Israel

Israel wants to assassinate terror leaders worldwide. It's not the first time

Author: Josh Meyer Source: USA Today
January 8, 2024 at 06:26
Photo Credits: USA Today
Photo Credits: USA Today

Its "Operation Wrath of God," made famous by a Steven Spielberg movie, offers insight -- and cautionary tales -- about what could go wrong this time around.

WASHINGTON − Last week, in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, Israel promised a repeat of the covert “Wrath of God” assassination campaign launched after the deadly Palestinian terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

As it did half a century ago, Israel plans to neutralize those it believes are responsible for the Hamas operation that killed 1,200 people, saw 240 people dragged back to Gaza as hostages and launched a war that threatens to expand into a complicated regional conflict.

The Mossad is “committed to settling accounts with the murderers” behind Oct. 7, David Barnea, the chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said last week.

In doing so, Israel may be trying to make a statement and turn the hunters into the hunted.

Barnea disclosed the existence of the new effort during his eulogy Wednesday for Zvi Zamir, the Mossad leader who oversaw the early years of the post-Munich campaign. “It’ll take time, as it took time after the Munich massacre,” Barnea said, “but we will put our hands on them wherever they are.“

 

Some differences, one striking similarity

There are some differences between the current campaign and the earlier one, which inspired the 2005 Steven Spielberg thriller “Munich” and a raft of books and other insider accounts and investigative reports.

The Munich attack, for one thing, was much smaller in scope. Eight armed operatives from the Black September guerilla group infiltrated the Olympic Village in the early morning hours, killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team and took nine others hostage. All were killed on an airport Tarmac during a botched German police raid and rescue attempt.

More: He's a key link between Hamas and Iran. Now Israel is hunting the world to find him

The Hamas siege, by comparison, involved more than 1,000 operatives who penetrated Israel’s air, land and sea defenses to commit the deadliest terror attack in the nation’s 75-year history.

Hamas itself is orders of magnitude larger than Black September, a militant faction of the Palestinian organization Fatah. And it is supported and financed by two of the most powerful entities in the Middle East – Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Also, while Barnea broadcast Israel's intentions publicly, the 1972 campaign was established in secret – though speculation quickly spread with each news report of the latest exploding telephone or mattress.

But the goal of both campaigns, and the reasoning behind them, is strikingly similar, Israeli and U.S. counterterrorism and legal experts told USA TODAY.

 

'Not about revenge'

In the current case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet have said it is up to Israel to destroy Hamas leaders – and the rest of the organization – in order to prevent further attacks on Israelis.

Then-Prime Minister Golda Meir cited similar concerns in 1972, especially after Germany's rescue attempt failed spectacularly on live TV. Also, soon after, the Berlin government freed three surviving Black September attackers after the group hijacked a plane and demanded their release. Meir concluded that Israel – and Israel alone – had to step up and meet the threat head-on.

“It's not about revenge necessarily. It is about creating an interceptive sort of action,” said former Israeli intelligence official Avi Melamed.

“It's something that applies to terror organizations everywhere, that when they are free to do whatever they are planning, it’s bad news because it means that many people will pay with their life,” Melamed said. “And we know based upon an accumulated experience of many years that once you are hunting down those people and they are mostly busy with trying to save their skin, they are less available to deal with planning, executing and coordinating terror attacks.”
 

FILE - A member of the Arab Commando group which seized members of the Israeli Olympic Team at their quarters at the Olympic Village appearing with a hood over his face stands on the balcony of the building where the commandos held members of the Israeli team hostage in Munich, Sept. 5, 1972. The families of 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian attackers at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and the German government are close to reaching a deal over the long-disputed amount of the compensation. (AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf, File)
FILE - A member of the Arab Commando group which seized members of the Israeli Olympic Team at their quarters at the Olympic Village appearing with a hood over his face stands on the balcony of the building where the commandos held members of the Israeli team hostage in Munich, Sept. 5, 1972. The families of 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian attackers at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and the German government are close to reaching a deal over the long-disputed amount of the compensation. (AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf, File). The Associated Press



A new campaign apparently underway?

