spy - Izhar Shkedi - September 9 2011
Illustration Photo by Izhar Shkedi
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In 1996, Israeli Military Intelligence obtained ominous information involving a country in Southeast Asia. In response, that country's police detained a guest at a local hotel. Under interrogation, the detainee said he had studied at a Shi'ite Muslim seminary in Qom, Iran, where he met a Hezbollah recruiter. The recruiter proposed he go train in Lebanon's Bekaa region, after which he was to return home and wait to be mobilized.

One day a Hezbollah representative showed up, and the two flew to Thailand. They stole a fuel tanker, murdered the driver and dumped his body into the tank. The tanker was taken to a garage, where two tons of explosives were packed into the tank.

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The Hezbollah handler also flew in a suicide bomber who was to drive the tanker to the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok. While the tanker was on its way to the embassy, it got stuck behind a traffic accident. The driver was inching through traffic when he noticed policemen approaching. He abandoned the tanker on the side of the road and fled.

The tanker remained there, and eventually was towed to a local police station. It stood there for about three weeks, unchecked, until one officer started inquiring what an abandoned fuel tanker was doing in the parking lot. The policemen checked it out and found that it had been stolen, and that the driver had disappeared. They then found the body in the tank. Only then did investigators put all the pieces together, realizing that the tanker had been abandoned near the Israeli Embassy, and concluding that this could be an attempted terror attack.

Israeli representatives were informed, and a representative of the Israel Police's forensic division came to Bangkok. That led to the discovery of the two tons of explosives in the tanker, which could have wreaked havoc had they been detonated. Western intelligence agencies, including the CIA, were informed as part of the international war on terror.

Information from the hotel guest led to the arrest of the Hezbollah operations commander in a Middle Eastern country, which likewise felt threatened by that organization. After a few weeks, and contrary to an explicit promise from that country's intelligence head, the Hezbollah commander was released.

This affair - a citizen of Country A is arrested in Country B, tells of his recruitment in Country C (Iran ) at the behest of an organization (Hezbollah ) in Country D to carry out an attack on the Israeli Embassy in Country E, and is arrested in Country F - demonstrates the truly international nature of terrorism. It also makes it clear that international intelligence cooperation to fight terror existed before September 11, 2001.

Unprecedented force

The terror attacks in the United States 10 years ago did not herald a new age, but they did lead to a change in emphasis because of the unprecedented force of the blow. Suddenly Americans felt they were not immune to unbridled political violence. There was heightened international recognition of terror's capacity to cause serious damage with an ease nobody wanted to believe was possible.

Thus arose the term "global war on terror," which George W. Bush employed. Israel preferred to call fundamentalist Islamic terror "Islamic jihad," a term coined by someone in the Mossad's research division.

In the second half of the 1990s, the Mossad and MI began focusing on Osama bin Laden. Israeli intelligence started monitoring him in Sudan and followed him to Afghanistan, where he had been exiled under Saudi-American pressure. The attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998, and on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000, drew Mossad and MI attention to bin Laden's activity. Both intelligence branches set up divisions to study him. But Israeli intelligence did not fully realize his significance at the time and did not understand just how dangerous he was.

Early in his tenure as Mossad chief, in 2002, Meir Dagan believed the agency's research and foreign relations divisions needed to be scaled back because they were not "operational" enough. After a while, he came to realize that these divisions could go beyond their traditional tasks (recruiting agents, warning of war, intelligence assessments and special operations ) and help the Mossad fight global jihad networks. Dagan eventually determined that the Mossad's two main concerns would be Iran (its nuclear arms programs and its support for regional terror organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah ) and global jihad.

The third sphere

Mossad and MI began gathering information on jihad networks, in conjunction with international intelligence agencies. According to MK Avi Dichter, who was Shin Bet security service chief at the time of 9/11, "[Israeli] intelligence communities had previously been stingy about sharing information with strangers, due to their fear of exposing sources. After 9/11 there was heightened recognition that they needed to be more generous, considering the joint battle against terror."

