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The KGB Playbook for Infiltrating the Middle East
In 1988, the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, looked at its mistakes in the Middle East, where the CIA often had the upper hand. Putin has worked to change that.
This is the second article in a three-part series based on never-before-published training manuals for the KGB, the Soviet intelligence organization that Vladimir Putin served as an operative, and that shaped his view of the world.
As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN earlier this month, Putin is “a great case officer,” suggesting he “knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president”—that is, the president of the United States.
The first article looked at the secret KGB manual for recruiting spies. This one considers the KGB’s own self-criticism after its failings in the Middle East—a situation that Putin, in recent years, has set out to rectify with a vengeance.
THE PLAN WAS SIMPLE but audacious: On October 3, 1969, the Lebanese Air Force pilot would turn up for his scheduled training flight in a French-made Mirage III-E interceptor jet. “Upon attaining an altitude of 3,000 feet,” he was instructed, “radio the Beirut tower that you are experiencing generator trouble and your controls are malfunctioning. Then declare an emergency. Thereafter, acknowledge no radio transmissions… Four minutes after you cross the Soviet frontier, three interceptors will meet you and guide you to Baku in Azerbaijan… Should rendezvous fail, contact the base there on a frequency of 322 kilocycles…”
The pilot had driven a hard bargain with his Soviet handlers. Lieutenant Mahmoud Mattar’s recruiter was a fellow Lebanese, his former flight instructor, who was cashiered from the air force for smuggling and hawking drugs and now earned an income as a commercial pilot for Middle East Airlines. It was a modest living, which didn’t quite account for the luxuriant lifestyle Hassan Badawi enjoyed in Beirut or the large cash bundles he was known to tote around the city, especially when returning from overseas.
Badawi was a less-than-inconspicuous asset of Soviet intelligence, the GRU or military branch of it to be exact, and, perhaps hoping to entice his former pupil into betraying their country, he took it upon himself sweeten the pot for heisting one of the most sophisticated warplanes then in use by NATO countries. Mattar would receive $3 million for the Mirage, Badawi had said. But when Badawi finally introduced Mattar to his new GRU handler, Vladimir Vasileyv, the Russian expressed shock at the asked-for amount. The true price was $1 million. A negotiation ensued before prospective agent and officer compromised on $2 million.
Given the sensitivity of the operation and the risk it entailed, Mattar sought $600,000 up front, in cash. Vasilyev said he’d have to consult with his higher-ups back in Moscow, who wouldn’t only include senior GRU officials but the uppermost echelons of the Soviet Politburo. The Soviet ambassador to Lebanon was briefed about the planned operation and was so nervous that he cancelled a meeting with his American counterpart until after it was carried off.
When Vasilyev returned to Beirut and next met with Mattar, he brought along a colleague, Aleksandr Komiakov, who was technically the first secretary of the Soviet embassy in Beirut In reality he was Vasilyev’s boss in the GRU. Now he’d be the one doing the talking and haggling with the Lebanese recruit.
“We are prepared to meet your request for two million,” Komiakov informed Mattar. “However, our advance will be $200,000. Ten percent seems more businesslike.”
Mattar accepted, grudgingly. He then introduced two final preconditions for his commission of treason. First, he said, he and his wife didn’t wish to be resettled in the Soviet Union; Switzerland was much more to their liking. Second, he didn’t want the $200,000 in cash because he didn’t trust his new pay- and spymasters and he was a lousy spotter of counterfeit currency. “I want it in the form of a cashier’s check, payable to my father,” he told Komiakov, both astonishing and impressing the Russian, who advanced his new recruit a token $610 in good faith in order for Mattar to start making preparations for his permanent exile in neutral Europe.
On Sep. 30, four days before the operation was to take place, Mattar arrived at Vasilyev’s Beirut apartment, where he found Komiakov bearing a cashier’s check payable to Mattar’s father in the amount $200,000. It had been drawn from the Moscow Narodny Bank Ltd. and dated a day earlier. “You see,” Komiakov assured the Lebanese, “we keep our word.”
Just as all three men were analyzing the final flight plan and logistics for purloining the Mirage, they were interrupted by a dozen Lebanese soldiers.
Mattar wrestled Vasilyev to the ground. Komiakov and Vasilyev were able to fire a few bullets, wounding two separate Lebanese officers, before they themselves were shot by the overwhelming opposition.
In KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Agents, the extraordinary book from which this vignette of upended Russian espionage in an Arab state is lifted, the American journalist John Barron concludes as follows: “Komiakov, though hit four times, retreated into an adjoining room, reloaded, and kept firing until a fifth bullet shattered his arm. Bleeding profusely, he staggered across the room and pushed open a window, attempting to jump to his death. He realized now that Mattar was a Lebanese agent who had engineered a Soviet disaster from the plot. But as Komiakov struggled to leap from the window, two soldiers grabbed him while another scooped up the $200,000 check and the flight plan.”
Well, Barron almost concludes that way.
He goes on to note that the Soviet operation to suborn a Lebanese military pilot relied on the crudest Orientalist assumptions, of which Lebanese spies were all too aware. Mattar had been ordered to “play the role of a greedy, haggling Arab concerned only with money” in order to deceive his GRU marks, who were evidently so persuaded by his central-casting demeanor that they didn’t even bother to use a non-Russian bank for issuing his cashier’s check. So much for plausible deniability—or so one would think.
As it happened, after the Lebanese government alerted the world to the counterintelligence savvy of its army’s Second Bureau as well as to the arrests of Badawi, Vasilyev and Komiakov (who was, after all, working in Beirut under official diplomatic cover at the Soviet embassy), Moscow launched a hysterical disinformation campaign blaming the United States for inventing the whole incident as a “provocation.”
Caught red-handed, the Soviets resorted to lies and bullying to obfuscate their humiliation. It worked. Beirut submitted not only to Soviet pressure but to representations made by more powerful Arab neighbors and allies of Moscow such as Syria and Egypt to hush up the Mirage affair, tout court. Lebanon imposed a media blackout on any further discussion of the interdicted plot, citing Lebanon’s “higher interests.” Lieutenant Mattar was quietly promoted to captain, and the still-wounded Vasilyev and Komiakov were quietly put on an Aeroflot flight back home to Moscow.
ABSCONDING WITH A FIGHTER JET under the guise of technical difficulties may have been a chancy endeavor in Lebanon in 1969, but from the standpoint of counterintelligence it still should have been easier than infiltrating American institutions in the Middle East toward the end of the Cold War, as the KGB itself acknowledged in an internal “analytical overview” printed in 1988 but never meant for non-KGB eyes.
The cumbrously titled, “Acquisition and Preparation of Agent Recruiters for the Purposes of Intelligence Penetration of USA Institutions (on the Example of a Number of North African Countries)” is the second in a set of historical Soviet intelligence files that have been passed to The Daily Beast by a European security service.
As with the previously discussed training manual for KGB officers looking to recruit agents on Soviet soil, this document remains classified by the Putin government owing to its utility as a “historical” case study for contemporary foreign intelligence officers, according to a source in that European service who requested anonymity. Whereas the earlier document discussed how Westerners might be snared and turned on Soviet soil, “Acquisition and Preparation” examines the tradecraft necessary for recruiting American officials in the Middle East and North Africa as well as the necessary network of local agents who might help with their recruitment. (Of particular value as targets were retired U.S. or NATO officials.)
Certainly, one can see the continued relevance of such a study considering the Kremlin’s dramatic return to the region in the face of perceived American withdrawal from it, with hyperactive Russian military and diplomatic activity in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.
A compliment, of sorts, to the vigilance of the main adversary and its allied services, the analysis is an exercise in self-criticism. It acknowledges that by 1988 the United States had learned from prior mistakes of laxity and sloppiness in counterintelligence, forcing Moscow Center to adapt to far less hospitable environments. By the time of perestroika the KGB’s efforts to recruit Americans in Arab countries had clearly seen diminishing returns. U.S. spies, the document states, “inspect and track employees of these institutions and their contacts with Soviets better, they take measures to expose Soviet intelligence agents, they organize stings, they conduct surveillance of agents and their connections.”
According to Paul Goble, a Russia expert who has worked for both the State Department and CIA, the date of this internal KGB review is “critical.” It was published just after Aldrich Ames, the notorious CIA double agent who spied for the Soviets, helped roll up American recruits in Moscow. “Clearly the U.S. responded by becoming much tougher in third world countries,” Goble said, a feat which “was easier because Moscow was cutting back its financial backing of people in those places as perestroika took money away from the KGB and siloviki,” the catchall term for officers in the Russian security services.
