The Israeli Intelligence Services: Deception and Covert Action Operations
In 1920 Charles Stienmetz said "There will come about an age of small independent Nations whose first line of defence will be knowledge". This statement sums up well the role of the Israeli intelligence services. Organised espionage and deception has long been an honoured and recognised profession among the Israelites with only the Chinese having an older history of espionage. This long history coupled with an almost fanatical will to see the state of Israel survive has led to the formation of one of the most successful intelligence services of any country in the world. Modern Israel has been under constant threat from hostile neighbours on its boarders and hostile minorities within leading to a state of siege atmosphere which has encourage their security service to indulge in regular and at times bloody covert actions. The Israeli security services are made up of three main organisations, Aman, which is military intelligence, Shin Beth, which deals with internal security and counterintelligence and Mossad. Ha Mossad le Modiin ule Tafkidim Meyuhadum translates as the Institute for Intelligence and Special Task is the Israeli equivalent of the British SIS and deals with most of the covert operations.
Although almost consistently threatened by its neighbours either directly by war or indirectly by terrorism, Israel remained somewhat aloof from the Cold War which has given its covert operations a distinctive flavour and made them a world leader in the post Cold War World of espionage and holds many lessons for the intelligence services of the West who are slowly adapting to this very different political environment. I have divided the Israeli Covert Operations into three main areas, Counterterrorism, anti Nuclear Proliferation/ technology acquisition and Humanitarian Relief.
With the crushing Arab defeat in the 1967 war the Palestinians realised that their 'Champions' in the Arab world would be unable or unwilling to help them. Open warfare was out of the question so they turned to the traditional weapon of the weak, terrorism. Unfortunately for the Palestinians , the IDF and especially Shin Beth with its network of undercover agents in the refugee camps were more than capable of not only limiting the effects of the terrorist attacks on Israel but making such attacks very costly to the Palestinians. Since most attacks in Israel were thwarted they turned their attention overseas, to attack not only Israeli's in other countries but the western allies of Israel as well.
The Israeli's reacted fast and hard against this international terrorism, with Mossad teams operating covertly in many foreign countries. Shin Beth trained hidden guards armed with low velocity Beretta .22 handguns which were placed on Israeli airliners ready to engage in airborne gun battles with any hijacker foolish enough to try. Mossad and Shin Beth agents infiltrated the West Bank camps so that warning of terrorist attacks could be received. They also operated in Jordan, passing on information to King Hussein, some of these agents were spies, others were acting in a covert diplomatic role, organising secret meetings between Israeli leaders and King Hussein. From the 1970's onwards Mossad took the policy of hitting back hard against the terrorists no matter what country they might be in. Mossad did have its failures, like the disastrous 1972 Munich Olympics, where terrorists managed to seize nine members of the Israeli Olympic team, which lead to a massacre. After Munich Israeli public opinion called for action, Golda Meir's orders to the Israeli secret services was clear, to go on the offensive, to allow this Mossads budget was doubled. As Ronald Payne put it "Mossad was not only given a licence to kill (it had done that in the past) but a licence to systematically hunt down those deemed responsible for the Munich Massacre".
This lead to the formation of auxiliary Avenger or Goel squads, such as 'Masada' or 'Wrath of God', irreverently called WOG by Mossad. These teams operated covertly in other sovereign states to hunt down and exterminate Arab terrorists. The Israeli's have a long historical tradition of such avengers based on the right of vengeance against one who had killed kin, and who were allowed safe refuge in certain cities. Mossad revived this idea, justifying it by saying that it was done due to expediency and self defence. The Avenger squads were not always successful, as in Lillehammer, Norway in 1973, were an Avenger team not only killed the wrong man , but were captured.
