After more than a decade of stubborn silence, Israel has finally acknowledged that its Air Force destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor, on the night between September 5 and 6, 2007. Built by North Korea, the reactor was designed to produce plutonium as fissile material for nuclear bombs. This is the inside story of the attack itself, and the intelligence gathering process — successes and failures — that facilitated it, as disclosed by the central players themselves.
Eight F-15s and F-16s took off from the Hatzerim and Ramon air bases, in the south of the country, an hour or so before midnight on September 5, and flew silently toward their target. Protected by sophisticated electronic jamming systems that blinded Syria’s air defenses, the Israeli planes had no trouble dropping tons of explosives on the target, which was camouflaged as an agricultural farm, and were able to confirm visually that, in three potent minutes, it had been flattened. The danger that an Arab enemy bordering Israel would attain the doomsday weapon was removed.
Returning from their mission, the pilots reported back “Arizona” — the code word that meant the operation had been accomplished.
Israel’s top political-security echelon, then led by prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Ehud Barak, chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and other cabinet ministers and military and intelligence chiefs, sighed with collective relief at the news. Operation “Out of the Box” was a success.
When they landed safely back home at 2 a.m. on September 6, the pilots did not celebrate.
“There were no ceremonies, and no fanfare,” Major (now Colonel) T, one of the pilots of the “Hammers” squadron, told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “Of course, we understood the historic significance of our accomplishment, but we had to restrain ourselves,” he said. “Secrecy and compartmentalization were of the utmost importance.” What had taken place that night was to remain on a strict need-to-know basis.
The destruction of President Bashar Assad’s nuclear reactor constitutes one of Israel’s most important, and most sensitive, military-strategic achievements in recent years. A decade later, however, it is still the subject of egotistical battles regarding credit and prestige between intelligence chiefs and political leaders. What’s more, to some extent, the entire saga actually began with what can only be described as an intelligence flop.
Under our noses
Tamir Pardo, who would later serve as director of the Mossad, was privy to the intelligence gathering and planning ahead of the 2007 strike, and he talks about it in terms not unlike those often used to describe the colossal failure of Israeli intelligence in the era before the Yom Kippur war of 1973.
“For years, Syria was building a nuclear reactor under our noses, and we did not know about it,” Pardo says today. “It was not built on the dark side of the moon, but in a neighboring country we always thought we knew almost everything about.”
His words are echoed by Ram Ben-Barak, who headed one of the Mossad’s operations departments at the time. “Anyone who says that he knew that Syria was building a nuclear reactor — either doesn’t know or isn’t telling the truth. When we in the Mossad brought the information [on what the Syrians were up to], it was a complete surprise [to the rest of the Israeli defense establishment].
“Until then,” says Ben-Barak, “the assessment was, ‘maybe yes, maybe no’: that perhaps they were planning a nuclear project by enriching uranium, and perhaps a reactor to produce plutonium. [But there was nothing concrete that we knew about.] In short, we didn’t know at all what to look for.”
Within the IDF’s Military Intelligence directorate (Aman), however, a different story is told — in which Aman is front and center in uncovering Assad’s project. “The exposure of the reactor is one of the greatest achievements of Israeli intelligence in general and Aman in particular,” says Brig. Gen. Shalom Dror, who in 2007 was a major in charge of Aman’s research on Syria. Other former senior Aman officers say the same.
The Syrian facility was almost identical to the Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea, which produced plutonium for nuclear bombs. When Israel struck, the Syrians were only weeks away from beginning to produce highly radioactive materials.
It was located just outside Deir Ezzor, the largest city in eastern Syria — which in 2014 would be captured by Islamic State forces, and held by them for more than three years. The notion of Islamic State getting its hands on the plutonium and other nuclear bomb parts and materials does not bear contemplation.
Plainly, the decision by Olmert to blow up the complex — after he had unsuccessfully asked then-president George W. Bush to do so — prevented Assad from attaining nuclear weapons. Potentially, it also prevented the world’s most bloodthirsty terrorists from acquiring the world’s most lethal weapons.
Israeli ministers and officials across the board are proud of the action. Olmert — who would announce less than a year later that he would be stepping down amid accusations of corruption, and who wound up serving 16 months in jail for bribery — told The Times of Israel that striking the Syrian reactor was one of his most important and difficult decisions, and one with which he is particularly pleased. His nemesis, Barak, acknowledges that “Olmert deserves full credit for the courageous decision.”
Blindsided by Gaddafi
The fact that Israel was aware of the possibility that Syria might be working on its own nuclear option was the direct consequence of a trauma suffered by Israeli intelligence at the end of 2003. That was when Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi publicly admitted that he had been forging ahead with a nuclear weapons program.
Western governments quickly discovered that the know-how and materials had been sold to the Libyans by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the “father” of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, who later became a freelancer and made a fortune as a nuclear trafficker.
The Israelis had not completely ignored AQ Khan. They had strong evidence that he had helped Iran launch its unacknowledged nuclear weapons program. But they had not realized that his sales efforts had succeeded elsewhere.
