How Does the Mossad Recruit? Yes, There’s a Website for That — and There are Flaws

The following article was written by Yossi Melman (co-author of Spies Against Armageddon) for The Jerusalem Report — a twice-a-month magazine published by The Jerusalem Post.

The international and Israeli media’s unflagging interest in the case of Ben Zygier – the Australian-born Jew turned Mossad operative, who committed suicide in his Israeli prison cell in December 2010 – has brought to light the intriguing question of how Israel’s espionage agency searches for, approaches and recruits its manpower.

But first an update on the unfolding story: The German magazine, Der Spiegel, first reported in March that Zygier, who wanted to impress his superiors, betrayed a few Lebanese agents who worked for the Mossad. And then in May, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which earlier in February exposed Zygier’s identity (known until then as Prisoner X), went an extra mile, claiming that the Australian-Israeli, 34 at his death, compromised an operation to discover the remains of three Israeli MIAs who died in a battle in Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon during the 1982 war.

The ABC report was based on an interview with one of the “betrayed” Lebanese. Ziad el Homsi, a former Palestine Liberation Organization officer turned local politician, claimed that he was asked to dig up the graves of the Israeli MIAs, but actually he was a double agent working for Lebanese military intelligence.

Israeli sources dismissed both the German and Australian stories and described them as “nonsense.”

Yet they do admit that it was wrong to recruit Zygier in the first place. “He slipped through our usually rigorous recruiting net,” said an intelligence source.

Zygier was born in 1976 in Melbourne to a family very active in the Jewish community. He went to a Jewish school, joined a Zionist youth movement (Hashomer Hatza’ir) and in 1994 moved to Israel, aged 18. He adopted a Hebrew surname, Alon, and served in the Israel Defense Forces. Soon he was spotted as a potential recruit for intelligence work. Among other attributes, he had a genuine foreign passport that could help a covert operative establish a cover story.

Ben Zygier (from Australia’s ABC)

The sources say Zygier/Alon was approached by the Mossad, went through the standard laborious psychological and aptitude tests, and joined the secret agency in 2003. After more than a year of training, he was assigned to one of the Mossad’s top operational and clandestine units. His assignments tended to involve efforts to penetrate Iran.

Noticing flaws in his personality that made him unsuitable for intelligence field work, the Mossad sent him to study for an MBA at a university in Melbourne before the termination of his contract. There, sources say, he became depressed and edgy and was excessively talkative. Rubbing shoulders with fellow students from many nations, including Lebanese and Iranians, he openly spoke of his Mossad career. At a certain point, he befriended a local contact who had ties with Iran. He was so talkative that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization heard about him and opened its own investigation.

The Mossad also became aware of his loose tongue. Examining who was having conversations with Zygier, the Mossad concluded that some of its operations and operatives were put at risk by his revelations. On his next visit to Israel, he was arrested and indicted on charges of espionage, bordering on treason.

On its website, the Mossad refers to itself as the Israel Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS). It defines its mission as “collecting information, analyzing intelligence and performing special covert operations beyond Israel’s borders.” The website encourages members of the public, locally and internationally, to apply for a job in a range of professions such as graphic design, logistics, computers and programming. Multi-language skills are desired, with an emphasis on Farsi and Arabic. An excellent job candidate would excel at “special” assignments, intelligence and security – areas that are at the core of the agency.

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Mossad’s official logo

It is clear from the Zygier affair, as well as previous known and unknown cases, that the number-one priority of the recruiting process is to properly screen potential candidates. The screening is aimed at finding out whether they are suitable for their designated missions — above all, so that they will neither bungle their work nor cause embarrassing damage to Israel’s national interests. The ultimate goal is to make sure that the select few will be loyal to the organization and avoid actions that might eventually lead to divulging sensitive information and exposing operations, thus causing the arrest and death of agents.

The jobs are described in superlatives. “The job which will change your life,” and “Your job dream.” Despite lack of precise descriptions of the jobs required, from the skills needed, one can reach the conclusion what it is all about. Here is one example for a job in the field of “special assignments.” The candidate, it says, “has an opportunity to create a reality in which he/she plays the central role.” It sounds like a sentence from The Little Drummer Girl, one of John Le Carre’s novels in which he likens intelligence to the art of the theater, though intelligence is “theater of the real.”

In reality, what the Mossad is talking about is the job description of a katsa, a Hebrew acronym for a “collection officer.” In other intelligence services, such a person and role is referred to as a “case officer” or “handler of agents.”

Despite its worldwide image and reputation as an organization that is mainly involved in liquidating its enemies, the Mossad is not “Murder Inc.” In its more than 60 years of existence, the Mossad has been involved in no more than 40 assassination cases in which terrorists, nuclear scientists and Nazi war criminals were killed. The Mossad is basically an intelligence agency specializing in collecting and analyzing information, which is then provided to the Prime Minister and his cabinet to aid in making decisions.