Israel appears to have already gotten started, its critics say, citing the sophisticated drone strike attack that killed senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri and several suspected associates in a Beirut suburb early last week.

Hamas, Hezbollah, Lebanon state media and others have blamed Israel for that attack. Israel itself has not confirmed or denied any role in it.

Israel had been targeting Arouri for years, but especially so after he boasted in media interviews about Hamas’ success in carrying out the Oct. 7 attacks. Barnea’s comments just one day after Arouri was killed was seen as the strongest indication yet that Israel already has launched its campaign, counterterrorism experts say.


A sustained effort with vast resources

Shahin Modarres, an Italy-based specialist in Israeli and Iranian intelligence, said Operation Wrath of God has become the model for other clandestine campaigns pursued by Israel over the decades, and provides a guide to the kind of vast resources that it will deploy in the current effort.

In Wrath of God, Modarres said, Israel set up a top-secret unit within Mossad's undercover operations section code-named Kidon, or bayonet. It deployed at least five separate teams of covert spies and assassins – and financial and logistical support networks to back them up − that spent as much as two decades finding and eliminating Black September members and other suspected Palestinian terror leaders and those assisting them, he said.

Although accounts vary widely, Israel is believed to have killed as many as 21 suspected Palestinian operatives, including some suspected of participating in or planning the Black September attack. At least two of the top organizers, however, went into hiding and escaped Israel’s vengeance Munich plot mastermind Abu Daoud and Ali Hassan Salameh, a Palestinian guerilla operations chief known as the “Red Prince.”

More: VP Harris presses Israel on civilian deaths in Gaza. What does international law say?

Mossad likely has a different name and structure now for its covert teams, said Modarres, head of the Iran Desk at the International Team for the Study of Security Verona. And like it did in 1972, it is probably also teaming up with the Israeli military and Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, because of many of its agents’ background as special forces operators.

Whatever their current name and makeup, Modarres said, such hit teams also are believed to have assassinated some prominent Iranian nuclear scientists and IRGC operatives in recent years that Israel deemed a threat to its security.  

“The most important aspect of this is to know that Israeli foreign intelligence knows exactly where to hit and how to hit” Hamas leadership, Modarres said.

In the war that it has waged against Hamas since the Oct. 7, Israel has killed at least 8,000 Hamas soldiers, according to the latest news reports. But the campaign that Barnea announced Wednesday is different, and targets Hamas leadership living outside of Gaza who are not under attack by the Israeli military.
 

FILE - Ankie Spitzer holds a framed photo her husband Andre had made for the Munich Olympics before his death, as she poses in her home in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, on July 28, 2022. Andre was a fencing coach with the Israeli Olympic team who was killed in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich by a Palestinian group. In a decision announced Thursday, Aug. 11, the families of 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian attackers at the Olympics will not attend a 50-year anniversary ceremony organized by German authorities, saying they deserve more compensation and a fuller reckoning of the tragedy. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
FILE - Ankie Spitzer holds a framed photo her husband Andre had made for the Munich Olympics before his death, as she poses in her home in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, on July 28, 2022. Andre was a fencing coach with the Israeli Olympic team who was killed in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich by a Palestinian group. In a decision announced Thursday, Aug. 11, the families of 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian attackers at the Olympics will not attend a 50-year anniversary ceremony organized by German authorities, saying they deserve more compensation and a fuller reckoning of the tragedy. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File). The Associated Press


Another similarity to Operation Wrath of God, Modarres said, likely will be the high-profile method of attack.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, he said, the purpose of the assassinations wasn't to do them quietly as is often the case in covert operations but to “make a big splash,” often using explosives rather than guns, to send a message to other terrorists.