Shabtai Shavit, who was the director of the Mossad in 1989-96, told the authors several years ago that Israeli intelligence had known about Khan’s travels in the Middle East, hawking his wares, but had not internalized how the Pakistani engineer could provide a quick and relatively easy kit for starting the journey toward a nuclear arsenal.
“If we had understood, I would have recommended that he be assassinated,” Shavit said, “and that would have been one of the few times that eliminating a person could have changed history.”
After the revelation that Gaddafi’s Libya was dangerously advanced in its nuclear work, Israel’s military intelligence chiefs ordered that every scrap of evidence of Khan’s activities that had been collected, but filed away without much analysis, be looked at again.
Aman then found reports of AQ Khan’s visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. Because the first two nations were allies of the United States, it seemed highly unlikely that they would covertly pursue nuclear weapons.
But the IDF intelligence agency redoubled its focus on Syria, where Assad had come to power, by default, after his father died in 2000. (His elder brother, Bassel, groomed for leadership, had perished in a car crash.)
The young new dictator was perceived as inexperienced and, unlike his father, unpredictable — a personality who could be tempted to act recklessly. Because his decisions across Israel’s northeastern border held the potential for devastating consequences, Aman commanders knew they could not afford to ignore or underestimate Assad.
“I had to explain to my people why I insisted on concerning ourselves with Syria,” recalls Brig. Gen. (ret.) Eli Ben-Meir, a research chief in Aman.
The main focus at that time had been Iran and its proxy force in Lebanon, the Hezbollah terrorist militia.
Israel fought a bitter war against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 that was marked by a constant battering of rockets from Lebanon, compelling almost a million Israelis in the north to enter bomb shelters or move temporarily to other parts of the country.
First clues, then the smoking gun
Now constantly monitoring Syria, Aman found clues that Assad was up to something, says Ben-Meir. Ships arrived from Asia with no apparent purpose. Trucks moved to the eastern part of the country.
Still, when Israel’s intelligence liaisons asked friendly services, including the CIA, if they had noticed anything of a nuclear nature in Syria, the answers came back negative.
Israel was worried, nonetheless. Pardo’s boss, Meir Dagan (who was director of the Mossad from 2002 to 2011, and who died two years ago), joined the chief of staff in asking prime minister Ariel Sharon for a budget increase specifically to look for a nuclear project in Syria. Aman’s renowned Unit 8200 greatly increased its monitoring of all Syrian communications.
Ibrahim Othman, director of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission, was considered to be the man who had to know the secret, if it existed. He became a high priority target for Israeli intelligence. But Othman, and other senior government officials in Damascus, were extremely cautious.
Based on foreign reports that have not been confirmed by Israel, Mossad operatives got lucky in March 2007. They broke into an accommodation where Othman had been staying in Europe and found a gold mine: a digital device belonging to Othman packed with information. All its data was collected and sent to Israeli intelligence laboratories.
However surprising this may seem in retrospect, nobody believed initially that vital information had been obtained, and so deciphering the material was not deemed an urgent priority. The data actually sat around for a few days until it was deciphered. “My intelligence officer entered my room,” recalls Ben-Barak “and showed me the photos taken from the device.” He pauses and smiles. “Sometimes intelligence operations need luck.”
The photos showed Othman in the company of several North Korean scientists. Most importantly, they featured the inside of a Syrian structure, which was clearly a nuclear reactor built to produce plutonium.
The photos were most emphatically a “smoking gun” — the ultimate, incontrovertible evidence to corroborate Israel’s suspicions. The information was rushed to Olmert, who in turn approached Bush, asking him if the US would take action. But Bush said no, explaining that US forces were completely engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that he did not want to open a third front.
Bush did not say anything against an Israeli raid, however.
For Olmert, that US presidential silence was enough. He interpreted it, and rightly so, as an American green light, and instructed Ashkenazi to prepare an airstrike.
A power struggle between Olmert and his defense minister then evolved. Olmert wanted quick action. But, he told the authors, he sensed that Barak was employing delaying tactics. Olmert, who has just published his autobiography, believes that Barak hoped to succeed him as prime minister, and therefore wanted to postpone the operation and get the full credit for it.
Barak, in an interview with the authors, denied the claim. He simply wished to refine the operational plans, he says.
The silent aftermath
After the raid, both Syria and Israel kept silent. Syria did not want to admit that it had violated international commitments, or that it had proved so vulnerable to Israel’s strike.
Israel, for its part, figured that if it said nothing in public, Assad would find it easier to swallow his pride and would thus be less likely to retaliate.
Privately, Israel’s political leaders, and its military and intelligence chiefs, contacted or met with their allies in the West – the US, UK, France and Germany — and in the Arab world — Egypt and Jordan — to share the information with them. Olmert also called Russian leader Vladimir Putin. All of those players, in turn, kept silent.
The Israeli calculus proved to be right. Assad chose not to respond. And a devastating threat had been averted.
Yossi Melman, intelligence and defense analyst for Maariv, and Dan Raviv of i24News, are co-authors of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”