Tourists with a License to Kill: A Look at the Mossad's Assassination Squads

By Yassin Musharbash

Many intelligence agencies are suspected of carrying out assassinations, but few are as notorious for doing so as Israel's Mossad. Although the agency has become legendary for its amazing successes, it has still had its share of failures. If the Mossad was behind the recent killing in Dubai, it might be another blemish on the agency's reputation.

A composite of Dubai police handout photos released on Feb. 15, 2010 showing 11 people suspected of being involved in the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Zoom
DPA/ Dubai Police

A composite of Dubai police handout photos released on Feb. 15, 2010 showing 11 people suspected of being involved in the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

In 1955, seven years after the Israeli state was founded, the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote a letter to then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. In it, he complained that innocent Palestinians were being killed in Israeli operations. "I do not agree with you," responded Ben-Gurion. "While it is good that there be a world full of peace, fraternity, justice, and honesty, it is even more important that we be in it."

This notion of a well-fortified state that eliminates its enemies by force whenever possible is still supported by a large majority of Israelis. Such actions include assassinations carried out by Israel's military and the Mossad, its foreign intelligence service. Indeed, human rights organizations estimate that the Israeli military has killed more than 100 people in the Palestinian territories in so-called "targeted killings."

The most recent incident that the Mossad is embroiled in shows that the majority of Israelis continue to believe that such killings are justified. In January, the Mossad is said to have killed a weapons buyer from Hamas in Dubai. Earlier this week, authorities in Dubai made public a compilation of surveillance photos showing the members of the alleged hit squad. German intelligence sources say that only an intelligence agency is capable of carrying out such a professional operation. In Britain, government officials were more explicit: They said they were convinced that the Mossad was behind the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

But, in Israel, the debate revolves primarily around two questions. First, did the operation have the Mossad's usual degree of "professionalism"? And, second, should the operation be considered a failure because photos of 11 suspected agents have been made public and the world now believes that the Mossad is not above creating fake passports from friendly countries, such as Germany or Great Britain, or "borrowing" the identities of their citizens.

A Chronicle of Successful Hits

The awe the Mossad inspires among intelligence agencies is mostly due to its history of ambitious operations. It has freed hostages from hopeless situations; it has found a way to bring a Russian MiG-21 fighter jet to Israel at the request of its political leaders; and, during the Cold War, it was known to supply the CIA with classified papers stolen from the Soviets.

But the intelligence service's hit squads have their own mystique. If the Mossad really is behind the recent murder in Dubai, it will be just one in a series of bloody attacks -- though Mossad operations have also seen their share of blunders.

It has not always been clear that the Mossad was behind every deadly attack -- or whether it was some other Israeli unit. The legendary operation to hunt down and kill the "Black September" terrorists who attacked Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, for example, was carried out by a unit formed specifically for that purpose. They eventually eliminated almost all of them -- though they did also kill an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway after mistaking him for one of the terrorists. And at least once, in Beirut in 1973, the agents disguised themselves as tourists -- just like the "Dubai 11."

It is thought that, during the mid-1970s, then Prime Minister Golda Meir appointed a so-called "X Committee" that was -- and perhaps still is -- responsible for keeping a list of people to be assassinated. At the Mossad, a unit known as "Caesaria" is allegedly tasked with carrying out targeted killings.

It is only in the rarest of cases that Israel will hint at its involvement in an assassination operation. As a rule, the Mossad never acknowledges it participation. Because of this secrecy, it is likely that more deaths have been attributed to the intelligence service than it is actually responsible for. Still, the list of incidents that can fairly safely be attributed to it is long -- and goes back over 40 years.

In the 1960s, for example, the Mossad is thought to have sent letter bombs to German scientists who were helping Egypt to build an advanced missile program. Many of them died.

Seventy Bullets

One of the most spectacular killings attributed to the Mossad took place in 1987 in Tunis, where PLO leader Khalil Al Wazir -- also known as Abu Jihad -- was living. The operation allegedly involved some 30 agents, who reached the Tunisian coastline in small boats. Some of them pretended to be tourists while making their way toward the house of Yasser Arafat's most important henchman. Others took up positions wearing Tunisian army uniforms. Flying overhead during the operation was an Israeli Boeing 707, which was meant to jam all communications on the ground. The assassination squad forced its way into the house and killed a few servants before turning their guns -- and 70 bullets -- on Al Wazir in the presence of his wife and children.

