Mossad: the service that's really secret

Israel's spy agency used to publicise its operations but is silent after being linked to a string of killings

Jerusalem

The murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh at an upmarket Dubai hotel in 2010; the killing of Gerald Bull, a Canadian scientist, on his doorstep in Brussels in 1990; the honeytrap set for Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu in Rome in 1986; the death of Ben Zygier in Israel’s most secure prison two years ago. The connection between all these cases is that they are thought to have involved Mossad, Israel’s secret service, which is charged with protecting Jews the world over.

Much is known about past missions, but in recent times “secret service” has never been a more appropriate title. Reports reached the media that General Hassan Shateri, a senior member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, had been shot dead in either Syria or Lebanon. The state-controlled Iranian media immediately said the death was the work of “mercenaries of the Zionist regime”. The accusation was predictable from one of Israel’s sworn enemies. But five Iranian nuclear scientists have also met with grisly ends since 2007 alone, most blown up in their cars on their way to work or at their homes. A pattern has emerged – in all cases the finger of blame was pointed at Mossad.

Details occasionally come from non-Israeli sources: in 2010, Australia expelled an Israeli diplomat after a fake Australian passport was used in the killing of al-Mabhouh. An Australian security source claimed this case was key in the death of Zygier, who was apparently about to blow the whistle. Israel, never a nation to shy away from trying to control the news agenda, has always stayed silent about the circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of its Prisoner X, as it has about the Iranians, and the  Canadian, and many other suspicious deaths.

The silence has continued. One Mossad head and another source who had been deputy head of the agency both refused to speak about any aspect of the Prisoner X case, or more generally about the workings of Mossad. Some see this tactic as a mistake – one Israeli newspaper reporter, who was until Wednesday bound by the official censor in the Zygier case, said: “I wouldn’t have been interested in the [Prisoner X] story unless the censor had been involved.”

It wasn’t always like this. Perhaps its most famous operation is Wrath of God, in which a team of operatives hunted down the members of Black September, a Palestinian terror group thought to have been responsible for killing 11 members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympics. The Munich operation is rare in that its key personnel have been prepared to talk about it, providing enough detail for Steven Spielberg to turn the story into a film.

In his book about the mission, which some say was still active as late as 1992, journalist Aaron Klein – who interviewed many of the agents involved – claims much of the intelligence that underpinned it was flimsy at best. The evidence against Wael Zwaiter, the first hit, was “uncorroborated and improperly cross-referenced. Looking back, his assassination was a mistake.” He concludes that the real architects of the Munich murders were shielded by Arab governments and spirited away. One aspect ommited from Spielberg’s film was the so-called Lillehammer Affair, which took place in 1973. Then, Mossad agents thought that they had tracked down Ali Hassan Salameh, who was Black September’s operations chief. The agents believed Salameh was working as a waiter in a restaurant in Norway.

In fact it was a case of mistaken identity and an innocent Moroccan called Ahmed Bouchiki was killed as he walked home from the cinema with his pregnant wife. Most members of the kill team were convicted in Norway before being sent back to Israel in 1975. But that was not the end. Salameh met his death alongside several other people when a remote controlled bomb detonated in Beirut in 1979.

One of the most controversial missions was the capture in Argentina of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, who was brought back to Israel, tried and hanged in 1962. Many, even in Israel, thought that chasing Eichmann to South America was not an appropriate use of Mossad’s resources and believed that it should be sticking to its primary aim: eliminating those closer to home who posed an immediate threat to Israel.

In more recent times, Mossad’s focus has indeed been more localised. In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear scientist passed on details of Israel’s nuclear programme to The Sunday Times after growing to detest weapons of mass destruction.

What followed was the stuff of John le Carré – Vanunu, a Christian convert from Judaism – was lured from London to Rome by a Mossad agent, who was almost certainly acting as a honeytrap. In the Italian capital he was drugged and put on a plane to Tel Aviv. Back in Israel he was convicted and spent the next 18 years in prison, 11 in solitary confinement, and to this day has severe restrictions on what he can do.

On Zygier, the Israeli government again appears unprepared to tell the world why the once-promising spy was in prison. Given the agency’s track record, it could be some time before we know the truth.

News
Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
i100
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
News
people
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Rock to play DC character in superhero film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Sport
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
tv
News
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

History Teacher

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a teacher o...

IT Teacher

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a suitably ...

Legal Cashier - Oxford

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Legal Cashier - Oxford We have an excellent ...

Legal Cashier - Oxford

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Legal Cashier - Oxford We have an excellent ...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor