MOSSAD HEADQUARTERS, TEL AVIV, FEBRUARY 15, 2015
“Can someone tell me what the hell is going on here?” The Mossad chief looked stressed and agitated. Contrary to the intelligence agency’s hedonistic image, her bureau was modest and sparse. Daylight had no chance of making it down to level five belowground, and the filtered air that flowed into her office was cold and synthetic. Her bureau chief asked if she’d like a coffee. “Yes, please, but a strong one,” she replied—their prearranged code that meant instead of coffee, it would be better to fill the ceramic mug with a generous measure of Irish whiskey, and just a drop of water. Some were aware that Caracal, as the Mossad chief was known, drank whiskey from time to time. But they had never seen her lose her flair for sharp thinking or absorbing data, processing it quickly and making tough decisions. If Caracal had lost anything just then, it was her cool and collected manner, but not due to the whiskey at all, and only because she didn’t know what was going on. And not knowing made her aggressive and impatient.
“It’s been a week since the assassination of Osama Hamdan in Brussels, and we still have no idea who was behind it,” she said, looking coldly at her people sitting on the other side of her large desk. “And now the deputy director of the British internal security service has informed us that he’s arriving tomorrow and demands a meeting with me without delay. Demands!”
The head of the Mossad’s Foreign Relations Division shifted uncomfortably in his chair, as if he were responsible himself for the British official’s impoliteness.
“Do you know what they want?”
“Madam Director, there has indeed been an adamant request for an urgent and personal meeting with you. And no, they didn’t mention the subject matter. They assume we are well aware of what’s troubling them. And we all know that a radical Muslim preacher by the name of Badawi was assassinated in London the day before yesterday. I can only surmise that the urgent visit by the deputy director of MI5 is related to the killing.”
“Are you telling me they think we did it?”
“Yes, primarily because of the timing. And there was also a somewhat unclear remark that our representative in London heard from them and relayed verbatim in a cable. They said: ‘Thatcher and Shamir are no longer with us, but their signatures are still valid.’ ”
“And do you know what that means?”
The head of the Foreign Relations Division shifted uncomfortably in his chair again. “Not exactly. . . . It rings a bell but . . .”
“Well, let me tell you,” Caracal said in an icy tone. “Almost thirty years ago, twenty-eight, to be precise, the British shut down our station in London, expelling everyone there. From the station chief down to the last of the secretaries. They claimed we were involved in the murder of a Palestinian cartoonist who used to make fun of Arafat on a regular basis. He was sharp and amusing, but apparently Arafat failed to appreciate his sense of humor. He ordered the hit. We, of course, had nothing to do with the assassination. Why would we be interested in a cartoonist? But the British claimed that one of our agents was involved in the killing. He had kept a suitcase containing the weapons in his apartment for three weeks. He didn’t say a word to us about it, and we weren’t professional or smart enough to ask. But what could we tell the British? That we had behaved like amateurs? In any event, they didn’t believe us, and expelled everyone. And after the scandal, there was an exchange of letters between the Israeli and British prime ministers at the time, Shamir and Thatcher, and the Israeli prime minister signed an undertaking to never again operate on British soil without their knowledge and approval. Never to assassinate, God forbid, never to conduct a clandestine operation. So, you’re right. They think that we assassinated that preacher, Badawi, and have thus blatantly violated the commitment we made three decades ago.”
“But it wasn’t us, Madam Director. You know that.”
“Yes, but what I don’t know is who did it. And who killed Hamdan. And that bothers me a whole lot. Any ideas, anyone?”
“I’m guessing it wasn’t the Swiss intelligence service,” one of the meeting’s attendees commented lightheartedly.
No one laughed. The Mossad chief didn’t even smile.
“When you come up with any ideas, let me know. And those ideas better be based on information.”
The brief meeting, as everyone in the room understood, had come to an end. “Ido,” Caracal said to her bureau chief before they left room, “get me Aharon Levin on the phone. I have an idea. I need to pick his brain.”
- • •
Aharon Levin had served as head of the Mossad for almost a decade, ending his term in office at the beginning of the new millennium, shortly before the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. He was viewed as one of the Mossad’s best directors ever, and was well-known for both his original approach to operational strategy and his personal ties to men and women in politics and intelligence around the globe.
Aharon came across as an absentminded professor and made a conscious effort to uphold that impression, and those who were fooled by his harmless appearance paid a heavy price. And now he was walking into the office of the current Mossad chief, an office that was once his own, accompanied by her bureau chief. He fished two cellphones from his pockets and placed them in the trustworthy hands of Ido. “Just a moment,” he said to him, rummaging through his bag, pulling out dossiers, a folded umbrella, and a copy of The Economist. “Here you go,” he declared triumphantly, “take this phone, too.” Ido stood there holding the three phones, his wealth of experience the only thing stopping him from rolling his eyes in despair. Caracal invited Aharon to join her in the small seating area at the far end of her bureau. Her bureau chief had already suggested replacing the armchairs several times, or reupholstering them at least, but Caracal said she liked them just the way they were. Comfortable, shabby, full of character.
“Aharon,” she said to him, typically direct, “I hope we’re not watching a rerun of the Cobra affair, or perhaps I should say a sequel to it . . .”
Aharon fixed her with a look of pure innocence.
“Please, Aharon, neither of us was born yesterday.”
