By Gordon Thomas
Standing on a canteen table in down-town Tel Aviv,Israel's spymaster studied the men and women of Mossad.
In the few weeks since taking over Mossad,Meir Dagan knew he already commanded something his recent predecessors never managed.Respect.
Barely raising his voice he spoke.
"When I was fighting in Lebanon,I witnessed the aftermath of a family feud.The patriarch's head had been split open,his brain on the floor.Around him lay his wife and some of his children.All dead.Before I could do anything,one of the murderers scooped up a handful of brain and swallowed it.This is how you will all now operate.Otherwise someone will eat your brain."
His every word held them in thrall-even if they sent a shudder through some of his listeners,hardened as they were.
In the canteen were those who had killed many times already.Killing enemies who could not be brought to trial because they were hidden deep inside Israel's Arab neighbours.
Only Mossad could find and kill them.Rafi Eitan,the legendary former Operations Chief of Mossad told me when we sat together in his living room in a north Tel Aviv suburb:
"I always tried to kill when I could see the whites of a person's eyes.So I could see the fear.Smell it on his breath.Sometimes I used my hands.A knife,or a silenced gun.I never felt a moment's regret over a killing."
Meir Amit,when he had been director of Mossad,later insisted"we are like the official hangman or the doctor on Death Row who administers the lethal injection.Our actions are all endorsed by the State of Israel.When Mossad kills it is not breaking the law.It is fulfilling a sentence sanctioned by the prime minister of the day".
We spoke as he walked me through Mossad's own unique memorial in Tel Aviv to the dead-a concrete maze shaped in the form of a brain.Each name engraved on the concrete was of an agent who had been killed while trying to destroy Israel's enemies.
Some of those agents had one thing in common.Amit had sent them to their deaths.
"We did all we could to protect them.We trained them better than any other secret service.Sometimes,out on a mission,the dice is against you.But there will always be brave men ready to roll the dice,"he said.
Dagan,his listeners in the canteen knew,was cast in the same mould.He would protect them with every means he knew-legal or illegal.He would allow them to use proscribed nerve toxins.Dum-dum bullets.Ways of killing that not even the Mafia,the former KGB or China's secret service use.But he would not hesitate to expose them to death-if it was for the greater good of Israel.
That was the deal those in the canteen had accepted when they were recruited.They,too,were ready to roll the dice.
Dagan,only the tenth man to head Mossad and bear the title of memune-"first among equals in Hebrew"-reminded his listeners sat on their plastic-form chairs what Meir Amit had once said.Then Dagan added:
"I am here to tell you those days are back.The dice is ready to roll."
Dagan jumped down from the table and walked out of the canteen in total silence.Only then did the applause start.
Shortly afterwards came the Mombasa massacre of eleven days ago.An explosive-laden land-cruiser drove into the reception area of the island's Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel.
Fifteen people died and 80 were seriously injured.Two shoulder-fired missiles nearly downed an Israeli passenger plane bringing tourists back to Tel Aviv from Kenya.Two hundred and seventy-five barely missed a Lockerbie-style death.
Meir Dagan immediately suspected it was the work of Osama bin-Laden's al-Quaeda and that the missiles had come from Iraq's arsenal.
But to suspect and prove would be the greatest challenge Mossad had faced since the War on Terrorism was launched by President Bush.
"Mossad would not be operating in its own backyard against suicide bombers.It would be working 1,500 miles away in a hostile environment.There would only be lip-service support from the authorities on the ground.Other intelligence services would be trawling through the evidence looking for clues that would fit their agendas.The CIA for a fix on bin-Laden.MI6 for a lead back to a threat to Britain.The same for the Germans,"a senior intelligence man in Tel Aviv told me.
But for Meir Dagan it was time to roll the dice.Every person with proven field experience was on a plane to Kenya within an hour of the massacre.
They would sift and search the wreckage,using sophisticated equipment to do so.Detectors that could detect a sliver of metal deep inside a corpse-metal that would show where the explosives came from.And much else.
