Israel's Kill List

Inside the Mossad's campaign to off its most dangerous foes, one by one.

"There'll be a summit conference in the sky," smiled an Israeli intelligence official Wednesday morning when he learned of the assassination of Hassan Lakkis, the Hezbollah commander in charge of weapons development and advanced technological warfare, in a Beirut suburb around midnight on Tuesday, Dec. 3. The killing of Lakkis is yet another in the latest in a long series of assassinations of leading figures in what Israeli intelligence calls the "Radical Front," which comprises two countries -- Syria and Iran -- and three organizations: Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.

"We're talking about a number of organizations and people involved in nuclear and terrorist activity. [They] do it not only for their countries in various missions, but have created an international network -- the most dangerous and most efficient that I have met," the official added. The coalition's goals: "the construction of a nuclear bomb and of various missilery capabilities -- from very short to very long ranges -- and the implementation of suicide terror at the highest level." The Israeli goals: take these men out, one by one.

This isn't the first time Israel has faced very powerful enemies, of course. But Israeli intelligence officials think this may be the most diverse, most intricately woven set of foes the country has encountered. These foes range from those at the leadership level down to field operatives, according to Mossad and Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman) high-ranking officials. And it all involves deep, intimate cooperation that even spans the religious rifts between Sunnis and Shiites, driven by a single motive force: hostility toward the state of Israel.

Back in 2004, the Mossad began identifying various key figures within this Radical Front -- those with advanced operational, organizational, and technological capabilities. While other, better-known personalities in these extremist groups and their state backers dealt with strategy, these were the people who handled the details and the translation of strategy into actual practice.

The Israeli intelligence source, who dealt with the Radical Front, likens the anti-Israel coalition to SPECTRE, the fictional enemies of James Bond. With one difference: "SPECTRE usually did it for money." Israeli intelligence drew up a list of these men, each one the possessor of highly lethal skills that could be threatening to Israel, even if there had not been a coordinated network embracing of all of them. The list was headed by two men: Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's supreme military commander, and Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's head of secret special projects, including the building of a nuclear reactor, and the person in charge of Syria's ties with Iran and Hezbollah. As Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief, told me: "Gen. Muhammad Suleiman was in charge of Assad's shady businesses, including the connection with Hezbollah and Iran and all sensitive projects. He was a figure Assad was leaning upon. And these days, he misses him."

After them came Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, head of missile development for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the export of missiles to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad; Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas official in charge of tactical ties with Iran; and Hassan Lakkis (also spelled in FBI documents as Haj Hassan Hilu Laqis), who was identified by Aman in the early 1990s as Hezbollah's weapons development expert. In an article about Lakkis's death, Lebanon's Daily Star called him a "key figure in Hezbollah['s] drone program." The Israeli intelligence source continued the analogy with the Bond movies and called him "Hezbollah's Q."

According to his Aman file, Lakkis was active in the radical Shiite movement since age 19, enlisting shortly after it was established. He had a certain amount of technical education at a Lebanese university, but most of his skills were acquired from his experience in developing and manufacturing weaponry. Almost from the outset he was the top procurement officer and coordinator with Iran on these matters. Thanks to his efforts, Hezbollah became the most powerful terrorist organization ever -- even more powerful than al Qaeda in many ways -- with "firepower that 90 percent of the countries in the world do not have," according to Dagan.

As early as the mid-1990s, there were Aman officers who marked Lakkis as a potential target, believing that he should be eliminated. But Hezbollah was not a preferred target at the time and was considered more of a nuisance than a strategic threat. By the time that this changed in the 2000s, he was already taking extreme precautions to protect himself.

As I detail in my book, The Secret War With Iran, Lakkis was also wanted in Canada and the United States for running Hezbollah cells in those countries in the early 1990s. He had dispatched "elements with criminal tendencies there, and they were therefore happy to send them to North America so that they would not carry on such activities close to the organizations members" in Lebanon, according to a classified Aman paper. These Lebanese criminals settled in Vancouver, North Carolina, and Michigan, where they worked in the wholesale counterfeiting of visas, driver's licenses, and credit cards, raking in huge profits. Lakkis permitted them to skim off a fat commission, as long as most of the cash was used for the procurement of sophisticated equipment that Hezbollah was finding it difficult to acquire elsewhere, such as GPS and night-vision equipment and various kinds of flak jackets.

In the wake of information conveyed by Israeli intelligence, the FBI and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service mounted a number of operations against these cells, and their members either fled or were arrested and sentenced to long jail terms for offenses including illicit acquisition of weapons and conspiring to attack Jewish targets. Lakkis himself learned about the raids in time and canceled a planned visit to the United States. In the last telephone calls recorded by the FBI before the crackdown, Lakkis was heard rebuking the cell members for not doing enough for Hezbollah and enjoying the good life in America while the organization's members in Lebanon were being hammered by Israel.

With Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah's military buildup and preparations for a general campaign against Israel became central in the organization's doctrine. Lakkis functioned in tandem with and under the command of Hezbollah's military commander, Mughniyeh. The two were aware of Israel's sensitivity to casualties in its military and of the lack of preparedness on the Israeli home front for sustained bombardment.

They built a complex array of fortifications in south Lebanon with a double goal: surviving for as long as possible under attack from Israeli land forces, which they were sure would happen sooner or later, and preservation of their own ability to fire as many missiles as possible at Israeli communities.

The formula was a success. In the summer of 2006, Israel lost its war with Hezbollah, thanks, in part, to fortifications equipped with advanced gear like communications, command-and-control systems, and night-vision optics -- all of which Lakkis played an important role in acquiring. In effect, it was Israel, the strongest military force in the Middle East, that was badly defeated, failing to achieve any of the goals it had set itself.

On July 20, 2006, the Israelis tried to take Lakkis out with a rocket fired from an F-16 fighter at his apartment in Beirut, but he wasn't home and his son was killed.

The 2006 war (known as the "Second Lebanon War" in Israel, to distinguish it from the war Israel waged against the PLO in Lebanon in 1982) was the high point of the Radical Front and the coordination between the coalition's top members. Since then, the wheel has turned a full cycle. Mughniyeh was killed by a bomb in his car in Damascus in February 2008; Suleiman was shot dead by a sniper on a beach in Syria in August of the same year; Mabhouh was strangled and poisoned in a Dubai hotel room in January 2010; Moghaddam was blown sky high along with 16 of his personnel in an explosion at a missile depot near Tehran on Nov. 12, 2011. And on Tuesday night, two unidentified masked men cut Lakkis down in the parking garage of his apartment building in a suburb of Beirut.

Hezbollah was quick to point the finger at Israel; Israel was quick to deny the attack. If indeed the assassins belong to some elite intelligence organization, by now they are most likely to be out of Lebanon, away from Hezbollah's grasp. But this tactical success -- if you can call it that -- is not necessarily a strategic one in the Middle Eastern political arena. 

To play assassin is to challenge history outright. Some hit jobs proved effective in changing reality, but not all changed it in the manner the perpetrators had hoped for. Take the 1992 assassination of Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas al-Musawi. Retaliation attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets after his death cost dozens of lives, and the more radical and more effective Hassan Nasrallah took over as the organization's leader. 

For these reasons, assassinations should be considered a last resort. The Radical Front is undergoing changes. Iran had to come to a difficult compromise with the West after many years of sanctions brought its economy to its knees. Hezbollah has taken both tactical and political blows since it openly sided with Assad in the Syrian civil war and sent its troops to fight alongside his.

"Now they're all together," said the Israeli intelligence official. Then he recited words from the Jewish religious blessing that's meand to be said on hearing that someone has died: "Blessed be the Judge of the Truth."

But sometimes it's better to let the Judge -- and History -- take its own course.



Open Arms

How the White House is making it easier for Iran to smuggle weapons.

While Congress debates the new agreement with Iran to halt its nuclear advances, a series of regulatory changes that took effect last month pose an immediate risk to U.S. and global security -- one that policy-makers have done nothing about. In little-noticed changes to U.S. export laws, the Obama administration has made it easier for defense firms to sell weapons abroad. And, although American companies are forbidden from selling arms to Iran, the less strict oversight of arms sales will make it easier for Iranian-backed middlemen and shell companies to acquire weapons from third parties -- a tactic that Iran has often used to illicitly obtain U.S. weapons.

Following the questionable sale of some American weapons to Middle Eastern countries in the 1970s -- including hundreds of military aircraft to the Shah of Iran -- Congress adopted a robust system of export controls. These controls aimed to promote global security and protect U.S. national security by providing stricter oversight of U.S. foreign military assistance and U.S. commercial arms sales. Congress also established strict controls on the supply of spare parts for American-made weapons, parts required on a regular basis to keep sophisticated equipment operating.

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Washington embargoed the sale of any U.S. weapons to Iran. Cut off from supplies needed to keep their American fighter jets, such as the F-5 Tiger II, and heavy-lift military transport helicopters, such as the CH-53 Sea Stallion, in the air, Iran began to aggressively seek U.S. military aircraft parts and components -- efforts that continue to this day. According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Iran acquired or attempted to acquire U.S. military parts in 30 known cases between 2007 and 2009 alone.

In all of these 30 cases, Iran used middlemen or shell companies as part of its illicit scheme. The majority of these middlemen operated out of Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. However, Iran also used intermediaries based out of Western countries such as Austria, Canada, France, and the Netherlands. And it didn't only buy aircraft parts -- it also bought U.S.-made night-vision equipment, firearms, missile components, and other items.

The Obama administration has just made this process easier for Tehran.

