Mossad tried to kill Saddam in the 1970s

Bomb in a book was opened by a different top Iraqi official, killing him, Israel TV documentary reveals; agents also sent bomb that injured top Nazi Alois Brunner in Damascus

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

In the 1970s, long before the West saw Saddam Hussein as a potentially mass-murdering despot, the Mossad tried to kill him with a bomb hidden in a book, a documentary being aired by Israel’s Channel 1 TV on Monday reveals.

The film also details how the Mossad sent a letter bomb to the Damascus home of Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann’s right-hand man and the commander of the Drancy concentration camp in France.

The attempted hit on Saddam left him unscathed, instead killing another high-ranking Iraqi official.

The attempted hit on Brunner badly injured its target, but did not kill him. Brunner is believed to have died four years ago. “We handled Brunner. It was in Syria. And we didn’t kill, we didn’t manage to kill him; he was only injured, but he was quite the despicable character, that Brunner,” said Yitzhak “Khaka” Hofi, the head of the Mossad from 1974-1982.

Israel was previously reported to have conceived two plans to assassinate Saddam — in 1992 and 1999. But according to the new documentary, the Mossad was already worried about the rise of the brutal Baathist dictator in the 1970s.

The new documentary interviews Brig.-Gen. (res) Tzuri Sagi, who was sent by the Mossad to train Iranian special forces who, in turn, trained Kurdish guerrillas to attack Iraqi forces. The point was to weaken the Iraqi army; 12,000 Iraqi soldiers were indeed killed, Sagi says in the documentary.

At one point Sagi asked the Mossad to send over its best demolitions expert, and used him to try to eliminate Saddam. Sagi named the expert as “Natan.” A book-bomb was prepared and delivered to Saddam, the documentary reports. But Saddam didn’t open it. The bomb exploded, but killed a different high-ranking Iraqi official.

Alois Brunner (Photo credit: Wikicommons)
Alois Brunner (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The revelations are part of a documentary film called “Sealed Lips,” which profiles the 85-year-old Hofi and includes interviews with six former Mossad chiefs.

Maj.-Gen. Hofi, the commander of the Northern Front during the Yom Kippur War, was praised by the Agranat Commission for his leadership before and during the war. In 1974, with no background in intelligence work, he was appointed head of the Mossad.

Two years later, on June 28, 1976, an Air France 747 was hijacked and forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda. Hofi sent a combatant to the region. Even 36 years later, he is still referred to in the movie as “D.” The man, a pilot, flew over the airfield, took pictures, and then requested permission to land. The commander of one of the operational units in the Mossad, referred to as “Mike” throughout, recalled that “D” spiraled around the airport before landing, taking pictures from every possible angle, and then approached the air traffic controllers and chatted them up for information.

His photos and information were used to plan the legendary hostage rescue mission.

Hofi is also credited with spearheading the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. “Without Khaka, 120,000 Ethiopian Jews would not be here,” said Dani, the commander of the operation that brought the first Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel.

The Mossad seal, quoting Proverbs, reads: "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety. (Photo credit: Wikicommons)
The Mossad seal, quoting Proverbs, reads: ‘Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

To a great extent, he is also hailed as the man who laid the groundwork for the peace with Egypt. Hofi visited Morocco more than 20 times, according to the film, directed by Yarin Kimor. “The trust he received from Hassan (the King of Morocco) was no less than that which he received from Begin,” said Dan Patir, a media adviser to prime ministers Rabin and Begin. After establishing himself there Hofi suggested, at his own initiative, that the king help him arrange a meeting with the Egyptian president. Only later was foreign minister Moshe Dayan brought into the picture. “In full candor, Khaka Hofi is the unsung hero of the peace,” Patir said.

The film, however, revolves mostly around targeted killings — a small fraction of an intelligence organization’s work.

In 1977 the newly elected prime minister Menachem Begin, the first Israeli leader to have weathered WWII on foreign soil, charged Hofi with resuming the hunt for escaped Nazi war criminals. “Build the capacity and start chasing Nazis again,” was how future Mossad head Shabtai Shavit, a commander of an operational unit under Hofi, described Begin’s orders.

A sketch of Hofi by Itzik Barzilai (Photo credit: Courtesy: Israel Broadcasting Authority)
A sketch of Hofi by Itzik Barzilai (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Broadcasting Authority)

SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Alois Brunner sent 56,000 Austrian Jews to concentration camps; presided over the deportation of 43,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece, in a mere two months; and sent  23,000 French Jews to their deaths, including the deportation of some 340 Jewish orphans just weeks before the Allies liberated France.

Adolf Eichmann referred to him in his memoirs as his “best man.”

Hofi, who throughout the movie holds thoughtful, artfully long silences, had to balance the historical imperatives of the past with the national security needs of the present. The Mossad could not, or was disinclined to, chase down every man with a Nazi past. Hofi weighed his targets and zeroed in on Brunner, who had reportedly served in German intelligence after the war and then fled to Egypt and from there to Syria, where he was a welcome and reportedly well-protected guest.

“I remember the letter,” Hofi said. “I remember exactly how it was sent etc., from where, so that the link to us would be hidden…”

Brunner, who allegedly trained the Syrians in interrogation and torture, opened the letter and lost an eye and several fingers, but managed to survive.

In November 1987 Brunner told the Chicago Sun Times, in a telephone interview, that “all of them deserved to die, because they were the devil’s agents and human garbage. I have no regrets and would do it again.”

Brunner is believed to have died four years ago in Damascus, but there is no conclusive proof.

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