Dispatch February 2010

Israel's Hit Squads

Top-secret assassinations are not unusual for the Mossad. But technology—from cameras to social networks—is making the assignments more difficult.

The goal of any top secret assassination is to kill your target and get back to base without losing your team members or leaving evidence behind. In the era of ubiquitous security cameras and rigorous background checks, of course, that’s almost impossible. But a group widely suspected to be the Mossad took that risk in January, when they assassinated a senior Palestinian Hamas man in Dubai.

Assassinations are nothing new for the Jewish state. Imagine you’re an Israeli leader aware of constant threats from terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. If you try to play by polite rules and rarely resort to violence, you’ll be perceived as weak, and Israel’s deterrent ability will deteriorate. If you launch a military campaign, as Israel did in Gaza just over a year ago, you’ll likely end up killing innocents and be accused of war crimes. And if you go the American route, pursuing targets only using drone aircraft, there’s still a risk of collateral damage to civilians. So Israel chose to resort to the tried and true—its longstanding and mostly successful tactic of close-up, pinpoint, surgical assassination.

In the Dubai episode, operatives had to cross borders without revealing their names or nationality, which meant stealing or borrowing the identities of real Israelis who were entitled to passports from their families’ original home countries. They also had to deal with the problem of closed-circuit video cameras, for which the standard solution is disguise: toupees, false mustaches, and eyeglasses. (You can’t shoot out a camera’s lens, like in a TV show, without raising an alarm. Moreover, only 24’s Jack Bauer could somehow find a few spare minutes to burst into the security office and erase the tapes or steal the CCTV’s hard drive memory). So the hit team can be assumed to have been wearing disguises every moment they were caught on camera. Antonio Mendez, former chief of disguises at the CIA, revealed years ago that ultralight latex-type masks that fit completely over the face, making you look like a completely different person, are real and not figments of the Mission: Impossible screenwriters' imaginations.

Even with such tools at their disposal, however, these kinds of assignments are increasingly difficult. Some traditional forgery skills, like meticulously gluing a new photograph into a passport, are rapidly becoming worthless as screening methods become more sophisticated. A growing number of nations have adopted the latest passport format, which includes a biometric chip coded with the holder’s digital photo, and soon may also include entry and exit history, an “iris image” of the traveler’s eye, and perhaps even the person’s DNA. While these security measures were designed to foil terrorists and international criminals, they also serve to hamper counterterrorism agents—the good guys using undercover methods to chase the bad guys. And when it comes to the undercover method of assassination, no espionage agency has more expertise than Israel’s Mossad.

Over the years, accounts of a few targeted killings in the Jewish state’s non-stop secret war have surfaced, but those are just the tip of the iceberg; the majority of the missions have remained invisible. Among the assassinations that have captured international attention are the almost legendary killings of PLO men across Europe in the ‘70s—generally seen as revenge by Israel for the murder of 11 of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; the car bomb explosion in Beirut that killed terrorism mastermind Ali Hassan Salameh in 1979; and the blast that ended the life of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008. There have also been a few notable failures, such as the 1973 shooting of the wrong man in Lillehammer, Norway (Ali Hassan Salameh was the intended target); and a badly botched hit on Palestinian Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Amman in 1997.

What made Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas man visiting Dubai, worth all the trouble and risk this time? He was involved in the killing of two Israeli soldiers 22 years ago. But that’s not why he was assassinated. The hunters stalked him because of his key role in forging secret connections between the Palestinian radicals who rule Gaza and the Al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. Israel believed that Mabhouh had a major role in arms shipments from Iran to Gaza via the shores of Sudan and Egypt, and on through the Sinai. And rockets that get into Gaza have a high likelihood of killing Israelis.

Presented by

Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent in Washington, formerly based in Tel Aviv and London, and co-author of Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community and Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.

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