For Israeli intelligence organizations 2019 was a revealing year, literally. The Israeli government continued its policy of going public with the accomplishments of Mossad (foreign intelligence) and Shin Bet (domestic intelligence). Israel made it clear this year that these growing number of disclosures over the past few years were done because it was felt this played an important role in deterring attacks. There was also the impact on foreign governments, and the enemy, because the disclosures made it clear what the enemy was up to and why international action was necessary. These disclosures, especially the identity (and photos of) foreign terrorist leaders reinforced the personal danger these foreign terrorist leaders placed themselves in. Israel has gone after terrorist leaders in the past, usually after a particularly gruesome attack, especially when a lot of civilians were killed.
For Israels’ enemies, especially Iran, it is no secret that the Mossad remains a formidable organization. Israel has its own spy satellites and manned aircraft or UAVs that regularly obtain aerial photos to document Iranian efforts to do harm to Israel. For a long time Iran, and most other nations, believed Israel would not make public photos and other information Mossad had collected. It has long been customary for intel agencies to keep such material secret so as not to reveal “methods and sources.” The classic example was during World War II when the allies had a tremendous intel edge because they had cracked many German and Japanese secret codes used for wireless transmission of information to combat units and embassies. The Germans and Japanese believed that their cryptography (secret codes) was invulnerable to enemy decoding efforts. On paper they were correct, but the Americans and British cryptographers found ways to do it and as long as those discoveries were kept secret the intel advantage remained. To do that every use of secret enemy information had to have a plausible cover story and that worked. Post-war interrogation of enemy officials verified that those cover stories worked. So the secrecy policy continued after World War II.
Everything changed when the Internet and commercial satellite photos, available to all (as in Google Earth in 2011), made it easier to go public with these revelations, because it was increasingly happening anyway as amateurs revealed the same data, often finding things that the intel agencies had missed.
Meanwhile governments began to reveal such secret data more and more after the 1960s. The U.S. revealed the aerial photos they had of Russian missiles in Cuba. While revelations like that did not become common, they did become more frequent. The Israelis were just the first to do go it in a big way. Now it is common for Mossad to regularly make such revelations, because it is worth it.
For example during mid-2019 Mossad revealed how, during the last three years, it had provided key information that aborted fifty terrorist attacks, in twenty nations, being organized by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) or Iran. Twelve of these attacks were against Turkey and the Turks reported arrests of the perpetrators and details of the attacks, but rarely mentioned that the key information came from Israel.
While European nations and even Russia will often mention the Mossad contribution, the current Turkish government will not. The Mossad revelation was aimed at Turkey which, until an Islamic government took over two decades ago, was an Israeli ally. The Islamic government is now losing elections and increasingly unpopular with most Turks. Mossad saw an opportunity to remind Turks who their real friends are.
The Mossad revelations also showed the worldwide reach of the Israeli intelligence agency. For example, some of the disrupted attacks were in Venezuela, where the Israeli help was appreciated. Interim Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó said he wanted to work with Israel to identify and arrest or expel Iranian backed Islamic terrorist operations in Venezuela, along with any other criminal organizations Iran created and sustains. Hezbollah has been part of the criminal underground in Venezuela for decades and has been able to expand its operations considerably since the socialist government took power in 1999.
Israel’s main intelligence agency, Mossad (Hebrew for Institute) is officially known as ha-Mossad le-Modiin ule-Tafkidim Meyuhadim (The Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks). Mossad was established in 1951 and has always been a small organization, with fewer than 2,000 full-time staff. In its first few decades, Mossad had a major advantage over intelligence agencies in other nations. That was because in the first few years after Israel was founded in 1948 over a million Jews from all over the world moved to Israel. This proved to be a gold mine of candidates for an organization that analyzed and spied on foreign countries. All these immigrants spoke the language of their former home countries and understood the culture like natives. Thousands of these immigrants joined Mossad over the years, and some of them went back to the countries they were born and raised in to gather information and set up networks of spies. Mossad was thus exceptionally effective at what it did despite Israel’s small size. Mossad became the envy of much larger intelligence agencies in places like the United States and the Soviet Union. But the Israelis had to be careful because some of those spies were discovered and some caught and executed.
That first generation of Mossad spies is gone now and Israel has to work harder to maintain personnel standards Mossad has long been accustomed to. Mossad adapts and now uses the Internet to recruit Israelis with ethnic backgrounds useful for intelligence work. These recruits often have to undergo language and cultural awareness training that will please grandparents and be a lifesaver if the new agents find themselves operating in the Old Country. Israel has a growing number of Turkish Jews who are leaving the ancient (often since before Turkey became Turkey) homeland to escape the current government’s hostility towards Israel.
