Saturday, January 15, 2011

Meir Dagan and the Mossad

Yossi Melman reviews Meir Dagan's tenure as chairman of the Mossad.

His hidden legacy lies in the hundreds of covert operations for which neither the Mossad nor the government of Israel will ever claim responsibility. They have resulted in the slowing of Iran’s nuclear program; in killing some of the most dangerous terrorists, including Imad Mughniyeh, who Dagan labeled “Hezbollah’s chief of staff”; and—most impressively—the intelligence-gathering that led to the destruction, in minutes, of Syria’s secret plutonium-producing nuclear reactor. This last effort has since become a test case of how precise intelligence data can be turned into a military result with strategic and historical implications.

Perhaps Dagan’s best-publicized triumph, the Syrian operation showcased his ability to respond quickly, forcefully, and creatively to new threats—and to squeeze maximum advantage out of his successes. Because of President Bashar Assad’s deception, for seven years no one—not Syrian ally Iran, not the CIA, neither French nor Israeli intelligence—had a clue about the North Korean-built reactor until April 2007, when Mossad agents discovered that Syria was within months of becoming a nuclear power. Dagan wasted little time. In September of that year, eight Israeli Air Force fighter planes and bombers destroyed the reactor. Israel never took responsibility for the attack. But Dagan’s people showed photos of the reactor before and after its destruction to the CIA, which presented the intelligence to Congress, creating the impression that the CIA was somehow involved in the operation.

Dagan didn’t stop there. One of the few Syrians who knew of the reactor was General Muhammad Sulliman, Assad’s point man to North Korea, Iran, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nearly a year after the destruction of the reactor, on a Friday night in August 2008, while entertaining some guests, the general was shot dead at his chalet in the prestigious Rimal al-Zahabieh seafront resort, 10 miles north of the Mediterranean port city of Tartous. A sniper, apparently aboard a ship in the sea, shot Sulliman in the head.


But the most daring effort attributed to the Mossad was the set of assassinations in 2010 of leading Iranian scientists in Tehran, who were killed in three separate incidents by bombs that exploded while they were driving to their offices. Though the targets were nominally teachers at various Iranian universities, all secretly worked for Iran’s nuclear military program. Two were killed, and one—Firudan Abbasi, a top expert of the weaponization group—was critically injured. Although the Mossad never takes credit for such assassination operations, the prevailing view around the globe, and especially in Iran, is that combatants from Mossad’s special-ops unit, Kidon (which means “bayonet”), were responsible for the clean job. All the combatants returned home safely. All the targets were eliminated or removed. No fingerprints were left.

And the same can be said about the January 2010 assassination of al-Mabhouh in Dubai—even though the operation resulted in what was perhaps the Mossad’s worst press ever. The conventional wisdom in Israel and abroad is that the Mossad botched the operation, because Dubai police deciphered and solved the mystery of al-Mabhoh’s death. This was the argument made by Dubai’s energetic police commissioner, General Dahi Khalfan, who blamed the Mossad for the operation and presented names and photos of roughly 20 supposed Mossad agents taken by security cameras both before and after the killing at various hotels and the local airport.

But there remains not one inch of evidence to support Khalfan’s claim. The target, al-Mabhouh, was killed by poison. No one was arrested, and all combatants returned home safely. To this day, no one really knows who the assassins were or where they are today. They used fabricated or borrowed passports and credit cards, so there’s little chance that they will be recognized. And a strong message of deterrence was sent to Hamas leadership, which suffered a major blow and is still in search of a suitable replacement for the experienced al-Mabhouh. They will eventually find one, but this is the nature of the war between a state and a terrorist organization: It is a war of mutual attrition, not one of knock-outs.

Meir Dagan will continue to grow larger than life. And he deserves it.

Labels: Meir Dagan, Mossad

posted by Carl in Jerusalem @ 11:38 AM

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