Shin Bet agent discusses his 'special relationship' with a Hamas spy
G., aka 'Captain Loai,' was a Shin Bet man who ran agent Mosab Yousef - the son of a Hamas leader and the security service's top source in that militant organization. 'I admire the road he took,' G. tells Haaretz in an exclusive interview.
Something in my acquaintanceship with Mosab diverted me from the path I had chosen," says G., a former Shin Bet security service coordinator who later became responsible for all the coordinators. He was also one of the handlers of the "Green Prince," the agency's code name for Mosab Hassan Yousef. G. left the Shin Bet four years ago, but still seems to miss the period when he pursued wanted individuals in Ramallah - and also perhaps the days and nights he spent with Yousef, the source and agent who became his good friend.
For almost seven years, the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef - one of the founders of Hamas and one of the Islamist organization's leaders in the West Bank - supplied G. with accurate information on developments involving the top brass of Hamas, plans for suicide-bomber attacks and the whereabouts of wanted individuals. Together, G. and Yousef prevented dozens of terrorist attacks and thwarted plans to assassinate leading Israeli figures, such as President Shimon Peres and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
G., or "Captain Loai," as he was known in the Shin Bet, does not resemble a "legendary handler of agents." He looks more like a counselor in the boy scouts. A geek. Of average height, with a full build, he has blue eyes and a classic "nice boy" smile.
Are you in contact with other agents you handled in the past?
G.: "Absolutely not."
Then why are you in touch with Mosab Yousef? And why you? After all, you were not the one who recruited him and you were not his only handler.
"It just happened. The course of events that made our paths cross and led to our meeting necessitated this sort of connection between us - it is unavoidable, a self-evident part of life, something that exceeds rational decisions. I feel obliged to help a friend, and today Mosab is no longer an 'agent' or a 'source,' he's a friend. If he could come to Israel - and I know he can't - he would be like a member of my family."
On February 26, Haaretz Magazine published the story of Mosab Yousef ("Adventures of the Green Prince" ) shortly before the publication in the United States of his book (written with Ron Brackin ), "Son of Hamas." The book reveals how the firstborn son of a key Muslim religious figure in the West Bank became one of the Shin Bet's most important agents inside the Hamas leadership. Captain Loai appears in the book time and again, as a friend and as someone who lent an attentive ear to Yousef over the years. Five years ago, a move began to oust Captain Loai from the Shin Bet, because of an episode he was entangled in involving financial management. A year later, he was officially discharged from the service.
"There's something symbolic about the fact that even my dismissal was connected to the Green Prince," G. says. "I made a decision which at the time seemed right to me. There was a certain operation at the end of which we were supposed to acquire an important intelligence asset. I went into it with all my strength and determination, and I paid a price for it, but have no regrets. When things got tangled, I said, 'It's my responsibility, do as you wish.' It involved a breach of financial procedure. I was not subjected to a criminal investigation, but ultimately I was removed from the service, one reason being that I lied. But what surprised me was that the Green Prince was the only person from my place of work who made it clear to the Shin Bet, unequivocally, that 'Loai was right, he did nothing wrong.' When the subject came up for investigation he told the truth. Not all of my colleagues in the service told the truth, partly because they didn't want to get into trouble.
"An almost absurd situation was created," G. continues, "in which, after everything I did, and with all the people I knew and the hundreds of preventive operations - one time I actually pulled a top wanted person out from under the table with my own hands - who is the only person who comes to my defense? The Arab, the Palestinian, the Hamas man. An extraordinary relationship of trust between two people was forged here, which took us both a very long way in terms of our willingness to take action. And it seems to me that this special relationship produced meaningful results for the Shin Bet. The fact is that after I left, things changed."
For the first two and a half years after Captain Loai left the Shin Bet, he was not in contact with Yousef. "Even before that I was transferred to a different district, so I barely had contact with him. I thought it would end very badly, that something would happen to him."
But then, on August 1, 2008, G. came across a previous article I wrote in Haaretz about Mosab Yousef, the son of the Hamas leader, who had converted to Christianity and moved to the United States. When I wrote that piece, I did not yet know that Yousef had for 10 years been the Shin Bet's top agent in Hamas. G. e-mailed me to ask how he could contact Yousef, but without revealing that he had been one of his handlers in the Shin Bet. "It is my moral duty to help him in his situation," he wrote. The next day, G. sent the following e-mail to Mosab Yousef:
"Dear Mosab! (or should I write Dear Joseph? )
It was a great surprise to read Avi's article about you since it was a long time ago when we last spoke.
