The Mossad’s International Brigade in Iran

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An Iranian image of a test chamber used to conduct high-explosives experiments.
An Iranian image of a test chamber used to conduct high-explosive experiments for a nuclear bomb.
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

In an interview on the “Uvda” TV program last week, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen said Israel’s operations in Iran were carried out by a “Mossad operational team” whose operatives speak “foreign languages.” From the questions and answers in this revealing interview, as well as from Cohen’s body language and self-satisfied smiles, it was easy to conclude that the “team” that participated in the daring operation to steal Iran’s military nuclear archive on January 31, 2018, was composed of foreigners.

The Mossad uses foreign citizens for its operations in Iran and elsewhere. Israeli and international media outlets have reported this in the past. We can presume these people are well paid. Iranian spokespeople call them “mercenaries.” But when the head of the Mossad himself reveals this, he reinforces the false impression that Israel’s intelligence service, which has a global reputation as one of the best and most professional, is just a gang that acts like an outsourced crime organization.

Israel’s intelligence community has always been assisted by foreigners. Some were Jewish and did so either voluntarily or in exchange for expenses. Others had ideological motives, like identification with the State of Israel and its struggles. Others were non-Jews of various religions and nationalities, who were recruited to gather information or gave logistical aid, renting safe houses, vehicles, participating in surveillance, sightings or sending couriers to transfer funds or equipment.

Every intelligence service utilizes a variety of operational capabilities and tools. The Mossad and the Military Intelligence Special Forces have relied on foreign agents due to their access, including for particularly dangerous operations across the border. This has happened in Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, but only as a last resort.

The Mossad has always prioritized “blue-and-white” operations, namely run by Israeli citizens, certainly when it comes to sensitive operations like assassinations and sabotage. This stems from national pride, but primarily because in such dangerous and sensitive situations, Israelis are more trustworthy than foreigners, whose motives are mainly financial or personal, such as revenge. Moreover, the Israeli combatants in frontline units like the Mossad’s Kidon unit have an appropriate military background and a sense of national pride. They know that they are risking their lives for the country where they and their families live. Their training and experience from missions are accumulative. They can be used repeatedly, thus limiting how many people are privy to sensitive information and better maintaining secrecy.

A screenshot from Outgoing Mossad chief Yossi Cohen's farewell TV interview. Credit: Keshet 12

At the same time, in the last decade and a half, the Mossad has undergone drastic changes. Its reach is now global. Needs have changed. Operations have gone from tactical and surgical to strategic. It cannot just use Israelis with dual or triple citizenship. Biometric passports are difficult to forge. It needs to recruit teams with no direct connection to Israel, train them, equip them, and send them on missions. This was not a step taken lightly. Discussions among senior Mossad officials are permeated by a slight sense of shame that they lack independent capacity and are forced to turn to foreigners.

Willful submission

In a style oozing with personality cult, in which almost every second word is “I,” Cohen described the theft of Iran’s nuclear archive as beyond Hollywood’s wildest imagination and mentioned, among other things, the heist comedy film “Ocean’s Eleven.” Fine, we’re familiar with that analogy. But, and here’s the big difference, Cohen’s revelations about the operation itself may assist those seeking to gather details about the Mossad’s operational methods. Are the methods used by the foreigners similar to those used by Israeli Mossad operatives? What nations do the foreigners come from? Who belongs to the Mossad’s “international brigade”? How are they recruited? What personal and psychological profiling did they undergo? Where did it happen? How were they trained and where?

With all due respect to Iran’s counterintelligence units, they are still groping in the dark when it comes to these questions. And here comes the Mossad chief and provides them hints on TV that might complete the puzzle. Such operations were carried out even before Yossi Cohen’s time, but under previous Mossad chiefs they were kept secret. The last thing an intelligence service does is reveal who carried out the operation, if they even admit to doing it at all. Cohen has stuck a pin in the Mossad’s blue-and-white balloon and publicly deflated it. In his characteristic arrogance, he is proud of it.

