuclear facilities is a real possibility.
Netanyahu, for years now, hints at the possibility of unilateral military action against Iran by Israel.
He has been criticized by his opponents – in Israel’s election scheduled for March 17, a mere two weeks after the speech to Congress – for ruining relations with Israel’s all-important ally in Washington.
Netanyahu’s critics, both in Israel and in the U.S., say the tiny country of 8 million people seems to forget that it is the junior partner in an alliance with a superpower (of over 300 million people).
When American officials point to a joint mission with Israel to kill a notorious terrorist in 2008 – emphasizing the leading role played by the CIA, while the Mossad was the junior partner – that seems to include a political message that the Israelis should remember their place and their dependence.
January 31, 2015