Mossad: Inside the spying game

Accusations of assassination are hardly unusual in Israel's security service over its 60 years of covert operations

If the Dubai police are right – not only in asserting that last month's lethal hit on the Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was the work of Mossad, but also that it was run from Austria – a template is on hand to help us imagine the atmosphere among those controlling the assassination before it happened.

"Their operations room... was a hastily rented ground-floor office in the Walker and French Investment Company GmbH, one of dozens that Gavron's secretariat kept permanently registered. Their communications equipment had more or less the appearance of commercial software; in addition, they had three ordinary telephones, courtesy of Alexis, and one of them, the least official, was the... hotline to Kurtz. As for Gadi Becker, he was finally back at war.... The introspection that had haunted him in Jerusalem had lifted; the gnawing idleness of waiting was past.... Becker stood sentry at the Venetian blinds of the wide window, gazing patiently upward into the snow-clad hills...."

True, this description of the preparations for another extrajudicial execution of a Palestinian militant on foreign soil was written more than quarter of a century ago when there were no throwaway SIM cards to help, and no CCTV or modern passport computer databases to hinder, operations like this. True, the target was closer at hand, in Europe itself. And true, too, it is fiction rather than fact.

But the account by John le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl of how Mossad goes about the task of what its own website laconically describes as "planning and carrying out special operations beyond Israel's borders" is more vivid, lasting and authentic than most of the dozens of novels, histories and plays the agency has spawned during its 60-year history.

That Mossad should be the subject of such lasting international interest is testament to the almost mythical reputation the agency has built up since it was founded via a letter headed "Secret" to the Israeli foreign ministry from David Ben-Gurion in December 1949. Some see the agency as fearsome, others as romantic. Partly this stems, no doubt, from the sheer daring of its known exploits; partly from a belief, at least in the early years, that intelligence about, and sometimes the elimination of, its enemies were essential to the survival of the young Jewish state.

Oddly, the coup that first placed Israel in the international intelligence premier league was almost certainly the work of Mossad's domestic counterpart, Shin Bet, although Mossad's legendary director Isser Harel claimed the credit and certainly became involved in its transmission. (If Mossad's closest UK equivalent is MI6, Shin Bet's is MI5.) This was the acquisition in 1956 of a Polish translation of Nikita Khrushchev's famous "secret speech" denouncing the evils of Stalinism to the 20th Soviet party congress, which came to Israel by way of a Polish journalist. The decision, approved by Ben-Gurion, to pass this sensationally valuable intelligence property to Washington did more than anything else in the 1950s to cement relations with the CIA and the rest of the US security apparatus.

After an initial period in which one of Mossad's driving forces, the future prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, devoted multiple efforts against former Nazi scientists, helping Egypt with its weapons programme, what really made the agency's name was its success in 1961 in locating, capturing and bringing back to Israel for trial the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. He remains the only man to have been judicially executed in Israel.

In a sense the operation, which occupied Israel's best intelligence minds for many months, had nothing directly to do with the security of the country at the time, as some of Mossad's critics noted. But it had a profound psychological impact in Israel, not least in helping more Israelis who had not lived through the Holocaust confront and understand the suffering of those refugees who had.

Mossad certainly made an important contribution to Israel's ability to win the Six Day War in 1967. (It also took part of the blame for the intelligence failures that led to Israel coming close to defeat in the Yom Kippur War six years later.)

The exploits of its agent Eli Cohen, an Egyptian-born Israeli who spent three years in Damascus before he was caught and hanged by the Syrians in 1965, are well known in Israel. Seemingly, he had first-class contacts at every level of the Syrian political apparatus. And although his bravery was sometimes criticised as rashness, according to Israel's Secret Wars, the authoritative study by Ian Black and Benny Morris: "During the three years he spent in Damascus Cohen provided Tel Aviv with a mass of high-grade political and military intelligence, including a great deal of detail about the front-line belt of Syrian fortifications in the Golan Heights, which were conquered by the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] in June 1967."

The agency had other successes, known and unknown. Its comprehensive debriefing in 1976 of the hostages freed from the hijacked Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris helped to inform the planning of the raid at Entebbe airport, where the plane eventually fetched up. And whether or not the raid carried out on a French nuclear plant near Tou-lon in 1979, when Israel was vainly trying to persuade France to stop helping Iraq's nuclear programme, was productive, Mossad certainly had good intelligence which aided Menachem Begin's decision in 1981 to bomb the Osiraq reactor near Baghdad.

