An abbreviation for Le’Modi’in Ule’Tafkidim Meyuhadim (“Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks” in Hebrew), the Mossad is the best-known Israeli intelligence service, with a reputation for ruthless efficiency, and is charged with preventing attacks against the country. Created in 1948 by a Shai veteran, the Latvian-born and British-trained Boris Guriel, Mossad came into formal existence in 1951 under another experienced, British-trained Shai officer, Reuven Shiloah. As Israel has never enjoyed diplomatic links with its principal adversaries, the Mossad has been handicapped in its overseas operations by being entirely dependent on illegals to collect intelligence in Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Lebanon. This lack of protection for its personnel under the terms of the Vienna Convention has left them vulnerable to arrest while carrying out unavowed Israeli government policies. In recent years, the arrest of Mossad personnel in Cyprus in November 1998, Switzerland in February 1998, and New Zealand in March 2004 has illustrated the risks run by the Mossad’s dependence on staff officers operating under nonofficial cover. The imprisonment for six months of Elia Cara and Uriel Zoshe Kelman in Auckland in July 2004 after they had pleaded guilty to passport fraud was a demonstration of the Mossad’s need to acquire third-country documentation, in this case for a third Mossad agent, Zev Barkan, to travel to target countries.
Mossad’s reliance on illegals was demonstrated by the cases of Wolfgang Lotz, who was imprisoned in Egypt in 1964, and Eliahu Cohen, who was arrested in Damascus and executed in May 1965. Both were Jews who had developed elaborate covers to conceal their pasts and enable them to pose as businessmen in Arab countries. A counterbalance to the perceived disadvantage of a lack of diplomatic sanctuary is the existence of a unique, sympathetic worldwide Diaspora that can be called upon to offer emergency or other support should the need arise, although the Mossad is careful not to jeopardize the standing of local Jewish communities nor incriminate its membership, which collectively is always vulnerable to reprisals.
Mossad’s great advantage has been the degree of support given by successive governments to clandestine operations, even when they fail and the blowback results in major political embarrassment. The Mossad’s impressive reputation is based in part on the successful execution of daring, high-risk operations, such as the abductions of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 and Mordechai Vanunu in 1986, and credit given the organization for the accomplishments of others, such as the rescue from Entebbe, Uganda, of 96 Israeli hostages in July 1976, a coup achieved by Aman. In 1966 Mossad suborned a Syrian pilot to fly his MiG-21 fighter to Israel, and in 1971 it was identified as the recipient of thousands of Mirage blueprints stolen by a Swiss aeronautical engineer, Alfred Frauenknecht, who had been paid $200,000 for them, thus allowing the Israelis to develop their own advanced version of the interceptor. Following the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972, the Mossad also demonstrated its ruthless quality by tracking down and assassinating the Black September terrorists responsible for the atrocity.
The Mossad’s headquarters, as disclosed by a renegade trainee case officer—Victor Ostrovsky, who wrote By Way of Deception—are located inside a large secure compound at Glilot Junction, a residential area north of Tel Aviv, and consist of an operations and a headquarters directorate. The operations branch, headed by the Mossad’s deputy chief, consists of Kesaria, the principal “combatants” section, which includes the assassination unit Kidon; Neviot, formerly Keshet, which is directed against static targets and installs technical collection systems in buildings; Tsomet, which handles all non-Israeli agents abroad; Tevel, the political reports and research unit; and other technical sections. The headquarters directorate encompasses planning and support.
The public’s perception of the Mossad as an efficient organization with an effective global reach is not shared by others in the international intelligence community, as was demonstrated by a classified Central Intelligence Agency assessment of Israeli intelligence capabilities recovered from the U.S. embassy in 1979. Although shredded, the document was reconstructed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iranian students, and it cited numerous operation failures and lapses in operational tradecraft and was particularly scathing about the Lillehammer incident, in which a Moroccan waiter was murdered in Norway when he was incorrectly identified as a Black September terrorist, and the bungled assassination of Khaled Meshal in Amman.
While the Mossad attracts criticism for indulging in assassination as a declared instrument, many of its operations, particularly against the leadership of Hamas and Hezbollah, have proven effective in reducing the incidence of suicide bombings inside Israel.
While Israel—with its unusual combination of race, nationality, and religion in its population and its precarious geopolitical status—generally can rely on intense loyalty, Mossad has suffered hostile penetration, although probably not all the cases identified have been publicized. The only example officially acknowledged is that of Ze’ev Avni, who wrote an autobiography, False Flag, in which he described some of his covert work for Mossad.
The directors of Mossad have been Reuven Shiloah (1951–52), Isser Harel (1952–63), Meir Amit (1963–68), Zvi Zamir (1968–74), Yitzhak Hofi (1974–82), Nahum Admoni (1982–90), Shabtai Shavit (1990–96), Danny Yatom (1996–98), Efraim Halevy (1998–2003), and Meir Dagan (2003– ).