Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton sits down with author Samuel M. Katz to discuss his latest book, The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel's Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism. Katz explains the history of Israel's elite undercover units and the role they play in Israel's security operations today. They also discuss how Katz and Burton first met many years ago on a U.N. General Assembly security detail.
Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi by Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz
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Fred Burton [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Chief Security Officer Fred Burton. And this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor, the word's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. To learn more about Stratfor Worldview, Threat Lens, or Startfor's custom advisory services, visit us at stratfor.com.
Samuel M. Katz [00:00:29] This cadre would later serve as the founding fathers of Israel's intelligence services and the notion of infiltrating your enemy, but most importantly, understanding your enemy became a cornerstone of the Israeli defense doctrine.
Ben Sheen [00:00:55] Welcome to the Stratfor podcast, focused on geopolitics and world affairs from stratfor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. You were just listening to author Samuel M. Katz describing the elite Israeli undercover operatives he explores in his latest book, The Ghost Warriors, inside Israel's undercover war against suicide terrorism. In this episode of the podcast, Katz sits down with Stratfor chief security officer Fred Burton to discuss the group's history and what drew him to this story of these little known units operating within Israel, we hope you enjoy the conversation.
Fred Burton [00:01:38] Hi, I'm Fred Burton with Stratfor and I'm here today with my old friend, Sam Katz. As many of you that follow our materials know, Sam and I collaborated on our last book together called Under Fire which was a story on Benghazi. Sam how are you doing today?
Samuel M. Katz [00:01:54] I'm doing very well, thank you for having me on.
Fred Burton [00:01:56] Thanks for taking the time, I always enjoy chatting with you Sam, I think it'd be best to kick off for our listeners as to how you and I first met. You always tell a good story much better than I do about that.
Samuel M. Katz [00:02:10] Thanks, I had the very good privilege of hearing about the diplomatic security service from a few friends in the NYPD and they convinced me that I had to do some writing about them, articles or a book and as it so happens, in 1996 in June there was a mini United Nations journal assembly underway in New York and the diplomatic security service was handling all sorts of security from the dignitaries that had come from all over the world and one of the agents who was handling me said, you have to meet this man, him and you speak the same language and he ushered me into this tent where there was whiteboards and computers and radios, it looked very much out of Hollywood and there was a young, handsome, dapper Fred Burton.
Fred Burton [00:02:57] With hair, with hair Sam.
Samuel M. Katz [00:02:59] Same with me and the rest is history.
Fred Burton [00:03:02] That's a good story and I can't remember if we had Arafat on that trip or not, do you recall?
Samuel M. Katz [00:03:08] No, the detail that I was assigned to, the highest risks of them all were the Cubans and I ended up spending about 14 hours that day in a follow car and my love affair with the diplomatic security service began there and continues to this day.
Fred Burton [00:03:28] That's most interesting Sam. I know you first wrote about the diplomatic security service in a book called Relentless Pursuit. Why don't you help our listeners understand that. They might want to pick that book up, I know it's prominently displayed on my bookshelf.
Samuel M. Katz [00:03:46] Well thank you, one of the remarkable things about the diplomatic security service is the fact that up until recently and I don't want to take credit for this, but up until the book Relentless Pursuit, there were very few people outside of Washington and indeed outside of the State Department that had ever heard of them. They were the best kept secret in the US government and one of the unique elements of the diplomatic security service is the fact that they have agents posted at embassies around the world. They are really the frontline in America's war against crime and terrorism and as it so happens, after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the mastermind of that attack, that first Al Qaeda inspired assault on the United States, that mastermind Ramzi Yousef went back to Pakistan where he was planning further operations and Relentless Pursuit tells the story of the two assistant regional security officers or RSOs who were posted at the embassy and how they were determined, no matter what to bring Ramzi Yousef to justice and that they indeed were the ones who apprehended him in a safe house in Islamabad and Fred played no small role in making sure that that happened because Ramzi had ordered injustice on numerous occasions before that.
Fred Burton [00:05:05] Well I feel very humbled that you mentioned me in that book, Sam and as I've said to you and many others over the years, quite frankly, I've gotten much more credit than I deserve for that case, it was a good team effort and we managed not to mess things up like only Washington can do at times, as you and I both know.
Samuel M. Katz [00:05:27] The unique element about a lot of the DS agents is the fact that, especially at the time, they were dedicated professionals and law enforcement agents following the letter of the law, but they all had very unique personalities and personas because they had to do the job of so many. They always had twice as much work for half the credit. Because they developed those unique personalities, a lot of times, they weren't impaired by the day-to-day of Washington and they did their own thing as long as they could get the job done and indeed in this case, it was a marvelous example of how they got the job done and ultimately, if you look at what Ramzi was planning, they saved about four thousand lives from his plan to blow up a dozen US Airliners over the Pacific in 1995.
Fred Burton [00:06:15] Yeah I think it was a pretty good capture, now looking back on it and he certainly was an FBI top ten fugitive and the best of his breed at the time. Terrorists like Ramzi Yousef are few and far between. Sam, let's take some time and talk about your new book, Ghost Warriors, first I think that's a great title. It's a fabulous book and I just saw that it's coming out in Hungarian as well, which congratulations on that, but what's the backstory on Ghost Warriors? Take our listeners through what the story is about.
Samuel M. Katz [00:06:55] Well as you know, most of my work has dealt with Israel, the Middle East and counter terrorist enthusiasts. Going back to even DS, I always like to cover units or forces that do do twice the amount of work for half the credit or that live in the shadows or that really contribute an enormous amount but don't get the accolades because of either operational security or just because the apparatus doesn't exist to promote them. Israel's undercover units are a very unique entity on something very specific to Israel, because Israel is a land of immigrants and the diaspora of Jews has brought in people from all different backgrounds, Israelis speak a multitude of languages, have a multitude of appearances and they're able to blend in and when the first Zionist settlers came to Ottoman control, Palestine in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of the individuals who came, they realized that they were a minority in the land, that they would have to adopt their customs and even the language of their neighbors. Individuals began wearing Arab headdress and ingratiating themselves to neighboring villages and areas, after the beginning of the movement to create a state of Israel, between the end of the first World War and the second World War, especially as tensions began to mount between the indigenous population and the indigenous Jewish population as well as those who were fleeing Europe, tensions began to mount. The Haganah, the precursor to the modern Israeli defense forces, started creating its own special operations units and often they would masquerade
Samuel M. Katz [00:08:47] as Arabs, using Arabic speakers. One of the founding fathers of this was Orde Wingate who would later go on to become a legendary special operations visionary. He was posted to Palestine and he was tasked with ending an Arab uprising in the late 1930s. A lot of these individuals spoke Arab slang, Arab slang is a part and parcel of the modern Hebrew language and these individuals felt just as home on a dark night in an Arab village as they would in their own homes. When the second World War broke out and all of a sudden the lines were drawn very sharply as to what needed to be done, the British army used these Arabic speaking Jews for their own purposes. The Haganah unit eventually became known as the Syrian platoon and they were deployed on intelligence gathering missions and sabotage gathering missions in Syria and in Lebanon. The famed and iconic Israeli military leader and politician, Moshe Dayan didn't lose his eye battling Arabs, he lost his eye battling the Vichy French as one of these units. Of course, this cadre would later serve as the founding fathers of Israel's intelligence services and the notion of infiltrating your enemy, but most importantly understanding your enemy, became a cornerstone, or one of the cornerstones of the Israeli defense doctrine. There was masquerading as an indigenous Arab, wasn't mocking and quite the contrary, it was a sign of respect, it was a sign of trying to understand their mindset, how they thought, what they ate, what they read, the music they listened to.
Samuel M. Katz [00:10:39] It was something that became an embedded element of Israeli special operations and espionage missions.
Fred Burton [00:10:49] Sam that fact about Moshe Dayan, I did not know that, that's just simply fascinating. How does these specialized units work today? Are they integrated within the Shin Bet, the Israeli National Police or the Mossad? What's their structure?
Samuel M. Katz [00:11:08] First let me just give one bit of background on how the undercover units entered into the counter terrorist domain. In 1970, there was a guerrilla uprising in the Gaza strip. The head of the Israeli southern command, General Ariel Sharon tasked a young captain, who was known to have a very outside the box way of looking at life to end it. That captain was a man named Meir Dagan, who would ultimately become the head of the Mossad and Dadon used that undercover notion to masquerade his commandos in Gaza, they walked the streets dressed as locals, they spoke the language, they went fishing with the locals, they went to bars, restaurants, they even went to brothels. They knew everything that was going on, they knew how the economy worked and they also used very decisive and very determined military tactics and within a year, an untold number of Hussein guerrillas that ended up dead or in custody, the uprising ended. During the first intifada, Ehud Barak who was head of central command had a notion of creating an army unit that could get into the demonstrations that the Palestinians were mounting and subvert them and compromise them by having soldiers identify their ring leaders and then be able to infiltrate these individuals and arrest the top tier of ringleaders and operatives. The border police, which is the paramilitary arm of the Israeli National Police said wait a second, we have in our ranks Bedouins and Druze and Circassians and individuals who come from Arabic speaking backgrounds. We can do it better and indeed, the border guards
Samuel M. Katz [00:12:58] created three undercover units, one for the West Bank, one for Jerusalem and one for the Gaza Strip. They became, along with the army unit, there was an army unit in the West Bank and an army unit in the Gaza Strip, they became the undercover tactical arm of Israeli intelligence and how it works, and I highlight this in the book is that the Shin Bet or military intelligence are the customers. They're the ones that have the intelligence, they have the information and they seek units that could carry out a mission to apprehend or end a terrorist cell's function. The other units have to compete with one another and present plans that are safe, that are legal and that have the most chance of success. As time went on, the undercover units, especially those from the border guard, proved to have unbelievable success in carrying out missions successfully and safely and also where there was the least amount of collateral damage to either side and the Israeli military, the people who staffed these units these specialized units, these commander units that often capture the world's attention are 18 to 21 year old boys, they're conscripts. The border guard is an professional force. A lot of these guys are in their 20s and 30s, they're experienced, they're veterans, they want to play it safe, they have wives, kids and mortgages that they have to worry about. The paradigm is quite different. In the border guard units, where there was this professional core of individuals, where there was this unique melting pot, the border guard was always considered less than
Samuel M. Katz [00:14:45] the Israel defense forces in terms of the quality of manpower and quite the contrary became true. Although these people were handling new immigrants, from the Middle East or from elsewhere, they had a drive to prove themselves in their new country and they also had a very indefinable mettle inside them that propelled them to do better out of spite maybe, to prove that they were just as worthy commandos as their counterparts in the very elite units that the IBF used. When I decided to write a book about the undercover units and what they did, I wanted to focus on the border guard unit specifically and primarily what they did between 2000 and 2006, during the second intifada, when the state of Israel found itself to be one of the first and perhaps only Western nation that found itself in the grips of an all out, fundamentalist, terrorist blitzkrieg.
Ben Sheen [00:15:52] We'll get back to the conversation with Stratfor's Fred Burton and Samuel Katz in just one moment, but if you're interested in reading his book, The Ghost Warriors, we'll include a link in the show notes. We'll also include a link to the New York Times bestselling book that Katz and Burton wrote together, Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack at Benghazi and if you're interested in the role that history, culture and geography play in shaping both the present and the future, consider joining us at Stratfor Worldview. Members get full access to our full library of assessments, geopolitical forecasts, contributor perspectives and much, much more. For more information about individual, team and enterprise memberships, visit us at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Now back to part two of our conversation about The Ghost Warriors with Fred Burton and Samuel Katz.
Fred Burton [00:16:44] We're talking today with Sam Katz, the author of his new book, Ghost Warriors. Sam, how does this unit operate against the likes of Hezbollah or does it?
Samuel M. Katz [00:16:55] Hezbollah's in Lebanon so military units handle them. The undercover units primarily went after Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihaad which in many ways is the Iranian version of Hezbollah, inside the Palestinian authority and also the groups that Arafat was running secretly, he was talking peace out of one side of his mouth and then funding groups like the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and what the undercover units had to do, which was difficult, which was A, operate inside the confines of areas under the Oslo accord, where they could do it and also when the situation required, to go into what's known as Area A, fully autonomous Palestinian areas. Including refugee camps and one of the interesting notes is that the undercover units always refer to engagements as Mogadishu, a reference to Black Hawk Down, because the engagements were always six or 12 undercover operatives against 100, 200 heavily armed Palestinians.
Fred Burton [00:18:09] Wow.
Samuel M. Katz [00:18:10] These happened during the intifada when the unit was carrying out 300 or 400 missions a year. These engagements were daily.
Fred Burton [00:18:19] That's unbelievable and just you shining a spotlight on their activities is just very interesting to me when you think about this because this sounds like a group that very little is known. When you were doing research for this Sam, and talking to some of these individuals, what's your typical makeup of the kind of operator? Are they right out of high school? Do they have any college? What's their background?
Samuel M. Katz [00:18:45] Most of them are conscripted into the ranks of the border guard to do their military service. Individuals are allowed to try out for one of the specialized units, being one of the undercover units, and if they pass the selection process, they're trained, they go through immersion or they learn Arabic, or they learn tactics where they learn all sorts of plain-clothes operations and then they're assigned to one of the three units. The individuals for the most part are highly motivated, there is no college yet, they're right out of high school. A lot of them come from poor backgrounds, from developing towns in the periphery of Israel in the south or in the North and a lot of them are from Israel's minorities, Druze, Bedouins, Circassians. In the makeup of an undercover unit, you have usually what's known as the speaker who is the Arabic speaking person, who will be in full undercover and then there is the tactical backup. When they go out on a mission, the speakers are usually in a concealed vehicle, made to look like any one of the vehicles that would be encountered in the area and they have to dress the part, they have to look the part. Often it requires people masquerading as women, so the speakers generally are indigenous and native Arabic speakers but even here, they have to practice different dialects, different dialects and slang spoken in ... the northern West Bank from Hebron which is in the southern West Bank. Jerusalem is altogether and those who work in Gaza
Samuel M. Katz [00:20:20] have to mimic an Egyptian version of Arabic that's common there, there's a lot of prep work. Then the tactical end are operators. They sit inside specially modified vehicles, in the back of a truck or a van or whatever they manage to do and they have to sit there sometimes for an hour or sometimes for 12 hours, in stifling heat, in absolute darkness and when a communication reader gets a code that the mission is going down, they have to leap out and provide backup. It's one of the hardest things imaginable, you can consider them sitting in 95 degree heat in a truck with no air conditioning, not making a sound, not going to the bathroom, not doing anything so that people don't know you're there and then burst out of the door, going from absolute black into absolute bright sunlight, jumping out, your body is stiff and then you have to perform. What they do on a daily basis is absolutely remarkable.
Fred Burton [00:21:22] Wow, and it's the kind of unit that as you travel around the world you would think that other countries perhaps would have similar operations. If you were trying for our listeners to understand Sam, is there another unit that perhaps the US or the Brits might have or the Jordanians have that's similar to this?
Samuel M. Katz [00:21:43] The Brits had many years ago an undercover unit in Northern Ireland that was very very controversial and here they just maybe drove in civilian cars or civilian dress and went after IRA targets. The luxury of the battlefield for Israel is that it's confined. You know that you'll be dealing with the West Bank and these towns and these villages and you can learn it, you can know the routes, you can know the roads, the back roads, a lot of times the undercover individual can know business disputes that go on, they can see what's going on in the field, whereas the United States has a global battlefield. You can take an element of a special operations unit and train them to speak the exact dialect that's spoken in Morocco and they can master it over years and they can try and learn it and by the time they become true masters at it, the conflict is over and now they're focused on Nigeria or the Philippines or sub-Sahara Africa or Libya. It's very difficult for a country that doesn't have a very specific and confined battlefield to create highly specialized units like these. But it's incredibly important that individuals who speak the local dialect and who know the local customs understand the religion, eat the same food, are the ones who engage the enemy because they're the ones who are absolutely expert in dealing with them and understanding them. In these wars that are being fought today, a lot of times being able to get inside an area is just as important as being able to bomb them from 50,000 feet.
Fred Burton [00:23:31] Sounds like just a remarkable, specialized group of individuals. Is there a nickname, Sam, for this group or what do they call each other?
Samuel M. Katz [00:23:42] The unit in the Hebrew acronym is called Yamas which is the Hebrew acronym for the undercover units. Each unit is different in its makeup and its mission. The unit that used to be in Gaza, I spent the most time with them because I had previously spent time doing an article or a couple of articles on the unit in Gaza and I got to go inside Gaza with them before the Israelis disengaged. They had a more military type mission, where they would go in at night or set up sniper positions and then engage the enemy in conventional battles and a lot of times, the undercover units had to operate military vehicles and even call in air strikes. What was unique about them was that they ended up doing a lot of work both in Palestinian tunnels, that brought in arms, weapons and supplies and money from Egypt, the unit in Jerusalem covered Palestinian East Jerusalem, which was part of Israel proper as well as the peripheral towns and suburbs. They had a different landscape, they had a more cosmopolitan target and they also had to do a lot of work preventing suicide bombings from, they had to masquerade as local Israelis as well in plainclothes, even Orthodox Jews or tourists so that they could send out a mass show of plainclothes force when there was word that a suicide bomber was en route to his target and the tragic case of such as warning in 2001 when the Shin Bet learned that there was going to be a suicide bombing in the capital and the undercovers were looking and prodding and they didn't know what they were looking for they just knew that it was a bomber.
Samuel M. Katz [00:25:25] A bomber dressed as a hippie, carrying about 10 kilos of explosives under the car walked into a small pizzeria, blew himself up and killed 15 people, including seven members of one family and five children. That kind of thing was enormous motivation for the other units so they'd do whatever they could and risk whatever they had to in order to make sure that they wouldn't have to look at their pagers to see that a bombing had happened and to respond to a crime scene.
Fred Burton [00:25:56] Sam, as you and I know from doing books together and your long history of writing these kind of books, you always learn something that surprises you when you're putting together a book. What was the one thing that surprised you in doing research about this undercover unit?
Samuel M. Katz [00:26:13] How much of the, it's a difficult question because being surprised by human nature is always kind of causes you to reflect on yourself. I was surprised by how humble these individuals were in terms of their courage. I was surprised at how much they have to sacrifice in terms of not being with their families. It's important to understand that in Israel, the battlefield is an hour's drive from your home. It's not like going to Afghanistan for a year where you have at least a year to focus on your mission and then you can come home and you can focus on regaining your civilian mindset. Here it was back and forth and oftentimes, people lived an hour from Gaza or an hour from the West Bank and they didn't see their wives or kids for months because the missions were that much. But mostly, I think that what surprised me the most was how apolitical these individuals were in terms of not feeling themselves as carrying out some sort of ideology, but rather this was their profession. Their politics was, is my fake mustache okay? Their politics was, is the guy who I went to training with, who's my brother from another mother going to make it out okay? At the end of the day, they did this as much for one another than they did for the greater good and they did for society as a whole. They were all attached to Motorola pagers and even if they were at a wedding or if they were in the shower or they were at their kid's soccer event, if the pager went off, they commandeered a vehicle and they went back to the unit to help out. They did this for two reasons.
Samuel M. Katz [00:28:07] One, they knew that they were special, they knew that they were unique individuals and that only they could do this, but B, they didn't want to be left out. They wanted to participate. They had a unique language among themselves, they had a unique camaraderie. In the book, in the introduction, I liken them to the RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain. These young men, some of them are flamboyant and eccentric, knew that they were all that stood between their country and destruction. They took this awesome responsibility upon their shoulders and they flourished and these undercover units felt the same way, the commanders felt the same way. The men who joined the units felt the same way. There was a point during the intifada when individuals who were in the top tier of the military special operations units quit their commissions and went to join the border guards and signed on as policemen so they could have a chance to be in one of these units. One of the 10 commanders in the West Bank unit, for example, who's a policeman, who was awarded the second highest Israeli military citation for valor, never happened before, but he did so much that he revolutionized the whole notion of undercover warfare that the military re-awarded him this distinction is he's very proud of, but he's very humble and one of the missions that the unit had to carry out which was a rescue of hostages, that they were the first on the scene, he was irate because he was doing graduate work. He was already a senior officer and by the time
Samuel M. Katz [00:29:52] he got to the unit, the mission was over and he felt that he missed out. Today, his badge of honor isn't this citation, that is the one and only that ever was awarded to a police officer, it's the fact that he missed out on this particular mission.
Fred Burton [00:30:08] Wow, what a story. Well Sam, that's all we have time for today. For those of you who want to learn more about the secret undercover units inside of Israel, pick up a copy of Ghost Warriors by my good friend, Sam Katz, I don't think you'll be disappointed. Take care my friend.
Samuel M. Katz [00:30:30] Thank you so much.
Ben Sheen [00:30:43] That's it for this episode of the Stratfor podcast. We hope you enjoyed the conversation with Samuel Katz and Stratfor's Fred Burton. If you'd like to check out Katz's book, The Ghost Warriors, we'll include a link in the show notes and if you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, be sure to visit us at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe to learn more about individual, team and enterprise level access. You could always contribute to the conversation by sharing your insights in Worldview's forum section. That's where you can engage with other readers as well as Stratfor analysts, editors and contributors on the latest developments. Or, if you have a comment or an idea for a future episode of the podcast, email us at [email protected] or give us a call on 1-512-744-4300, extension 3917 to leave a message, also consider leaving us a review on iTunes or wherever you subscribe to the show, we really appreciate your feedback and it helps others discover the podcast. And for more geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting that brings global events into valuable perspective, follow us on Twitter @Stratfor. Thanks for listening.