Unfortunately I couldn't be in touch with you in order not to get in trouble with my former employer. I was kicked out of there a few years ago after a serious fight with our friend [Shin Bet coordinator] Hilal (who probably knew how much we both liked him ). As soon as we will talk (hopefully soon ) I will tell you all about it. I'm very worried about you, as I think you made a dangerous step with the article. I'm also worried about your economic and personal situation - don't let people take advantage of you!!!
I'm thinking what will be the best way to help you ... I don't have much money but I can send you something ASAP so you can have something for the next few weeks ... Please tell me what I can do for my young brother. Today I'm a law student in IDC Herzliya (I've just finished my second year ). I have two children: a boy named Alon, four years old, and a girl named Ayelet, five and a half months old. By the way my name is not Luai [sic] - it's G....
Please, please call me if you can, or leave me a phone number I can reach you at. My private cell phone number is ...
And again - I guess you have some tough times - let your brother have the honor to help. Yours with love,
G. (Luai )"
On Sunday, August 3, G. received this reply:
"Wow, I can't believe that I am in touch with you again, you just made my day or maybe my year. I had faith that we would meet one day, you were and still [are] a very good friend and brother. I was wondering where did you go, it was fishy, I had a feeling that something went wrong. What [we shared was] that both of us were free men doing everything based on our beliefs and principles, and this is what the others didn't have ... I have done a great job helping my people and the others, I was willing to die for the truth and the principle and still am ...
If the others don't appreciate what we have done for humanity, we know for sure what we have done, we had power but [also] lots of love and mercy. You trusted me and helped me during the most difficult times. Your care and love made me do miracles. Once the others came along, their evil and suspicion destroyed everything that we built for a long time. God forgive them for what they have done to me ... It was a great honor for me to meet you and hopefully we will see each other soon. You can call me anytime on my cell, please don't give my number to anyone ...
On the face of it, Loai and Mosab Yousef were destined to be bitter enemies. The reality in which they grew up marked them as anything but friends. Yousef was raised in Bitunya, in the home of one of the founders of the West Bank branch of Hamas. G. is the son of a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces who held a senior position in Central Command.
"We were on a collision course, but today I see him as a friend who taught me many things," G. says. "I think that in the end it's due to the education we each received at home. I give credit here to Sheikh Hassan Yousef, who despite his problematic path raised his children with the principles of humanism.
"I asked myself quite a few questions about the sanctity of life, and Mosab talked to me about this," G. continues. "He told me that his father raised him to believe in that principle, even though in our eyes their society does not sanctify life. My father taught me similar values. At the time, he took part in the famous operation in Karameh [an IDF operation in Karameh, Jordan, in 1968, which became a symbol of resistance for the Palestinians]. On the way back, his driver fell asleep at the wheel and the vehicle overturned. All my father's ribs were broken, and with his last remaining strength he climbed up to the road. An Arab driver stopped and took him to a hospital. So I learned at home that Arabs don't just 'eat Jews for breakfast.'
"At the level of simple humanity, I think this is Mosab's message: that we can and must meet midway. You know, neither side sees the other as human beings any longer, we're totally consumed with battering one another. I am at an age at which I am thinking about my son's future. We can fight, carry out preventive operations. But what then? Where does it lead? Mosab says this from the Christian standpoint; I say it from the Jewish point of view. We can and must look at the other side with compassion.
"One time we had a meeting with the regional [Shin Bet] chief at the time, Ofer Dekel, and there was a discussion group about the situation. I, along with a few other coordinators, said that we have to focus our reaction on those responsible for the situation and not punish people randomly - for example, by confiscating work permits. Where is the logic? The terrorists will act with or without work permits, so by confiscating permits from innocent civilians all you are doing is adding people to the circle of hate."
G. says he was not the classic Shin Bet agent: "I wasn't an [IDF] officer and I wasn't a commando. I didn't know a word of Arabic. I served on a Dabur patrol boat. I remember going with my wife to Majdal Shams [a Druze village in the Golan Heights] - this was before I joined the Shin Bet - and she read me signs in Arabic. It sounded as grating as an electric saw."
He studied behavioral sciences at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva and was a counselor in the scouts in a disadvantaged neighborhood of the southern city. After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, he decided to join the Shin Bet, without really understanding what that entailed.