Cobra was the KGB’s code name for Alon Regev, the prime minister’s political strategy advisor. A year and a half earlier, Regev had been exposed as a Russian spy by Aharon Levin and a small team working closely with him. Aharon had been operating at the time without the knowledge of anyone else in the security establishment, with the state president the only other person party to the secret. Regev was ultimately killed in a mysterious car accident north of Ashkelon, on his way to fleeing the country by sea. Aharon’s team was rumored to have killed him, but she’d never been able to confirm it. Aharon never once breathed a single word about the incident, and the members of his team dispersed and disappeared back into everyday life, each returning to his or her own affairs. Of the current exploits of Ya’ara and Aslan, who were part of the original team and had since established a covert operational squad answering to the prime minister alone, Aharon Levin knew absolutely nothing at all.
“What was, was,” Aharon said nonchalantly, “there’s no need or point in delving into the past. We did what we had to do, and we operated in a compartmentalized fashion because we had no idea where he was hiding. We’ve already discussed this, Anat. Even if you didn’t like what happened, I think you understood that we had no choice.”
“Maybe there is no point in delving into the past, but when the past comes back to haunt us, then it’s vital that we deal with it. Aharon, someone is running amok in Europe and I need to know that it isn’t you. Forgive me for being so direct and blunt, but things have spun out of control and it needs to be stopped immediately.”
Aharon knew she was talking about the assassinations in Brussels and London. He, too, had wondered who was behind them, and if the Mossad under Caracal was starting to go off the rails. From his perspective, in an era of international cooperation and the establishment of alliances for a coordinated onslaught on radical Islam, carrying out wild assassinations in the very hearts of the capitals of Europe was the epitome of madness.
“Let’s pretend that you didn’t ask me that question,” Aharon said in the tone of a Polish nobleman deeply hurt by being doubted. “Of course I have no part in this madness. And not for a second have I thought that it was the work of the Mossad,” he added, even though the notion had crossed his mind.
“I truly appreciate that,” Caracal said.
“Nevertheless, Anat, we both see an Israeli fingerprint on those operations. And I’m referring first and foremost to the assassination of Osama Hamdan in Belgium. That was retribution. That’s the only possible motive. Revenge.”
“Revenge, or a move to silence him. We discussed the possibility that he was killed by the jihadist organization to which he belonged. I’m not going to say Al Qaeda, that would be too amorphous and inaccurate. Hamdan belonged to a Muslim gang that identified with Al Qaeda. That doesn’t make the gang part of a global organization. In any event, whatever the case may be, there’s no need for a thesis on the organizational affiliation of that piece of filth. He may have known secrets that someone didn’t want exposed ever.”
“To me that sounds like a possibility in theory only. If he had any secrets, he could have already given them up during his questioning. He was interrogated, after all, for weeks on end. And if he didn’t divulge any secrets, then why kill him? Besides, according to the media reports at least, the individual who carried out the hit sent him on his way to the next world with a farewell greeting that went something like: ‘May you burn in hell.’ Someone killed him out of hatred.”
“Look, Aharon, I despised him, too. He acted with terrible cruelty and coldness, and it just so happens that the woman he murdered had served the country all her life. And he also wounded another five people in the same incident. Jews, of course. But he was in a prisoner-transport vehicle when he was killed. On his way to court. From the perspective of the State of Israel, justice had been done.
“We would never initiate a strike on a terrorist who is already in custody and facing legal proceedings. We certainly wouldn’t undermine the sovereignty of an ally in such a manner,” she said. “And I can’t think of an intelligence agency of any other normal country that would mount such an operation. And soon thereafter, that preacher was killed in the very heart of London. And the little girl who was murdered, too. It’s terrible. And I’m convinced that the two incidents are related. Brussels and London were carried out by the same party. That’s my working assumption. And it’s a strong working assumption. The savagery of the hit in Brussels could be a clue toward solving this madness. Aharon, this thing is causing us extensive damage, and it’ll get a whole lot worse if we don’t put a stop to it.”
Aharon was lost in thought. Something about the Mossad chief’s choice of words had caught his attention. He tried to parse out what had caused that spark to flicker in his brain. “Are you thinking of something?” Caracal asked. “Do you have an idea?”
Aharon delayed his response. The savagery of the hit in Brussels, the savagery of the hit in Brussels. “Perhaps. I’m not sure. I need to check out a few things and then get back to you. I may need your help with clarifying a number of things. Border control records, SIGINT data . . .” His words were left hanging in the air.
The Mossad chief knew that there was no point in pressing him to share his thoughts. Aharon Levin had always done things his own way. At his own pace. “My bureau chief will give you all the assistance you need. I’ll ask him to coordinate the handling of any request you may have. But please, Aharon. Quickly. We can’t afford to allow this to get out of hand.”
- • •
After leaving the Mossad compound, Aharon pulled over to the side of the road. He found the number he was looking for only after a search through his third phone. “Hello, hello,” he said, surprised by the call, even though he was the one who had placed it. “Hello, Michael, hello. How are you? Excellent, excellent,” he added, before receiving a response of any kind. “Are you busy now? What, you have a meeting in twenty minutes? So apologize. Cancel and apologize. I need to see you now. Yes, in the usual place. You’re in Nahmani, right? At our apartment?” Michael Turgeman had served as a Mossad field operative for twenty-five years. Now, he was a free citizen, or so he believed, at least. When the hunt for Cobra began, the team set up by Aharon, with Michael at his side, had used an office on Nahmani Street as an ops apartment where they held their meetings. As a base from which they set out on their various missions. So it was “our apartment.” It was serving now as the offices of Michael Turgeman & Partners, Law Firm. “The usual place” was the Arcaffe branch at the Ramat Aviv Mall. Aharon liked to hold his meetings there. Fortunately for Michael, the congestion on the roads was restricted to the traffic pouring into Tel Aviv. The road north was relatively open.