Rise and Kill First, An Interview With Dr. Ronen Bergman

Mar 9, 2018 | 18:25 GMT

Senior Palestinian Security Official Killed In Car Bombing

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New York Times Bestselling Author Ronen Bergman sits down with Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton in this episode of the Stratfor Podcast to discuss his latest book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.

Bergman’s book, described as the first definitive history of the Mossad, Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces’ targeted killing programs, is the result of seven years of research and over a thousand interviews with the people responsible for leading and carrying out those programs.

Related Reading

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Dr. Ronen Bergman

Israel’s Survival Strategy, a collection of analysis on Stratfor Worldview

Lessons from Old Case Files, a collection of writing by Fred Burton

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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 world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. To learn more about Stratfor Worldview, Threat Lens, or Stratfor's custom advisory services, visit us at Stratfor.com.

Ronen Bergman [00:00:28] Buses, shopping malls, kindergarten... People were killed in dozen every day, in the streets of Israel. And the only thing that was able to stop Hamas was the campaign of targeted killing, the most extensive in history of mankind.

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. In this episode of the podcast, we discuss what's been described as the first definitive history of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israeli Defense Forces' targeted killing programs, with New York Times bestselling author Dr. Ronen Bergman. Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton sits down with Bergman to discuss his latest book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations.

Fred Burton [00:01:37] I'm Fred Burton here today with Dr. Ronen Bergman, the New York Times bestselling author of Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations. Ronen, thank you for joining me today.

Ronen Bergman [00:01:52] Thank you, thanks so much, and thank you for inviting me. Hello to your audience.

Fred Burton [00:01:58] Ronen, I was fascinated by your book. It clearly took a long time to put this together. I saw that it actually took 7 1/2 years, which is a long time in the book business. What's the one thing that you learned in putting the book together that clearly surprised you?

Ronen Bergman [00:02:18] Well I think that beyond specific stories, which some of them indeed surprised me, and you know were a little blow to my ego in the sense that there were still very big stories, events, secrets, hidden in the vaults and safes of Israeli intelligence that I did not know about. And so I was a bit offended, but of course I'm joking. But that's the pride. But beyond that, I was surprised to, in some of the cases, to learn how complicated and meticulous is the work of intelligence and special operations. And to which extent do the planner go to really anticipate any kind of mishap or development during the event, and how many intelligence need to be collected, this to be performed perfectly, this is one. the second is how important and profound is the use of special operations, including targeted killings and assassinations, as a central part of the Israeli defense doctrine. Not in some minor or casual or random use in some rare occasions, but as a main part of how Israel, the Jewish state, would like to defend itself. That from day one, David Ben-Gurion, the most important Jew in the last 1,000 years, at least, thought that Israel could not sustain longterm wars, that Israel cannot have all of its reserve duty forces stationed on the border throughout the year, and that Israel should do whatever it can to prolong the time from war to war, and even prevent the next war, and do all that by the use of pinpoint operations way beyond enemy lines, including sabotages, later on planting of computer viruses, and targeted killings.

Ronen Bergman [00:04:35] And in order to do all that, you need to have arguably best intelligence services in the world. And from day one, Israel has invested vast resources by far incomparable to any other country in the world in establishing this kind of secret world.

Fred Burton [00:04:55] That's fascinating, Ronen. As an agent, I was involved with the protection of Yasser Arafat on several trips when the PLO chairman made his way to New York and Washington, DC. I read with extreme detail your information on the Israeli intelligence service efforts in targeting Arafat. And so I was fascinated by that aspect of your story. And I have to ask you a question, why don't you think the Israelis were successful in killing Arafat?

Ronen Bergman [00:05:34] Well, three or four main reasons. The first is that he was just extremely lucky. The second is that, his secret of survival for so many years as the leader of the Palestinian people and the chairman of the PLO, that he was suspicious all the time, that everybody are trying to plot to succeed him or kill him, or steal his money, and he was using all sorts of disinformation and manipulation in order to make sure that nobody really knows what are his plans including his whereabouts. The third reason is that in some parts of history, since he became a prime target in 1965-66, until his demise in 2004, his mysterious demise I might add, he was taken off the list of the targeted killing priorities because, usually it was the Mossad who thought that Arafat became a political leader, not just a guerrilla or terrorist leader, and in that sense he should not be killed. The fourth reason is by far the most interesting one. And may I quote Uzi Dayan, the nephew of Moshe Dayan, who in later years became the Deputy Chief of Staff and the National Security Advisor in Israel, but in 1982 he was commanding a special secret task force of commandos called Swordfish that was stationed inside Beirut, that was at that time under Israel siege, in order to trace down Yasser Arafat, who was nicknamed "The Head of the Fish," and kill him. And when recalling that time, Uzi Dayan said, "Arafat is alive thanks to his luck and me," meaning thanks to Uzi Dayan, and when I asked him to explain he said, "Well you know, I had no deliberation, no dilemmas, as per the legitimacy of killing Yasser Arafat," who was then seen

Ronen Bergman [00:07:36] as the Israeli prime nemesis. But he said, "I was not willing, however, to risk the lives of innocent civilians in Beirut." And so Uzi Dayan disobeyed or made sure that orders to take down buildings in which not just Arafat and his assistant are, but also innocent civilians, he made sure that bombing these buildings just becomes impossible throughout the chain of command of the IDF. And therefore he disrupted the operation and maintained at the same time the ethics and the war laws of Israel.

