Dubai attack turns up signs of a long-running shadow war by Israel’s Mossad spy agency

By Matti Friedman, AP
Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Dubai attack, signs of Mossad shadow war

JERUSALEM — The death of a Hamas operative in Dubai at the hands of a squad of burly hit men conjures up images of the string of killings that followed the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and a bungled attempt to poison a Hamas leader in Jordan 13 years ago.

Israel’s Mossad spy agency — the prime suspect in the death of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh last month in Dubai — has known both triumph and embarrassment in decades of covert warfare, and the latest episode would appear to include elements of each.

The killers, whoever they are, got their man and escaped. But they were caught on video and left behind what appears to be significant evidence: A Dubai police force that proved competent perhaps beyond the agents’ expectations found that at least seven of them used the names of real Israelis with European passports.

The Mossad is suspected of several violent incidents in the Mideast in recent years, such as the killing of a top Hezbollah officer in the heart of Damascus in 2008. But its reputation — particularly in the Arab world where it is often seen as an ominous force behind unexplained events — goes back decades.

In 1972, a group of armed Palestinians raided the rooms of Israel’s Olympic team in Munich, killed two athletes and took another nine hostage. A botched rescue attempt by German police ended in the deaths of all of the Israelis in a wild shootout at a nearby military airfield.

Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, ordered the Mossad to kill those responsible, partly as revenge and partly to deter future attacks. That directive launched an unprecedented covert offensive that saw a string of Palestinian operatives — many of them not directly connected to the Munich massacre — gunned down or blown up across Europe and the Middle East.

Basil al-Kubaisi, for example, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was approached by two men as he left the Cafe de la Paix in Paris one night in April 1973. He had time to yell “Don’t do this” in French before the men, assassins from a Mossad outfit known as Caesarea, shot him dead with silenced 0.22 pistols.

That was on a Friday. The following Monday, after long preparations by Mossad agents, Israeli commandos landed in rubber dinghies on the Beirut beach near the Sands Hotel. One of the commandos was Ehud Barak, a future prime minister and the current defense minister, who was disguised as a woman with a brunette wig and makeup.

The assassins killed their targets, three high-ranking Palestinian Liberation Organization men, before fleeing back to their boats. A number of civilian bystanders were also killed.

Other Palestinian operatives were killed by bullets or bombs in Rome, Nicosia, Athens and elsewhere, and the myth of the Mossad — ruthless and skillful with unlimited resources and reach — was born. It has largely held, even in the face of embarrassing blunders.

The Mossad places far more emphasis on special operations like assassinations than intelligence agencies in most other countries, said Ronen Bergman, author of a book on Israeli covert operations against Iran.

“This emphasis is because of Israel’s existential fears. This is not policy — it’s mindset, the feeling that the Mossad is the final frontier for defending the national security of the state of Israel,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday.

That aggressive approach has led to a few very public errors. In July 1973, on a Saturday night in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer, Mossad gunmen shot and killed a man they believed was Ali Hassan Salameh, a top Palestinian operative known as the Red Prince. The victim turned out to be an innocent Moroccan waiter named Ahmed Bouchiki. Six of the agents were captured and put on trial in Norway for the bungled killing.

It was six years before the Mossad caught up with Salameh himself, using a Volkswagen packed with plastic explosives to kill him in the middle of Beirut.

The Lillehammer fiasco revealed an interesting aspect of Mossad operations: two of the captured agents were women. One, Sylvia Rafael, a South African-Israeli dual national who was imprisoned in Norway, later married her Norwegian defense attorney.

In the Dubai killing last month, closed circuit TV cameras filmed a member of a surveillance duo whom Dubai authorities identified as an Irish national named Gail Folliard, and who is seen at one point entering a bathroom and emerging with her blond hair concealed under a black wig.

Khaled Mashaal, one of Hamas’ top leaders, was walking in Amman, Jordan in 1997, a time when the Islamic group was carrying out deadly bombings in Israeli cities. Two Mossad men reportedly using Canadian passports tried to kill him with a device that released a toxin into his ear, but the plan was disrupted by the Hamas man’s bodyguard, who began chasing the Israelis.

They were arrested by Jordanian police, sparking a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Jordan.

The Israeli prime minister who authorized that attack was Benjamin Netanyahu, who became Israel’s leader again last year and would have had to green-light the Dubai operation, if Israel carried it out. At the time, Netanyahu was forced to send an antidote to Jordan, saving Mashaal’s life, and to free Hamas’ spiritual leader from jail in return for the release of the two captured agents.

The covert war might be ugly, but it is a necessity, said Rafi Sutton, 78, who served as a Mossad agent in Europe in the 1970s.

“If we, the citizens of Israel, want this state to continue to exist, we must be ready to fight for it day and night, in the light and also in the darkness,” he told the AP.

The organization deserves its reputation, he said.

“The Mossad’s name was bought with years of success in operations. It’s not for nothing — it has some of the best people in the world, each of whom contributed their thinking and daring and improvisation,” Sutton said.

The Mossad’s reputation is such that its mistakes are often seen as having been done on purpose, and it is often implicated in things it did not do, said Aaron J. Klein, a former Israeli intelligence officer whose book “Striking Back” documents the Mossad’s deadly response to the Munich attack.

In 2005, Klein asked a group of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine militants in an Israeli jail to give him a list of people they believed had been killed by the Mossad. He then checked their list against information he had from Mossad sources. Of the some 40 names on the list, fewer than half had actually been killed by Israeli agents.

Mossad assassinations provide Israel with a short-term tactical advantage by eliminating enemies, he said. But the long-term effect is uncertain.

“I sometimes feel that we turn to this a bit too much and put a lot of energy and resources into it because it’s easier than dealing with strategic matters, like actually deciding what to do with Hamas. That’s more complicated,” Klein said.

“There is a tendency to turn to things that are familiar,” Klein said. “It works. Of course it works. But it will not bring a solution.”

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