World better not pry into how we decide to pull trigger on someone – ex-chief of Mossad

In a world where terrorism can strike at any moment – where terrorists resort to stabbing, ramming attacks, and mass shooting – no one is safe from the threat of extremism. Recent terrorist attacks in Europe highlight the need to ramp up security – and many are pointing to Israel as a model. Surrounded by hostile countries and conflict zones, Israel has managed to contain the extremist threat. The Israeli Mossad is one of planet’s top intelligence agencies and is known for its relentless pursuit of terrorists. How does Israel’s mighty intelligence apparatus work against terrorism? How can peace be kept in a country where the enemy is waiting around every corner? We lift the lid on the counter-terrorism methods used by one of the world’s top spy agencies with a former director of the Mossad – Efraim Halevy.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Efraim Halevy, the former director of Israel's powerful intelligence agency, the Mossad, ex-head of Israel's National Security Council - welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us. Now, Mr. Halevy you say there’s no such thing as an orderly way to carry out intelligence. Does this mean there’s no laws, no rules of conduct for intelligence gathering?

Efraim Halevy: Intelligence is one of the oldest professions in the world, but there's no law book concerning intelligence, there are no agreed rules on intelligence, and despite that, intelligence is a main player in the international relations and in domestic relations.

SS: Yeah, but okay, but when you say there's no such thing as an  orderly way to carry out intelligence - what exactly do you mean?

EH: I mean that intelligence is not a science. I believe that intelligence is an art, and therefore, just as there's no orderly way to paint a picture, so there's no orderly way to carry out intelligence, because every intelligence operation is an operation in itself, and one operation does not compare or is similar to any other.

SS:How does intelligence gathering against terrorism work? Are terrorist groups being infiltrated, are undercover agents working among terrorists?

EH: All of the methods used by the intelligence over the years are employed. Most certainly, you have agents undercover, most certainly you have electronic intelligence with all of the new developments in that field. Every element that you have in modern day information technology is used and is employed in intelligence. By the way, not only by intelligence agencies, but also by groups like ISIS and Hezbollah.

SS:You know, I'm particularly interested in undercover agent work. How do you gain the trust of a radical group? I mean, it must be hard to infiltrate IS, for example.

EH: I'm sure it is difficult to infiltrate the Islamic State, but there you're going to question their motivation. What motivates somebody who is in the Islamic State to cooperate? And I should imagine, probably, the major motivation is disgust with the methodology used by the Islamic State, not only in treating its enemies, but also treating some of its own people.

SS:So, are you saying that people that are part of the Islamic State are appalled by their own methods, but they  can't leave because if they leave they are going to die? So, they choose to cooperate?

EH: I believe, that, probably - I am only surmising, I've not been there for quite some time, so I can only surmise - I believe that many of the people who cooperate, cooperate because they're unable to leave and, on the other hand, they feel that they are not of their own will involved in the big effort of...shall we say, of evil, which has to be overcome - and they want to contribute their part to this.

SS:Alright, so I get your first point: in order to infiltrate an organisation like ISIS you've got to find someone who is appalled by their own methods - but once you infiltrate, if your undercover agent gains the trust, right, of the terrorist cell - will he have to do as the others do? For example, I don't know, behead someone? Is this expected of the agent?

EH: I think I cannot give an exact answer to that, and I don't believe anybody has the right answer to that. But I believe that in the end, in order to achieve the ultimate aim, sometimes, along the way, we have to do things which normally we would not like to do.

SS: The intelligence has helped curb the amount of bombings that are happening in Israel, but what’s the use of it when people resort to stabbings or drive-by shootings?

EH: I believe - and it's my personal view - that it's wrong to call stabbings "terrorism". I believe, terrorism is something more organized, is part of a larger movement. Stabbings and similar events are individual reactions to what is happening and what is perceived in one way or another as threatening the fabric and society, of the people who are doing the stabbings, and therefore they carry it out. The general word, the general term of "terrorism", although it's applied to that, is not a terrorism which can be codified like organisations like ISIS or organisation like Hamas or organisation like Hezbollah.

SS: How can such attackers with no formal ties to any terrorist groups be caught before they act?

EH: It is a serious problem. I think no formula has been found for that and therefore, an individual who decides on his own to carry out a terrorist act, if he's careful and if he knows how to operate, most probably, will be able to arrive on the scene. But there are a lot of methods and ways of monitoring central areas, main highways, transportation systems and so forth, so sometimes you catch these people as they are on their way.

SS: You’ve seen Mossad operate abroad, doing “normal” intelligence work like spying, surveillance - but also undertakes targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders. How do you decide when to pull the trigger on someone? When is enough enough for Mossad?