Fred Burton [00:08:20] Yeah that's simply fascinating; I appreciate you sharing that with our listeners, Ronen. You have in the prologue a fascinating comment, to me, "Since World War II Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world." And as you go through your story, obviously you had tremendous sources in putting this together, I really enjoyed that secret look into the special compartmented teams inside Israeli intelligence. For example, the Rainbow Teams, could you talk a little bit about the Rainbow Teams for our listeners?

Ronen Bergman [00:09:03] Maybe in a broader perspective, let me say and explain that the world of Israeli intelligence, although you know this better than me, but we should emphasize that the world of intelligence and special operations, the real world, is like James Bond but exactly the opposite. Meaning James Bond, 007, is a one-man crew. He comes to the office of M, the chief of the MI6, he explain, he does the analysis of information, he then hacked the computer, he fly the helicopters, he ride the bike, he jumps from roof, he shoot the bad guy, and he comes home back in time to make love with the most beautiful woman and drink martini shaken but not stirred. Now leave sex aside, in the real world of intelligence, what he does alone is divided into the expertise of many, many, many people, sometimes dozens. Sometimes hundreds of people are involved in one targeted killing operation. And in that world of expertise, Mossad back in the '60s took the operational teams that specialized in working against Russian espionage in Israel, and stationed some of them in Europe and worldwide, and they have become one of the leading teams, codenamed Rainbow, in following people, stationing, wiretap, breaking into houses, break safes, break locks, preparing the intelligence to targeted killing, and participate in these operations while the actual assassins usually, the actual operative who pull the trigger, come from a different team called Bayonet, which their specialty is only the actual, that very small part, of coming and pulling the trigger, or detonating the remote bomb.

Ronen Bergman [00:11:19] And that team, the few Rainbow Teams spread all over the world, they are arguably the best of this expertise in how to follow up someone, break into his home, break into his office, break a safe. They can overpower most of the locks in the world and follow up someone throughout a long journey, whatever sort of vehicle he's using.

Fred Burton [00:11:48] And—

Ronen Bergman [00:11:49] And by the way, sorry for interrupting, by the way, these teams are the first one, I think in the history of intelligence, that had equal numbers of men and women, with equal partnership and equal responsibility. Some of them are commanded by women.

Ben Sheen [00:12:07] We'll get back to the conversation with Stratfor's Fred Burton and author Ronen Bergman in just one moment. But if you're interested in reading his book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations, we'll include a link in the show notes. And if you'd like to read more about Fred Burton's experiences during his career with the US State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, you can find his reflections collected as a series on Stratfor Worldview called Lessons from Old Case Files. We'll include a link there as well. And if you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team, and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Now to Part Two of our conversation about the history of Israel's targeted assassination programs with Stratfor's Fred Burton and Dr. Ronen Bergman.

Fred Burton [00:12:58] Ronen, after putting your book together, like I had mentioned earlier it took 7 1/2 years, and looking back on your discussions with many sources and obviously Mossad directors and senior IDF officials, what was the most interesting interview you did? Meaning, who were you simply amazed by in the course of discussions in putting this book together?

Ronen Bergman [00:13:25] Well, I met with 1,000 people. This is not 1,000 meetings because some of them I had to meet a few times, or I had the pleasure and the honor to meet a few times, and they were prime ministers, minister of defense, chiefs of staff, chiefs of the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic secret service, the IDF, to the actual operatives, intelligence officers, and all the other differing tasks of Israeli intelligence and defense establishment. And I can recall many, many very interesting, dramatic moments in these discussions. My series of interviews, which I can recall two people that I have said many times with, one of them is Rafi Eitan, who was the legendary Mossad operative who captured Adolph Eichmann, and took many, many senior positions in Israeli intelligence. The second one is Mike Harari, who established Caesarea, the special operation division of Mossad, and commanded it for 15 years. And I would say there is no one who influenced the special operations of Mossad more than this person. I assume that many of the listeners to this podcast saw the movie Munich by Steven Spielberg. That movie details the Mossad campaign of targeted killing and assassination, following the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich Olympics in 1972. The story as told in that movie, has very little to do with how things actually happened. Like, Mike Harari commanded that campaign and was able to tell the real story from his mouth. And the third one, I would say the most influential person is Meir Dagan, the legendary Mossad chief, who had a lot to do with many, many parts of the book.