But Mossad, formally the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, has Steven Spielberg to thank for showing a generation in the West how far its arm stretches in the wake of an atrocity against Israelis. The 2005 film Munich, which applies considerable licence to the facts, tells the story of how the agency reacted to the massacre in 1972 of 11 Israeli athletes by the Palestinian Black September group in the Olympic village, an event that provoked outrage across the world.

Targeted assassinations did not begin with Munich – a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ghassan Kanafani, was killed in a car bombing in Beirut in 1970 – but, over a period of 20 years, the agency killed more than a dozen exiled operatives and activists in three Palestinian factions as part of its post-Munich operation, in France, Italy, Cyprus, Spain, Greece and Lebanon.

The most comprehensive account, Striking Back by Aaron Klein, who interviewed dozens of Mossad agents, estimates that the majority killed were not directly linked to the massacre. Many who were had taken refuge in the communist bloc where even Mossad found it difficult to reach them. But Klein says the agency, which believed it was having a powerful deterrent effect, was not always fussy about its targets. "Our blood was boiling," Klein quotes one intelligence source as saying. "When there was information implicating someone, we didn't inspect it with a magnifying glass."

Klein narrates in vivid detail the Paris hit on Atef Bseiso, who was directly involved in Munich; but Mossad did not catch up with him until 1992. The operation was personally run from a safe house in the 11th arrondissement by the then head of the agency, Shabtai Shavit – travelling, it is topical to note, "on a borrowed identity: a different name was on the passport in the pocket of his blazer".

Bseiso, on a trip from the PLO headquarters in Tunis, was under continuous surveillance as he checked into the Meridien Hotel in Montparnasse, as he went out to dine with a local PLO bodyguard and "an unidentified Lebanese woman", and as he was driven back at around midnight in the new Jeep he had bought on his trip. Two young hitmen ambled towards him as he walked to the hotel doors, before one, Tom, opened fire – noiselessly, thanks to the silencer on his Beretta 0.22 – pausing only to collect the hot cartridge cases before heading back to the getaway car, parked, as is Mossad practice, two 90-degree turns away.

Interestingly, as many – including Yasser Arafat – jumped to the correct conclusion that Mossad was responsible for Bseiso's killing, the suggestion was denied as "totally ridiculous" by the office of the then prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, who had approved the operation. This did not convince the newly appointed head of French internal security, who, at a "courtesy" meeting with Shavit a few months later, pounded the table as he told the Mossad chief: "We know you killed Bseiso. We're still working on the proof. When it comes through, you'll get what's coming to you. In no way am I willing to allow you to turn Paris into your stage for acts of war and assassinations. We're not going back to the early Seventies, when you did whatever the hell you wanted. I will not allow it to happen."

Whatever the French might say, Mossad regarded the Bseiso killing as an unqualified success. The same could not be said of all the operations it conducted in supposedly friendly countries in the wake of Munich.

The Lillehammer mission, less than a year after the massacre, was an unqualified fiasco. The choice of a small Norwegian town, where strangers stood out and no murder had been committed for 40 years, was not best suited to a targeted assassination in the first place. The hit team assembled by Mike Harari, the 46-year-old head of Mossad's operations branch, proved itself inexperienced and flaky under pressure. But, above all, the Arab gunned down as he took a walk home from a bus stop with his pregnant wife after an evening at the cinema was not, as Mossad thought, Ali Hassan Salameh, the brains behind the Munich massacre, but a Moroccan waiter called Ahmed Bouchiki.

Subsequent attempts to hush up Mossad's role were sabotaged when, in an elementary breach of tradecraft, two agents used the Peugeot escape car – which had been spotted by police – 24 hours later to drive to the airport. When the two were arrested, one, a woman, broke down and confessed to working for Israel, while the other was carrying an unlisted number that led police to the safe house where one of the three agents hiding out was discovered with a detailed Mossad cable of instructions in his possession. Among other things, the cable explicitly ordered the team not to carry any compromising material on them.

The interrogation, public trial and imprisonment of five of the agents "dealt a heavy blow to the undercover infrastructure of Mossad in Europe" according to the well-informed, if understated, assessment of two Israeli experts, Michael Ben-Zohar and Eitan Haber. Agents who had been exposed had to be recalled, safe houses abandoned, phone numbers changed, and operational methods modified. Whatever lessons Mossad learned from this temporary shattering of its reputation, it did not, contrary to assumptions at the time, stop the agency from assassinating other Palestinian militants.