Cohen’s revelations about foreign involvement were done for no apparent reason. They are intended for only one purpose: self-glorification. The fact that the operation to steal the nuclear archive was carried out by foreigners was a secret that should never have been revealed. There is a difference between when information comes from a foreign publication or even an Israeli journalist, and when something is said, albeit implicitly, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran's nuclear program in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Cohen willfully submitted to Ilana Dayan’s questions. The “Uvda” host (who talked to him over the course of an entire year, while he was still in office) explained to viewers how the foreigners escaped with documents weighing about half a ton. She also knew that the mission to get the crew out of Iran included several trucks bearing identical license plates to confuse and mislead the Iranians. One can only wonder why the Mossad’s chief security officer authorized Cohen to publish such details. It is true that the CSO is under his command, but there are precedents. There have been security officers who knew how to stand up for themselves, to argue resolutely with division heads and even with the Mossad head himself, and to convince them that certain revelations might harm the organization.

The military censor’s conduct regarding Cohen’s interview is also very strange. I can attest to hundreds of cases where censors have insisted on disqualifying less sensitive and less important information than the secrets the former Mossad chief revealed. The censor has always worked based on the principle of not taking chances. If there’s any concern that information could compromise state security, it shouldn’t be published. More than once I have objected, had pointed arguments with censors and appealed their decisions, but in the end, I gritted my teeth and accepted their verdict. I can only guess how the censor’s office would have responded had I written the things Cohen said, or if I had dared to publish similar details from one of the Mossad’s most secret operations.

We can also guess what the Mossad chief would have done to one of his subordinates if they had revealed operational secrets to a journalist. Employees have been reprimanded and in some cases fired over far less than what Cohen did. Why did those responsible for keeping secrets give in this time? Not for the first time, they bowed down in the face of domination. Cohen wanted to celebrate the end of his term, and no one dared to spoil the show and say, “Enough.” To further glorify and aggrandize the operation, and thus himself of course, he preferred to diminish the role of dozens of junior and intermediate intelligence officers who contributed to its success. It must not be forgotten that in the end, the agents on the ground cannot carry out operations without the precise information gathered by the intelligence officers.

Just like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence on Balfour street, Yossi Cohen turned the Mossad into an organization intended to serve his needs and aspirations to become prime minister. Unequivocally. He was lucky to lead an excellent organization, whose capabilities have been built over years thanks to many thousands of dedicated employees serving the state. In his parting act he sold everything he found fit to sell, as if Mossad secrets where his own stock. “Bring me [and not the Mossad ­— YM] the archive,” he said in the interview. And when asked where the archive is today, his answer was, “I have it.” He eventually came to his senses and rephrased, “The Mossad has it.”

Incidentally, it is important to mention that the nuclear archive documents, for all their significance and contribution to exposing Iran’s deceptions, as well as the operation’s moral and psychological blow to Iran, are mostly old documents from 20 years ago. The last significant document in there is from 2003, 15 years before the operation. Moreover, the significance of most of the documents is that they reinforce intelligence that was gathered in secret for years, long before the operation, by the Mossad and other intelligence agencies that worked with it.

In April 2018, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the archive’s theft in a festive press conference. At the time, he and Cohen highlighted the operation itself, but kept relatively quiet about its significance and discoveries. This emphasis was intended to convince then-U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the nuclear deal. The United States did so and imposed unilateral sanctions on Tehran, but Israel’s reward came at a loss. Today, Iran is enriching uranium to 60% purity and is closer than ever to nuclear weapons, certainly relative to when the agreement in Vienna was signed in July 2015, to being able to assemble nuclear weapons. Even if Cohen vehemently denied this in the interview, the truth is obvious. Netanyahu and Cohen caused a very serious strategic failure that the Bennett-Lapid government will now has to deal with.

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