The team who would"roll the dice"travelled separately-as they always did.They had their own aircraft,their own pilots.They were the men and women of kidon,Mossad's ultra-secret assassination unit.
Their sole job in Mombasa was to find and kill the perpetrators of the massacre:those behind the three bombers who had gone to their deaths laughing.The kidon would kill the planners of the massacre after they had traced them to their lair-wherever it was.It might take months-as it had with avenging the murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.But the kidon would find the men behind the Mombasa outrage and kill them.
They would use a small laboratory of poisons,sealed in vials until the moment came to strike.They had long and short-blade knives.Piano wire to strangle.Explosives no bigger than a throat lozenge capable fo blowing off a person's head.An arsenal of guns:short-barrel pistols,sniper rifles with a mile killing range.
The team chosen to go to Mombasa had local language skills.They could pass for Arabs or for Indian traders.Between them,they spoke Swahili and other dialects.They dressed the part;they looked the part.They also understood the closed language of their world.
They had learned how to memorise fibres-precise physical descriptions of people.Neviof,how to break into an office,a bedroom,or any other given target and plant listening bugs-or a bomb.Masluh,the skill of shaking off a tail.
The women had learned how to use their sex.To be ever ready to sleep with someone to obtain vital information.The link between intelligence work and sexual entrapment is as old as spying itself.Meir Amit had said when he was Mossad's chief:
"Sex is a woman's weapon.Pillow talk is not a problem for her.But it takes a special kind of courage.It is not just sleeping with an enemy.It is to obtain information."
The kidon team had passed the two years course at the Mossad training school at Henzelia,near Tel Aviv.They had been sent to a special camp in the Negev desert.There they had learned to kill.
"They are taught how to use the weapon appropriate for the target.Strangulation with a cheese-cutter if the victim is to be killed at night.A handgun fitted with a silencer.A nerve agent delivered by an aerosol or injection,"explained Victor Ostrovsky,a former member of kidon.
Ostrovsky,who today lives in Arizona,will not say who he has killed.But he quit Mossad-saying he could not"stomach the way they did things".
My sources in Mossad say he is"long past his sell-by date.We do things differently now".
And,by all accounts,more ruthlessly.
The man known to Mossad as"The Engineer"was a top Hamas bomb-maker.He lived on the West Bank,protected by gunmen.
One day he received a visitor-a distant cousin from Gaza.The young man spoke like so many from that hotbed of Islamic fanaticism.
Over mint tea,the two men spoke far into the evening.Finally,The Engineer invited his guest to stay over.The offer was accepted.The youth asked if he could use The Engineer's mobile phone to call his own family to say they should not worry.
He asked if he could make the call from outside the house to improve reception.The Engineer nodded.The call over,the two men fell asleep on the floor.
Next day,the youth left to return to Gaza.That morning,The Engineer received a call on the mobile.As he put the phone to his mouth and started to speak,his head was blown off.
The youth had been recruited by Mossad to plant a powerful explosive inside the phone.The detonation signal had come from a kidon half a mile away.
No one had seen him arrive.No one saw him go.
Over the past years,Mossad have killed scores of Israel's enemies by such methods.
"We try to never use the same method twice.Our technicians spend all their time devising new ways to kill,"a Mossad source told me last week.
Their roll-call of Mission Successful includes;Fathi Shkaki,the leader of Islamic Jihad,and Gerald Bull,the rogue Canadian investor of Saddam's supergun.
The usual composition of a hit team is four.One is the"target locator".His task is to keep tabs on the victim's movements.Another is the"transporter",to get the team safely away from the killing area.
The remaining two men perform the execution.In the case of Gerald Bull they knocked on his front door late in the evening.The ballistic expert had just moved in.He had been assured he was safe by his Iraqi minders.But they had been lured away by some of the kidon back-up team.
These are known as sayanim-the Hebrew word for helpers.Throughout the world there are tens of thousands.Each has been carefully recruited to provide the kind of help that the kidon unit required to kill Bull.
The assassination was simple.Both kidon wore FedEx courier uniforms.One carried a package.The other knocked on the door.When Bull opened it,the package was thrust at him.As he stepped back he was shot-once in the forehead and once in the throat.He flew backwards into the hall.The package was retrieved,the door closed behind the dead Bull.Both men calmly walked away to where the"transporter"was waiting.In hours,the team was back in Tel Aviv.
Preparation for an assassination can take weeks,even months.The hit team,once selected,is moved to a Mossad safe house,one of many in Israel.
Eli Cohen,a former Mossad agent,told me that"a safe house looks like it was furnished from a car boot sale".
It was in one such safe house that the plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein was prepared.
It was elaborate even by Mossad standards.It revolved around killing Saddam during a visit to one of his mistresses.
Mossad agents in Baghdad had discovered that the woman,the widow of a serving Iraqi officer who had died mysteriously,would be driven from the palace to keep a tryst with Saddam in a desert villa outside the city.
Heavily guarded,the villa would be a hard target to hit.
But Mossad believed there was a window of opportunity between the time Saddam would land in his helicopter near the villa and enter its well-protected compound.
The plan to kill Saddam has long been on Mossad's agenda.But previous attempts had failed due to Saddam's obsession with changing his movements at the last moment.
Mossad believed he would not do so this time.
"The woman is irresistible,"said a report from one of its Baghdad undercover agents.
Mossad had scouted an air corridor through which it believed a kidon could be flown in below Iraqi radar.
A final rehearsal was held in the Negev desert.Israeli commandos doubled as Saddam and his bodyguards-a party of five.
As they landed close to a replica of the villa,the kidon were in position.They were equipped with specially adapted shoulder-firing missiles.But their weapons were to only fire blanks for the rehearsal.
In a tragic mistake,one of the missiles had been replaced with a live one.It killed the make-believe Saddam and his bodyguards.
The operation was cancelled.
But last week Meir Dagan was said to be considering adapting it to once more try and kill Saddam.
After eleven days investigation,his teams in Mombasa confirmed the massacre had all the hallmarks of being an Iraqi-sponsored act carried out by al-Quaeda.
How and when Mossad will strike against Saddam is,understandably,a closely guarded secret.
But an intelligence sources suggested to me that a successful assassination of Saddam could see the looming threat of war recede.
"With Saddam out of the way there is no reason to invade Iraq.The people themselves will rise,"said the source.
Dagan,the Mossad chief who could possible achieve that was born on a train between Russia and Poland.He speaks several languages.He is an action man,working 18 hour days.His private life is simple:he eschews the trappings of power that goes with the job of running MI6 or the CIA.His salary is a fraction of what their directors get.Three months into the job,he is adored by his staff.
In the past years,Mossad has experienced many publicised failures,a loss of morale and,worst of all,growing public criticism among its own people.
All that Meir Dagan is determined to change.
In his open neck shirt and chain store pants and sneakers,Dagan is no James Bond.The only spy fiction he is known to read is John Le Carre-because,he has told friends,he can at least empathise with its hero,Smiley.
Meir Dagan is also an avid reader of history of other intelligence services.It is said he knows more about the CIA and MI6 than many of its current employees.
He constantly reminds his staff that action cannot wait for certainty.That motive and deception are at the centre of their endeavours.That they must create situations which seek to draw fact out of darkness.For him the art of informed conjecture is an essential weapon.
Since Mombasa,Dagan has virtually worked and slept in his office.Its windows look eastwards to the Judean Hills.Beyond are the tribal badlands of Pakistan-where Dagan is convinced Osama bin-Laden is hiding-and the desert of Iraq through which Dagan believes Saddam will try and escape if war starts.The Mossad chief will be waiting.
Meantime,he is preoccupied with the latest news from Mombasa-and all those points east where his kidon team are tracking the planners of the outrage.
Some have gone to the Philippines.Others to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mossad's scientists and pathologists,as well as field agents,katsas,have combed and bagged the clues from the Paradise hotel disaster area.
