A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma

The death of Israel Air Force attache in Washington, Col. Joe Alon, remains an unsolved puzzle.

Reuven Pedatzur
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Reuven Pedatzur

Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent's Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice, by Fred Burton, with John Bruning. Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pages, $26. (Hebrew edition: Mi Ratzah et Joe Alon? Translated from the English by Amir Oren; Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, 206 pages, NIS 89 )

On Sunday, July 1, 1973, the Israel Air Force attache in Washington, Col. Joe Alon, one of the country's first pilots, was shot to death in front of his home in the quiet suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. To this day, the story of his death has remained an unsolved puzzle. It was to be expected that in the wake of the murder of an official representative of Israel, a wide-ranging investigation would be conducted until the killer was found and brought to trial. Surprisingly, however, U.S. officials involved in the investigation did not make a great effort to solve the case, and on February 3, 1976, the FBI decided it had exhausted all possible leads, and the file was closed. In violation of accepted procedures, the FBI also destroyed some of the evidence it had collected from the crime scene.

Col. Joe AlonCredit: From 'Chasing Shadows'

In Israel as well, it appears, not much effort was made to discover who murdered Alon. Not only did no one interrogate his widow, Dvora Alon, but when she tried to find out details of the investigation from her friends and acquaintances at the highest levels of the security forces, she encountered thunderous silence. This response to the murder of an official representative who was also a senior military officer is strange, to say the least. Especially when one recalls that the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 led to a campaign of revenge by the Mossad that included the assassination of many senior members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, or that some years later, the attempted murder of the Israeli ambassador to London contributed to Israel's decision to embark on the first Lebanon War.

Ultimate conspiracy theory

The conspiracy of silence around the murder of Joe Alon led, as might be expected, to a wave of rumors and theories, including the idea that the crime was motivated by a behind-the-scenes romance and the belief that it was a revenge killing by a Palestinian terror organization for the Mossad assassinations. Then there was the ultimate conspiracy theory: that Alon was killed by an official American or Israeli entity because he knew something he was not supposed to know. Believers of this theory claim that Alon had discovered a plan by U.S. and Israeli officials to engineer a war between Israel and Egypt. Israel would allow the Egyptians a partial victory and pay a low price in the number of soldiers killed; this would restore to Egypt the honor it had lost during the Six-Day War, thus making possible a diplomatic breakthrough and peace between the two nations. According to the theory, the officials behind the plan were concerned that Alon, who was known for being a heavy drinker, would not keep this information secret - meaning that he had to be silenced, lest he sabotage the plans to bring about peace with Egypt. The calendar of events well suits this theory: Alon was killed in July and the Yom Kippur War broke out three months later. This is seen to be irrefutable proof of the truth of the theory. After all, it's undeniable that Israel and Egypt did in fact make peace after the Yom Kippur War.

Anyone who has studied the period leading up to the 1973 war, even just a little, understands that this idea is a complete fiction. This is not the place to analyze or refute it, or point to the information that totally contradicts it. But the fact that an entire episode of Channel 1's investigative news program "Mabat Sheni" was devoted to examining the theory demonstrates just how Joe Alon's mysterious death continues to incite the imagination of Israelis.

From Maryland to Porto Alegre

Fortunately, Fred Burton, who was a teenage neighbor of the Alon family at the time of the murder, then became a U.S. State Department counterterror agent and is now a vice president at a global intelligence company, has solved the puzzle. At least, that is what he claims in his book, based on long years of detective work that led him from the lawns of Maryland to Porto Alegre, Brazil, and from there to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where the journey ended. So as not to stretch any further the taut nerves of readers, let's begin at the end. According to Burton, the murder was carried out by a man he calls "Hassan Ali," a pseudonym for a Palestinian member of the Black September movement, who was sent to assassinate the army attache by Abu Iyad and Ali Hassan Salameh, both of them very senior figures in the movement. The reason for the murder, the author contends, was the desire within Black September to avenge the Mossad's killing of their colleagues. And why in the United States, where Black September did not operate at the time, instead of Europe, where it had an extended network? And why Joe Alon, a military attache? Here Burton is aided by theory rather than facts.