Discussing past operations in foreign countries is usually something intel agencies abhor. Too much risk of revealing techniques still in use. But Mossad has found that degree of secrecy counterproductive because Mossad has always gotten a lot of (usually ill-informed) publicity and has found that this can be useful to unnerve opponents. Thus Mossad revealed more details than usual about the daring January 2018 operation that got half a ton of top-secret Iranian nuclear weapons program documents out of Iran and back to Israel in less than 24 hours. Israel quickly sent a senior intel official to the United States to brief the American president about the operation and arrange for the Americans to get details as quickly as the documents could be translated. Mossad went public about the operation 90 days after it took place, if only to set the record straight and further embarrass the Iranians, who were trying to deny that the operation happened at all. Mossad also saw such an operation as providing a boost for recruiting and reminding other nations that it was better to have Mossad as your friend than your foe.
Mossad is deliberately public in other ways. In the last few years, Mossad has been using Facebook, as well as its various recruiting websites, to attract the few good men and women it needs to maintain the personnel quality that has made so many foreign operations possible and successful. Mossad has been recruiting via the Internet since the 1990s but apparently noted that a lot of potential Mossad recruits regarded Facebook as their primary Internet destination. While the Mossad web site goes into detail about jobs available, the Facebook approach was more general, using a flashy video. Mossad notes that it has full and part-time jobs and is able to accommodate those with disabilities as long as they have the skills Mossad seeks. Some of the specific skills sought include leatherwork, an accountant willing to travel a lot and a master carpenter able to do custom work. Mossad and other major intelligence agencies have long used Facebook for collecting information about what is going on in other countries, including recruiting local agents or informants there. But recruiting staff is another matter.
Mossad has been a lot more active recruiting new staff as well as agents since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. In addition, there is the continuing threat from Iran and the radicalization of more Moslems in the West, where the left has declared Israel the “new Nazis” and actively supports Islamic terrorist groups. That has given Mossad more work. Not surprisingly Mossad has applied the imagination and inventiveness they practice in their work by developing new recruiting methods.
A large influx of migrants from Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1980s gave Israel more Mossad candidates expert in those countries, but the biggest danger is still from Arab countries plus Iran and Pakistan. Many Israelis still learn to speak Arabic, but they usually only know the Palestinian dialects. Every Arab country has a quite distinct dialect, and cultural customs as well. So Mossad is recruiting more energetically than it ever has had to do in the past.
Once a qualified recruit is accepted it takes years of effort and millions of dollars to turn that new hire into a useful operative. It takes about two years to fully train a Mossad “katsa” (field intelligence officer), with the recruit being required to learn covert entry (burglary), foot and vehicle surveillance/counter-surveillance, how to approach potential agents for recruitment, Arab culture and info on the militaries and security services of the Arab world, report writing, and covert communications. Operatives also have to be taught how to defend themselves with pistols, requiring an intensive crash course in how to fight with a handgun in all kinds of settings, like in a car or sitting down in a restaurant. Firearms training is more important for Israeli operatives than in other countries since Israel is in a continuous state of war and thus their operators are at more risk for being ambushed while meeting a contact.
None of this is cheap, in terms of time and money. Furthermore, espionage itself is an extremely expensive game. Lots of local sources are bribed for the information they provide, and the better the intelligence provided, the higher the price, with some highly placed foreign sources making thousands of dollars per item they deliver. Lots of introductions and recruitments take place in restaurant or bar-type settings, with the case officer picking up the tab (another psychological tactic for befriending potential agents). Finally, equipment such as bugging devices, counterbugging devices, specialized vehicles, forged passports and documents, standard-issue handguns, and a multitude of other items are not cheap either, as they often have to be specially developed by technicians in an in-house "spygear" department. Thus Mossad not only needs more field agents but also those who can come with new gadgets or improvements on old ones to help keep the field agents alive and effective.
Mossad sees revealing these many details on its Internet-based recruiting sites gives potential recruits a realistic view of that they face if they make it from acceptable candidate to new recruit and finally to field operative. Espionage isn’t really glamorous, it’s more of a grind with lots of boring tasks which, if not done correctly, can get you killed, or worse, as in extended and painful interrogation. The fact that Mossad has turned publicity into an asset, and not something that will get agents killed, encourages Mossad staff and frightens opponents.