The katsa plays an essential role in the Mossad. He or she is indispensable. This officer is the spearhead of the agency in the field. With the help of specialists at headquarters level, the katsa is responsible for spotting, approaching, recruiting, running, defending and babysitting the agent who is supposed to provide the information. These officers belong to a department known as Tsomet (Junction).

A second operational department is Keshet (Bow), which is in charge of the surveillance of targets as well as break-ins into places of interest to the agency. And a third department is Caesarea, which encompasses the Mossad’s most cherished persons: the field agents. These are the operatives who infiltrate enemy countries such as Syria, Lebanon and, the most dangerous one, Iran. One of the units within the department is Kidon (Bayonet), whose agents carry out the very select operations in which violence is necessary.

One of the main functions of the Mossad’s website is to broaden the net of potential candidates for the Mossad. Before the website was launched 15 years ago, the main recruiting method was based on the “old-boys network” – searching for candidates in the military and the other branches of the intelligence community based on personal recommendations.

Since then, searching, screening and recruiting have tremendously improved and are more systematic and scientific. Yet, today, as then, the number-one problem of the Human Resources department remains how to make sure that the recruit does not have a hidden personality disorder and latent suicidal tendencies.

The objective is to screen out problematic candidates — without rejecting the suitable, potentially great ones. In the annals of the Mossad and other intelligence agencies, there have been hundreds of cases of rejecting good candidates. But, luckily enough for the Mossad, very few cases of recruits with personality disorders have been discovered.

There are at least four famous cases. One was Avri Elad, a major in the IDF. In 1954, he was sent to Egypt under the identity of a Nazi SS officer to run a network of Jewish students trained to destabilize the regime. Eventually, he betrayed them. Elad denied the charges yet was imprisoned for 10 years for espionage.

Another one involved Mordechai Kedar, a bank robber suspected of murder. He was recruited in 1956, trained and sent to establish his cover in Argentina before being sent to Egypt. While in Buenos Aires, he murdered his local Jewish helper and stole his money. Kedar was found guilty by a military tribunal court and was imprisoned for 20 years.

Three decades later, the case of Mossad cadet Victor Ostrovsky came to light. Possessing a Canadian passport and the traits of a professional charmer, he was recruited as a candidate despite what Mossad sources call personality flaws. They say Ostrovsky became involved in financial frauds. Eventually, after 18 months of training, his handlers discovered that he was cheating his classmates.

After being fired, Ostrovsky took his revenge by writing a book about Mossad operations, and named many of its operatives. Prior to the publication of his book, which contains a lot of lies, the Mossad tried to dissuade him from publishing, but he refused. It turned out that the Mossad’s efforts, which included failed appeals to Canadian and American courts, served as Ostrovsky’s best marketing vehicle. His book became a lucrative bestseller.

And then there was the case of Yehuda Gil. A legendary katsa who posed as an Italian businessman, in the mid-1970s Gil befriended a Syrian general and tried to recruit him. The general refused to betray his country. Fearing he would be seen as a failure, Gil kept up a 20-year charade in which the general was supposedly feeding him valid information. Meanwhile, Gil hid the money he was supposed to pay the source under mattresses at his home in Tel Aviv and fabricated reports.

In the mid-1990s, one of the reports Gil submitted nearly triggered a war between Israel and Syria. Eventually, Gil was put under the surveillance of his Keshet buddies and was caught red-handed. He was sentenced to five years in jail.

Psychologists who worked for the Mossad have told me that individuals with borderline personalities are characterized by sudden and dramatic changes in their behavior and unstable relations with other people. “In many cases,” one psychologist said, “these people tend to see their close colleagues in a dichotomy – either as an enemy or a loved one.”

“People with borderline personalities are the greatest risk to any intelligence organization,” another psychologist noted, “because it is an elusive trait that is difficult to be noticed and screened.”

Maximum efforts of any clandestine service are devoted to block entry to such personalities. However, a built-in contradiction threatens the process. Often such people are gifted and blessed with traits that the organization is seeking: creativity, the ability to change identities, to lie without blinking, to be daring, and to deal with changing and challenging circumstances. No wonder that sometimes the agency does not resist the temptation and hires these characters.

Indeed the cases mentioned above, as well as the Zygier affair, prove this point. Nevertheless, a few dozen failed cases out of the thousands of people who have been recruited to work in the Mossad and for the Mossad over the six decades of its existence are not a bad ratio at all.

The recruiting process cannot be perfect. As of now, no one has invented a vaccine that can neutralize the flaws in human nature.

[This Jerusalem Report article by Yossi Melman was slightly edited for]

May 22, 2013

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