The killing machine: Poisoned toothpaste, exploding phones and lethal toxins… as Mossad agents are linked to the murder of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, TOM LEONARD examines how Israel’s secret service perfected the art of assassination
A body is found in a glitzy Gulf hotel — there are signs of a struggle but the door is locked from the inside.
An Iranian nuclear scientist is machine-gunned by a passing motorcyclist as he waits at a traffic light with his wife beside him. A Palestinian terrorist leader dies in agony, his terrifying illness a mystery to doctors, although his minders later discover there’s something odd about the toothpaste he’s been using.
In each case, as in scores of others, there was only one real suspect — the Mossad, Israel’s fearsome foreign intelligence service.
Shrouded in the mystique of an organisation unsurpassed in ruthlessness, Israel’s equivalent of MI6 — albeit an MI6 that in James Bond fashion jets around the world and kills its enemies — is the lynchpin of a national security operation that some have accorded almost supernatural powers.
Tailor-made for the screen, Mossad and the rest of Israel’s security services are currently the focus of the 2018 BBC adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, starring Florence Pugh (left) as a young Mossad recruit
Tailor-made for the screen, Mossad and the rest of Israel’s security services are currently the focus of an impressive string of films and TV series of varying degrees of accuracy — ranging from the 2018 BBC adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, starring Florence Pugh as a young Mossad recruit, to Netflix’s Israeli anti-terrorist commando hit Fauda, and Tehran, about a female undercover Mossad agent trying to disable a nuclear reactor in Iran.
It is a world of government-ordered extra-judicial killings, high-tech sabotage, lethal gadgets and savage street gun battles that seems firmly rooted in the fantasy of 007. Until, that is, it seeps into the real world — as it did in Iran a few days ago — to remind us that Mossad really does exist.
Nobody in intelligence circles harbours any doubt that Mossad was responsible for the assassination just over a week ago of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the mastermind of Iran’s secret nuclear weapons programme. Ingenious, daring and frighteningly efficient — it bore all the hallmarks of the organisation whose name translates as ‘The Institute’.
Nobody in intelligence circles harbours any doubt that Mossad was responsible for the assassination just over a week ago of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (pictured), the mastermind of Iran’s secret nuclear weapons programme
As Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle, followed by a carload of bodyguards, approached a roundabout some 40 miles outside Tehran, an automatic machine gun hidden in an empty pickup truck parked nearby started firing. The truck, filled with explosives, was then blown up remotely, bringing down an overhead power line.
Gunmen jumped out of another parked car, others rode up on motorcycles and the rest of the dozen-strong team opened fire with sniper rifles. Hit at least three times, the scientist staggered out of the car and collapsed.
Roadside cameras had already been disabled and the nearest medical clinic had lost electricity, possibly from the downed power line, so Fakhrizadeh had to be helicoptered to Tehran.
He was dead on arrival.
His assassins melted away unharmed. ‘It was like a Hollywood action movie,’ said one witness.
Mossad operations often are like Hollywood films, with the Islamic Republic of Iran nowadays generally playing the ‘bad guys’. Tehran is one of Israel’s bitterest enemies and the latter regards the Iranian nuclear weapons programme as a threat to its existence.
Fakhrizadeh was killed in a bomb and gun attack on his convoy near the capital Tehran
As Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle, followed by a carload of bodyguards, approached a roundabout some 40 miles outside Tehran, an automatic machine gun hidden in an empty pickup truck parked nearby started firing
Mossad’s ‘Bayonet’ department, which handles assassinations, has spent more than a decade stalking and attacking the scientists involved and their facilities.
Although it never admits responsibility for killings, it has been blamed for a string of deaths of Iranian researchers, including a supposed victim of poison gas, a particle physicist blown up by a bomb hidden in a parked motorbike outside his home, and two scientists killed by motorcyclists who sped past their cars and attached explosive limpet mines to the doors.
Since its inception some 70 years ago, Mossad has been similarly merciless towards Palestinian extremists, the Shia militant group Hezbollah and fugitive Nazis.
