Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
Elsewhere on this website I referred to a book that I had just finished reading, and which I said that I would review. Although it has a much longer title than simply Harpoon (Harpoon Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters) I will refer to it in this review as Harpoon.
Since this book was just recently published, I doubt that many readers would be aware of it yet. But, for anyone who has anything more than a passing interest in Israel’s ongoing war against terrorism, Harpoon is a must-read. Not only does it provide insight into many aspects of Israeli tactics in combating terrorism, it also reveals many previously confidential details about that fight.
To begin with, one must understand that organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas are not only terrorist organizations, they are also very much criminal organizations – engaged not only in a violent war with Israel, but especially in Hezbollah’s case, also in fomenting a world-wide crime network centered primarily around drug dealing. According to the authors of Harpoon, Hezbollah earns over $1 billion a year from its drug dealing activities.
In order to sustain their terrorist activities moreover, both Hamas and Hezbollah (as well as other terrorist organizations) have relied upon the cooperation of willing financiers, including banks, money changers, so-called charitable institutions, and many crooked government officials. (One of the most eye-opening chapters of Harpoon details the total involvement of Venezuela’s government under the late Cesar Chavez in helping to transform Hezbollah into one of the world’s largest purveyors of illicit drugs. Since Venezuela is now teetering upon the edge of total economic collapse, according to the authors of Harpoon Hezbollah has now shifted the centre of its drug smuggling operations to West Africa, where other corrupt governments have been all too willing to cooperate in establishing bases from which most of the heroin and cocaine that is smuggled into Europe are located.)
Who are the authors of Harpoon? I have had the pleasure of meeting one of them: Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, who is the head of an organization about which I have written several times, and which is known as “Shurat HaDin”. (In English it is known as the “Israel Law Centre”.) The other author is Samuel M. Katz, who has written several books, including The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism.
Although Harpoon is a compelling read, one should be forewarned that it is laced with extensive details that are heavily footnoted. It is not a spy novel in the classic John Le Carré style. And, while it does follow events chronologically, it shifts focus from time to time from quite exciting descriptions of undercover Israeli operations undertaken against various individuals who were heavily involved in the financing of terrorist operations to more turgid accounts of legal maneuvers undertaken by Shurat HaDin against terrorist organizations in American courts.
If there can be said to be one central figure in this book, however, it is the late Meir Dagan, who was not only a military hero for Israel – whose exploits both as a brilliant undercover operator and as a courageous officer on the battlefield in numerous wars led to his becoming a major general in the IDF, he was the founder of the task force that became known as “Harpoon” (hence the title of the book). As well, Dagan’s final period of service for Israel was as head of the Mossad from 2001-10, where he was able to continue masterminding brilliant tactical operations that led to the dismantling of a huge portion of the financial infrastructure that sustained both Hezbollah and Hamas. (Sadly, Dagan died in 2016, but not before he was interviewed by the authors and gave compelling insights into how “Harpoon” operated.)
Following the money trail left by the financiers of terrorist operations is never easy, but through diligent and pain-staking work, the combined efforts of several different Israeli organizations, including the IDF, Shin Bet, Mossad, and even the Israeli Prison Service – all of whom worked together in “Harpoon”, have led to one victory after another in the war against terrorism. Underlying Dagan’s strategy was the central premise that, as much as fighting terrorists with bullets is a necessary part of the war on terrorism, perhaps even more important is the necessity to “follow the money, devalue the money, seize the money, and kill the money” that finances those terrorist operations.
There are several spectacular operations detailed in Harpoon, the details of which are sometimes revealed for the first time. One of the most fascinating is a description of a very long con game into which Israeli operatives entered with a Lebanese financier by the name of Salah Haj Ezzedine, who was providing Hezbollah with millions of dollars.