Discovering a new world
G.: "I passed the tests and did an intensive course in Arabic. Suddenly you discover a new world. You listen to the news in Arabic and you understand, you go to the Old City of Jerusalem and you know what people are saying. In 1998 I started to work in the Ramallah sector. The whole story of the Green Prince was very hot at the time. He had been released from prison a few months earlier and we had started to use him. We didn't yet know how to digest all this. The scars left by the episodes of Noam Cohen and Haim Nahmani [two Shin Bet coordinators who were murdered in 1993 and 1994 by the agents they were handling] were still fresh, and the Green Prince pretty much matched the description of Abdel Munam Abu Hamad [Cohen's murderer]. Moreover, the service heard that Mosab was planning to murder his handler.
"I was young, a wimpy type, who was tutored by the coordinator who was the Prince's handler at the time. Until my first meeting with him I had never actually met anyone who was considered 'Hamas.' I thought I was going to meet some hairy, bearded, dangerous monster. And suddenly I see in front of me a wimp, just like me. Maybe even a brazen wimp. If you think in terms of a meeting between a coordinator-handler and a young Palestinian guy - you automatically think there will be a hierarchy. But the Prince was never one to 'please his masters,' and that same quality continues to characterize him. He argued, he was very opinionated and he was smart. To some extent, the meeting immediately counterbalanced some of my prejudices, which I harbored even though I came from a left-wing milieu. (I voted Meretz before entering the service. )
"The experiences I underwent over the years, particularly after the outbreak of the second intifada, made me become more right wing and even something of a racist. Maybe it was out of a desire to cope with many harsh things that we saw and did. Even before Operation Defensive Shield [April 2002, in the West Bank] we started to lose the 'inner boundary' between the prohibited and the permissible. The boundary grew blurred because we could not ignore what was happening all around. On that plane, Mosab held a mirror up to my face. For me as a coordinator, and later in charge of coordinators, it was none other than the enemy, the representative of Hamas, Mosab, who came to represent morality.
"Remember that even before the intifada we had, from our point of view, 'good' Arabs, namely Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, and 'bad' Arabs - namely Hamas. He was the very embodiment of evil: the son of the Hamas leader in the West Bank. Yet he was the one who made me think and say to myself, 'Hold on, maybe we were wrong.' In what he said and what he did, he actually maneuvered us in the good sense. He gave us the option to cope with problematic surroundings and a brutal reality without our having to achieve an 'orgasm': targeted assassinations. Because that's how it was: Just as every pilot wants to chalk up an 'X' for downing a plane, many of us wanted to carry out targeted assassinations. And he was actually the one who told us that we could arrest people, not just kill them."
G. can understand why the Palestinians consider Mosab Yousef a collaborator. "But they did not internalize the fact of how many Palestinians he saved from death. He prevented bloodshed. Take, for example, the Hamas man Falah Nida, the imam of Ali Mosque in El Bireh [near Ramallah]. In that mosque we found Qassams in the West Bank for the first time and the imam hid those who developed the rockets. The suicide bomber from the Cafe Moment attack in Jerusalem in 2000 stayed with the imam, who had hands-on involvement in hostile terrorist activity and probably would not have survived the intifada had it not been for Mosab.
"The Prince gave us an intelligence picture of the people who assisted [the imam], so that we could arrest him. He was arrested, of course, and since then even released from custody. The Prince's savvy in the field, the interrelated connections he created - there's no substitute for this. It's an asset. No one was able to give us those things the way he did. You know, we hardly knew what Hamas was. It took a long time to understand who's against who and what's going on there.
"Mosab never tried to use his strength to settle accounts, as he could have. For example, he had an uncle he hated, but he did not incriminate or otherwise hurt him. We can learn a lot from that kind of restraint. The information he gave us made it possible to ask questions about the effectiveness of the targeted assassinations. Today I will be branded a leftist - but really, think about it: When Fathi Shkaki, leader of Islamic Jihad, was assassinated, it was said to be a mortal blow to the Jihad. But we have to ask now: What good did it do Israel?
"It's a mistake to think that everyone who threatens us has to be eliminated. I learned the power of not liquidating people - and I learned it from Mosab. From arguments with him, from long conversations into the night. I come from the center of the Israeli political map and consider myself a moral person. But he of all people, a 'representative' of the suicide bombers, always showed us the humane point of view. Don't get me wrong: There are cases in which it's justified to kill terrorists, if they constitute a danger, but we shouldn't let it become an 'addiction.'"