According to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, whose book Rise And Kill First is the definitive history of Mossad, the agency and other Israeli security services have conducted at least 2,700 assassinations since the country was founded in 1948 — a number that Israel hasn’t challenged.
With an annual budget approaching £2 billion and an estimated 7,000 staff, it’s said to be the world’s second largest intelligence agency after the CIA.
Its heavy reliance on targeted assassinations — or ‘negative treatments’ as they’re known internally — certainly hasn’t been free of controversy.
Critics accuse Mossad of a dangerous arrogance, which is compounded by the immense pride that ordinary Israelis take in its escapades.
They complain the trigger-happy agency has made a mockery of Western democracies’ claims to occupy the moral high ground over the terrorists, protracting the Middle East conflict rather than helping end it.
Members of the Iranian forces pray around the coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 30
Certainly some of the ‘negative treatment’ missions have failed dismally. Even those that have succeeded have often ultimately backfired on Israel, triggering terrible reprisals, alienating allies or simply culminating in the replacement of an opponent with an even worse one.
But Mossad’s defenders say that the organisation is informed by the siege mentality that comes from Israel being surrounded geographically by enemies and continually either at war or close to war.
They quote a line from the Talmud, central text of Jewish law, that reads: ‘If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.’
Author Ronen Bergman says Mossad has to be seen in the light of the Holocaust and Israeli determination that such an abomination never occurs again. Indeed, former Mossad boss Meir Dagan used to show agents about to embark on a mission a photograph of his grandfather, kneeling in terror before Nazi soldiers minutes before they shot him.
‘They believe that if they don’t protect Israel, nobody else will — and that if they do not kill the enemy, tomorrow it’s going to cost lives,’ says Bergman, who notes that he’s hardly ever encountered any sign of remorse or regret from Mossad members.
His book is now being made into an HBO drama series.
Intelligence work is, predictably, much more complicated than it is ever portrayed on screen.
Single Mossad operations have involved up to 500 agents with the actual hit teams frequently changing clothing and disguises.
Mossad first gained notoriety when it located Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organisers of the Holocaust, in Argentina in 1960. It abducted him back to Israel where he was tried and hanged.
A member of the Palestinian terrorist group who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich games is pictured (file photo)
But it wasn’t until 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics that its assassination programme started in earnest.
Over two decades, Mossad killed 11 suspects across Europe — but caused international outrage in 1973 when in Lillehammer, Norway, agents killed a Moroccan waiter they mistook for the mastermind of the Olympic terror attack, Ali Hassan Salameh.
Six years later they succeeded in killing the real Salameh in Beirut after a British Mossad agent, Erika Chambers, who had managed to befriend the terrorist, detonated a bomb.
Eight other people including a German nun and a British secretary were killed in the explosion — just one of many occasions in Mossad’s history when innocent civilians have been ‘collateral damage’.
It is alleged that sometimes the deaths have been intentional — agents once blew up a Beirut shopkeeper, killing him and three others, because they wanted to find his brother and hoped he would attend the funeral.
At other times, Mossad has been able to ensure there were no civilian casualties.
In 1978, an undercover Mossad agent who had got close to Wadie Haddad, a Palestinian terrorist leader responsible for the 1976 Entebbe hijacking of an Air France plane carrying mainly Jewish and Israeli passengers, switched his toothpaste for an identical tube containing a deadly poison.
Whenever Haddad brushed his teeth, a tiny amount of the toxin passed into his bloodstream by penetrating the mucous membranes in his mouth. Two months later, he died screaming in agony in an East German hospital.
Mossad likes to use poisons, although they don’t always work so smoothly. In 1997, a Mossad team travelling on fake Canadian passports flew to Jordan to kill Khaled Mashal, a leader of militant Palestinian group Hamas.
The plan was for an assassin to come up behind him in the street and spray him on the neck with a lethal poison, hidden in a tiny canister attached to his wrist, just as a colleague ‘accidentally’ drenched him from a fizzing Coca-Cola can as a distraction.