Western-friendly states in North Africa—particularly Morocco and Tunisia—had begun to employ “harsh” counterintelligence measures of their own, in cooperation with their U.S., French and West German counterparts. U.S. embassies, consulates and other facilities grew even less porous. And even where American spooks couldn’t rely on the compliance or trustworthiness of local intelligence because of their “socialist orientation,” such as Algeria, they simply took it upon themselves to fortify their fiefdoms in the desert, where necessary, drumming up “spy mania campaigns” to keep U.S. diplomats, their cohort and families alive to the ever-present threat of being lured or cajoled into working for the enemy.
“ACQUISITION AND PREPARATION” can be read as an epitaph on KGB penetration of Arab nations, published less than a year before the Wall came down and the Cold War receded.
Though much romanticized, the broader history of the Center’s operations in North Africa in the latter half of the twentieth century is actually a piebald tapestry of stunning tactical victories beset by jaw-dropping strategic failures. None, of course, was so great as the loss of Cairo in the 1970s and Egypt’s transformation into an American client-state under Anwar Sadat, a man who oversaw a breakage with the Communist superpower so precipitous and dramatic that when he was assassinated by Islamist radicals in 1981, news of the event was met with jubilation in the Kremlin. At the Lubyanka headquarters of the KGB there had long been idle chatter about taking out the treacherous Arab leader, according to historian Christopher Andrew and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin.
Even during the halcyon days of Soviet-Egyptian amity, Moscow’s record in its most significant beachhead in the third world for political, military and economic investment was actually rather mixed. No doubt an ill omen arrived in 1954, when the future leader of pan-Arab nationalism took power in a military coup and then-KGB Chairman Ivan Serov gave the impression that Egyptians were black Africans, a solecism his resident Arabists in the First Chief Directorate were too embarrassed to correct, as Andrew and Mitrokhin recount in The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World.
The Soviets failed badly to anticipate Israel’s stunning rout in the Six-Day War, during which much of the materiel sold to Nasser was destroyed, although the Egyptians acquitted themselves better in 1973 when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur. Washington was caught blind, deaf and dumb in that instance, but Moscow, thanks to good signals intelligence, was not. (An unintended consequence of that crisis, however, was the rise of Henry Kissinger to the position of U.S. diplomatic power broker in the region and the continued decline of Soviet influence in Egypt.)
True, the KGB’s political intelligence chief in Cairo did manage to recruit one high-value asset inside Nasser’s inner circle, Sami Sharaf, later appointed Egypt’s chief intelligence advisor. But Sharaf’s identity as Moscow’s mole had been known to the CIA, then deftly running its own man in Cairo, the Soviet diplomat and KGB liaison Vladimir Sakharov. Sadat set about arresting Sharaf and other pro-Soviet plotters within his government, collectively known as the “crocodiles,” and expelled all Soviet military advisers in Egypt, who at their peak numbered 20,000. This was not long before Sadat cast his lot entirely with Jimmy Carter and touched down in Tel Aviv for his famous peace conference with Menachem Begin.
As Soviet-Egyptian bilateral relations deteriorated further into the mid-‘70s, the KGB was essentially paralyzed and ordered to remain so. Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB from 1967 to 1982, banned the running of any Egyptian agents on Egyptian soil for fear that their capture would only incense Sadat and cancel what was left of a flagging alliance. By 1977, Andrew and Mitrokhin recount, the Cairo rezidentura had “no sources in ‘most targets of penetration.’”
ALL OF WHICH SURELY gave the Americans sufficient time to get a leg up in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and implement measures that continued to befuddle and harry Moscow Center unto the demise of the USSR. “Acquisition and Preparation” highlights a series of anecdotes that testify to the KGB’s anticlimactic end in the region.
Take Citizen “B” who, we’re told, was recruited in a Western embassy in a Soviet-friendly country in the Middle East and then himself recruited an asset in an Arabic consulate from his own country. His KGB handlers monitored his progress and gave him increasingly difficult assignments to gauge his suitability for clandestine work—in this instance, assignments he was only too well-equipped to pass with distinction. They’d send him parcels designed to be opened carefully so as to avoid any signs of tampering, in one case a package that “had to be opened under suspicion of [its] being a bomb.” He performed admirably for about six years. Then he upped and fled the unnamed North African country after “supposedly” coming to the attention of a local intelligence service. That was a ruse, however, as the KGB later uncovered documents showing that Citizen B had been a double agent, a plant by that same local intelligence service, which helped him open all those suspicious parcels.
