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
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
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

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 5 Primary Teaching positionRands...

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone