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.

Mabhouh’s passing definitely sets Hamas back, at least for a few months. It will take time to find a suitable replacement. And the leadership of his radical movement is now in a tizzy trying to figure out where the security breach occurred. The vortex of suspicion can only be a good thing for Israel.

As for complaints by the British, Irish, French, and German governments that their passports were misused, the issue is likely to simmer down. Israeli intelligence can get its contacts in London’s MI6 and Berlin’s BND to put in a good word, pointing to favors Israel regularly does for European security agencies. The Mossad might even unveil dossiers showing how dangerous Hamas is to everyone.

The operatives themselves—the men and women who traveled on the fake documents—will likely find themselves stuck at desk jobs at Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv for a while. But eventually, they’ll return to missions in the field. As professionals, they’ll make sure to change their appearances and cover stories yet again. (Though nowadays, in our age of Twitter and other social networks, there’s always the risk that neighbors will tweet or blog their suspicions about “that woman down the hall who looks like that lady with the wigs in the Dubai video.” It’s difficult to make an entire gossipy nation shut up).

But the most fundamental issue remains unresolved. The Mossad, other intelligence agencies in Israel, and the government have failed to develop a clear doctrine on when assassination is appropriate, and how to balance the benefits and risks. Instead of any clear and systematic policy, targeted killings are simply set in motion when two powerful men decide to give the order. One of these men is the Prime Minister (the militant, “got to be tough in the Middle East,” Benjamin Netanyahu). The other is the director of the Mossad (Meir Dagan, who, during his seven-and-a-half years as agency chief, has shown a preference for violent action above clandestine diplomacy).

Since 9/11, the CIA has adopted Israel’s attitude—and even some of its methodology—in weighing extrajudicial killings. To the extent that intelligence chiefs pause to measure morality, they contend that ending the life of one enemy activist with little or no collateral damage is far better than waiting to encounter him on a battlefield. And if the target has been a talented planner of terror strikes, ending his activities has to be the right thing to do. Legally speaking, the only statutes clearly violated are those of the country in which the murder occurs, with the possible misdemeanors of passport application irregularities. So the best recipe is secrecy and airtight deniability.

The most commonly chosen vehicle for targeted assassinations by America, however, has been the drone aircraft. The Predator has excellent cameras aboard and can be directed to launch Hellfire missiles with devastating accuracy from videogame-type consoles in comfortably air-conditioned control rooms in America. The matter of violating other nations’ laws or sovereignty prevents the CIA or the Pentagon from confirming the many Predator strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps elsewhere.

But if there were a Taliban leader or senior al-Qaeda operative known to be in a luxury hotel in Dubai, would the CIA send in an assassination squad with guns, poisons, tasers, and some of the other special weapons that intelligence agencies constantly develop? The answer is almost surely no. The risk of being caught would be deemed too high, and American spies would never want to be pilloried as reckless cowboys.

The Mossad, on the other hand, might well do again what it apparently did in Dubai. The agency would prefer not to—and certainly they would rather choose cities and streets not covered by CCTV systems and competent police forces. But Israel’s spymasters don’t mind being perceived by their enemies as still running “Murder, Inc.” from Warsaw to Bangkok, and from Paris to Dubai. And while they don’t relish risky assassinations, when the target is important enough, Mossad’s chiefs have been known to say, “Nothing is impossible.”