The cleanup work for this botched operation was markedly easier than what ensued following the Mirage fiasco in Beirut. That was because Citizen B wasn’t being recruited to spy on the country he lived in; he was being recruited to spy on other countries. Thus, the harm done between the USSR and this Soviet-friendly country, here repurposed as an offshore spy nursery, was minimal.
A lack of good recruiter agents—those who make the preliminary outreach to a target, as Badawi did to Mattar in Beirut and as Citizen B was intended to be—was cited as a major problem besetting Soviet rezidenturas in the Arab world in the late-‘80s. In most cases, this was owing to the lack Soviet-controlled agents who could make approaches to Americans on behalf of Western countries or the host Arab country. Finding the right third-country recruiters could take between two and three years. The best crop was already-trained spies and police officers in the host country—those who could turn locals into assets who thought they were working for their own government.
One counterintelligence officer, “M,” was recruited by the Soviet rezidentura; he in turn recruited “K,” a local citizen who was employed as a technician in the U.S. embassy of that same country. K thought he was spying for his own government. And after evidence of his espionage was uncovered by U.S. officials at the embassy, the KGB’s hand was conveniently nowhere in sight. K refused to betray M’s identity because he justifiably feared being locked up, tortured or killed by the very local intelligence service, which had no idea what he’d got up to because it hadn’t ordered the operation.
Next in line as good recruiter agents were lawyers, teachers and professionals—anyone whose routine encounters with Americans, easily arranged without elaborate pretexts, meant that potential assets could be studied, befriended, then cultivated.
The same applied to journalists, frequently used in the Soviet Union under the cover of TASS or other state media institutions to snag Americans. Even though non-American reporters in foreign countries might not have reason to readily engage with American officials, they could still prey upon yankee biases about the inherently curious or inquisitive nature of the press. Members of the Fourth Estate could also travel abroad for extended periods without arousing suspicion. This was especially true if they were working for a Western news outlet. Not for nothing was the infamous Kim Philby employed as the Beirut correspondent for the Economist and Observer before his unmasking and defection to Moscow.
The wandering European salesman or industrialist was also an excellent cover story: a Frenchman who “has a fairly high position in the office of a powerful French firm like ALSTOM,” which invests in every African country and competes with U.S. businesses, would have access to USAID, the economic department of U.S. embassies, or virtually any expat community sprung up around American oil and gas companies.
IF ANYTHING, THE CARTOONISH Arab stereotyping by Comrades Vasilyev and Komiakov competes with the often hilarious KGB psych profiles of the avaricious and scheming American—Graham Greene by way of Felix Dzerzhinsky. “Vividly expressed individualism and a constant striving for personal prosperity [and] uncertainty of the future often leads to some Americans getting into conflict with the requirements placed on them by government service.” Foreign service types who hang about too long in exotic climes might do so to get rich by exploiting the underpaid subaltern population, including their “personal servants.”
Pity, too, the neglected but dutiful female assistant of the busy American statesman when that rugged Breton from ALSTOM comes around: “Another important area to target in American facilities are typists, secretaries, office managers, etc.”
What happened to poor Martha in "The Americans" happened quite a lot, not just in FBI Headquarters and shabby one-bedroom apartments in D.C. (as in the TV series), but in the bustling nightclubs and shisha joints of Tunis and Rabat. Except that things didn’t always go to plan.
Consider the tragic case of “K,” a local businessman, who was brought into recruit “L,” a secretary at an American facility. L lived off her parents, and so K made his overtures as someone from a European company seeking privileged information L had access to, in exchange for which she’d be compensated.
Not satisfied with being a mere bagman for Moscow gold, K eventually told his handlers that he and L had also grown romantically involved, the better to butter her up for full recruitment. He hadn’t. And once she found a fiancé, a man from a wealthy family who could pick up where mom and dad left off, the information trickle dried up and the entire operation went kaput. Loyal truth telling to the Center had been subsumed by what K later confessed to his operational officer was “male pride.”
Surely not least among the historical factors leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union—the internal contradictions of a command economy, the arms race, Reagan, Gorby, the rise of a liberal-reformist intelligentsia in Moscow—was the sheer waste of time, money and manpower caused by Soviet agents thinking in clichés.
Special thanks to Catherine A. Fitzpatrick for her translation of these documents.