Is it true, as Mosab writes in his book, that there were five suicide bombers that Israeli security forces wanted to liquidate, but were spared after he objected?
"It's true. He was able to persuade us not to assassinate them. He was an asset and as such was also aware of himself, of the influence he had over us. He had a say. To the credit of the Shin Bet, it has to be said that there was a dialogue here. It wasn't one-sided, from us alone. And we are talking about the most turbulent period, when blood ran freely. There were a few terrorist attacks in which many children were killed, after which I personally felt like going into Ramallah with an M-16 and spraying the place with bullets. The political echelon also went haywire. And Mosab, of all people, was the sane voice. You may be surprised to hear this, but we had Palestinian sources whose opinions are farther to the right than [the late rabbi Meir] Kahane. Not him. He did not go to extremes. He is crazy, but in the good sense of the word."
Did you believe every word he said?
"The trust relationships that developed over time were very important. But we checked every piece of information he gave us, out of professional considerations. I was not afraid of him and at the personal level I knew I could rely on him. And yes, sometimes that's enough to implement an operation. I remember that on the eve of Remembrance Day in 2002 he told me that two Hamas leaders - Jamal Tawil and Faiz Warda - were in a certain house in Bitunya. The army asked, 'What are the odds that we're not being set up?' There is a thin, fragile line of trust that can crack at any moment. There are warning signs, yes, but sometimes you take the risk. Strike while the iron is hot."
After their e-mail exchange in 2008, the next stage in the extraordinary relationship between agent and handler was a reunion when, during a visit to the United States, G. flew to California.
"I didn't arrange for him to pick me up, I only let him know when I would be arriving," G. relates. "It's night. I emerge from the long corridor in the airport and suddenly I see him in front of me. It was a very moving moment. Two people in an emotional encounter. We embraced and couldn't stop laughing over the totally unimaginable situation. It was hallucinatory to meet him outside the familiar framework, without guards, without fear. Two equal people. We hung out together for a few days, ate in restaurants and talked nonstop.
"Obviously it was no trivial thing for us to be in touch, even though today I see it as more natural. I knew he was alone, and one of the things that guided me then, and now, is my responsibility for him. The guy was always with us. Yet cut off, alone. I was almost the only person who really knew him. After all, he hid what he was doing from everyone, including friends and family. He knew he could talk to me about the loneliness, the difficulties, the feeling of having been exploited by people around him. But in California the problematic character of the connection between us was also clear to both of us. It was truly a jolting experience to meet him again."
Does the State of Israel owe him a debt?
"I feel regret and disappointment vis-a-vis the State of Israel, which is not doing anything for him. After the articles that were published, the stories, no one, not one politician asked what we actually did for him. I thought that someone from the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee would ask: Why is he a castaway there? Mosab's central motivation was and remains humanitarian. It's true that this was not the only motivation, but it was the central one. He thought it was important to save people, to avoid killing. And then you get all kinds of people who are trying to put him down. Like [former deputy head of the Shin Bet and now Kadima MK] Gideon Ezra, who was not even in the Shin Bet when the Prince was working, but tells Army Radio that his story as published sounds exaggerated to him. How does he know?
"I read Mosab's book and also the Haaretz Magazine article, and I tell you: He did exaggerate. He exaggerated in being sparing in his descriptions of how many things he prevented and how many people he saved. Imagine what would have happened if he had not brought us the information about the terrorist who planned to assassinate Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - the whole picture here would have changed in the wake of that assassination.
"Nowadays every police informant who used to buy drugs gets assistance. So why not him? He is paying a steep price for what he did. He denied himself many things during all those years. You are talking about a person whose life came to a stop the moment he was arrested at the age of 17 and a half. He became a loner, unable to share his feelings with anyone. Including his parents. Young Israelis serve in the army and then go on the big backpacking trip, but he kept dealing with fateful questions for Israel.
"I think that in most of the cases I was familiar with, the reasons for collaboration were loftier than what we tend to think. At the start of my work in the Shin Bet, I thought these were people who didn't care ... Suddenly you discover people who are doing it to save lives, who don't want a terrorist Islam. Mosab was not alone - he was simply at the tip of Hamas and paid a very high price: His father ostracized him. What Sheikh Hassan Yousef has to ask himself after doing that is whether his son followed the path on which he guided him to embark. It is not by chance that Sheikh Yousef did not under his own auspices produce suicide bombers. He should ask himself why.