In October 1995, Fathi Shikaki, a member of the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad, was killed in Malta. The assassin road up on a motorcycle and shot his victim three times in the head. It later emerged that the operation had been meticulously planned long in advance. Indeed, the motorcycle had been stolen two months previously. A dozen agents are believed to have been involved. All of them disappeared without a trace after the hit.

In 1996, Yehiyeh Ayyash, the notorious Hamas bombmaker known as "The Engineer," was killed in the Gaza Strip when his booby-trapped cell phone exploded. This novel method of attack shocked Palestinian militants. It is generally believed that the Mossad was behind the attack.

In September 2004, another member of Hamas -- thought to be Izz Eldine Subhi Sheik Khalil -- met his end in Damascus when an explosive detonated beneath his car. He had been responsible for coordinating the operations of the military arm of Hamas. Though Israel did not officially take responsibility for the attack, it was understood as being a signal to Syria's leaders that even their capital city was not beyond the reach of Israeli agents.

A Few High-Profile Failures

Damascus was also the scene of another death, in February 2008, when a bomb tore apart the Mitsubishi Pajero belonging to Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, to whom hundreds of deaths have been attributed. Although Israel officially denied having anything to do with the death, most experts believe that the Mossad was at least partly involved -- possibly in collaboration with other intelligence services in the region.

To date, the Mossad's most spectacular failure has been a mission carried out in Amman, Jordan, in September 1997. Two Mossad agents disguised as Canadian tourists tried to kill Hamas leader Khaled Mashal with a lethal nerve toxin which soaks through the skin. The attack failed and Mashal's bodyguards were able to chase down the agents and hand them over to the Jordanian police. Jordanian officials quickly besieged the Israeli Embassy, where four other Mossad agents, giving up their cover, sought sanctuary.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was then forced to admit to the deed to get his agents back safely. He flew to Amman and apologized before the brother of King Hussein -- the king did not want to meet with him in person. After difficult negotiations, Israel handed over the antidote to the nerve agent that had been administered to Mashal as well as the chemical make-up of the opiate, which had allegedly been used in previous operations. In addition, Israel was also forced to release from custody Hamas founder Shiek Ahmed Yassin and dozens of other Palestinians and Jordanians.

In the end, an official investigation concluded that the Mossad had been "fixated on high risk operations." The botched attack was a blemish on the Mossad's reputation. For several years thereafter, it refrained from carrying out targeted killings -- or at least was much more careful about doing so.

Real Target: Iran

If the assassination in Dubai really was carried out by the Mossad, it could prove to be yet another blow to its reputation. Indeed, it has never had one of its hits filmed by others or had the pictures of its hit squad's members publicly displayed.

In fact, the Mossad has been losing a lot of polish on its sterling reputation for a number of years now. Other Israeli intelligence agencies have gained in esteem within Israel. In recent years, Jordan's intelligence service has become just as important to the US as Mossad was in the region.

But this holds true primarily in the field of counter-terrorism. The Mossad's current focus, however, is Iran's nuclear program. In that regard, Israelis say, Mossad has excelled -- away from the public eye.

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Diplomatic Fallout
Recent revelations about the use of European passports in the attack on a Hamas weapons buyer in Dubai have prompted diplomatic fallout between Israel and the European countries affected. Passports from the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Germany were used by the hit squad. All countries are now calling on Israel to clear up the incident with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Thursday saying "given the information that has become known, I see it as imperative to investigate the death of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh." Germany's Foreign Ministry called in the Israeli ambassador to Germany on Thursday.

British Foreign Secretary David Milliband, for his part, promised to "get to the bottom of" the passport row. "We hope and expect that they will co-operate fully with the investigation that has been launched by the prime minister and will be undertaken by the Serious Organised Crime Agency," he said. Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin said that he treated "any activity which would jeopardize the integrity of the Irish passport" extremely seriously. The French Foreign Ministry is also demanding an explanation from Israel.


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