It would be wrong to characterize all Mossad covert counterterrorism operations as brutal search and destroy missions, (Although an attempt to kill and decapitate the head of the PLO Abou Jihad in Tunis does little to contradict this view). Mossad have also used more discreet methods for example although strictly illegal under the German constitution, Israeli agents gained unofficial authorization to interrogate Arab suspects held in German prisons. Also the famous operation Jonathan, the hostage rescue in Entebbe on 4th July 1976 were the Israeli's attempted to rescue more than a hundred hostages detained by President Idi Amin of Uganda, after they had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. The often brutal tactics of Mossad have brought few criticisms from the Israeli public who used to suffering terrorist attacks against themselves shed few tears for those killed by Mossad teams in other countries.
Among those secret services involved with trying to purloin industrial and technical secrets the Israeli's have a track record second only to the KGB. In the 1960's a special and highly secret organisation called the Lekem was established attached to Mossad. Lekem's function is the collection of scientific and technical intelligence. Its agents travel aboard covertly as businessmen and scientists or are seconded to the staff of Israeli embassies all over the world. Traditionally Lekem has focused on two areas, that of military technology and that of nuclear technology, with some notable success in both areas. Mossad has also worked to circumvent arms embargoes placed on Israel.
During the Six Day War the Israeli's lost about 10% of their aircraft and many more were in need of repair. Many Western nations banned the sale of arms to Israel after the war , in particular the French President De Gaulle. This led to several successful operations by the Israeli secret service. The first involved the theft of plans of the French Mirage III fighter. The Israelis relied on French aircraft and although their own aircraft project was underway it was far from complete. Mossad and Lekem decided to steal the plans for the Mirage III which they did via a contact in Switzerland paying the measly sum of £85,000 for the plans. These enabled the Israelis to build their own aircraft the Kfir which was heavily based on the Mirage III.
Another example of Israeli covert operations being used to circumvent an arms embargo was in 1968, when Mossad stole five gunboats which were being built for the Israeli's at Cherbourg, the French had refused to deliver them so Mossad stole them and sailed them to Haifa. During the Six Day War the Arab airforces had made a great deal of use of the Mig 21 fighter, during the early 1970's the Israeli's were determined to get hold of one to examine its weak points. Since they could not buy one they had to steal one, to do this they offered an Iraqi pilot £8,000 to steal one, he refused and demanded £80,000 or he would go to the authorities. The pilot was picked up by the Iraqi secret service (probably on an Israeli tip off) and executed. The Israelis become more careful and made dossiers of Arab pilots likely to steal a Mig for them. Finally their hard work paid off and they got their Mig 21 in time for the 1973 war.
One of the most important functions of Lekem and Mossad was the acquisition of nuclear technology for Israel. In a similar way to the Chinese who have recruited scientists from all over the world, the Israeli's have made a point of recruiting non-Israeli Jews who are either scientists or students in nuclear physics to help them attain the ability to make a nuclear bomb. That the Israeli's have the capability to do so is without doubt as the Mordicai Vanunu affair showed. Early on in the project Israel needed material from nuclear reactors and Mossad helped obtain this. This has been one of the areas where Chinese and Israeli governments have actually covertly helped each other using their secret services to pass information between them.
In preventing the Arab states from developing or obtaining nuclear weapons the Israeli secret service has been very active and fairly successful, although as in most covert operations success is difficult to detect although failure is often public. In the 1970's Iraq decided to buy two nuclear reactors from France, to be named Osiris and Isis. Construction of these started in 1979. A Mossad team blew up reactor parts in the factory in France, carefully avoiding damaging reactor parts being built for the Belgium's and West Germans, setting Iraq's nuclear program back by two years. In 1980 a Mossad hit team was thought to have killed Professor Yahia El-Meshad who was found dead in his Paris apartment, he was a leading nuclear physicist who had just agree to work for Iraq.
Combining military force and covert ops again in 1980 two Phantom jets disguised as Iranian planes but thought to be Israeli attacked a nuclear research centre near Baghdad. Finally in 1981 a massive fifteen plane raid bombed an Iraqi reactor. A Mossad agent had placed a homing device near the reactor allowing the planes to home in directly. The raid took out the reactor just before it became operational, doing maximum damage but producing no fallout.