EH: I don't personally wish to go into this field of when we make a decision to remove somebody to a better world. I think, the international society would be better served by not prying into this unnecessarily. You will not find, I believe, any intelligence officer, either side of the divide in this world of ours, who will want to talk about it, and I want to keep my hands clean on that. As I said, I don't want to say that we make such decisions - I don't want to go into the details of how we decide, how we carry out operations, which operations are carried out, which are not. I think, it would be better for the peace and tranquility of the international society to leave these questions unanswered.

SS: Sure. America looks to use drones when taking out terrorists. Does Mossad uses drones too, or it only works the old fashioned way, with agents on the ground?

EH: Mossad has all the means and all the methodologies which are used in intelligence in modern day life. Mossad is at the forefront of the technology, in all the fields that you can think of, and I think that Mossad has done extremely well in developing some of the more advanced types of weaponry and systems which carry weaponry.

SS: When one of Mossad’s most infamous operations - the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal went wrong - you played an active part in regulating the situation after. Two Mossad agents were captured and Israel managed to get them back. If an operation like that backfires, does Mossad try and get its agents back at all costs?

EH: The word "all costs", I think, is not the right term to use. It is true that I've played a very central role in solving the problem which arose as a result of an operation which did not reach successful conclusion in 1997, and in that area, I performed the role of a special emissary, action on behalf of the Prime Minister of Israel at a time, who was Mr. Netanyahu in his first term, and I did not wish to reach a point in which "all costs" are paid in order to get the result. I think we had to get a result which would make it a win-win situation, in other words, when both we and those who have been wronged by us, would emerge from the situation with a feeling and a public aura of having been successful.

SS:Mossad is known to go after perpetrators of terrorist attacks anywhere they escape - Mossad’s special unit, the Kidon, is responsible for that - this tactic may work for revenge, but does it deter terrorists from striking again?

EH: Look, I don't want to talk about deterrence, because in the end, let us be frank with ourselves - we have not reached a point in which we can say that actions we have taken have 'deterred terrorism'. I think that the word "deterrence" is a word, or a theme which should be forgotten in dealing with these matters. What we can do is to destroy capabilities, what we can do is to get the other side to realize that the pain of continuing what they're doing would be insufferable for them. If that is called a deterrence, then yes, deterrence. But if you look at things in the Middle East, if you look at the way the relations of Israel and its neighbors have revolved on terrorism - when it comes to organized terrorism, I am not talking about small groups, organized terrorism, like Hezbollah, like Hamas - what we have achieved, is, I think, a mutual deterrence and not just deterrence.

SS:But, in order to stop a terrorist you need to put fear in him - how do you put fear in people who are willing to blow themselves up?

EH: I think, the use of the term "fear" is misplaced. We don't want to get the other side to fear, we want the other side to take a logical approach, which leads it to the conclusion that the price that would be paid is not a price which they would wish to pay. In other words, we have to make the price such that the other side does not think it's worth its while to pay it.

SS:Are cyber warfare tools part of Mossad arsenal? Like trojan worms, viruses, etc?

EH: I'm not permitted to refer to any specific means that is in our arsenal. I'm sorry, I know it's interesting, but I cannot relate to that.

SS:It truly is. Just tell me in general - do cyber tools make spying easier? Or the amount of information to process it is just too big to manage?

EH: There's nothing too big to manage, and I don't want to go into details of the cyber warfare - it is something which is being, I think, used, and exploited around the world, and this is something which a great threat to international security in the end - because, once you begin a major confrontation in the cyber field, the penalty for all those players who will be involved in it would be enormous.

SS:Now, it's no secret that Mossad recruits some of its agents online - you can  fill out an application form on the web site. You were the first one to institute this practice, like you've said - how does this process work? If you like a candidate you do just invite him over for an interview? How successful has been recruitment process for agents?

EH: First of all, let me say, you are right, I was the first one who put Mossad on the Net, and there was enormous opposition to that in the Mossad, people thought that I was doing the wrong thing. Now, of course, you cannot imagine without it. Obviously, this is only a first step in recruiting somebody, it's a method of casting net as wide as possible, and once you reach a stage in which you want to actually decide whether to recruit somebody or not, you don't do it by correspondence, you do it by face-to-face contact.

SS:But, who do you pull in more - people from the web or just people that you see in the streets and you approach them?

EH: I don't know, and I don't think any statistics are drawn up in this field. I think we recruit people from all ways of getting it to people, all methods of communication, and in the end, we have as wide as possible choice as one can hope for.

SS:Social media like Facebook and Twitter, they have turned into a platform for terrorists to incite violence. They spread radical ideas and exchange plans. Is this cyber-terrorism the world is facing a new kind and will it be in the future?

EH: It's not the future, I think it is the present - and yes, one of the things we have to take into account is that the terrorist groups use these methods and these tools for their own vile deeds. I can tell you that without the use of Internet, the attack on the U.S. on 9/11 would not have been possible. This all was organized through IT means and methods, and the road from that to other ways of carrying out warfare, like cyber warfare and so forth, are at a disposal of terrorist groups, and they have used it in some areas, some cases, almost to perfection.

