A mourner holding a portrait of Mojtaba Ahmadi, head of Iran's cyberwar squadron.
It’s espionage season in the Middle East. Earlier this month, in woods outside Tehran, Iranian police found the body of Mojtaba Ahmadi, head of the Iranian “Cyber Warfare” squad. According to local cops, two people on a motorcycle had been "involved" in his death, in what has all the hallmarks of a classic spy assassination. A couple of days later, spooks in the same city swooped in on four nuclear workers who they suspected of working for "hostile nations" with the aim of sabotaging Iran’s nuke industry.
This month's also seen the abduction of Abu Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda computer expert, from outside his home in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, and a botched attempt to nab a senior al-Shabaab member from his classy seafront villa in Barawe, Somalia. It's thought that ultimately the US government was behind both kidnapping attempts, which occurred more or less simultaneously in what seems to be a response to the Westgate Mall attack.
It's proving tougher to identify culprits in the cases in Iran, however. Most media reports have pointed the finger of blame at Mossad, Israel’s notorious foreign spy agency. But despite Mossad having previous when it comes to assassinations and Iran, the organisation's former head of intelligence in Jordan, Mishka Ben-David, has his doubts. "Neither the target, nor the method indicates Mossad involvement," he said, "and the Iranian authorities – who usually are very quick to accuse Mossad – didn't."
A former British spook I spoke to didn’t think Mossad would be capable of pulling it off alone either, and suggested that they'd have needed the help of another group already operating inside the country. "They’d almost certainly need locals," he said. "Guys from the People's Mujahedin (MEK), perhaps – Mossad might recruit them by pretending to be a group from somewhere other than the hated Israel." So, rather than Mossad directly, it could have been members of a domestic dissident group operating – perhaps unwittingly – at Mossad's behest.
I called another former Mossad member, Michael Ross. Ross is what's known in the spy game as a "deep cover intelligence officer" – basically, he's the Jewish Jason Bourne. We chatted assassinations, sabotage and Somalia.
VICE: Hi Michael. So does Mossad assassinate people?
Michael Ross: It’s clear that they do, and the CIA has got into it in a big way, too. But the world’s biggest assassin is not some Jason Bourne character; it’s a pudgy guy in a CIA flight suit in Nevada flying a drone, shooting missiles into Yemen and Pakistan. As such, I think to say that the top-tier intelligence services don’t have a role in all that is disingenuous.
So did your old employer kill Mojtaba Ahmadi?
Unless he was involved in something we don’t know about that posed a really serious threat, it’s hard to imagine him being such a high-value target that he would warrant that kind of sensitive operation. It’s so tough to pull something like that off inside Iran – logistics, planning, cover, it’s all hard. You have to make sure the operation will have a huge impact, and I’m not sure this would have.
There are two ways of doing it: You can send your own people in, which is dangerous, especially in Iran. Or you can train a bunch of nationals to carry out the operational work you want doing. You take them out of Iran to a neighbouring country and train them up for assassinations, or sabotage, or whatever.
Interesting. So do you think Mossad were behind the nuclear sabotage plot?
It’s totally possible, but I think there’s a homegrown capability in Iran, whose genesis lies with Western intelligence services but is now capable of working alone. They probably decided to do these two operations – the sabotage and the killing of Ahmadi. Either alone or with someone from outside.
Pro-MEK rally in New York, 2012 (Image via)
Someone like MEK?
Yeah, someone like that – dissidents. The Iranian regime is talking about "counter-revolutionaries", and they haven’t been quick to point the finger at Mossad, or the CIA, or whoever. When the nuclear scientist Roshan got blown up in Tehran last year they went through a pretty amusing list of people to blame – Mossad, the CIA, MI6 and then even the UN: it was "Let’s blame the whole world," basically. But this time they’re blaming counter-revolutionaries, which suggests they think it’s someone inside Iran.
That’s not what the press are saying, but it's what my British spook contact said, too.
Well, great intelligence minds think alike.
I guess so. What about in Dubai in 2011, when the Head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Mahmoud al-Mahout, was killed?
Yeah, it would be disingenuous to say my former employer wasn’t involved with that. Although the reports were strange: Dubai claimed about 30 people were involved, and Mossad would never use that many guys – that’s just crazy.
So how would the Ahmadi hit have gone down, whoever did it?
The action would have been to ride up on a motorcycle, shoot him and drive off, which is a very simple and effective way to get someone. That’s been done plenty of times. Look at Fathi Shaqaqi, the Head of the Islamic Jihad who was offed in Malta – that was exactly the same modus operandi.
Ah, OK. How do you get someone into a country where they might not be welcome? Disguises and so on?
Yeah, you need a cover that will hold up to scrutiny at a border crossing. This is something we’ve been doing since Sir Francis Walsingham [the Queen's "spymaster" in the 1500s] was kicking around. Border crossings and false identities are just the bread and butter of foreign intelligence work. It’s pretty rare to do that in the case of Iran, though – it’s really hard. But I know there are top-tier intelligence services doing whatever’s necessary to thwart their nuclear weapons programme.
Right. Does former Israeli President Rabin's old motto, "Fight terrorism as if there is no peace process; pursue peace as if there is no terrorism,” still hold true?
It’s not really a political question so much as achieving what you want to achieve; you need to know if the assassination is justified, but also that it’ll have a huge effect on the terrorists you’re after. Take Imad Mughniyeh, the godfather of Hezbollah and the arch terrorist, who was assassinated by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008. In cases like that, it really does degrade the organisation. Mossad and the CIA – and to a lesser extent MI6 – are on more of a war footing than they were in the past. The game has changed. The polite, gentlemanly era of the Cold War is over.
So Anas al-Libi was nabbed in Libya last Saturday. Apparently one of the reasons for that is because of his alleged involvement in the 1998 US embassy bombings. Weren’t you mixed up in that?
Yeah, I worked with some CIA guys on that – we picked up three of the gentlemen who were behind it. So it was an interesting moment for me to see him get caught on Saturday. The guys we got were from the emergent Egyptian jihad – we got a tip off that they were in Azerbaijan and went there to facilitate their capture in Baku.
And the simultaneous US raid in Somalia – were they there to whack the Shabaab leader Ikrima, or to catch him?
Catching a guy can be so hard, because you have to pull him out without getting into trouble. It’s a lot easier to just whack them. Having said that, I think if they knew where he was they could have just shot him with a drone, but then you don’t get confirmation of a kill. I’m on the fence, but I think it might have been a bin Laden situation: Catch him if you can, kill him if you can’t.
Okay. Back in 2012, you wrote a tongue-in-cheek kill list of people you’d like offed. Who would you add to it now, in late 2013?
That’s a good one. Hmmm. I think I already put Qassam Soleimani [a commander in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] on there, so I can’t choose him. It’s tough. Oh, I know, let’s have Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the crazy one-eyed guy [and military commander of al-Qaeda in in the Maghreb] in the Sahel. I don’t really need to add the Shabaab guy to my list – he seems to be on someone else’s.
Have you ever personally been on a kill mission?
Um, I can’t answer questions on that.
Makes sense. Cheers, Michael!
Follow Alex Chitty on Twitter: @alexchitty
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