During the second Palestinian uprising, which I covered from 2001 to 2005, I often found myself wondering how Israeli intelligence officials knew so much about the inner workings of Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The groups, instigators of dreadful violence against Israel, operated in small cells in utter secrecy. Yet on more than 200 occasions during the intifada, Israel managed to find and kill their top operatives in pinpoint strikes, often by firing airborne missiles at their cars as they traveled from one safe house to another. “Targeted assassinations,” as Israel described the killings, required real-time information from people high enough in the ranks of these organizations to know the whereabouts of the most sought-after fugitives. How could Israel have recruited so many well-placed informers?
I had a chance a few years ago to put the question to a senior official in Shabak, the Israeli security agency in charge of maintaining order in the West Bank. The official, who had just retired, said Shabak kept lists of every Palestinian in every town and village and ranked them in order of their potential usefulness. A Palestinian apt to be particularly well informed—the head of a clan or the brother of a top militant—would appear near the top of the list. Alongside each name, Shabak officials would write something about the person’s personal life that could be leveraged in recruiting him as a spy. One might be waiting for permission to have his child treated in an Israeli hospital. Another might have a grudge against a certain clan known to be involved in suicide attacks. When agents needed informers in a certain area, they would consult the lists and go to work.
Mosab Yousef’s name must have appeared near the top of one of these lists. As the son of a Hamas founder, he knew many of the group’s political and military leaders. He was privy to their discussions and was occasionally in attendance when critical decisions were made. When Israel arrested Yousef in 1996 for buying guns, an affable Shabak agent set about recruiting him. The result, described in Yousef’s intriguingly detailed but also unabashedly self-serving memoir, Son of Hamas, was a decade-long career as a spy for Shabak during which Yousef comes around to siding largely with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, helps foil suicide attacks, and eventually converts to Christianity. His account underscores the role intelligence played (alongside construction of the security barrier) in eventually suppressing the second intifada.
The most interesting passages of the book reveal an aspect of intelligence work almost never discussed publicly: the way an agency woos informers and gets them to betray their own community. Yousef’s Shabak handler, Loai (the name he’s given in the book), does it mostly through charisma and persuasion. He speaks to Yousef in perfect Arabic, shows an astonishing familiarity with Yousef’s life in the West Bank, gives him money for college and clothes, and cultivates him for a long time before asking for anything in return. All along, Loai frames the work Yousef does for Shabak as a blow against zealots on both sides of the conflict and a boon for peace. “What the Israelis were teaching me was more logical and more real than anything I had ever heard from my own people,” Yousef writes. “Nearly every time we met, another stone in the foundation of my world view crumbled.”
Though Son of Hamas is primarily an account of one man’s undercover work, it occasionally comes across as a story about the complicated relationship of fathers and sons. Yousef repeatedly professes admiration for his father, Hassan Yousef, and maintains that his work for Shabak helped keep his father off Israel’s targeted-assassination list (though not out of jail). But he’s contemptuous of the way his father rationalizes suicide attacks. Eventually, Yousef grows tired of the double life, quits Shabak, and moves to the U.S., where he completes his conversion to Christianity. When he tells his father by phone from California that he’s no longer a Muslim, the elder Yousef cries in his jail cell. In a subsequent call, Yousef delivers the news that he’d been a spy for Israel. The response this time: stone-cold silence.