SS:Lone-wolf’ terrorist attacks - when people act on their own, without the assistance of a group but inspired a radical ideology - they are becoming more frequent, you’ve faced them in Israel and  Europe has witnessed a whole series of such attacks over the past year. Is there a direct link between online incitement and lone wolf attacks? Since the internet provides easy and fast access to radical ideas..

EH: It would not be useful to attribute too much to the methodology. What we're witnessing in the XXI century is widespread understanding that individuals and small groups can use the means at a disposal of states and of state organs, no less than the state organs. That is something which is troubling, and that is one of the aspects that people have to take into account when they're putting together means of preventing penetration and ways and means of sabotaging the capabilities of intelligence and state organs all around the world.

SS:Can social media actually help uncover terrorist plots or find potential terrorists through tracing of their online activity? Are there special intelligence units monitoring online interactions?

EH: Without going to any details and I will not do that, I believe that the only way to give sufficient protection in this world of XXI century is to try and to cover all ways and means of IT traffic. Now, this is something, of course, which is enormous, because every year, it increases exponentially. So you have to have ways and means of prioritizing what you're doing and to be able to get to what you need in orderly and in a scientific way - this is an enormous challenge and I think that intelligence and other security agencies all around the world are devoting a lot of effort to try and to find ways and means of prioritizing what they're doing so that they would get to what they need to get.

SS: The Knesset has recently adopted an anti-terror bill, giving sweeping surveillance powers to security forces. Now in a democratic state, the right not to be searched, spied on, arrested at will is fundamental - but in the face of terrorism what’s a way out of this democratic dilemma?  

EH: What has to be clear is that in this state that we're at the moment, until the international climate changes, international social behaviour changes, we will have to be careful in the degree of freedom which social and other nets are allowed to operate. There's no way of otherwise doing this. There's a clash between those who wish to have an entirely liberal system of life, way of life, and those who understand that in order to be able to protect societies and states effectively you have to have, at least temporarily, capability of covering certain types of activities with means which were not used until recently.

SS:In Israel there are checkpoints in every gate in every town, security is tight everywhere, yet you move around the big cities without much delay, and the measures aren’t annoying or too constraining. How do you do it?

EH: First of all, I invite you to visit Israel - you will come to major cities and will not notice checkpoints on every street, on every corner...

SS: That is exactly my question - how do you do it? I know there are checkpoints but we don't notice them.

EH: How do we do it... I won't say that there are checkpoints but you don't notice them - there are no checkpoints, period. It's not checkpoints you don't notice... there are other means of surveilling areas - there's electronic surveillance, there's photographic surveillance - various means of surveillance, and this allows people of Israel to conduct their way of life without any real restriction. Therefore, if you come to the cities, like in Tel-Aviv, from which I'm broadcasting now, or in Jerusalem, even, where there's more tension, or in other cities throughout the country, you will not find an immediate presence and the sense of a presence of a security capability which covers everything. It s done in a more discreet way, and it is very effective.

SS:Western states today are facing the kind of terrorism Israel has been living with for decades. Is the constant threat of terrorism a new normal for the West?

EH: I think the threat of terrorism is not only a threat to the West, it's a threat to all over. There have been terrorist attacks in other areas of the world, including Eastern Europe, including Russia. Russia has also experienced terrorism in recent years. I remember when I was head of the Mossad there was a major terrorist attack on a theater in Moscow - and this was a very-very highly reported event. So terrorism is like a disease, it cannot be restricted by borders and geography - therefore, I think, there's a growing understanding, that in order to be able to deal with this, the more genuine cooperation can be achieved, everybody will benefit, all sides will benefit from such a cooperation.

SS:EU’s migrant crisis is making it more vulnerable to terrorism -  a Syrian refugee was arrested in Germany in October for planning a major terrorist attack. Now Israel accepts almost no refugees - is that the only way to ensure public safety isn’t compromised?

EH:The reason we do not receive refugees is... we are a country which was born as a result of  major international events and had to absorb hundreds of thousands of millions of our own people who were scattered around the world and therefore, we are not in a position to receive large numbers of refugees.

SS: Yeah, but my question really was - should we not accept refugees anywhere if we want no terrorism on grounds of our country? I am talking about refugees from war-torn countries, like Syria, Libya.

EH:I think you have to be very careful in going through a system of finding out whether there are no infiltrations of terrorists in this way, as well. There has to be a method to do this, and I think it has be deemed in quantity.

SS: Alright, Mr. Halevy, thank you very much for this interesting interview, for this insight that you gave us. We were talking to Efraim Halevy, the former director of Mossad and also the former head of the Israeli National Security Council, discussing Israel's counter-terror expertise and how it can help the fight against terrorism across the world. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.