The first reason for this was the centrality of terror in the international intelligence discourse. The second reason was the recognition by Israeli intelligence agencies that they could improve their standing by contributing to the international fight against terror. The third, and most important, reason was that Israel and Jews worldwide had become targets for the global jihad networks.

One of the first targets after 9/11 was the synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, in April 2002, in a suicide attack that took 21 lives. Later on, plans were exposed to strike Israeli embassies in Singapore and Australia. Al-Qaida operatives were sent on intelligence-gathering missions in Israel. The British national Richard Reid, who tried to detonate a bomb on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in November 2001 after hiding explosives in his shoes, had visited Israel. Young men of Pakistani descent came from Britain to Israel, and toured the country and the Palestinian territories. The information they gathered served their British comrades, who bombed Mike's Place, a bar on the Tel Aviv boardwalk in April 2003. Other attacks targeted an Istanbul synagogue and other Jewish institutions.

The 9/11 attacks dramatically changed the concept of security. "The doctrine of security relies on two spheres - the intelligence sphere, which is supposed to warn, and the security sphere," says Dichter. "If the intelligence sphere has failed to provide information, there is still the physical security sphere."

On planes, he adds, there is a third sphere - the on-flight security guards. (See Amos Harel's article, below. ) This has been a cornerstone of Israeli security ever since Palestinian terrorists hijacked an El Al plane and forced it to land in Algiers in July 1968.

Eventually the United States adopted Israel's security principles and adjusted them to its own needs. This led to a breakthrough in relations between the two countries' intelligence communities. The closer ties were reflected, among other ways, in FBI head Robert Muller's 2003 visit to Israel.

"We showed him most of our counterterrorism technologies and methods," Dichter says. "He got to see our counterterrorism units, the Shin Bet's war rooms, and videos from targeted killings."

Dichter believes the September 11 attacks also made the Israeli intelligence community more aware of the importance of internal cooperation. "The Shin Bet was in the vanguard. We brought representatives from the Israel Air Force and from the Israel Defense Forces, MI and Mossad special units into our war rooms. We shared our most sensitive and intimate information."

The Mossad, for example, agreed to let the Shin Bet maintain direct contact with the FBI, instead of having to rely on the Mossad, as had been customary for decades.

Israel's biggest gain was its improved international reputation as a country effectively fighting terror. Quite a few intelligence communities adopted the Israeli modus operandi: the security doctrine, interrogation methods (the U.S. went further and expanded the use of torture ), the targeted killings.

The United States is prepared to assassinate not only foreign nationals suspected of terrorism, but also its own citizens. President Barack Obama, for example, has authorized the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric of Yemeni descent who is considered the spiritual leader of Al-Qaida in Yemen. Attempts to carry out the assassination have been unsuccessful so far.

But a decade of combating terror did not always spell tight intelligence cooperation. A former Israeli intelligence individual commented on the assassination of bin Laden in Pakistan this May: "The U.S. operated clandestinely in Pakistan, a friendly country. It did so because it didn't trust Pakistan. What is the conclusion? When it comes to your people's lives, or to something of supreme importance, there is no intelligence cooperation. We can also conclude that there are no dos and don'ts in international intelligence relations, including among friends. In intelligence you can't formulate a behavior code akin to the one in international diplomacy." Israel ought to be reminded, though, that even if a superpower like the U.S. is forgiven for an operation of this type, it is doubtful a similar Israeli operation would go unchallenged.

Efraim Halevy, who headed the Mossad a decade ago, thinks that one of the most important lessons for Israel is that "Al-Qaida needs to be treated as a strategic threat. In other words, it is the threat that will come after Hamas. Al-Qaida won't be striking any hudna or tahadiyeh with us. Al-Qaida is chaos. Anyone thinking about toppling the Hamas regime would do well to think twice."