The poison was so toxic that a female anaesthetist codenamed ‘Dr Platinum’ followed the team with an antidote in case civilians or Mossad agents became contaminated.
However, when Mashal moved at the last moment, the poison went in his ear and the assassins were captured after a fight. A furious President Clinton forced a humiliated Israel to hand over the antidote to save Mashal’s life and it had to give up a valuable prisoner to get its own agents back.
Hamas master bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash, dubbed ‘the Engineer’ — a man responsible for numerous deaths in suicide bombings who had long been in Mossad’s sights — was another victim of a carefully targeted assassination.
In 1996, its domestic intelligence sister agency, Shin Bet, got its chance after discovering Ayyash was hiding in the Gaza Strip. Ayyash was wary of using phones but the Israelis discovered he visited a friend’s home each week to call his father.
Agents managed to substitute a mobile phone that contained explosives and, when they heard him speaking into it one day, detonated it remotely, killing him.
Blunders, though, are not uncommon in Mossad’s history. In 1968, in an operation directly inspired by Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate, Mossad recruited a Swedish-born psychologist to brainwash a Palestinian prisoner into murdering Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
Over three months, the prisoner was hypnotised with the straightforward message: ‘Arafat bad. He must be removed’ and trained to shoot at pictures of him.
Mossad smuggled the would-be killer across the River Jordan and unleashed him on his mission — only for him to go straight to a Palestinian police station to reveal that the Israelis had tried to brainwash him.
In 1968, in an operation directly inspired by Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (pictured), Mossad recruited a Swedish-born psychologist to brainwash a Palestinian prisoner into murdering Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
Mossad has an iron rule not to ask other countries for help, but broke it in 2008 in order to net its most elusive prey, Imad Mughniyeh, military commander of Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah, one of Israel’s fiercest enemies.
Mossad had only one ancient photo of him and had been hunting him for 30 years when it discovered he was in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
The Israelis found it immensely difficult operating there and requested the CIA’s help. President George W. Bush agreed as long as the Israelis pledged nobody else would be hurt.
The allies discovered Mughniyeh regularly visited three women provided by his Syrian hosts for his ‘relaxation’.
A remote-controlled bomb was the best bet, and one was hidden inside the spare tyre of Mughniyeh’s SUV when he made a nocturnal visit to one of his girlfriends. Mossad maximised the embarrassment for its foes by blowing him up as he passed Syrian intelligence HQ.
Less than six months later, the Israelis humbled the Assad regime again when it assassinated its top general, Muhammad Suleiman, as he entertained friends after dinner on his terrace — the two snipers on the beach below escaped by rubber dinghy before they’d even been spotted.
At least once, a Mossad operation has been notoriously captured on camera.
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas leader and arms procurer, was killed in his Dubai hotel room by three Mossad agents
In 2010, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas leader and arms procurer, was killed in his Dubai hotel room by three Mossad agents who used an instrument that employs ultrasound waves to inject medication without breaking the skin. It was loaded with an anaesthetic so powerful that the muscles used to breathe stop working and the target suffocates.
The agents, who had sneaked into his room by picking the door lock, managed to lock it from the inside as they left so it appeared he had died of natural causes.
However, police found evidence of a struggle including injuries to the victim’s face. It later emerged much of the action had been caught on hotel cameras, showing the agents (27 in all) dressed as tourists and two even wearing tennis kit and clutching rackets.
More embarrassingly for Israel, the agents had been travelling using false EU passports including British ones and a diplomatic storm ensued — the Mossad chief in London was expelled — although the row petered out.
Indeed, Israeli intelligence experts say it always does — allies may protest in public but privately they play along with Mossad, which is, after all, often doing the West’s dirty work.
Even if some of its blood-spattered operations are at best counter-productive, at worst simply criminal, insiders say the agency will continue to do what it feels is necessary — and can get away with.
After all, ultimately there’s no code of conduct for spies.
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