01.13.12

Israeli Secret Ops: Former Head of Special Unit Explains How It’s Done

Who is killing Iran’s nuclear scientists? No country is taking responsibility, but Israel isn’t shy about its ability to conduct long-distance assassinations.

Doron Avital has all the fluency of an insider when talking about Israeli commando operations deep in enemy terrain.

A former commander of the Army’s storied Sayeret Matkal unit, Avital led a team far into Lebanese territory in 1994 to abduct Mustafa Dirani, a Shiite militant who was thought to have information about a missing Israeli airman. The soldiers grabbed Dirani from his bed, carried him out on a stretcher under fire, and hustled him back to Israel.

Now a member of Israel’s Parliament from the centrist Kadima party, Avital says he has no specific information about the assassination of yet another Iranian nuclear scientist this week, in an operation that might bear the fingerprints of Sayeret Matkal. What he will say with certainty is that Israel has the capability to carry out such a strike despite the distance—more than a thousand miles from Tel Aviv.

“Nothing is too far away. It’s more a question of not being identified,” Avital told The Daily Beast in an interview. “It’s complicated but it’s possible.”

The victim this week, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, was at least the sixth Iranian scientist to be targeted in the past four years, in what many experts believe is a campaign by Israel to halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons (though some think the Iranian regime itself might be killing at least some of the scientists for internal political reasons). To witnesses, the killing must have looked like a scene in a violent action movie, with a man on a motorcycle pulling alongside Roshan’s moving car, attaching a magnetic bomb to the door and speeding off.

As is their custom, Israeli officials neither confirmed nor denied a role in the killing—an attack that Iran said could only be the work of Israel and the United States. (U.S. officials sharply condemned the attack and denied involvement.)              

But Avital was willing to talk generally about the workings of his former unit and the challenges inherent in operations like the one in Iran. Sayeret Matkal (or General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) is the army’s most elite special operations detachment with alumni that include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Among other things, the unit led the 1976 rescue of passengers aboard an Air France plane hijacked to Entebbe in Uganda.      

Avital said operations overseas are often the outcome of a collaboration between civilian intelligence gatherers, usually from Mossad, and military commandos. Soldiers might prepare for months before an assignment, training on life-size models of the target.

“Sometimes you have the forces, you prepare them for a few options, but then the opportunity comes more quickly than you expected.”

He said operations are planned in three spheres—getting to the destination, working at the destination, and returning home. Often, the logistics of transport are as complicated as the operation itself.

In a small country like Israel, where everyone knows everyone, Avital said officers have to constantly stress the importance of secrecy ahead of a mission. And he described the frustration of having to withhold information from loved ones. “On the night before one operation, my girlfriend and I had an argument about something but I couldn’t tell her to slow down, that it wasn’t a good time, because I couldn’t say something big was about to happen.”

But he also said some commanders prefer a degree of openness.

“I would take the Iranians very seriously. If they think Israel is behind it, they’ll take action.”

“So many people participate in an operation, not just soldiers but pilots, engineers—because a lot of technology is involved. There are two philosophies about this: one is that only those who absolutely must know should be told the details; the other philosophy is more liberal and can sometimes work better because in the end you want everyone to be synchronized in the whole mission.”

In the target country, operators often rely on local help in establishing safe houses and gathering equipment. At least one report suggested Israel collaborated with the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen e-Khalq in the latest operation. Avital did not rule it out.

“In any operation behind enemy lines you can use help from people on the ground or people that live there. This was always the case.”

Asked whether Israel was bracing for Iranian retribution against senior officials, Avital said: “I would take the Iranians very seriously. If they think Israel is behind it, they’ll take action.”