What ex-Mossad Chiefs Really Think About Targeted Killings

In rare interviews to mark the 70th anniversary of the organization’s founding, three former directors shared their views on assassinations as a tool of national security, revealing who really called the shots

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaking during a rally in Beirut on February 22, 2008, to commemorate the assassination of Imad Moughniyeh the previous week in Syria.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaking during a rally in Beirut on February 22, 2008, to commemorate the assassination of Imad Moughniyeh the previous week in Syria.Credit: REUTERS
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

One of the most sensitive, practically taboo, topics in the Israeli intelligence community is assassinations. Leaders of the Mossad, Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence are not keen to discuss it publicly. However, this month we received a rare glimpse into the thinking of three former Mossad chiefs on this controversial subject. The three – Nahum Admoni, Danny Yatom and Tamir Pardo – all granted interviews to the Journal of the Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center to mark the 70th anniversary of the Mossad’s founding.

Assassinations can be divided into three groups: assassinations that occur as part of military operations in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon; assassinations that are the responsibility of the Shin Bet, such as those that were carried out wholesale, mainly from aircraft, during the second intifada in the West Bank and Gaza; and assassinations attributed to the Mossad, to Unit 504 (the military’s Human Intelligence Division) and to special units operating outside Israel’s borders. The latter group includes not a very long list of assassinations attributed to Israel in the Middle East (Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Dubai, Syria), Asia (Malaysia), Africa (Tunisia) or on European soil (Italy, Malta, Norway, France, Cyprus, Greece and more). It is estimated that Mossad is responsible for the killing of 50 to 60 terrorists in this category, and scientists who worked for enemy countries, abroad. None of them were Israeli citizens.

Generally, when an assassination occurs outside of Israel, the Israeli media use phrases like “according to foreign reports” or “attributed to Israel” when discussing it. Even when it is clear to the whole world that Israel is responsible for a certain action, it does not acknowledge it. Neither confirms nor denies. Such was the case, for example, following the assassination of top Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in early 2010.

Only in rare instances – usually when something goes wrong – have Israeli governments been forced to admit to assassinations, or volunteered the information. This happened when Mossad and Sayeret Matkal (the general staff’s elite special ops force) assassinated Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Abu Jihad, in Tunis in 1988. In 1996, Israel expressed “regret” (without admitting culpability) and paid $400,000 to the Norwegian family of Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bushiki, who was killed by Mossad operatives in Lillehammer in 1973 due to mistaken identity. In 1997, the Mossad admitted that it tried to poison Hamas’ then-political bureau chief Khaled Meshal in Amman, and had to send an antidote made in Israel in order to save his life.

Cost versus benefit

Nahum Admoni, who led the Mossad from 1982-1989, has consistently declined to be interviewed publicly about the organization.

Over the years, he turned down several interview requests from me – and that happened again this week too. Admoni said his decision was a matter of principle and at age 91 he was not about to change his mind. Thus, the comments he made to the Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center’s journal have special, perhaps historic, significance.

“Regarding the hostile activity from Tunisia, we saw that Abu Jihad was running the first intifada from there and we decided to take him out of the picture,” Admoni said. “We planned an operation to assassinate him. We brought Sayeret Matkal, led by ‘Bogie’ [Moshe Ya’alon], into this operation. I don’t know why we did that. It’s too bad that Shabtai [Shavit – Admoni’s deputy and then successor] said to me, ‘Why can’t our team carry out the killing? We brought the Sayeret Matkal people to the target.’ … The head of Caesarea Department [Mossad’s operations department] then told me he preferred for Sayeret Matkal to do this job. In retrospect, I don’t think the killing of Abu Jihad changed anything in the course of the intifada. … There were worthy assassination operations. Several of them were unworthy. Others didn’t bring any benefit.”

Ex-Mossad chiefs Nahum Admoni, left, Danny Yatom and Tamir Pardo
Ex-Mossad chiefs Nahum Admoni, left, Danny Yatom and Tamir Pardo.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO / Olivier Fitoussi / Ofer Vaknin

The question of cost versus benefit – i.e., do assassinations contribute to national security – is one that intelligence chiefs wrestle with. They have no definitive answer. From conversations I’ve had with a good number of top intelligence officials, I’d say they believe that this is a tool whose contribution is quite limited at best. Most also admit that very few assassinations have made a decisive strategic contribution to national security.

Former Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (ret.) Uri Sagi, who promoted the plot to kill Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi in 1992, admitted that in retrospect it was a poor decision. He said it provoked a harsh retaliation and vengeance from the Shi’ite organization (aided by Iranian intelligence), which culminated with the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. One hundred and fourteen people were killed and about 500 wounded in these two attacks. Moreover, the person elected to replace the drab and gray Musawi as Hezbollah leader was the talented and charismatic Hassan Nasrallah, who continues to make Israelis’ lives difficult to this day.

