Assassination as an Instrument of Foreign Policy
American and Israeli views – Do they agree or disagree?
The report this week about the assassination of several nuclear scientists in Syria reignited the controversy on Israel’s policy of assassination as a tool of foreign policy. It also raises the question of attacking a nation’s intellectual power as part of asymmetrical warfare.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday five nuclear engineers, four of them Syrian and one Iranian, were shot dead on the outskirts of Damascus on Sunday while traveling in a small convoy to a research center near the northeastern district of Barzeh. The attack took place in territory controlled by the Syrian government.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the killings, suspicion immediately fell on the Israelis, who have a long standing reputation for assassination and have been responsible for the killings of several Iranian nuclear scientists in the past few years.
Israeli Assassination – An Instrument of Foreign Policy
Zionists has always used assassination as a tool of policy, even before Israel’s establishment. Both British and Arab people were killed during the 1940s in order to advance Zionist goals and gain control of Palestinian land. Since then, Israel and the Mossad have become legendary for its high profile assassinations – and several spectacular failures.
The policy isn’t without critics, even in Israel. In 1955, seven years after the Israeli state was founded, the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote a letter to then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. In it, he complained that innocent Palestinians were being killed in Israeli operations. “I do not agree with you,” responded Ben-Gurion. “While it is good that there be a world full of peace, fraternity, justice, and honesty, it is even more important that we be in it.”
In the 1970s assassination as a tool of Israeli policy was institutionalized when then Prime Minister Golda Meir appointed a so-called “X Committee” that was – and perhaps still is – responsible for keeping a list of people to be assassinated. At the Mossad, a unit known as “Caesaria” is allegedly tasked with carrying out targeted killings.
Although Israel has constantly targeted Palestinians for assassinations, it has been the recent war against Iran’s nuclear scientists that has gained the most attention. Reportedly, it is a special group within the Mossad called Kidron that is carrying out the Iranian attacks.
In the case of the Iranian nuclear assassinations conducted by Kidon, they employed people with Iranian or dual nationalities. One of the Mossad assassins was Majid Jamali Fashi who confessed he had cooperated with Mossad for financial reasons only. Fashi assassinated Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, a professor at Tehran University in January 2011 by blowing an explosive-laden motorbike via a remote-controlled device. He reportedly received training from Mossad inside Israel as well as $120,000 to assassinate the Iranian scientist. According to his confession, Jamali Fashi received forged documents in Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev Airport to travel to Tel Aviv.
At least five Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed since 2007, with men on motorcycles sticking magnetically attachable bombs to their victims’ cars. The head of the country’s ballistic missile program was also killed, while Mojtaba Ahmadi, who served as commander of the Iranian Cyber War Headquarters, was found shot dead. No Israeli national has ever been arrested.
Reaction to these killings in America was generally positive, which indicated that the CIA might have been involved to some degree. Former US senator and candidate for president, Rick Santorum described the assassination of Iranian scientists as “wonderful,” threatening that those who work for Iran’s nuclear program “are not safe.” “On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that’s a wonderful thing, candidly.”
He also said, “I think we should send a very clear message that if you are a scientist from Russia, North Korea, or from Iran and you are going to work on a nuclear program to develop a bomb for Iran, you are not safe.”
Also, former Bush administration ambassador to the UN John Bolton said on Fox News that the killing of an Iranian scientist and sanctions against Iran constitute only “half-measures in the quest to stunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” The same sentiments were shared by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
However, it appears that Obama may be putting pressure on Israel to stop the killings as he attempts to craft an agreement with Iran on limiting their nuclear weapons development. In addition, it appears that Israel may be stopping this type of attack as it has become too dangerous.
It’s not just Obama that has had problems with Israeli assassinations. Revelations about the use of European passports in the attack on an alleged Hamas weapons buyer in Dubai caused diplomatic fallout between Israel and the European countries affected. Passports from the Britain, Ireland, France and Germany were used by the hit squad. All the involved nations demanded an explanation from Israel, which made it clear that they had no intention of stopping their policy of assassination or using forged documents from other nations. In fact, the only question in Israel was the lack of professionalism shown in the killing.
Although Europe has been more vocal in criticizing Israel, America has generally been much quieter. In 1990 the Canadian-American scientist Gerald Bull was assassinated in Belgium. Bull, a renowned expert in long range artillery was helping Iraq develop a “super cannon” that might be able to hit Israel.
All indications are that it was an Israeli Mossad hit team that killed Bull, but the US government was unresponsive and didn’t even bring the FBI into the investigation as would normally happen with the assassination of an American citizen in Europe. Some in the government even suggested that another nation like Iran, Syria, or South Africa might be responsible. In the immediate aftermath, Israel even spread stories that Iraq had carried out the assassination.
How does Israel rationalize its assassination policy? International law prohibits assassinations both in times of peace and in times of war. In addition, it violates the sovereignty of other nations and the rights of the citizens of the other countries that are the targets of the assassination teams.
The Israeli position in the case of attacks on Palestinians is that Palestine isn’t a recognized state and Israel doesn’t have to conform to international law in terms of carrying out assassinations in Palestine or against Palestinians.
However, when carrying out murders in recognized nations, Israel has developed another legal rational. In a legal opinion, Israeli attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein wrote, “The laws of combat which are part of international law, permit injuring, during a period of warlike operations, someone who has been positively identified as a person who is working to carry out fatal attacks against Israeli targets, those people are enemies who are fighting against Israel, with all that implies.”