In order to sell weapons and many other military-related items abroad, U.S. defense companies are required to obtain a license from the federal government -- licenses traditionally meted out by the State Department. But four years ago, in response to the economic downturn, the Obama administration launched the President's Export Control Reform Initiative to increase weapons sales and help the defense industry. As a result, beginning on Oct.15 of this year, control over the sale of thousands of military aircraft items was transferred from the State Department to the Commerce Department, whose export-approval process is significantly less strict. In fact, the Commerce Department allows companies to export many military items without a license, and the White House has said more than 50 percent of items that fall into the "military vehicles" category now overseen by the Commerce Department will likely no longer require an export license.

The administration calls these "common sense" changes. But as one Justice Department letter sent to Congress during the Clinton administration -- which raised serious concerns about the unlicensed sale of weapons to England and Australia, two close allies -- stated that the export license is a critical tool in preventing the illicit diversion of U.S. military technology, including "terrorist groups and other potential adversaries." And the former lead Justice Department prosecutor of arms-export violations from 2007 to June 2013, Steven Pelak, has also said that, in the Obama administration's new initiative, the arguments of law-enforcement officials "didn't win the day." The licensing process allows the U.S. government to check several risk factors that help identify illegal and unauthorized arms transfers, such as high-risk foreign parties, unusual transportation routes, and military items that don't match buyer inventories. Easing or eliminating that process removes that ability to flag risky sales.

The problems with issuing license exceptions for military items are well documented. A 2002 GAO study on the risks of allowing companies to export most military items under State Department control to Canada using a license exception found that several entities, including some associated with Iran and China, exploited the Canadian license exception to obtain U.S. weapons. In one instance, GAO highlighted that "an Iranian intelligence group established a company in Canada and attempted to acquire U.S. Munitions List controlled klystron tubes, which are specifically used for Hawk missile systems."  The United States eventually had to dismiss the case because it was unable to extradite the alleged perpetrator.  In another case, 58 U.S.-made M-113 armored vehicles originally sold to the Canadian armed forces were illegally exported to Iran via Europe. In addition, the U.S. government found that companies exported arms prohibited for use with the license exception and used intermediaries the State Department had identified as high risk while using the Canadian license exception.

The license exceptions and license-free scenarios available from the Commerce Department are much broader and have fewer protections than those available from the State Department. For instance, companies will be able to export most military items controlled by the Commerce Department to 36 countries (mostly NATO members) using the newly created Strategic Trade Authorization license exception, which includes several allied countries in which Iranian shell companies have operated. It also includes Turkey, which is currently in discussion to purchase weapons from a Chinese company that the U.S. government has sanctioned for violations related to Iran and North Korea. The administration's new rules also allow scores of relatively mundane but specialized military aircraft parts and components to be exported to over 185 countries license-free, making it easier for middlemen in Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates to acquire them.

On top of that, the Commerce Department does not require companies to register with the U.S. government before exporting weapons, and it allows the exporter to provide much less information on the parties involved in an arms deal (including middlemen) compared to what's stipulated by the State Department. The State Department's registration requirement provides an incentive for companies to avoid working with unscrupulous shippers, freight forwarders, brokers, or shell companies because they could risk the company's eligibility to export.

Based on my review of U.S. prosecutions on arms-export violations from 2008 to 2012 and related court documents, Iran has smuggled or attempted to smuggle many U.S. military aircraft parts that are now eligible for the new license exemptions or license-free scenarios, including the following:

  • Rotor blades for military helicopters;
  • Canopy panels for the F-5 Tiger II fighter jet;
  • Modular hydraulic units for the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter;
  • Dial assemblies for the UH-1 "Huey" utility helicopter; and,
  • Diaphragm seals for the CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy-lift military helicopter.

U.S. law-enforcement officials have also said that license exemptions make it harder to investigate and prosecute individuals and companies that violate the law. Without the detailed information that the U.S. government gains from an export license request, it can be difficult to determine who and where to investigate when there is a suspected violation. License exemptions also require more foreign law-enforcement cooperation to obtain necessary evidence and extradition, which has proven even more difficult for items controlled by the Commerce Department.

For many of the above reasons, Congress has opposed previous efforts to create broad license exceptions and license-free scenarios for many U.S. military items. In 2004, for instance, it imposed specific requirements before the executive branch could issue such exceptions. But the current Congress has allowed the administration to work around these requirements and has conducted very little oversight into this massive, but largely unpublicized, initiative. The Senate has yet to hold a single hearing on the issue.

As Congress continues to press the administration to take a harder line against Iran to slow or stop its nuclear program, it also should make a concerted effort to at least understand the likely negative consequences of the Obama administration's export reform, and at best to stop the problematic aspects. With the Senate debating the National Defense Authorization Act, it has an opportunity to better align U.S. efforts to curb Iran's military capabilities with export reform. Unless some of these regulatory changes are halted or additional safeguards are added, the United States will soon face more cases of illicit U.S. arms transfers to Iran -- and it will have less ability to do anything about them.