Mossad has also been linked to the murders of several other top scientists who were helping Arab WMD (Weapons of mass destruction) programs, including the famous Dr Gerald Bull and Alan Kidger in 1991. Kidger was the marketing director of Thor Chemicals and was found in the boot of his car near Johannesburg, he was thought , by South African police to have been murdered by the Israelis because he was selling chemicals for the manufacture of nuclear weapons to Arab states. The English Dr Bull an expert in artillery, was working what was to become known as the Iraqi 'Supergun' which would have gave the Iraqis a method of delivering nuclear, biological or chemical weapons into Israel and beyond.
It is strange to think of Israeli covert action which has a bloody reputation being involved with operations which can only be classed as Humanitarian. The first of these I shall look at is the kidnapping and trial of the Nazi war criminal Otto Adolf Eichmann. During the 1960's things were going badly for the Israelis Suez had seen them let down by the French and British, President Nasser of Egypt had views of an Arab Empire and many felt that world opinion was turning against Israel. They felt what was needed was a public trial of a Nazi war criminal, to demonstrate the horror of the Nazi's to the world once more. Eichmann was chosen because millions of deaths were directly attributed to him. Operation 'Eichmann' was a covert operation in the sovereign territory of a friendly country and although ethically justifiable it was far from legally justifiable. After a long search Eichmann was tracked down to Buenos Aires and fearing that he would escape extradition by fleeing to Peru or Uruguay a Mossad team kidnapped him, checked his identity medically and flew him to Israel where he was tried and hanged in 1962. This was a clear use of covert operations as politics by another means as Clausewitz would have illustrated, with the operation furthering Israelis political goals by improving world opinion and fulfilling a police role in carrying out justice. The second example I shall use is more strictly humanitarian, that of 'Operation Moses'. This was a covert operation to rescue thousands of Black Ethiopian Jews or Falahas from starvation and fly them to Israel. The Israeli operation was thinly disguised as a holiday resort on the Red Sea, by the time it was closed down in January 1986 it had rescued 18,000 Jews, 13,000 directly via the Red Sea operation and 5,000 via an official chartered jet. The operation was highly successful and caused an outrage in the Arab World, it have rescued more but a press leak forced it to be closed down. This was not the first time that Mossad had done rescue missions, in the 1950's Operation 'Magic Carpet' involved flying Jews fleeing the Yemen into Israel by Hercules transport plane. This rescue of Jews in danger has always been seen as part of the Israeli national interest and has been repeated in many countries including Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia and in some former Soviet states during civil unrest.
As this article shows Israeli covert operations have been a diverse and effective part of their statecraft. Being a small nation beset by enemies and lacking the political or economic leverage of larger more powerful nations, the Israeli's have used covert operations to achieve foreign policy goals such as helping to prevent nuclear proliferation(while aiding their own weapon development). They have influenced world opinion as in the Nazi hunts and even provided humanitarian assistance as in the case of operation 'Moses' . Any questions over the brutal methods employed have been to a large extent mitigated by the unquestionable success of the Israeli Secret Services. Now as we enter the 21st century Israel is still beset by enemies although mainly internal , the phrase "The ends justifies the means " remains the de facto motto of the Israeli security services. The only question is, as western post cold war security services move towards more accountability how long before the Israeli's follow suit?
Mossad. Ronald Payne 1990. Covers the full range of Mossad's operations around the world.
By Way of Deception. Victor Ostrovsky 1990. Written by an ex-Mossad agent, the book covers his own training as an agent, as well as a series of Mossad operations.
Israel's Secret Wars. Ian Black, Benny Morris 1991. A study of the covert operations carried out by Israel from the early days of the state to the Gulf War, demonstrating the increasing sophistication of these operations.
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (22 August 2001), The Israeli Intelligence Services; Deception and Covert Action Operations, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_israeli_covert.html
Contact Us -
About Us -
Subscribe in a reader