New Mossad chief facing challenge of Islamic State and empowered Iran
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Analysis

New Mossad chief facing challenge of Islamic State and empowered Iran

Yossi Cohen will grapple with new threats and new limitations, but has widespread support at home

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Yossi Cohen, former head of the national security council, leaves his home the morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Cohen will lead the Mossad on December 8, 2015. (Flash90)
Yossi Cohen, former head of the national security council, leaves his home the morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Cohen will lead the Mossad on December 8, 2015. (Flash90)

In his new position as Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen will face most of the same threats and foes as his predecessors — Iran, Hezbollah, global anti-Semitism — as well as some new ones. His most notable challenge is the Islamic State terror group, which has rapidly become a potent force in international terror.

Though the fight against Tehran may be an uphill battle, as Western countries seek to embrace Iran in the wake of this year’s nuclear deal, Cohen will enjoy universal assistance and support as nearly every nation in the world rushes to bring down IS and prevent terror attacks.

Other than his current 3-year stint as head of the National Security Council, Cohen has worked in the espionage agency since completing his army service in the 1980s. Having served as deputy director of the Mossad from 2011 to 2013, Cohen was a logical and unsurprising choice to replace Tamir Pardo, who will step down next month.

Current Mossad chief Tamir Pardo (photo credit: David Vaaknin/POOL/FLASH90)
Current Mossad chief Tamir Pardo (photo credit: David Vaaknin/POOL/FLASH90)

Following Monday night’s announcement, Pardo reportedly called Cohen to congratulate him on the appointment and begin the handover period. Cohen will take over next month.

Cohen’s background in the organization is predominantly in HUMINT, or human intelligence, having run the Tzomet department, which manages the Mossad’s case officers. Cohen told reporters on Tuesday he promised to carry out “good missions” and gather “quality intelligence,” as head of the agency.

The Mossad has three principal duties: intelligence gathering in foreign countries, covert missions to thwart and prevent attacks against Israel from abroad, and the protection of Jews around the world.

A newly empowered Iran, which has already reportedly stepped up its arms shipments to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, is sure to occupy the attention of the agency on those first two fronts.

Iran and its funding for terror organizations is by no means a new threat, but with the Islamic Republic’s coffers soon to be refilled thanks to the lifting of sanctions and its international standing and image improved by the nuclear deal reached earlier this year, Israel will not be able to carry out attacks against Iran without potentially provoking the ire of its allies, including the United States.

Even before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in July, the United States had been pressuring Israel to stop carrying out missions in Iran, specifically the alleged assassinations of at least four of the country’s nuclear scientists. Now, such attacks would worsen the already prominent rift between Washington and Jerusalem.

However, the threat to Israel’s way of life and even existence is very real, and the spy agency may be forced to act against Iran. Cohen’s Mossad will therefore have to walk a fine line to ensure the immediate security of the Jewish state while maintaining a positive security relationship with its allies.

An Islamic State video shows the execution of an alleged Russian spy (YouTube screen capture)
An Islamic State video shows the execution of an alleged Russian spy (YouTube screen capture)

Though Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon last month shrugged off the threat of the Islamic State, or Daesh, against the State of Israel proper, the pseudo-caliphate has already claimed responsibility for several terror attacks in European cities and the United States, and does not appear to be slowing down. As IS gains popularity and continues to inspire terror attacks in the West, Jewish communities in those countries will likely become one of its main targets, experts say.

Preventing those attacks will not be easy. The organization’s decentralized structure makes finding the patterns that indicate an impending attack notoriously difficult. The attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, for example, were eventually claimed by IS, but had little concrete connection to the wannabe-state in Iraq and Syria.

When attacks are carried out by an organized cell, the intelligence community can monitor communications and meetings with other suspects under surveillance. “Lone wolves” — terrorists acting without a proper framework — however, leave no such trove of data and clues for the Mossad and other spy agencies to monitor, making it more difficult to stop them before they strike.

At home, the newly tapped Cohen will have to reconcile maintaining his close personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the two grew up in the same Jerusalem neighborhood — with the occasional professional difference of opinion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces the new head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 7, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces the new head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 7, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Numerous Mossad chiefs have butted heads with the prime minister over the years, including most publicly Meir Dagan, whose animosity toward Netanyahu is well known and documented. Shin Bet security service head Yoram Cohen (no relation to Yossi) also reportedly squared off against Netanyahu when he informed the cabinet his agency had found no direct connection between the Islamic Movement, which Israel recently banned, and terror.

Unlike most security appointments, the decision to appoint Yossi Cohen was made by Netanyahu alone, as the Mossad operates under the direct authority of the Prime Minister’s Office. Though some may cynically assert that Netanyahu picked Cohen to lead the Mossad in order to have a friendly face at its head, Cohen’s near unimpeachable career in the organization and the glowing praise from its former directors effectively shut down such allegations.

“Yossi Cohen has a vast wealth of experience and achievements and has proven his ability in various fields within the organization. He has leadership skills and professional understanding, which are the characteristics required of those who would lead the organization,” Netanyahu said as he announced his pick.

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