According to Burton's theory, which also has a long history, Alon, in addition to his role as an attache, was also a Mossad agent. As such, not only did he collect information for the Mossad, but he also tried to recruit an intelligence source from inside the Black September cell in New York. But instead of recruiting young Palestinians, the theory goes, Alon was developed as a target. According to Burton, Black September learned who he was, followed him, and gathered intelligence that enabled them to kill him. Burton bases this theory on testimony by one person, a Palestinian member of Black September who became an informant for the FBI, and in exchange was entered in the witness protection program and lives under an assumed identity in the American Southeast.

In the book, Burton writes that when this "aging" Black September member was shown a photo of Alon, he identified him "immediately," even though he did not know his name. The source told Burton that he met Alon twice in New York, adding that every time he was sent to meet the Israeli, he was told to bring a beautiful woman with him, who was also supposed to be a member of Black September. Burton writes that the Palestinians may have known about Alon's "affection" for attractive women, and that the meetings were meant, among other things, to exploit this weakness.

This is Burton's solution to the riddle: Alon, a Mossad man, tried to recruit Palestinians in New York, and they made use of their connection with him to plan his murder. This story explains, according to Burton, why the Israelis made no serious effort to identify Alon's murderers. It is possible to imagine the American response, Burton says, if it were to become known that during a formative period when relations with Israel were being shaped, such a key figure was trying to build a spy network on the East Coast. To prevent that from happening, Israel buried both Joe Alon and his case, and the government went out of its way to forget the assassination, and have others forget it too. That's why Dvora Alon and her daughters were never to learn the truth. It was vital that Joe Alon be remembered as a pilot who became a diplomat and died in the line of duty, Burton says.

This is a good story, but it is quite problematic and not all that convincing. It is highly doubtful that the Mossad would assign an air force pilot, sent as an attache to Washington and never trained to operate agents, to build a spy network in the United States. And if Alon had been a Mossad agent, why didn't the Mossad try to find and punish his murderers? This picture does not suit the methods of the Mossad. And why didn't the Americans make an effort to identify the murderers? Can it be that the entire American law enforcement establishment cooperated in silencing the story to avoid damaging relations with Israel? Were the police in Montgomery County, Maryland, in on the conspiracy too, and for that reason were negligent in their own investigation of the murder? Did the FBI destroy evidence to protect bilateral relations, which would have been damaged if, heaven forbid, they learned that Alon worked for the Mossad? It doesn't sound credible at all.

'An elderly Palestinian'

Three years after he formulated his theory about Joe Alon as a Mossad man who built a spy network, Burton says he managed to discover the identity of the murderer. It was another "elderly Palestinian," this time living in Beirut, who led the author to the murderer. But "unfortunately," Burton writes, that source did not remember the name of the assassin. That he discovered from a different Palestinian source, whose name must remain secret, Burton says. This information was confirmed by "Ed," a former U.S. policeman who aided the writer with research on the book, who, in turn, heard it from a terrorist released from an American prison a short time before being expelled from the country and flown to an unknown location abroad. The real name of the terrorist must remain classified, Burton writes, without saying just why.

Burton sent the real name of the assassin he calls "Hassan Ali" (who left Brazil for Lebanon, where Hezbollah took him under its wing ), to "my contact in Israeli intelligence." A few months later, Burton says, as he was on his way to bed, his BlackBerry signaled that he had received a message. The phone was resting on a Bible on his night table, and Burton writes that the sender was his friend from the Mossad. "I read the words over and over, three times," he says, though he doesn't share them with the reader. But when he scanned his desk, his eyes fell on a black-and-white photo of a Lebanese street, after the 1979 assassination of the "Red Prince" (Ali Hassan Salameh ): a burnt-out car, twisted metal - the work of the Mossad again, he seems to be saying.

And again a question arises. If the Mossad killed Hassan Ali, Alon's murderer, why didn't they share this important information with Alon's daughters, instead of allowing them to continue suffering in ignorance?

Burton has written a highly intriguing and suspenseful book. He offers a glimpse, however superficial, of the history of the Israel Air Force, the hunt for the murderers of the Olympic athletes in Munich, and Black September. But does the book also resolve the question of who killed Joe Alon? Perhaps, but readers are left with too many questions to be sure about that.

Reuven Pedatzur is a lecturer in the political science department of Tel Aviv University.