"There is a clear case here of a son's love for his father, though many psychologists would say that he is kicking his father. But he is fighting for his father's life. It's not even relevant whether his father was targeted for assassination, but Mosab believed his father was in danger. Let everyone ask himself: What would I be prepared to do in order to save my father from death? And let Sheikh Hassan ask himself why his son did what he did. He did not betray him - he protected him.
"Mosab paid and continues to pay a steep price, and I would expect the Israeli and Palestinian public to listen to him. He stood by us for long years, and the least we can do today is to stand by him."
Maybe you can explain what his motive was.
"I handled no few agents who had ideological motives, who did not want to see more killings. Many were critical of Israel and Mosab is no Zionist. From his point of view, the War of Independence was the Nakba [or "The Catastrophe," the Palestinians' term for what happened to them after 1948]. I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Our outlooks are not identical, but dialogue is possible even with a [basic set] of disagreements. I remember my meeting with him on the day of the  terrorist attacks on Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem and at Tzrifin [army base]. I met in the field together with the Prince and remember how shocked he was. You know, with us, when people are killed - in a traffic accident, say - and then it turns out that they are Arabs, everyone immediately sighs with relief and says, 'What luck.' Not with him: He wanted to prevent killing on both sides.
"He loved the action and loved being a kind of James Bond. But when it comes to the big issue of motive, every intelligence organization asks itself that question, and there is no specific, clear answer. It's a complex, situation-dependent constellation. I can say with certainty: Mosab did not do it for the money. He received money, yes, but without going into details they were laughable amounts which it's best not to talk about."
Making things happen
Do you admire Mosab Yousef?
"I definitely admire the road he took, his decision to go all the way. He did not make do with sitting at home and clucking his tongue; that would not make things happen. He has a genuine intention to make things happen. If you were to hear him talking about his desire for change, you would think he's crazy. But I believe he has the ability to change and together we can try to forge a dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians."
What did he know about you when you were his handler?
"He did not know my name or any other personal details. It's possible that when my daughter was born, or when I got married, I told him. He knew I was called Captain Loai and knew very well that this was not my real name."
Did you get used to lying as part of your Shin Bet work? Does that affect your personal life?
"What you're taught time and again is to use the power of manipulation only in one direction and not against people around you. Obviously, it happens that everyone does it to everyone, but the Shin Bet definitely tries to get you to understand that there is a distinction between lying for intelligence purposes and lying to friends and [people in] your immediate surroundings. I think the service deals with this problem perfectly well. It's not a deceitful organization; it treats people with respect."
Its sources, too?
G. smiles in embarrassment. "You are sending me into a mine field. Obviously, there are all kinds of people. A certain degree of racist jokes and disrespect trickled into all of us. Like with everyone. The Shin Bet is a snapshot of the people of Israel, but only of the good guys there."
Why are you giving this interview? Are you settling accounts with the Shin Bet for ousting you?
"I don't think that what I am saying is problematic. The Shin Bet is my home; so it was and so it remains. The decision to remove me from the service was made by [current chief] Yuval Diskin. It grieves me, but maybe he was right. When I was a young coordinator, Diskin was my district head, an admired one. And afterward too, as deputy head of the Shin Bet, he did amazing things. To this day I think he is an admired person."
Are you trying to atone for something? Did you also exploit Mosab Yousef?
"I don't feel that way. I ask myself those very questions, but it's not like that. On the macro level, I don't think we need to have a sense of guilt toward the Palestinians for 1948 or 1967. My grandparents on both sides were persecuted by the Nazis, and I do not feel a sense of guilt for having the right to live here. We are in a war for our existence and need to utilize sources. I did what's expected of someone who wants to protect his dear ones and prevent them from being killed by a suicide bomber. My connection with Mosab does not derive from guilt feelings, but from a sense of responsibility: We must not throw him to the dogs. These agents must not be used like lemons - squeezed out and then thrown away.
"When I went to visit him, I didn't have a plan for what we would do. I wanted to see that he was all right and maybe even find someone to help him. Last December, my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. We went to New York and he was there. It was important for me to have my wife meet him, after all the stories. And it was important for me to have him meet her.
"On Christmas Eve we went to a restaurant in Times Square. Afterward we saw an off-Broadway show. At the end the lead actor disrobes, and we laughed at the idea of staging the play in Ramallah - about how the audience there would react. There was no longer any drama between us; it was precisely the disappearance of the drama that was meaningful. It was almost a regular meeting between two people, two friends. Normal. Period." W