When the Mossad in 1974 sent a solitary agent to live under deep cover in Beirut and arrange the assassination of the mastermind of the 1972 Munich massacre, it gave him one clear order: make no contact with the target.
The spy didn’t just defy that order. He ended up becoming one of Ali Hassan Salameh’s closest friends, before becoming one of his killers.
Today he is a figure celebrated in Mossad as something of a legend, responsible for one of its most famous successes.
On Monday that spy, identified only as Agent D, spoke on television for the first time about his work to bring down Israel’s most wanted terrorist in the wake of the Munich killings.
The 1972 attack at the Munich Olympics saw 11 Israeli athletes murdered by the Black September Palestinian terror group. In the years following the attack, the Mossad assassinated many of the figures behind the attack, as has been featured in Steven Spielberg’s sometimes-controversial film Munich — but one target eluded the spy organization: Salameh, chief of operations for Black September.
Salameh, known as the “Red Prince,” was the son of a top Arab commander killed in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation. Living in the Lebanese capital Beirut, he was a key ally and potential successor of Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And he was known for his lavish, playboy lifestyle. But the Mossad couldn’t get near him.
Enter Agent D, who was sent to live in Beirut and Syrian capital Damascus under an assumed identity and spent years trailing Salameh and conveying information on his movements to the Mossad.
The agent spoke to Channel 13 as part of its “Hit List” docuseries. He described a life under cover that was both lonely and dangerous.
“Being there long-term when you’re alone and lonely includes a factor of mental, emotional and psychological stress,” he said. “A person gets worn down. He can suddenly make a mistake… and out himself.”
Such a mistake would likely mean death, as had become abundantly clear following the capture and hanging of spy Eli Cohen in Damascus in 1965.
Agent D said he had to completely dive into his assumed identity and accept it as his own in order to operate.
“I call it positive schizophrenia,” he said, apparently using the common misnomer for multiple personality disorder. “My cover at the target [location] was my real life. If I didn’t believe in it, the next guy wouldn’t believe in it either.
“But when you get an instruction from headquarters you remember who sent you, why you’re here, and you carry out the mission.”
Agent D was sent by his bosses to live in the Beirut International hotel. Salameh was known to work out at the hotel gym. D’s job was to train at the gym and watch Salameh. But he was told explicitly not to speak to him or make any contact whatsoever, as doing so could risk his exposure and place him in considerable danger.
But it was Salameh who ended up making contact with him.
“One say after about six months [at the hotel], I’m minding my own business, doing ab crunches at the gym,” Agent D said. “There was no one there, it was quiet. Suddenly I hear a voice behind me: ‘You’re not doing it right my friend.’ I turn back and see Ali Hassan Salameh standing behind me.”
Salameh then showed him how he should be doing the exercise and the two began chatting.
“He said to me, ‘Do you play squash?’ I said ‘No unfortunately, I play tennis,'” Agent D recalled. There was a squash instructor at the gym, and Salameh suggested D take lessons as he was looking for a partner.
“So we started playing squash together,” Agent D told Channel 13. The two quickly became friendly.
The agent’s Mossad handlers were concerned for his safety but, given the circumstances, agreed to him maintaining the relationship.
“He was smart, a strong man, a man’s man, intelligent. We had a lot in common,” Agent D said of Salameh, openly admitting that he liked the terror chief.
“But he killed 11 athletes in Munich before the entire world, massacred them in Germany, and so he deserved to die. I had not doubt. He can be the nicest man in the world. So what?”
Eventually Salameh invited Agent D for drinks and dinner with his wife. Refusing would be seen as very rude, so the spy agreed.
Salameh, who was always closely protected by a troupe of armed bodyguards, introduced the agent to his wife Georgina Rizk, a former Miss Universe. He showed him his home, his room, even his condom drawer — all information Agent D later conveyed to his handlers.
As the months went by, Salameh invited the agent over several more times. He later took him partying, bought him gifts and even set him up with his wife’s sister.
Agent D enjoyed his time with Salameh, but could never afford to forget his true purpose.
“I know that’s my mission. That’s why I’m here, and the friendship is nice. I’m his friend, he did what he did in Munich — but still, that’s the mission. ‘À la guerre comme à la guerre,’ as the French say… in war as in war.
“I call him a friend and a mortal enemy at the same time. It’s not easy. Not easy. You know, at your core, that he has to die.”
Agent D began scoping out potential methods of assassinating Salameh and proposed them to his bosses. In October 1978 a plan was agreed.
“Having driven with him a few times, I learned that his routine was to leave home around 11 or 12 and drive. The street, Madame Curie, was one-way. for 300 meters. Then there’s a junction and you can’t keep going straight. You have to take a right.
“After the turn there are three parking spots. If you can catch a parking spot in the morning and put a car there with a very serious bomb, you’ve got an operation.”
At that point Mossad involved another agent, a woman the world later came to know as Erika Chambers. She would be the one to activate the bomb.
Chambers, who was of British origin, was drafted into the agency a few years prior. Her Christian sounding name was seen as a great asset as it allowed her to travel using her own documents rather than a forged identity, and could enable her to flee to the British embassy to ask for asylum in a worst case scenario.
The downside was that after the operation, her identity — her true identity — would become public knowledge. She would have to change her identity and leave her old life behind.
“She understood well what it meant,” said a woman identified only as Anna, who was authorized by Chambers — who now has a different name — to speak on her behalf. “To be cut off from her family, friends and identity totally, not enter England anymore. And she agreed. She thought it was worth it.”
Chambers rented an apartment with a view to the designated parking spot. In January 1979 the operation was given the green light.
When handlers asked Chambers how she felt about carrying out the killing, “She said she didn’t know because she’d never killed anyone,” Anna told Channel 13. “She’d tell him afterwards. But for now she was prepared to do it.”
Agent D traveled to Jordan, ostensibly for a vacation, but actually to meet a Mossad team. The agents gave him a large piece of furniture that contained the explosives, and Agent D had to drive it across two borders, Jordan-Syria and Syria-Lebanon. Border officials asked questions about the furniture, but didn’t inspect it. He was waved through.
Days before the operation, a third agent rigged a car with the explosives Agent D had provided and provided Chambers with the detonator.
On the day of the hit, January 22, 1979, Salameh left his home in a convoy of two cars and drove to the corner, exactly as planned. Chambers, watching from her apartment, activated the bomb, comprised of some 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of explosives.
Salameh’s four bodyguard’s were killed in the blast. He himself was critically injured and died at a hospital a short time later.
But the blast also killed four innocent bystanders, and injured 16 others.
The three Israeli agents quickly escaped and eventually returned to Israel.
Anna said Chambers was long haunted by the death of one innocent woman who was just walking by. “She thought about this girl almost every day for many years.”
Agent D said of the innocent deaths: “It would be playing dumb to say I didn’t take into account there would be what the Americans call ‘collateral damage.’ That innocents would be killed. You want to know if I had a problem with it? I always have a problem if innocent people are killed.”
D returned to Israel after the killing, and went on to live a more normative life.
He said nothing ever quite matched the adrenaline highs of his days deep undercover in an enemy state, playing — and to an extent, being — the good friend of a mass murderer he was committed to eliminating.
But at least the deception and play-acting was done. While on assignment, he said, “you are always living with a mask on.”