On the other hand, most intelligence chiefs would agree that at least two assassinations were clearly necessary and had a great impact: The first was of Fathi Shaqaqi, founder and leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in Malta 25 years ago; the second was of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah “defense minister,” in Damascus in 2008, in an operation that has been attributed to the Mossad and the CIA.

Abu Jihad, assassinated by the Mossad in 1988 in Tunisia, pictured with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
Abu Jihad, assassinated by the Mossad in 1988 in Tunisia, pictured with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.Credit: AP

Who recommends and who approves?

In his interview with the journal, Tamir Pardo, who led the Mossad from 2011-2016, provided another interesting insight regarding assassinations. “Ephraim Halevy [Mossad chief from 1998-2002] opposed targeted assassinations on the grounds that they had limited value – and he was right about that,” Pardo said.

“The understanding is that in a targeted assassination, you are acting on several levels at once: You’re the investigator, you’re the accuser and you’re also the one who effects the action,” he continued. “It’s important to note that the point of the targeted assassination is not to punish someone for his crimes, but to prevent future actions. It’s not punishment! At the same time, there are exceptional cases in which the real strategic value of the operation can be directly measured. Another crucial factor that’s taken into account is [the chance] to disrupt in real time a known hostile operation that is to be committed.”

Pardo went on to say that “in assessing the question over the years, the strategic value of the method appears limited. Let’s be clear about how it works: In most cases, the Mossad proposes operations by laying out the justifications and presenting them to the prime minister. He either approves it or not. The prime minister does not task the Mossad with an assassination mission; he is not the initiator. This is the correct and healthy way to consider the issue.”

Pardo’s remarks raise a question about what happened to Danny Yatom, who commanded the Mossad for just two years (1996-1998), with the botched Meshal assassination attempt.

The devatated Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires after a massive bomb attack by Hezbollah operatives left 29 people dead in the Argentine capital, March 17, 1992.
The devatated Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires after a massive bomb attack by Hezbollah operatives left 29 people dead in the Argentine capital, March 17, 1992. Credit: AFP

“The Mossad did not recommend [the attack] on Meshal,” Yatom told the intelligence publication. “When Netanyahu gave the instruction … and I don’t absolve myself of any responsibility, since I could have told Bibi, ‘How can it be that you, the prime minister, decide that I must bring back the combatants’ – whom I already sent to another country [referring to Yatom’s original instruction to assassinate a different Hamas figure in a different country] the opposite direction of Jordan, thousands of kilometers from Israel, ‘and tell me, “Bring them home, we’re going after one of the four Hamas leaders at the Hamas global headquarters in Amman.”’… It took me two days to check the possibility [of assassinating Meshal in Jordan], and I concluded that it was possible.”

Yatom, who had previously spoken about the matter a number of times, also revealed that in addition to the prime minister’s approval for an assassination mission, there is another body involved in such decisions: The Committee of the Heads of Intelligence Services (known by the Hebrew acronym Varash) whose job is to coordinate actions among the various intelligence agencies. The Mossad chief heads the committee.

Varash was established in April 1949 as the Supreme Inter-Service Coordination Committee following the execution in a kangaroo court of Maj. Meir Tobiansky, who was suspected of spying for the British. Committee members came from the Shin Bet, the political division of the Foreign Ministry, the Military Intelligence division and the Israel Police.

Modeled after the coordination committee, Varash included heads of the Mossad, Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet and the national police commissioner. During Admoni’s tenure, it was decided to end the police commissioner’s participation in the discussions, and since then it has had four members: the three intelligence service heads and the prime minister’s military secretary. Admoni says that, in his time, “Varash didn’t contribute anything. The Shin Bet always kept its activity hidden. Military Intelligence – especially when Ehud Barak led it – was only interested in what there was to eat at the meetings” (the food served at the Mossad is considered the best among the intelligence agencies).

According to Admoni, Varash meetings mainly revolved around disagreements on the division of authority, especially between the Mossad and Military Intelligence regarding SIGINT (wiretapping). “Military Intelligence wanted to obtain responsibility for our wiretapping and bugging operations, and we were adamantly opposed,” he said.

Since then, several different committees were established to address the issue of the division of authority and responsibility among the intelligence agencies. The agreements that were reached were dubbed “Magna Carta 1” and “Magna Carta 2.” But disagreements still remain.

Yatom agrees with Admoni that the inter-agency cooperation still leaves something to be desired. “In my time, Varash also hardly contributed a thing – apart from confirmation that certain people whose names were brought up by the Shin Bet and Mossad could be assassinated.”