Of all the world’s intelligence and spy agencies, one of the most infamous, and yet secretive, is the Israeli Mossad. The organization has been directly implicated in everything from extrajudicial assassinations, to capturing former Nazis, and successfully infiltrating enemy governments. So, what exactly do we know about Mossad? Well, Mossad, or “The Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations” is one of five intelligence services of Israel. While others are predominantly focused on domestic, military, and law enforcement intelligence, Mossad is considered the primary foreign intelligence service.
Since Israel is surrounded by relatively unfriendly countries, the information gathered by the spy agency is critical enough to be reported directly to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. As with any major spy organization, specific details about Mossad are not well known. Although it was founded around 1950, its director was only publicly revealed in 1996. Additionally, compared to other agencies, Mossad is incredibly small, with an estimated 1,200 personnel.
By comparison, the US’s equivalent foreign spy agency, the CIA, is estimated to have about 20,000 employees. One of the many functions they perform abroad is helping Jewish refugees escape countries where they may be persecuted or attacked, in what is called Aliyah. Particularly hostile or war-torn countries like Syria, Iran, and Ethiopia have seen Mossad agents help Jews emigrate to Israel. But in addition to clandestine humanitarian efforts, Mossad has also been accused of regular extrajudicial assassinations.
Human rights groups have widely criticized a 2006 ruling by the Supreme Court of Israel which stated that government agents executing suspected terrorists before they could act was a legitimate form of preemptive self defense. Mossad agents have been suspected of killing high-ranking members of Hamas and Hezbollah, both long considered terrorist groups by Israel and the United States.
In 2010, one of the founders of Hamas’ military wing was found drugged and suffocated in a hotel room in Dubai, which Dubai police blamed on Mossad. But not all the assassinations are so secretive. In 2004, an Israeli Apache Helicopter fired two Hellfire missiles at close range at a founder of Hamas, killing him and injuring multiple bystanders. Mossad also works to bring international criminals to court.
Following World War Two, Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, avoided prosecution for war crimes by escaping to Argentina. Fifteen years after the end of the war, in 1960, Mossad agents discovered and captured Eichmann, taking him back to Israel to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was found guilty and hanged in 1962. Around that time, a Mossad agent, Eli Cohen, infiltrated the Syrian government. He befriended high ranking government officials, and was eventually appointed the Chief Advisor to the Minister of Defense.
Although he was found out and executed by Syrian authorities in 1965, the intelligence he gathered helped Israel win the extremely contentious Six Day War. Although Mossad performs some humanitarian and defensive purposes, many criticize the Israeli government for letting agents act with impunity, especially in cases of extrajudicial assassination. But whether the full extend of Mossad’s actions abroad will ever be known is extremely unlikely.