ISRAEL, TECHNIQUES FOR TARGETED KILLINGS
On April 16, 1988, Israel decided to eliminate the individual who was considered to be the main responsible for the first Palestinian Intifada, which had started four months before. The target was Khalil al Wazir, also known with his 'battle' name of Abu Jihad, one of the top members of Fatah. Abu Jihad was a comrade of Yasser Arafat from the very start and considered by Israel their number one enemy. Abu Jihad was to become but the first of a long list of individuals whose physical elimination was meant to decapitate the Intifada. A commando of 26 men arrived by submarine off the coast of Tunisia, reached the shore by means of inflatable vessels and landed on the beach near Tunis. The 26, who wore civilian clothes and Tunisian police uniforms, silently neared the villa where Abu Jihad was sleeping and took out the security guards before entering Abu Jihad's room and murdering him with silenced firearms. The men then returned to the beach where they had landed, climbed back on board their boats and made their way back to the submarine. In the meantime, an airplane was busy flying over the Tunisian airspace with the intent of scrambling electronic signals and the telephone network. Once the 26 men were safe on the submarine, they were taken back to their base; the entire operation, which had lasted 30 minutes, had been carried out successfully without any of the 26 being wounded or killed.
Likewise, on December 2013, a motorboat neared the beaches south of Beirut. The time was close to midnight and the city was quiet. The commando that disembarked from the motorboat was picked up by a car that was waiting for them. They were driven to the home of an important member of the military wing of Hezbollah, Haj Hassan Hilu Al Laqis, who was very close to the leader of the Shiite movement, Hassan Nasrallah. The men sat waiting for Al Lagis' return in the parking lot underneath his home and, when the target drove in on board his armoured vehicle, they sprang into action. Al Laqis was killed by five bullets to the head and neck, all of them fired by silenced firearms. Just a few minutes had elapsed from their arrival and the commando had already carried out its task, returned to the beach, boarded their motorboat, and disappeared.
History repeats itself
Twenty-five years have elapsed between the two murders, but the technique has not changed, as has the disinformation that follows the act; a Sunni group immediately claimed responsibility for the murder of Al Laqis, fueling suspicion that the murder had occurred as a consequence of the feud between Sunni and Shiites, which did not see eye-to-eye on the Syrian situation.
The Sunni group published its message on the same website on which, a month earlier, the so-called “Brigade Abdullah Azzam” had claimed responsibility for the attack against the Iranian embassy in Beirut where 23 people had died (Nasrallah had blamed the Saudis for the attack). The Israelis immediately denied their involvement in the killing through the statements of their minister of Strategic Affairs and Intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, and their minister of Energy, Silvan Shalom.
In the past, Al Laqis had been the target of at least nine elimination attempts by the Mossad; all of them had failed. On July 20, 2006, an Israeli F-16 had fired missiles against his apartment in Beirut but he was not in. Then, as he was staying in Tyre and Sidon, in the south of Lebanon, one of his telephone conversations with his father had been tapped. Within minutes, a missile had hit the car in which the Israelis thought that he was traveling. On that occasion, just a few seconds had passed between the telephone conversation and the airstrike, during which time Al Laqis had managed to climb out of the car. Al Laqis had become a symbol for Israel because he was deemed to be the inventor of the defense system that had cost Israel their defeat in the 2006 war against Hezbollah. Al Laqis was also a close friend of Imad Mughnyeh, another target and victim of the Israeli 'kill list'.
The several attempts to end Al Laqis' life demonstrate his importance in the eyes of the Israelis. Al Laqis was instrumental in the re-arming of the Hezbollah, in the smuggling of arms into Gaza, in the technological development of their weapons, in the overall organization of the group and was a member of the council of the Jihad, the group that planned operations against Israel. He was also personally implicated in the Syrian war and represented the main contact with Iran and the Shiite movement. His killing was a clear message to Teheran.
Hassan Hilu Al Laqis was wanted by the FBI and by the
Canadian intelligence because he was accused of introducing,
during the 90's, a number of clandestine individuals into
the US and Canada who used illegal financing (through
counterfeit documents, credit cards, etc.) to buy equipment
and technology used in the re-armament of the Hezbollah.
These individuals had also planned a number of attacks
against Jewish targets. The group was apprehended by police
but, even then, Al Laqis had managed to save himself by
deciding not to travel to the US on that occasion.
Haji Hassan Hilu Al Laqis
From one black list to the next
The war between Israel and its enemies has never ceased. It is a conflict riddled with killings, some well known and others anonymous, which has seen, along the years, the strong involvement of the Mossad and other components of the Israeli army.
