Editor's Note: The following piece is part of an occasional series in which Fred Burton, Stratfor's chief security officer, reflects on his storied experience as a counterterrorism agent for the U.S. State Department.
By Fred Burton
When it comes to protecting Israel's national security, Mossad does not play nice. The Israeli spy agency, which has a long and bloody history of extrajudicial assassinations under its belt, is suspected of adding another in the slaying of a Hamas researcher on Dec. 15 in Tunisia.
The death of Mohammed al Zoari in a hail of gunfire in the coastal city of Sfax came at the zenith of a complex operation involving as many as eight Tunisian nationals and an unknown number of others, who Tunisian officials said were foreign agents. Although the hit carried the hallmarks of other Mossad operations, Israel has hinted at, but not acknowledged, its involvement.
“If someone was killed in Tunisia, he’s not likely to be a peace activist or a Nobel Prize candidate,” said Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. “We will continue to do in the best possible way what we know how to do — that is to protect our interests.”
From the streets of Europe to the Middle East, Israel's agents time and again have found their mark, with their victims dispatched in novel ways, from bombs under beds to lone figures targeted on dark streets with silenced Beretta .22s. I’ve often wondered if somewhere inside the Mossad there is a secret office that mulls over plots from fiction novels and uses them to plan real-world missions.
The operation aimed at al Zoari was a little less byzantine than ones found in a spy novel, despite the number of Tunisians under investigation for their roles in it. Reports have surfaced that al Zoari, known as "The Engineer" by his Hamas brethren because of his expertise in building unmanned aerial vehicles, was working to develop an armed underwater drone that would have targeted Israeli oil and gas platforms in the Mediterranean Sea. His murder as he sat in his car in front of his home set off waves of protest in Tunisia, whose citizens have been witness to Israeli justice before.
In 1988, Fatah operative Khalil al-Wazir, aka Abu Jihad, was assassinated in his home in Tunis in a spectacular Israeli commando raid. I was an agent with the U.S. State Department at the time, and the hit, which came without warning from Israel, took us by surprise. This was a vivid example of one of many occasions that confirmed that there really are no friendly intelligence services and that nation-states will do whatever they think is necessary to protect themselves. On a practical level, the Israelis would not have jeopardized the lives of their agents by sharing their tactical plans with another country, because too many things could go wrong. This was no different than the U.S. decision to carry out its operation in Abbottabad to kill Osama Bin Laden without prior warning to the Pakistanis.
In 1996, the Israelis killed a Hamas bombmaker, also called "The Engineer." We got into a fair amount of trouble when we fulfilled the Palestinian Authority's request for help in investigating the murder, which included examining the crime scene. Neither the State Department's foreign service officers nor the Israelis cared for that decision. But from my perspective as a counterterrorism agent, I figured we would learn something by our involvement, and we did. In the aftermath of the hit, we discovered that an informant for the Israelis had given a cell phone to the bombmaker. When he answered the phone, an explosive hidden inside detonated, blowing off his hand and half of his head, killing him instantly. The gruesome crime scene photos are still vivid in my memory.
Targeted assassinations are a fact of life in the counterterrorism business. Certainly, a lone actor, even one who is part of a larger organization, has virtually no chance when facing a team dispatched by a nation state to kill him. Life isn’t fair in the dark world of terrorism. Often is the case that if you live by the sword, you will die by it.