Every day an El Al plane has flown northwards to Israel with the evidence despite behind-the-scene protests by the Kenyan intelligence service.
Mossad agents in Nigeria have provided important details on al-Quaeda in that country.Katsas in South Africa have joined colleagues in Mombasa.From Rome,Malta and Cyprus,other Mossad agents sped down through Africa into the country's fierce heat.
Dagan's men are polite to the counter-intelligence officers from the CIA,MI6 and European services.
"But these are Israelis who are dead or injured.This is Mossad's job.And everybody had better remember that,"said one Mossad source.
Mossad has made no friends on the ground.They rarely do.That is their style:go it alone.They believe they know more than anyone else in fighting terrorism.And they may be right.
In Tel Aviv,having done all he could for the moment,Meir Dagan waits.
The 57 years-old,battle-hardened hero of past wars in Lebanon,in all those places in the Middle East where the alleys have no names,has earned his reputation as a no-holds barred leader.In those days,with a handgun in his pocket and his dog at his heel,he had led from the front.Twice he had been wounded,so that nowadays he sometimes uses a walking stick.He dislikes doing so.He detests any sign of weakness in himself or in others.
Dagan is a blunt man,proud and imperious and prepared to stand on his record.He crushed the first Intifada in Gaza in 1971.Two years later he fought in the Yom Kippur War.
For him,Mossad,and ultimately Israel,the Mombasa massacre is a test-to show that Mossad is back on centre stage with a vengeance.
No other intelligence service has a better history of operations in Central Africa.In the 1960s Mossad drove out the vaunted Chinese Secret Intelligence Service.It stopped Cuba's Fidel Castro exporting his revolution into Africa.It beat the KGB at its own plans to turn the Congo into its playground.It was a dirty and deadly war.
A terrorist group ambushed a Mossad katsa in the Congo and fed him to the crocodiles.They filmed his last,threshing moments in the water-and sent the footage to the local Mossad station chief.He retaliated by placing a two-pound bomb under the toilet seat of the terrorist leader.It blew the villa apart.Twelve terrorists died.
Mossad built up a relationship with BOSS,the security service of the South African apartheid government.It sent a team to Pretoria to teach BOSS the art of sophisticated methods of interrogation.Israeli instructors showed them the black art of sleep deprivation,hooding,forcing a suspect to stand facing a wall for long hours,and mental tortures such as mock tortures.
"The one certainty is that if the Mombasa killers are caught Mossad won't bother with mock executions,"said a Mossad source.
The methods Mossad uses are often outside the law.They have a unit that specialises in burglary-using far more sophisticated means than those employed by the infamous Watergate burglars.Their ineptitude led to the downfall of President Nixon.
They have a special team of scientists working at the Institute for Biological Research in Tel Aviv.They prepare the deadly toxins for the kidon.
Where other intelligence agencies no longer allow their agents to kill,kidon have no such restraint.They remain fully licensed to assassinate in the name of Israel once they have routinely convinced the incumbent prime minister of the need to do so.
Ariel Sharon needs little convincing.
Mossad's assassins routinely witness some of Israel's leading forensic pathologists at work so as to better understand how to make an assassination look like an accident.
They learn how a pinprick or small blemish left on a victim's skin can be a give away.They are shown how to ensure against this.
It makes them probably the most sophisticated lawfully-approved killers in the world.
This morning(Sunday)Meir Dagan,as he has done every day since the Mombasa attack,will awaken from a combat veteran's light sleep.This squat,barrel-chested man will take his customary cold water shower and eat his daily breakfast of natural yogurt,toast spread with honey washed down with several cups of strong black coffee.
Next he will study the latest reports from not only East Africa-but from all those areas where his team of hunters have now moved.
After briefing the prime minister on the scrambler phone that links Dagan to Ariel Sharon,the memune may spend an hour at an easel in the corner of his office-touching up one of the watercolour paintings which are the only known passion in his life.
But like everything else about him,they will remain under lock and key.Just as with his plan to assassinate Saddam Hussein,the first the world will know,if Mossad is successful,will be after it has happened.
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