Isreal's black list changes according to the priority of the targets within it. In the past, the first positions of the list were occupied by the heads of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), including Arafat himself. Later, these slots were filled by other Palestinian factions that were more active in the armed fight against Israel. Lately, the top positions are occupied by the military heads of Hamas in Gaza, those of the Islamic Jihad, the Iranian scientists working on the nuclear program in Teheran and, finally, by the Hezbollah; the Shiite organization is considered today the main military threat against the Hebrew State and this justifies the obstinacy with which Israel pursues the elimination of its members.
The elimination operations carried out by Israel have assumed different configurations, depending on the environmental circumstances and on the targets involved.
For the killing of Iranian scientists, Israel used several methods: magnetic bombs attached to their cars, (On November 29, 2010, in Teheran, against Madjed Shariari who was killed and, on the same day, against Fereidoun Abbassi Davani, who managed to escape the attack unscathed; on January 11, 2012, against Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan; on January 20, 2012, against Mohammad Esmail Kosari) pistol shots from motorbikes (In July 2011, in Teheran, against Darious Rezaeineja, who was waiting for his son outside school), bombs placed on parked bikes, (January 12, 2010, against Massoud Ali Mohammadi) and, finally, the explosion of a missile warehouse (On November 12, 2011, against General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam). This wave of killings clearly suggests that there exists or existed an operative group of individuals piloted by the Israeli intelligence in the Iranian capital.
The most important elimination agaisnt the Hezbollah were that of Abbas al Musawi on February 16, 1992. Musawi, the leader of the Hezbollah, the 'party of God', was killed in the south of Lebanon by a missile that was launched against his car by an Israeli army Apache helicopter. His wife, a son of five and several bodyguards of his were also killed in the explosion. With Musawi dead, the 'party of God' was taken over by Hassan Nasrallah, who immediately became the new target on Israel's radar. Immediately, the Israelis tried to take him out like they had done with his predecessor, by launching a missile from a helicopter, but missed.
From that day on, the leader of the Hezbollah has become more prudent. He avoids appearing in public most of the time and keeps his movements secret. During his latest appearances he wore a bullet-proof vest and was always shielded by a so-called “ballistic blanket” to protect himself against explosions. His security service is comprised of family members that employ canine units for protection. When Nasrallah does appear in public, he does so only if the area is monitored by video-cameras. All of these precautions have not, however, deterred Israel from trying to murder him.
In October 2008 there were rumors of an attempt to poison Nasrallah – which he denied – that was allegedly thwarted by the intervention of Iranian medics. In July and August 2011, Israel had launched rockets against a location in Beirut where they thought that Nasrallah was holding a meeting with other members of the Hezbollah; both attempts failed. In November 2013, a Lebanese Sunni leader called Sheykh Saeddin, who was very close to the Hezbollah, was murdered by shots fired from a moving motorbike in Beirut (the same technique used with some of the Iranian scientists).
Imad Mughniyeh, the head of the military arm of the Hezbollah, whom both Israel and the USA had tried to capture for 20 years, was killed in Damascus on February 12, 2008, by a car-bomb as he was taking a stroll in the streets of the Syrian capital. Mughniyeh was a difficult target to hit because he was very cautious. He had gone to the extent of having facial surgery carried out on himself in order to pass unrecognized. Before the advent of Osama Bin Laden, Mughniyeh topped the Mossad's and the CIA's international terrorists' most wanted list. The Americans had placed a five million dollar prize on his head because of his alleged participation in some of the most deadly terrorist attacks of the 80's and 90's: the attack against the US Embassy in Beirut in April 1983; the Beirut barracks bombings in 1983; the hijacking of the TWA flight in 1985; the murder of the CIA station chief in Beirut in 1985; the attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992; the attack in Khobar (Saudi Arabia) in 1996. Mughniyeh was also implicated in several kidnappings. As was the case with Al Laqis, the Mossad, with a lot of patience and after a number of failed attempts, finally managed to achieve his elimination.
From Iran to Hezbollah and to Hamas
As we have mentioned, the heads of Hamas were placed at the top of Israel's kill list a long time ago. Yahya Abdul Latif Ayyash, a man involved in the preparation of bombs used in suicide attacks, was eliminated in January 1996 by the explosion of a rigged telephone. The telephone had been given to him by a relative who had sided with the Israeli Shin Bet. When Yahya called his father, the mobile phone that he used was detonated from a distance by the Israeli intelligence and he was blown to bits.
Salaheddin Mustafa Ali Shehada, the head of the Ezzedin al Qassem brigades – the armed wing of the movement – was eliminated in July 2003 by an F-16 which dropped a bomb on the building where he was lodged. Ahmad al Ghul, also an artificer of Hamas, was killed in October 2004 by a missile launched from an Apache helicopter against his car (another member of Hamas, Imad Abbas, was killed together with Salaheddin).
But not all of Israel's attacks against Hamas were successful. The leader of the organization, Khaled Meshal, is an example of this. There have been numerous attempts at his life since his designation at the head of Hamas in 1996. In September 1997, for instance, as he walked the streets of Amman, Khaled was attacked by a commando comprised of five Mossad agents who, posing as Canadian tourists, tried to inject poison in his ear.
