Sunday, 21 February 2010

Chequered record of a feared espionage agency

Last November, a sharp-eyed Israeli woman named Niva Ben-Harush was alarmed to notice a young man attaching something that looked suspiciously like a bomb to the underside of a car in a quiet street near Tel Aviv port. When police arrested him, he claimed to be an agent of the Mossad secret service on a training exercise: his story turned out to be true - though the bomb was a fake.

2 comments:

Guanyu 道 said...

Chequered record of a feared espionage agency

The Guardian in London
20 February 2010

Last November, a sharp-eyed Israeli woman named Niva Ben-Harush was alarmed to notice a young man attaching something that looked suspiciously like a bomb to the underside of a car in a quiet street near Tel Aviv port. When police arrested him, he claimed to be an agent of the Mossad secret service on a training exercise: his story turned out to be true - though the bomb was a fake.

No comment was forthcoming from the Israeli prime minister’s office, which formally speaks for - but invariably says nothing about - the country’s world-famous espionage organisation. The bungling bomber was just a brief item on that evening’s local TV news.

There was, however, a far bigger story - one that echoed across the globe - two years ago this week, when a bomb in a jeep in Damascus decapitated a man named Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh was the military leader of Lebanon’s Shia movement Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, and was wanted by the United States, France and half a dozen other countries. Israel never went beyond cryptic nodding and winking about that killing in the heart of the Syrian capital, but it is widely believed to have been one of its most daring and sophisticated clandestine operations.

The Mossad, like other intelligence services, tends to attract attention only when something goes wrong, or when it boasts of a spectacular success and wants to send a warning to its enemies. Last month’s assassination of a senior Hamas official in Dubai is a curious mixture of both.

With its cloned foreign passports, multiple disguises, state-of-the-art communications and the murder of alleged arms smuggler Mahmoud al-Mabhouh - one of the few elements of the plot that was not captured on the emirate’s CCTV cameras - it is a riveting tale of professional chutzpah, violence and cold calculation. And with the Palestinian Islamist movement now vowing to take revenge, it seems grimly certain that it will bring more bloodshed in its wake.

The images from Dubai follow the biblical injunction (and the Mossad’s old motto): “By way of deception thou shalt make war.”

The agency’s job, its website explains more prosaically, is to “collect information, analyse intelligence and perform special covert operations beyond [Israel’s] borders”.

The Mossad’s most celebrated exploits included the abduction of the fugitive Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who was later tried and hanged in Israel. Others were organising the defection of an Iraqi pilot who flew his MiG-21 to Israel, and support for Iraqi Kurdish rebels against Baghdad. Military secrets acquired by Elie Cohen, the infamous spy who penetrated the Syrian leadership, helped Israel conquer the Golan Heights in the 1967 war.

It was after that that the service’s role expanded to fight the Palestinians, who had been galvanised under Yasser Arafat into resisting Israel in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Steven Spielberg’s 2006 film Munich helped mythologise the Mossad’s hunt for the Black September terrorists who massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Eleven of them were eliminated in killings across Europe, culminating in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer, where a Moroccan waiter was mistaken for Ali Hassan Salameh, the Munich plot’s mastermind. Salameh was eventually killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 1979 - the sort of incident that made Lebanese and Palestinians sit up and notice last year’s botched training episode in Tel Aviv.

Some details of the assassination of Mabhouh last month echo elements of the campaign against Black September, which ended with the arrest of five Mossad agents.

Guanyu 道 said...

Over the years, the Mossad’s image has been badly tarnished at home as well as abroad. It was blamed in part for failing to get wind of Egyptian-Syrian plans for the devastating attack that launched the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Critics wondered whether the spies had got their priorities right by focusing on hunting down Palestinian gunmen in the back alleys of European cities, when they should have been stealing secrets in Cairo and Damascus.

But the worst own goal came in 1997, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. Mossad agents tried but failed to assassinate Khaled Mash’al - the same Hamas leader who is now warning of retaliation for Mabhouh’s murder - by injecting poison into his ear in Amman, Jordan. Using forged Canadian passports, they fled to the Israeli embassy, triggering outrage and a huge diplomatic crisis with Jordan. Danny Yatom, the then Mossad chief, was forced to quit. Ephraim Halevy, a quietly spoken former Londoner, was brought back from retirement to clear up the mess.

The Dubai assassination, however, may yet turn out to be far more damaging - not least because the political and diplomatic context has changed in the past decade. Israel’s reputation has suffered an unprecedented battering, reaching a new low during last year’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

“In the current climate, the traces left behind in Dubai are likely to lead to very serious harm to Israel’s international standing,” the former diplomat Alon Liel commented on Thursday.

Yossi Melman, the expert on intelligence for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, worries that, as before the 1973 war, the Israeli government may be getting it wrong by focusing on the wrong enemy - the Palestinians - instead of giving priority to Iran and Hezbollah.

“The Mossad is not Murder Inc, like the mafia; its goal is not to take vengeance on its enemies,” he wrote this week. “Special operations like the assassination in Dubai - if this indeed was a Mossad operation - have always accounted for a relatively small proportion of its overall activity. Nevertheless, these are the operations that give the organisation its halo, its shining image. This is ultimately liable to blind its own ranks, cause them to become intoxicated by their own success, and thus divert their attention from their primary mission.”