Israel's Shadowy War on Iran Mossad Zeros in on Tehran's Nuclear Program
Part 2: Magnetic Bombs and Poisoned Toothpaste
Dagan's secret assistants in Tehran appear to have carried out an operation that was similarly logistically intricate late last year, with a simultaneous double attack on two nuclear scientists, Majid Shahriari and Fereydoon Abbasi Davani.
Like Mohammadi, both men belonged to Iran's nuclear research elite. Officially, Shahriari worked as a professor of nuclear physics at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. His specialty was neutron transport, a process that plays a central role in chain reactions within reactors, but also in the construction of nuclear bombs. Abbasi taught in the same department and was one of the country's very few experts on isotope separation.
On November 29, Shahriari and Abbasi were both making their way to the university, as they did nearly every day. Shortly after 8 a.m., Shahriari was in his Peugeot sedan together with his wife, battling his way through the usual traffic on the Artesh Highway in the northern part of the city. He didn't pay particular attention when a motorcycle drove up close to the driver's side of his car -- such chaos is simply part of life on Tehran's overcrowded streets. By the time the motorcyclist attached something to Shahriari's door and sped away, it was too late. The bomb, affixed to the car with a magnet, exploded a few seconds later. Shahriari died instantly, but his wife survived the attack.
His colleague Abbasi was more attentive and reacted more quickly, which saved his life. The professor, also traveling with his wife, had just driven away from his home when he noticed a motorcyclist squeeze in close to his vehicle and stick something to the driver's side door. Abbasi, a long-time member of the Revolutionary Guards, braked immediately and launched himself out of the car, dragging his wife from the passenger seat and taking cover with her on the roadside, just fractions of a second before the device exploded.
Photographs of the scientists' destroyed cars made headline news the next day, and not just in Iran. News of the attacks caused a commotion around the world, including in Israel. The same day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to allow Mossad head Meir Dagan to retire. The mass-circulation Israeli daily Israel HaYom ran pictures of the attack in Tehran headlined with the question, "Dagan's last strike?"
Targeted killings outside of its borders have been used as a military weapon more often by Israel than by any other country. In its 63 years of existence, Israel has acquired a high degree of craftsmanship when it comes to snuffing out its opponents, and was the first country to develop the technology for targeted killings from the air.
In 1978 Israeli agents used poisoned toothpaste to kill Wadih Haddad, the leader of a faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Seven years later they packed a copy of the Koran with explosives and sent it to Ali-Akbar Mohtashamipur, Iran's ambassador to Syria. In 1997 they attempted, but ultimately failed, to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashal with the neurotoxin botulin in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
And exactly a year ago, they appeared unconcerned that surveillance cameras captured each stage of their murder of Hamas activist Mahmoud al-Mabhouh -- allowing the world to examine the anatomy of that Dubai attack.
Underground militias plotting to undermine the British Mandate in Palestine were using targeted assassination even before the 1948 foundation of the state of Israel, often enough against each another. The Lehi organization, also known as the Stern Gang, was led by Yitzhak Shamir, who drew his inspiration from revolutionary communist movements and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Russian-born Shamir thought nothing of killing dozens of Jews whom he suspected of collaborating with the British. He was also involved in the murders of a leading British minister and Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish UN diplomat.
Sword of Damocles
Shamir, who was Israeli prime minister in the late 1980s and early 90s, is one of a host of leading Israeli politicians and civil servants who were personally involved in targeted killings on behalf of their country before they moved into politics. They include, among others, Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- also a former Israeli prime minister -- and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, always rejected assassination because he considered it a breach of the rules of war. Nevertheless he ordered his country's first targeted killing, the 1956 assassination of Mustafa Hafi, the head of the Egyptian secret service, in the Gaza Strip.
Five years later the men who took part in this killing were called upon again to carry out Operation "Sword of Damocles" together with veterans of the Stern Gang, who now worked for Mossad. The aim of the mission was to murder or intimidate German scientists who had worked at the Nazis' rocket facility in Peenemünde during World War II, and were now helping Egypt develop its own arsenal of missiles. The operation was doomed, however, after a series of mishaps. Two Mossad agents, for instance, were arrested and taken to court in Switzerland for threatening the daughter of one scientist. Their arrest sparked outrage around the world and led to a diplomatic solution to the crisis: The German government offered the scientists new jobs if they agreed to cease working in Egypt and return home.
In the 1960s and 1970s rules were laid out under which the Israeli government could order such killings. The targets of such assassination squads fell into three categories: They were either terrorists, the political or military leaders of Israel's enemies, or people who manufactured weapons of mass destruction or made them available to the country's foes.
Last Man on the List
The most infamous of these Mossad-led killing sprees was the ruthless hunt for the people behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The operation was more than a little revenge-driven, and proved the exception to the rule that killings should primarily serve to defend the state of Israel and its people.
After a botched attempt by German authorities to free the hostages at Munich Airport, which led to the killing of all the abducted Israeli athletes, then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir swore that none of those responsible would escape Israel's wrath. Mossad then drew up a hit-list that included prominent members of the PLO and of the Black September terrorist organization -- which carried out the attack -- living in Europe. The last man on this list, a PLO official called Atef Bseiso, was shot dead in Paris in 1992, two decades after the tragedy in Munich and only a year before the signing of the Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
Ali Hassan Salameh, the suspected mastermind of the massacre, was assassinated in Beirut in a Mossad operation in 1979. Six years earlier, a waiter called Ahmed Bouchiki had been shot dead in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer after he was falsely identified as Salameh. Five Mossad agents were arrested and sent to prison for Bouchiki's murder.
PLO leader Yasser Arafat survived at least 10 Mossad attempts on his life, and countless others were called off at the last minute for various reasons. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who fired Scud missiles at Israel during the Gulf War of 1991, was another political leader on Mossad's hit-list. His planned assassination in 1992 was aborted at the last minute after five Israeli soldiers died during a dry run of the operation.
- Part 1: Mossad Zeros in on Tehran's Nuclear Program
- Part 2: Magnetic Bombs and Poisoned Toothpaste
- Part 3: Can a Military Strike on Iran Be Avoided?