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Wall Street Journal – May 5, 2011
by Ronen Bergman
Before most Americans had heard the name Osama bin Laden, Israel’s Mossad was on to him. In 1995, when unknown assailants tried to kill then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia, the CIA and the Egyptian intelligence service requested the Mossad’s assistance in investigating the incident. The Mossad discovered that Iran and a hitherto unknown mujahedeen group were jointly responsible for carrying out the attempted assassination. Notable among these mujahedeen—veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan who had found refuge in Sudan—was a certain wealthy Saudi by the name of bin Laden.
The Mossad was sufficiently concerned by this development that it set up a Global Jihad desk—the first Western intelligence organization to do so—in a bid to gather information on the new phenomenon of scattered terrorist cells lacking a hierarchical structure and regular state assistance. The Mossad was also the first to attempt, unsuccessfully, to assassinate bin Laden: In 1995, it recruited his secretary to poison him.
It has long been evident that killings of this kind are an invaluable component of the military arsenal in the fight against terrorism. The country that has carried out more targeted killings than any other since the end of World War II is Israel. Though it officially denies responsibility for most of the killings it has carried out, the Jewish state has repeatedly eliminated field operatives and military, political and ideological leaders of organizations it has deemed dangerous.
While formally opposed to Israel’s actions, U.S. administrations have turned a blind eye. And since the mid-1990s, Israel has shared a great deal of technology that it developed in its use of drones with the U.S. Today, drones are America’s primary weapon in its own targeted killings. Israel also trained U.S. special forces in penetration and ambush techniques in urban environments—techniques that were later put into practice in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
With Osama bin Laden dead, the question facing Western intelligence services is what direction al Qaeda will take next. The lesson that the Israeli intelligence community has learned the hard way is that targeted killings, as often as not, have the effect of shuffling the deck in undesirable ways. The elimination of an organization’s leader tends to paralyze the group in the short term, but it sometimes results in the rise of an even more dangerous successor.
On the afternoon of Feb. 16, 1992, Israeli Air Force Apache helicopters hit a convoy of vehicles in Lebanon, killing Abbas Mussawi, one of the founders and the secretary-general of Hezbollah. A successful operation in itself, Mussawi’s assassination led to the retaliatory bombing attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, in which 29 civilians lost their lives. In the long run, the killing resulted in the rise of Hassan Nasrallah as the new leader of Hezbollah. Talented and charismatic, Nasrallah turned Hezbollah into a dominant political and military force in Lebanon. He also changed the organization’s goals, prioritizing the struggle against Israel instead of the domestic Lebanese power struggle, which was his predecessor’s focus. (Nasrallah has largely remained underground since Israel’s war against Hezbollah in 2006.)
Similarly, in 2004, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas, based on the Israeli intelligence community’s consensus that eliminating Yassin would cripple Hamas’s future growth. This was also the view of the U.S. administration, which received prior notice of the intended killing.
Indeed, the killing of Yassin caused considerable immediate damage to Hamas and its ability to reorganize. But in the long term, the demise of Yassin—a devout Sunni who categorically refused to cooperate with Shiite Iran—made possible the rise of Khaled Meshaal, who had no such compunction. As a result, Hamas became, and remains, a much more dangerous organization—one that receives massive military and financial support from Tehran.
In 1988, Israel eliminated the military leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) in Tunis. The reason was his involvement in a series of fatal terrorist attacks and his superior ability to plan and carry out terrorist operations. Abu Jihad’s death was a serious military blow, and it had a considerable effect on the organization’s morale. But Israeli leaders hoped that eliminating Abu Jihad would help bring an end to the popular uprising, the first Intifada, that had broken out a short time before. In this, of course, they were to be profoundly disappointed.
There are those in Israel who have come to regret the assassination of Abu Jihad. Many political observers believe that had the charismatic leader been alive today he might have been able to unite the Palestinian people and fulfill the agreements with Israel that Yasser Arafat systematically violated.
The case of Arafat is complicated. Israel first tried to assassinate him in March 1968 in Jordan. He escaped, and many Israeli soldiers were killed. Countless other attempts were made on his life, including by shelling his bunker during the war in Beirut in 1982.
Over the years, there was much debate in Israel’s intelligence community about what to do with Arafat. Officials eventually decided that he had ceased to be a target from the moment he received international legitimacy as a political leader (including among sections of the Israeli public).
But when he openly supported the waves of Palestinian terror that hit Israel starting in September 2000, his legitimacy was tarnished. Israel once again began examining the possibility of killing him. One suggestion was to capture him and deport him to Lebanon. This idea was vetoed by Mr. Sharon, who feared that Arafat would become a symbol and a rallying point. Mr. Sharon also vetoed all proposals to eliminate Arafat in a military operation. The issue was resolved when Arafat died in a hospital in Paris after a mysterious illness. Many of his followers blamed the Mossad.
Arafat’s death has had a certain beneficial effect both on Israel and on the West Bank. His successors, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, have acted with determination against terror and have brought an improved quality of life and economic growth to inhabitants of the West Bank. On the other hand, where Arafat was strong Mr. Abbas has been weak, failing to prevent the split between the Fatah-led West Bank and the Hamas-led Gaza.
There is no doubt that the killing of bin Laden, like that of other terrorist leaders, was justified. But it remains to be seen who and what will eventually rise to take his place, and whether the apprentice will be more awful than the master.Mr. Bergman is a senior military and intelligence analyst for Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily. He is currently working on a book about the Mossad and the art of assassination.
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