It is the fate of security services to be known better for their failures than their successes because mistakes are more likely to come to light. One early one was the Ben Barka affair – which, while operationally impeccable, was politically anything but. With a common enemy in Egypt, Mossad had enjoyed a warm but secret relationship with the security service of Morocco's King Hassan. In 1965 an emissary from Hassan approached Mossad with a simple request: to find and kill Mehdi Ben Barka, the king's leading opponent.

Unbelievably, in a scheme hatched by Mossad, the exiled politician was lured to Paris, captured by a team of French and Moroccan agents, and driven to the home of a prominent man in France's criminal underworld. There he was interrogated, tortured and killed in the presence of General Mohamed Oufkir, King Hassan's interior minister. Although the affair did not become more widely public until February 1967, the French were furious and it produced serious immediate ructions and buck passing within Israel, of the sort that may now be taking place over the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

The most signal failure, both operationally and politically, was probably the botched attempt in 1997, during Benjamin Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, to poison Hamas's political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal, in Jordan. Two of the assassins, using Canadian passports, were caught, and four others were holed up in the Israeli embassy there when Ephraim Halevy, a friend of the outraged King Hussein, was brought back from his post as Israel's ambassador to the EU to try to sort out the mess.

Halevy's own assessment was that Netanyahu probably prevented a consuming crisis with Jordan by quickly dispatching a doctor with an antidote for Meshaal as soon as he realised the operation had gone badly wrong. But it took an initially resistant Netanyahu another 24 hours to accept Halevy's proposal for mending relations with King Hussein: the release of the Gaza Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Although most of the criticism of the Dubai operation within Israel has concerned its exposure by the authorities there, rather than the assassination itself, there have once again been a few voices questioning the role of such assassinations.

Some newspaper commentators, such as Ofer Shelah, have cast doubt on whether the replaceability of figures such as Mabhouh, and the prospect of retaliation, call into question the value to Israeli security of extrajudicial killings. Indeed, Shelah quoted a senior IDF officer as saying that Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyeh – whose assassination produced quiet congratulation in Israel two years ago despite the absence of any admission that it was responsible – has been replaced by a hard-line Iranian official answering to the Revolutionary Guard.

There are, finally, former members of Israel's security establishment who think it could be worth actually talking to Hamas. As one account of the Meshaal affair points out, King Hussein was especially angered because he had recently relayed a message from Hamas to Israel that it was seeking a 30-year truce.

As the writer, who still holds the near-heretical view that negotiations should take place with Hamas, said in his account, conventional wisdom remained at the time as it is does now: "that Hamas was a deadly terrorist group which has to be dealt with by force and force alone". But, he adds with some exasperation: "We will never know whether this method of dealing with them was the only valid one, for there was never discussion of the offer of a truce at the time it could have been operative."

Who was this writer? Why, none other than the same Ephraim Halevy, who just happens to be a former and distinguished head of Mossad.

Timeline of an assassination: A month of international speculation and tension

19 January Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, 50, flies from Damascus to Dubai. He is killed about five hours after arriving at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel.

20 January Mabhouh's body is discovered by hotel staff.

29 January Hamas announces Mabhouh's death and accuses Mossad of being responsible. Dubai police report that several "European passport holders" have been identified as suspects in the killing.

1 February Israeli police search stretches of coastline after two barrels packed with explosives wash ashore. Palestinian militants claim responsibility for the failed attacks, planned as revenge for Mabhouh's assassination.

15 February Dubai police confirm the arrest of two Palestinians suspected of providing logistical support in the killing, and reveal the names and pictures of the 11 European suspects.

16 February The British-Israeli citizens whose names had been used on the passports insist they had nothing to do with the killing, and the British and Irish governments claim the passports were fakes.

17 February Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, says there is no proof that the country's secret services carried out the killing.

18 February As tensions rise, the Israeli ambassador to Britain, Ron Prosor, is summoned to a meeting at the Foreign Office. Meanwhile speculation mounts when Dubai police state they are 99 per cent certain of Mossad's involvement in the assassination, and the 11 people suspected of the killing, are placed on Interpol's wanted list.

19 February The British government denies claims that it had prior knowledge of the fake British passports used by the suspected killers. Pressure increases on Israel, with Dubai's police chief calling for the head of Mossad, General Meir Dagan, to be arrested if Israel's security agency was behind the assassination.

Jonathan Owen