Setting up shop in Dubai (which the authors describe as a centre for intrigue very similar to Casablanca during World War II, when agents from a host of different nations all operated in the same area, all under the nominal protection of the host government), Israeli operatives lured Ezzedine into a protracted investment charade. Initially (as is always the case in Ponzi-like schemes), Ezzedine found himself reaping returns on his investments that were in the order of 70% annually. In time, as other Lebanese heard of the incredible rate of return that he was earning, others – including many leading figures in Hezbollah, were clamouring to join in Ezzedine’s investment enterprise. Of course, it all came crashing down in one fell swoop – and hundreds of millions of dollars invested by those Lebanese investors were lost.
Not all of Harpoon’s operations went so smoothly, however. In another chapter in the book, the authors recount another piece of history that occurred not too long ago (in 2010), again in Dubai. This time, Israeli agents who were part of “Harpoon” set about assassinating Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a top Hamas military commander and financial operative, in his hotel room in Dubai.
It might have all gone very smoothly were it not for the fact that Dubai is laced with video surveillance cameras seemingly everywhere, and each of the Israeli agents was captured on camera at some point. Still, the fact that Israel has been able to assassinate some of the men who have played pivotal roles in providing the financial resources for Hezbollah especially has had, at least to some extent, a deterrent effect on others who might otherwise have aspired to play the same role.
By the way, there is also a chapter describing the assassinations of some of the key scientists working on Iran’s nuclear program. Although those stories have been previously disclosed, it is nonetheless fascinating to read the details of those operations. Again, the decisions to go ahead with those assassinations came from Meir Dagan who, in the same way that he wanted to go after those responsible for financing terrorist operations – not only to undercut terrorist finances, but to send a clear signal to others who might be involved in the same activities that they were also potential targets. In addition, as just mentioned, Dagan wasn’t adverse to sending a signal to Iranian nuclear scientists that they too were vulnerable to Israeli assassination.
In gathering information for this very important book, the authors also rely heavily upon interviews given by two members of what is known as “COGAT” – the “Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories”. Described as “the official Israeli agency for one-on-one interaction with Palestinian entities”, COGAT “helps to build and maintain infrastructure and enable a semblance of normalcy for the Palestinian population”. The experience that members of COGAT gain in interacting daily with Palestinians give them special insight “into the hearts and minds of Palestinian people”.
Why I mention this is that so many supporters of Israel have no real understanding of Palestinians’ minds, nor any desire to attain such an understanding. The men and women who are at the forefront of Israel’s ongoing battle against so many different enemies – be they established armies, terrorist organizations, banks and other financial institutions, or scientists working on a nuclear program, are fully versed in the motivation and behavioural patterns of their erstwhile enemies. Individuals such as Meir Dagan have been ingenious at coming up with new methods to foil Israel’s enemies. What Harpoon vividly demonstrates is that it is Israel’s brainpower, more than its military muscle, that gives it the tactical edge in its ongoing wars with its many enemies.
Yet, it is mentally exhausting to be on your guard in so many different ways. Meir Dagan served as the head of Mossad for nine years, which was almost twice as long as the normal term of five years. The authors describe the position of Mossad Director as “one of the most challenging and tension-filled posts inside Israel’s pressure-packed security establishment. It was the type of responsibility that could give someone with even superhuman resolve a case of high blood pressure, chronic insomnia, and an endless surge of stomach ulcers.”
In light of that description – which would undoubtedly apply equally to the heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence service, it is important to keep in mind that so many of those former heads of Israeli intelligence services have been deeply critical of Israeli government policies – whether it’s six former heads of the Shin Bet criticizing continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in the documentary film, “The Gatekeepers”, or former heads of the Mossad, such as Ephraim Halevy (who spoke here at the Kanee Lecture in 2012), and the aforementioned Meir Dagan, warning of the dangers of Israel attacking Iran.
I would rather put my trust in the men who have been at the forefront of Israel’s wars – both on the battlefields and behind the scenes, than politicians and religious zealots who believe in perpetuating a status quo that is ultimately unsustainable.
After reading Harpoon, I am even more glad that Israel has brilliant commanders who can go about protecting that country quietly – at the same time as politicians do so much to undermine confidence in Israel’s institutions.
Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters
by Samuel M. Katz and Nitsana Darshan-Leitner
Published November 2017