An Israeli spy was arrested a few days ago off the shore of the Gaza Strip, according to a report published in a Palestinian newspaper called Al-Quds. The agent in question was found diving through the waves and practicing excellent echolocation. It was, in fact, a dolphin, whose “suspicious movements” had drawn the attention of naval commandos.
Upon further investigation, they reportedly found the animal outfitted with a camera and an underwater monitoring device capable of firing small arrows. A Hamas source speaking to the paper claimed the dolphin was an agent of Israeli spy agency Mossad and had been gathering footage of their naval trainings in order to assist Israel in battling the organization’s militant wing, Eziddin al-Qassam.
Israeli animal spies have supposedly been spotted in the waters off Egypt, the skies above Turkey, and even in the trees of Sudan. In 2007, Iranian authorities went on a spree of arresting squirrels. Found near the border, the 14 rodents were allegedly outfitted with eavesdropping gear by Israel—or so it was claimed. “The squirrels were carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services,” Iran’s state news agency wrote. The next year, two pigeons were detained near an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility.
Conspiracy theories abound that Israel—one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries—has collected a zoo-like arsenal of hi-tech creatures for its intelligence missions. And it’s true that Mossad espionage is legendary, with Hollywood-worthy covert operations, including assassinations, playing out across the region. That the bionic spy animal plots have been refuted with regularity—the animals are being monitored by conservationists tracking their migratory patterns—has done little to extinguish the fires of intrigue through the Middle East.
In 2010, an Egyptian marine biologist sparked a rumor that Israel had sent over GPS-enabled sharks to carry out a series of shark attacks that killed one tourist and left a handful of others tourists injured off the Sinai coast of Egypt. “Why would these sharks travel 4,000 kilometers and not have any accidents until they entered Sinai waters?” he asked on Egyptian television. The theory was propelled on by the region’s governor, who postured that the sharks may be working for Mossad to drive away tourism from Egypt’s Red Sea resorts.
The Israeli foreign ministry shot back with ridicule, accusing the politician of watching “Jaws one time too many.”
A few years later, a stork was jailed on suspicion of being a Mossad plant to gather information in Egypt. It was released, but killed several days later.
In 2012, a small Turkish village was thrown into a frenzy when a bird was found dead with a tag bearing an identification number and the word “Israel.” The Turkish counterterrorism unit even investigated the espionage claims until the town was satisfactorily convinced that the tag indicated it was being tracked for migration.
But suspicions boiled over again a year later when a kestrel with a similar tag was found in another village. Medical examiners subjecting the bird to X-rays actually registered it as “Israeli Spy” in their examination documents. But without any evidence of undercover operations uncovered in the tests, the bird was deemed harmless and cleared for take-off.
In late 2012, the same theories went transcontinental and flared up in Sudan. Officials in an area of Darfur discovered a vulture outfitted with a GPS and satellite broadcast equipment. Its leg tag identified it as being part of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University program. The bird was claimed by Israel’s parks authority, which said it was among the 100 vultures being studied, and was in no way engaging in reconnaissance.
“This is ordinary equipment that is used around the world to detect movement of wildlife. There are hundreds of studies using this technology on everything from butterflies and sea turtles to sharks and whales,” ecologist Ohad Hatzofe told CNN at the time. “I’m not an intelligence expert, but what would be learned from putting a camera onto a vulture? You cannot control it. It’s not a drone that you can send where you want. What would be the benefit of watching a vulture eat the insides of a dead camel?”
A year earlier, a vulture with a similar research project had been “arrested” for being part of a so-called Zionist plot in Saudi Arabia. The Tel Aviv University-tagged beast was handed over to security forces for its reckoning, and its fate remains unclear.
Animals have been used in military and espionage campaigns for centuries, typically as messengers, but occasionally in more foolhardy roles. In the 1960s, the CIA spent $15 million to turn a house cat into a bionic, eavesdropping “Acoustic Kitty” (PDF). The shortcomings of this program later led it to be deemed “not practical.” In the 1970s, M15 considered training gerbils to identify foreign spies in its midst. Agents trained the rodents to detect rising adrenalin with their sense of smell. The program was scrapped when it was determined that terrorists and plane passengers with a fear of flying emitted similar adrenalin levels.
But other animal-centric programs were found to be more productive. Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has trained its own fleet of dolphins (and now sea lions as well) to detect underwater mines as part of the Marine Mammal Program. Five were sent to Vietnam to test their monitoring skills and during the Iraq war, dolphins were dispatched into enemy waters to locate mines.
There are still secrets being guarded about where the animal kingdom and military industrial complex collide. In April, an amusing Freedom of Information Act request asked the U.S. government for “any information pertaining to the use of animals in surveillance,” particularly “squirrels, ravens, pigeons, cats, and sharks.” It garnered a tight-lipped response from the National Security Agency: “The request has been rejected, with the agency stating that it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the requested documents.”