He said, however, that despite Barnea's announcement of the assassination effort, Israel “will never confirm that it was Israel who did this because there will be legal implications” as well as political blowback if it confirms its responsibility for the attacks.

 

Are such assassination campaigns legal?

Stephen Rapp, a former senior State Department official and war crimes prosecutor, said targeted assassinations are legal under international law if they meet certain criteria.

“Targeting enemy commanders is completely legitimate, even if they're some distance from the battlefield,” said Rapp, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice from 2009 to 2015.

 There can be debates, of course, about who constitutes an enemy combatant or commander, and how far from the battlefield is fair game, Rapp told USA TODAY. “But generally they’re consistent with the laws of war.”

Already, Israel has come under considerable criticism for killing more than 20,000 people, most of them women and children in Gaza, in its scorched-earth effort to dismantle Hamas.

One key problem for Israel, Rapp said, would be if it tries to kill a Hamas leader in violation of the sovereignty and laws of another country, especially without exhausting all efforts to have that person prosecuted within the criminal justice system.

It’s one thing to take out someone like Arouri in a Hezbollah-controlled part of Lebanon where the chance of having him extradited to face trial is remote, Rapp said. “But when you're talking about countries that have a system of justice and the rule of law, then the answer is you need to act under that" system and press for criminal prosecutions.

But doing so, Rapp said, "raises the risk that the evidence that you may have about the person's crime may not be sufficient to convince their judicial authorities to act.”

Also, because Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, it has political leaders in addition to its military commanders. Some of them, like Ismail Haniyeh, are based in Qatar and currently engaged in negotiations over the release of the hostages that Hamas is still holding.

Such political leaders, Rapp said, are not considered fair game under the rules of international law. Other senior Hamas officials are believed to be living in Turkey, Lebanon and other countries that are likely not sympathetic to Israel's intentions.

Melamed, the former Israeli intelligence official, said the Netanyahu administration will have to evaluate each case on its merits, including whether taking out a particular target will have enough of a lasting impact on the overall terror threat to the country to outweigh the potential political cost.


Controversies and blowback

Between 1972 and 1979 , teams of Mossad operatives carried out at least a dozen assassinations in Europe, north Africa and Lebanon. But some key leaders went into hiding and survived, including Daoud and Ali Hassan Salameh, a Fatah and Black September operations chief known as the “Red Prince.”

Some authors of insider accounts questioned whether Israel had enough evidence to warrant killing some of those on its hit list. In his 2005 book "Striking Back," Israeli author Aaron Klein reportedly claimed that Mossad killed only one person directly connected to Munich, citing what he said were interviews with key Mossad officers involved in Wrath of God.

And the Mossad agents mistakenly killed at least one innocent person, in Norway, in 1973. Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter who also cleaned the town’s swimming pool, was shot twice in the chest as he and his pregnant wife left a Lillehammer movie theater.

“Wrong identification of a target is not a failure. It’s a mistake,” Zamir said at the time.

Bouchiki's murder launched a massive investigation in Norway that led to the arrest and conviction of five Israeli operatives. What's more, it exposed the entire Wrath of God program, compromising Mossad assets and operations throughout Europe and sparked an international outcry that led to the temporary suspension of the assassination effort.

In an unrelated case, the Mossad came under fire again in 2010 after United Arab Emirates authorities accused its agents of assassinating a co-founder of Hamas' military wing, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in a Dubai hotel room. Several of the alleged hit men allegedly used fake or fraudulently obtained passports from various European countries.

One important part of the calculus is whether a targeted assassination of a terrorist operative is going to have a lasting impact, Melamed said: “It's all a question of what are the benefits, what’s the potential outcome and what are the risks?”

“Most of the time we learned, particularly within well-established organizations, that someone will step up and take their place,” he said. “That being said, there are some situations where you can still say to yourself, I know that if I'm going to take the current figure out, I'm going to make some kind of substantial impact at least for some period of time.”

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