Mossad Hit Team’s Big Mistake: 40 Years Ago, Wrong Man Killed in Norway — New Reflections

It was forty years ago that the Mossad made one of its biggest mistakes: murdering an innocent Moroccan waiter in the tranquil resort town of Lillehammer in Norway.

For the first time, the then-director of the Mossad, Zvi Zamir, breaks his silence on the affair and takes full responsibility.

Zvi Zamir

“I, as the head of the Mossad, am responsible for what happened.  And I and my colleagues at the agency were and still are not proud of what happened,” Zamir said, in an exclusive interview with Yossi Melman (co-author of Spies Against Armageddon), published in the Hebrew-language weekly Sof HaShavua (Weekend) and to be reprinted in English this week on the Jerusalem Post website.

Zamir, who is 88 years old, explained that “in retrospect we know that our source was not reliable, and his information misled us.”  The Mossad’s target was Ali Hassan Salemeh, nicknamed The Red Prince, who was a senior commander in Yasser Arafat’s PLO. Salameh was one of the planners of the asssault — ten months earlier — by Palestinian terrorists on Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympics in Munich, a global drama which ended with the murder of 11 Israelis and the deaths of several attackers.

Ali Hassan Salameh

In July 1973, a team of Mossad operatives rushed to Norway after receiving a tip that Salameh was in Lillehammer. The Israelis were part of Caesarea — the Mossad’s operational department, which in the post-Munich period had busied itself with an increased campaign of murders aimed at Palestinian militants in Europe.  On the night of July 21 they opened fire on Ahmed Bouchiki, killing him before the eyes of his pregnant wife.

The Mossad team was augmented, at the last minute, by several volunteers from Israel who spoke Scandinavian languages and had local citizenship.

While Israel — almost immediately after the atrocity at the Munich Olympics — was sending assassination teams almost anywhere in Europe and Lebanon where PLO men believed to be linked with violence could be found, Zvi Zamir rejects the notion that his teams were “revenge squads.”

“The aim was not revenge,” he told Yossi Melman. “The Mossad does not operate on emotions. This was a well-calculated decision to disrupt the PLO’s future operations — to force them to go underground, to make them look out for their own safety. When terrorists are engaged in defending themselves, they have less time to think about planning attacks.”

In a matter of nine months, the Mossad’s apparently expert gunmen and bomb-planters killed nine PLO operatives in Rome, Paris, Athens, Nicosia, and Beirut.  Not all the targets were involved in planning the Olympics assault.

Zamir now admits that the early successes of the target killings campaign made the Mossad complacent. “We were trigger-happy,” he adds.

The Lillehammer operation’s mistakes went far beyond mis-identifying the target. The Israeli killers also made the cardinal error of getting caught.

Lillehammer, a ski resort town

Norwegian police arrested six of the Mossad operatives. One was released for lack of evidence, but five were put on trial and convicted by Norwegian courts. The Israelis were sentenced to between 1 and 5-and-a-half years in prison for a variety of charges that included espionage and being an accomplice to a murder.

All were released after serving only one-third of their terms. Four returned to active duty with Israel’s intelligence agencies and eventually retired.

The leader of the operation, Mike Harari, had managed to escape from Norway to Sweden by boat — using a yacht that loaned to the Mossad by a “sayyan,” a Jewish helper in Norway. Israeli intelligence benefits from similar assistance by sayyanim (helpers), usually Jews who know not to ask too many questions, all around the world.

Zamir himself had intended to be in Norway, honoring the unique Mossad tradition of the agency chief being close to the action when the riskiest or most significant missions are carried out. (In 1960, the long-serving Mossad director Isser Harel was in Argentina during the operation to kidnap Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.) While Zamir flew out of Tel Aviv, he ended up stuck in Stockholm, Sweden — because the commercial flight he boarded was ground by a mechanical problem.

Melman’s story at will also include excerpts from the reports compiled by Norwegian police investigators, as they pieced together the Mossad operation. They were surprised that the killing of Bouchiki was not a simple criminal act.

The Norwegians learned a lot more than they ever bargained for, when one member of the Israeli squad — Dan Aerbel, who also went by the name Dan Ert — was so claustrophobic that he panicked after his arrest and told absolutely everything he knew about Mossad operations all over Europe. That included even the famed (but at that time barely known) operation in which Israeli spies made a ship carrying uranium vanish on the high seas.

a book on Mossad spy Sylvia Rafael

Another member of the Israeli team caught in Lillehammer, a photographer who called herself Patricia Roxborough, turned out to be a dynamic and mysterious Israeli, Sylvia Rafael, who had worked undercover as a Mossad officer in Arab and other nations. Rafael continued to be unusually fascinating, as her Norwegian defense lawyer fell in love with her. After she was released from prison, Rafael married the attorney and lived fairly happily ever after — though no longer, it’s believed, in the Mossad.

The failed operation in Norway — a 40th anniversary that the Mossad would rather ignore — was the first of its kind where Israeli secret agents left behind indisputable evidence of their involvement in a killing operation.

Twenty-three years later, Mossad operatives would again be arrested after their botched operation — in Amman, Jordan — aimed at killing the senior Hamas man, Khaled Meshaal.  Mossad men were captured by the Jordanians, and King Hussein demanded that top officials of the Mossad — with whom he had secret contacts for years — immediately send an antidote to the poison that was sprayed into Meshaal’s ear.

The Mossad sheepishly complied, in order to secure the release of the Israeli operatives held by Jordan.

In the Norwegian fiasco, the Israeli government never admitted its involvement; but in 1996 it agreed to pay $400,000 in compensation to the slain Ahmed Bouchiki’s wife and son.

July 1, 2013

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