The Mossad method

The intricately planned murder of a Hamas operative in Dubai has shined a spotlight on Israel’s feared and revered secret service

Security footage of the men believed to be part of the hit squad.
(Image credit: Reuters)

Did Mossad kill al-Mabhouh?

In keeping with its “policy of ambiguity” on intelligence matters, Israel has refused to confirm or deny any role in last month’s killing of Hamas arms broker Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. “There is no reason to think that it was the Israeli Mossad,” was the Israeli foreign minister’s carefully worded response. But intelligence experts say the meticulously planned assassination, which is thought to have involved up to 26 accomplices, bore the hallmarks of a Mossad hit—from the use of stolen foreign identities to the droll “Do not disturb” sign the assassins fixed to the dead man’s hotel room door.

What exactly does Mossad do?

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Mossad (or “institute” in Hebrew) claims to be a typical intelligence service, like the CIA or the U.K.’s MI6. Its website describes duties such as “producing strategic, political, and operational intelligence” and preventing terrorist attacks. But from its earliest days, its covert actions have had an unusually dramatic, righteous quality—in keeping with the Jewish state’s emotional founding in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Mossad’s current director, Meir Dagan, has a photograph in his office of his grandfather about to be shot by a Nazi—reflecting the agency’s roots in a Zionist group that smuggled Jews into British Palestine in the 1930s. Since being founded in 1949, Mossad has relentlessly hunted down Israel’s enemies far beyond the state’s own borders.

Who has Mossad targeted?

Nazis, to start with, the most prominent being Adolf Eichmann. Tipped off that the architect of the Final Solution was living quietly in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in May 1960 a team of 11 Mossad agents, many of them Holocaust survivors, seized Eichmann, drugged him, and flew him to Israel, where he was tried and executed. Argentina protested that its sovereignty had been grossly violated, but Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was given a standing ovation when he announced Eichmann’s capture to the Knesset. Mossad also helped Israel battle its hostile neighbors. In 1966, it arranged the defection of an Iraqi pilot, complete with his Soviet-built MiG-21 jet. But it was in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics, at which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists, that Mossad became known for its particular brand of vengeance.

What happened after Munich?

Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered Mossad to hunt down the terrorists and kill them, wherever they were. In a seven-year operation, code-named Wrath of God, 11 Palestinians were shot or blown up in Rome, Cyprus, Paris, Athens, and Beirut. Wrath of God established the skill, ruthlessness, and disregard for foreign governments for which Mossad has been known ever since. Over the years, Mossad has been suspected in dozens of killings and kidnappings. In 2008 alone, its assassination unit (see below) is thought to have decapitated a senior Hezbollah figure in Damascus, Syria, by planting a bomb in his car’s headrest, and executed a Syrian general, who was shot from a yacht while he was relaxing in the garden of his seaside villa.

Is murder Mossad’s main function?

Actually, some of Mossad’s greatest successes have been in saving lives. In July 1976, Mossad agents obtained aerial photos that enabled Israeli commandos to free 102 hostages from Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. And in 1992, Mossad went to the aid of Jews escaping the siege of Sarajevo. More recently, it is believed responsible for several acts aimed at disrupting Iran’s nuclear program, including the killing of a top Iranian scientist and suspicious fires at two labs.

What is its overall track record?

Mixed. Mossad has made some serious tactical and strategic errors. Critics say its intelligence was faulty prior to the surprise attack by Arab armies in 1973, and that it missed the warning signs of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and both Palestinian intifadas. Assassinations have also gone wrong. In 1973, a team of six agents shot dead a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, in front of his pregnant wife, after mistaking him for the leader of the Fatah offshoot Black September. Another diplomatic crisis followed an attempt in 1997 to murder Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan. Two Mossad agents, using Canadian passports, were caught injecting a nerve toxin into Meshaal’s ear. They fled to the Israeli Embassy in Amman, and Israel was forced to admit its role and turn over an antidote.

How do Israelis view Mossad?

They’re of two minds. While many Israelis like Mossad’s take-no-prisoners methods, critics worry that even its successes can harm Israel’s image, by suggesting the country operates in defiance of international law. In fact, Mossad went largely quiet after the Meshaal poisoning, until 2002, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered that the agency be used more aggressively, with a “knife between its teeth.” But as Mossad’s profile has risen again, so have the misgivings. Writing recently in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, security expert Yossi Melman said that despite its reputation, “Mossad is not ‘Murder Inc.,’ like the Mafia,” and is supposed to focus on intelligence gathering. “Nevertheless,” he said, “these are the operations that give the organization its halo, its shining image. This is ultimately liable to blind its own ranks.”

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