The Story of 'Operation Orchard': How Israel Destroyed Syria's Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor

By Erich Follath and Holger Stark

Part 2: Syria's Unpredictable President

Tel Aviv, late 2001. An inconspicuous block of houses located among eucalyptus trees is home to the headquarters of the legendary Israeli foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad. A memorial to agents who died in commando operations behind enemy lines stands in the small garden. There are already more than 400 names engraved on the gray marble, with room for many more. In the main building, intelligence analysts are trying to assemble a picture of the new Syrian president.

In July 2000, Bashar Assad succeeded his deceased father, former President Hafez Assad. The Israelis believed that the younger Assad, a politically inexperienced ophthalmologist who had lived in London for many years and who was only 34 when he took office, would be a weak leader. Unlike his father, an unscrupulous political realist nicknamed "The Lion" who had almost struck a deal with the Israelis over the Golan Heights in the last few months of his life, Bashar Assad was considered relatively unpredictable.

Photo Gallery

7  Photos
Photo Gallery: Mystery in the Syrian Desert

According to Israeli agents in Damascus, the younger Assad was trying to consolidate his power by espousing radical and controversial positions. He supplied massive amounts of weapons to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, for their "struggle for independence" from the "Zionist regime." He received high-ranking delegations from North Korea. The Mossad was convinced that the subject of these secret talks was a further upgrading of Syria's military capabilities. Pyongyang had already helped Damascus in the past in the development of medium-range ballistic missiles and chemical weapons like sarin and mustard gas. But when Israeli military intelligence informed their Mossad counterparts that a Syrian nuclear program was apparently under discussion, the intelligence professionals were dismissive.

Nuclear weapons for Damascus, a nuclear plant literally on Israel's doorstep? For the experts, it seemed much too implausible.

Besides, the senior Assad had rebuffed Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani "father of the atom bomb," when Khan tried to sell him centrifuges for uranium enrichment on the black market in the early 1990s. The Israelis also knew all too well how complex the road to the bomb is, after having spent a lengthy period of time in the 1960s to covertly procure uranium and then develop nuclear weapons at their secret laboratories in the town of Dimona in the Negev desert. They took extreme measures to prevent then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from following their example: On a June night in 1981, Israeli F-16s, in violation of international law, entered Iraqi airspace and destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

Key Phase

The Israelis took a pinprick approach to dealing with the "little" Assad. In 2003, the air force conducted multiple air strikes against positions on the Syrian border, and in October Israeli fighter jets flew a low-altitude mission over Assad's residence in Damascus. It was an arrogant show of power that even had many at the Mossad shaking their heads, wondering how Assad would respond to such humiliating treatment.

At that time, the nuclear plant on Euphrates had likely entered its first key phase. In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military's "8200" unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv. Al-Kibar was "flagged," as they say in intelligence jargon.

In late 2006, Israeli military intelligence decided to ask the British for their opinion. But almost at the same time as the delegation from Tel Aviv was arriving in London, a senior Syrian government official checked into a hotel in the exclusive London neighborhood of Kensington. He was under Mossad surveillance and turned out to be incredibly careless, leaving his computer in his hotel room when he went out. Israeli agents took the opportunity to install a so-called "Trojan horse" program, which can be used to secretly steal data, onto the Syrian's laptop.

The hard drive contained construction plans, letters and hundreds of photos. The photos, which were particularly revealing, showed the Al Kibar complex at various stages in its development. At the beginning -- probably in 2002, although the material was undated -- the construction site looked like a treehouse on stilts, complete with suspicious-looking pipes leading to a pumping station at the Euphrates. Later photos show concrete piers and roofs, which apparently had only one function: to modify the building so that it would look unsuspicious from above. In the end, the whole thing looked as if a shoebox had been placed over something in an attempt to conceal it. But photos from the interior revealed that what was going on at the site was in fact probably work on fissile material.

One of the photos showed an Asian in blue tracksuit trousers, standing next to an Arab. The Mossad quickly identified the two men as Chon Chibu and Ibrahim Othman. Chon is one of the leading members of the North Korean nuclear program, and experts believe that he is the chief engineer behind the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Othman is the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

By now, both Israeli military intelligence and the Mossad were on high alert. After being briefed, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked: "Will the reactor be up and running soon, and is there is a need to take action?" Hard to say, the experts said. The prime minister asked for more detailed information, preferably from first hand.

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