When Mossad’s Greatest Female Assassin Got It Wrong
Forty-two years ago today, two hit men from the Mossad Special Operations Unit emerged from a gray Volvo on Storgten Street in Lillehammer, Norway, and pointed their guns at a young man out to the movies with his pregnant girlfriend. Fourteen shots were fired, although the shooters took care not to harm the woman.
The Mossad agents had been sent to Lillehammer to assassinate Ali Hassan Salameh, an operative and leader of the Palestinian militant group Black September, and mastermind behind the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Of the agents sent to Norway, Sylvia Rafael had been uneasy about the viability of her team’s mission and unsure that the man targeted was truly Salameh. The man they followed didn’t turn around even once to see if agents were tailing him—Salameh would have been more cautious. Still, Rafael didn’t call off the hit, which her own intelligence had set in motion. Only later did she learn that the young man lying dead on the cobblestones was an innocent Moroccan waiter named Ahmed Bouchiki.
Bouchiki’s murder provoked an international outcry. Sylvia Rafael and five of her team members were arrested shortly after and tried in a Norwegian court. Sylvia was convicted of planned murder, espionage, and the use of forged documents, and was sentenced to 5½ years in a prison in Oslo. In 1975, she was released after serving 15 months.
Sylvia’s story as told by Moti Kfir—the man who recruited her and supervised her training—in Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy, weaves together the story of a female agent willing to sacrifice everything in defense of her countrymen with the movements of the man she was meant to assassinate. Kfir’s vivid narrative illuminates some of the similarities between two groups of people driven by passionate devotion and resolve in the face of almost unimaginable violence and sorrow, and reveals very different facets of Israel’s ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
In the wake of the recent Iran nuclear deal, it is important to remember that Israel has a demonstrable history of intelligence actions to back up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that “we will always defend ourselves.” The nation’s swift and decisive reaction to the Black September attack at the Munich Olympics was not surprising, though it had disastrous consequences. It’s too soon to tell what may or may not happen as a result of Netanyahu’s forceful rhetoric, but Israel’s ability to project power subtly and effectively is exhibited by the work of dedicated and resourceful Mossad agents, like Sylvia Rafael, on the country’s behalf.
For Sylvia, the fated road to Norway began very differently from most Mossad combatants. Born in South Africa, Rafael was raised in the Jewish faith, but she did not develop strong loyalty to the Jewish people until a relative took refuge with the Rafaels after his family was slaughtered in Kiev during the Holocaust.
After graduating from university in South Africa, Sylvia turned down a marriage proposal and a comfortable life and moved to the fledgling country of Israel. After several years on a kibbutz, and later teaching English in Tel Aviv, she met Moti Kfir for a meeting about a prospective job.
Kfir recruited Sylvia for Unit 188, an elite unit in the division of the Israeli Intelligence Corps responsible for special operations outside Israel. Following intensive evaluations regarding her suitability as a Mossad clandestine combatant, and a lengthy training period under Kfir’s guidance, Rafael was chosen to be one of the lead intelligence agents tracking the man thought to be Salameh.
While Sylvia’s motivation to fight for Israel was inspired by her family’s dark history in the Holocaust, Salameh’s decision to join the Palestinian Liberation Organization also came as a result of family tragedy, and specifically out of a sense of duty to his father, who had been fatally wounded in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Both journeys offer new insights into a complicated and zealous conflict and its profound impact on global politics and the individual lives of their countrymen.
The Lillehammer Affair caused Rafael to lose faith in some of her Mossad colleagues and superiors. After her release from prison, Sylvia declined an offer of a position within the Mossad in an executive capacity, preferring to move back to Norway as Sylvia Rafael-Schjødt, respected lawyer’s wife. During her trial and imprisonment in Oslo, Sylvia had fallen in love with and married Annæus Schjødt, the defense attorney hired by the Israeli government on behalf of the arrested members of the Lillehammer team.
After Annæus’s retirement, the couple moved to South Africa to be with family. It was there that Sylvia learned that a young, female Mossad combatant had finally eliminated Ali Hassan Salameh in Beirut using a planted car bomb near Salameh’s home. It was also where, at the age of 68, she died of cancer.
Tragic anniversaries such as this are a powerful reminder of the lessons from history the world hasn’t yet taken to heart. The Lillehammer Affair, and Sylvia Rafael’s role in it, recalls the failure of intelligence driven by the demand for retaliation that led to Bouchiki’s death, and cautions against similar retaliation as a consequence of the recent Iran nuclear deal.
Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy. Ram Oren and Moti Kfir. Foreword by Major General Shlomo Gazit, IDF (Ret.). The University Press of Kentucky