Ronen Bergman [00:15:22] He comes in and out throughout the book in his different tasks, to the peak of them when he commanded Mossad between 2002 and 2010, turbulence times with the height of the Mossad and CIA struggle against Hezbollah and the Iranian nuclear project. The stories from him, but also his macro perspective, his defense doctrine, the way that he sees the world, the way that he can be, on one thing that legendary mega spy and assassin, but also a statesman, a person that at the end of his time, and I think this is the most interesting, at the end of his life, like Ariel Sharon, like his protege, came to the conclusion that force does not solve everything, that in spite of the fact that Mossad was so successful under his command, there need to be another way, or an additional way, of diplomacy that would fulfill the need to use force. And in that sense I think the churn, the shift of his mind, was one of the most interesting things I saw, and I even saw that from an interview to interview.

Fred Burton [00:16:42] Ronen, do you think targeted assassinations work?

Ronen Bergman [00:16:49] When you deal with these questions, there are two main issues to examine. One of them, is it legally and morally justified? Are targeted killing and assassinations legally and morally justified? And are they effective? And when I say targeted killing and assassination, I'm referring to the same thing. I know that according to American law the way that it's interpreted by American intelligence, it's not the same thing. But in Israel it does refer to the same thing. I think that everyone can judge on morality. It's a very personal perspective. But when you come to effectiveness, after eight years of researching this I can say, I think, very clearly and determine that the answer to that is yes. When targeted killings are part of an overall policy, when they are done systematically, when they are not done in order to satisfy local audience back home that wants to see that the country's doing something, and they are not just the fruit of a coincidental chance to kill someone, but as part of a systematic and strategic policy, I think that the Israeli experience demonstrates that they are effective. And there are a few examples, I can mention one, the jihadist Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in 2001, in an era in time that was later called the Second Intifada, had launched a horrific campaign of suicide killings, suicide terrorism, inside Israel. Buses, shopping malls, kindergartens, people were killed in dozen every day in the streets of Israel which almost brought the country on the verge of bankruptcy. And the only thing that was able to stop Hamas

Ronen Bergman [00:18:58] from sending these suicide perpetrators, was the campaign of targeted killing, the most extensive in history of mankind, that Israel launched in return. And Israel did not kill the suicide bombers; Hamas boasted that they have more volunteers than suicide belts. They killed the upper layers in hierarchy, the bomb-makers, the indoctrinators, the recruiters, the regional commanders, the drivers, the political leaders, and once these were the targets, and they didn't kill all of them, but they killed enough to paralyze the organization and in 2004 Hamas, on its knees, begged for a ceasefire with Israel. That was the end of suicide terrorism in Israel and it proved that when using precise intelligence and targeting the commanding layer, you can stop even an organization that was seen as, like a jihadist version of Games of Thrones, that nothing can stop them, that they don't care about nothing. And targeted killing attached a significant price tag to the lives of the commanders and once they did that, they stopped.

Fred Burton [00:20:15] I thought it was fascinating the way you chose your book title. Help our listeners understand, Ronen, where you came up with the title Rise and Kill First.

Ronen Bergman [00:20:25] I followed an idea, from Ronnie Hope, the translator of the book, who attracted my attention to the fact that many of the interviewees when speaking had quoted the phase, very famous for Israelis and for Jews, from the Babylonian Talmud, which states, "Whoever comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first." In Hebrew, "Whoever comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first." And this was used by many of the interviewees to explain their mindset why they have been participating in these operations and how is that part of their perception of the defense doctrine of Israel. And so we took the other part, because the phrase is just too long, "Rise Up and Kill First."

Fred Burton [00:21:19] That's a great book title. Now, for our listeners, Ronen, where can they find your book?

Ronen Bergman [00:21:25] Well I hope that in any bookshop next to where they live, but also in Amazon or Barnes & Noble and all the other main retailers. I was very happy to see the warm welcoming to the book in America, and it just proves a point or a scope which I'm happy to share. You can have a bestseller even if does not have even once any reporting on #MeToo sexual harassment or Donald Trump. And I was happy and surprised to see that it really got the attention of the American discourse and I was just so thrilled to see how warm it was accepted by American media.

Fred Burton [00:22:08] Well I can say this as a former counter-terrorism agent, for any student of terror, espionage, or national security, I would encourage you to go out and get a copy of Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations, by Dr. Ronen Bergman. And Ronen, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ronen Bergman [00:22:31] Thank you so much, it was a pleasure and I hope to meet soon or speak soon about these interesting issues.

Ben Sheen [00:22:50] And that concludes this episode of the Stratfor Podcast. Again, if you'd like to read Dr. Bergman's book, Rise and Kill First, you'll find a link in the show notes along with a link to Fred Burton's reflections and other interviews. You can also find a complete interactive transcript of this conversation on our podcast page, that's at worldview.stratfor.com/media/podcasts. And Worldview members can contribute to this conversation and engage with Strafor's analysts, editors, and contributors in our members-only forum. And if you have an idea for a future episode of the podcast, or simply, you'd just like to share your thoughts on the topic, send us an email at podcast@stratfor.com. We really appreciate your feedback. And for more geopolitical intelligence, analysis, and forecasting, that will reveal the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter, @Stratfor.