Some of the members of the group were arrested while others found refuge inside the Israeli embassy. In order to free its agents, Israel was allegedly forced to give Jordan the antidote to save the life of Meshal. Since that day, Khaled Meshal saved himself from being killed by moving to Qatar, then to Syria and finally, when the civil war in Syria began, back to Qatar. His fleeting appearance in Gaza in December 2012 was on occasion of a public event for the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, but he could not be hit then because he was surrounded by a huge crowd and in the presence of foreign delegations.
There are other members of Hamas who were not so lucky. Sheykh Ahmed Yassin, the historical leader of the group, was killed on March 2004, when two helicopters launched missiles against his trademark wheelchair. The nearing of the helicopters had been scrambled by the traces left by Israeli jet fighters flying over the strip at a very low altitude. His immediate successor, Abdul Aziz Rantissi, was murdered in April 2004 by means of another missile launched from an Israeli helicopter.
Another Hamas leader, Mahmoud al Mabhouh, who procured weapons for the organization, had close ties with Iran and was accused by Israel of capturing and killing two soldiers, was killed in a Dubai hotel in January 2010; he was drugged and strangled by Mossad agents who had traveled to the Emirates using false European passports. A team of agents stationed at the airport, waiting for Mabhouh's arrival, while another group was at the hotel to spy on him in his room. The last group of agents to arrive was the one tasked with his execution which they, rather clumsily, attempted to disguise as an accidental death (one of the Israeli agents had struggled with Mabhouh when trying to inject him with a paralyzing drug, thus leaving traces of his DNA on the body).
Sheykh Ahmed Yassin
The Mossad is a secret service that often recurs to the physical elimination of the enemies of the Israeli state. It's operative capability in covert and clandestine operations is very highly considered internationally. The Mossad is supported in its operations by the special forces of the army (which are commanded by the Directorate to Military Intelligence) and is thus – in a spirit of operative synergy – often sided with the “Syaret Matkal” (“reconnaissance unit of the General Staff”), who often operate in counter-terrorism and liberation of hostages behind enemy lines. One famous case was the 1977 liberation of the Israeli hostages from an airliner hijacked by Palestinian terrorists at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda.
We will not discuss the legitimacy of the elimination operations because there are victims in every war and the war among spies is no different from a classical war fought on the terrain in this respect. Either way, whether the killing of an adversary by means of a covert or clandestine operation is called 'murder' or not doesn't change the result thereof.
It is likewise useless to dwell on the statements of the former US Federal District Court Judge Abraham David Sofaer, who was the legal assistant to the Secretary of State George Schultz during the 80's. Sofaer, apart from considering the killings to be acts of self-defense, went so far as justifying the loss of civilian lives in the process. This aspect of the operations is by far the more controversial among the global public opinion. Eliminating an enemy can sometimes make sense, but to kill his son or wife (as in the case of Abbas Mussawi) or any other innocent bistander (as in the tens of dead caused by the attack on Sleheddin Shehada – including his wife and children; or in the elimination of Sheykh Yassin, which caused just as many civilian casualties; or in that of Abdul Aziz Rantissi, where his son was killed) makes the entire operation less acceptable. This is often the problem with the aerial incursions of the Israeli helicopters in Gaza and with those of the US drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even Osama bin Laden debated the legitimacy of causing civilian casualties, as shown in a document found in his Abbottabad home (the debate was with regards to the Taliban attacks in Afghanistan and on Abu Musab al Zarqawi's operations in Iraq).
As we have seen in the course of this article, the techniques of elimination used by the Mossad and the special forces of the Israeli army vary according to the operative opportunities (the existence of operative groups, undercover agents, or sources on the ground), the environmental context, the precautions to take or the dangerousness of the designated target. It is a tough job where the final result is the only worthy prize and where we must therefore include in the balance not only the instances when the target is eliminated, but all the other failed attempts at his/her life as well.
Technology is clearly a powerful ally in this field. With it, elimination techniques can be further refined and diversified; when there is a technological advancement, the elimination activity also develops and the risks thereof are reduced. The eliminations of Abu Jihad and of Al Laqis are surely a professional way of carrying out such operations, although they are equally dangerous. In these cases, the operations were carried out only once there was an operative network in place and when the probabilities of success were very high. In the case of Al Laqis, the structure was in place and was controlling communications, as confirmed by the recent discovery by the Lebanese authorities of a Lebanon-based network of spies employed by the Mossad.
Even though human espionage is always the best choice for covert operations, the future of the elimination trade has been traced already by the Americans with their massive use of drones in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. With these machines, the way of eliminating one's targets changes and the operative risks drop close to zero. That is why Israel has been using the same instruments of late in the Sinai peninsula against the terrorist groups that reside there.