This is a position that found disagreement in the international community, even in the US. And, although privately many American officials approve of the Israeli extrajudicial solution, the official US position is, “Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don’t end the violence, but are only inflaming an already volatile situation and making it much harder to restore calm.”
America’s Assassination History
However, while the US publically denounces Israel’s assassination policy, it has a long record of targeting its enemies for liquidation. The US has made more than 50 attempts to assassinate political party leaders according to William Blum in “Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions since World War II.” While some of them have been well known failures like the attacks on Fidel Castro, others have been more effective like the death of Lumumba of the Congo. In fact, last December, the US State Department admitted that President Eisenhower authorized the murder of Lumumba and CIA Chief, Allan Dulles, allocated $100,000 to accomplish the murder.
Although the Church Committee hearings in the US Senate stopped the use of assassination as American policy in the 1970s, the 9-11 attacks renewed assassination as an instrument of American policy. According to the July 18, 2012 issue of the Atlantic magazine, “President Bush gave the CIA permission to create a top secret assassination unit to find and kill Al Qaeda operatives. The program was kept from Congress for seven years. And when Leon Panetta told legislators about it in 2009, he revealed that the CIA had hired the private security firm Blackwater to help run it. “The move was historic,” says Evan Wright, the two-time National Magazine Award-winning journalist who wrote Generation Kill. “It seems to have marked the first time the U.S. government outsourced a covert assassination service to private enterprise.”
“It goes on to note that “in the past, the CIA was subject to oversight, however tenuous, from the president and Congress,” but that “President Bush’s 2001 executive order severed this line by transferring to the CIA his unique authority to approve assassinations. By removing himself from the decision-making cycle, the president shielded himself — and all elected authority — from responsibility should a mission go wrong or be found illegal.”
“Two Blackwater contractors told me that their firm began conducting assassinations in Afghanistan as early as 2008. They claimed to have participated in such operations — one in a support role, the other as a “trigger puller.” The contractors, to whom I spoke in 2009 and 2010, were both ex-Special Forces soldiers who were not particularly bothered by assassination work, although they did question the legality of Blackwater’s involvement in it.”
“While Blackwater’s covert unit began as a Bush administration story, President Obama now owns it. In 2010, his administration intervened on behalf of the Blackwater executives indicted for weapons trafficking, filing motions to suppress evidence on the grounds that it could compromise national security. The administration then awarded Blackwater (which is now called Academi) a $250 million contract to perform unspecified services for the CIA.”
There are, however, problems with human assassins. They need to be able to blend into the environment and usually require a long time to properly insert them into the target area. This has led America to automate the process with remote controlled drones. In fact, according to an Obama administration spokesman, drone attacks are “the new normal” in the war against terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
Needless to say, in order to carry out its high tech assassination policy, the Obama Administration has had to stretch the law, just as Israel has. A secret Justice Department paper outlining the legal rational for assassinating Americans in the Middle East, without benefit of legal protections said that the president, without oversight, may order a “lethal operation” against a citizen who is known to be a “senior operational leader” of al-Qaeda or an affiliated group.
Needless to say, foreign nationals do not have even this level of legal protection, when it comes to attack by American drone aircraft.
Asymmetrical Warfare – attack the intellectual resources of a nation
Both American and Israeli assassination policies are targeted towards destroying the intellectual resources of a nation – whether that be a nuclear scientist, artillery expert, or top manager in an organization that the US or Israel wants to decapitate. However, the US has developed another way to also drain intellectual resources from the Middle East – bringing the best minds to the US and allowing them to settle there.
Ever since Operation Paperclip began near the end of WW II, the US has made it policy to allow top scientific talent to immigrate to the US. In fact, a report from the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation, notes that the United States is the world’s preeminent producer of scientific research thanks partially to immigrants. The U.S. “funds the most research in academia and business, it publishes more science papers than any other nation, and its scientific papers are disproportionately among the world’s best.” And immigrants play a crucial role in those activities.
The report notes that that a large proportion of workers employed in science and engineering fields in the United States are foreign born. “Compared to the entire college-educated workforce, college graduates employed in S&E occupations are disproportionately foreign born,” the report states.
According to the 2011 American Community Survey, over 26 percent of all college-educated workers in engineering and science occupations were foreign born. Additionally, over 43 percent of workers in these occupations holding doctorate degrees are foreign born.
Much of this is due to government funding and a higher immigration priority for foreign born scientists and engineers. Because of the federal government’s major investment in academic research over the past six decades, well-funded U.S. universities successfully compete for the best scientific talent around the world. Many of these talented scientists remain in the United States, become American citizens, and take jobs as researchers in universities or at high tech companies. In fact, about 2/3 of all non-citizen scientists and engineers who came to the US became American citizens.
Which brings us back to the Israeli and American assassination programs. As life for a scientist becomes more dangerous in the Middle East, the advantages of coming to the US to live and work become more attractive. In the end, the region still loses a brilliant mind. It’s just less bloody.
Middle East Notes and Comment: Acting and Reacting in the Middle East
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 12, 2014
When mass protests broke out in the Arab world in 2011, the Obama administration saw opportunity. The president helped push long-time U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak to step down from the Egyptian presidency, noting, “I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history.” Almost four years later, “people power” has not taken hold in the Middle East. Some countries, such as Libya and Syria, hemorrhage from civil wars that started as peaceful protests. In Egypt, elections produced a government so exclusionary that after a year in power, much of the public supported a return to military rule. Three and a half years after the death of Osama bin Laden, jihadis are resurgent in the region. Meanwhile, the United States finds itself fighting battles in the Middle East with strained alliances and diminished influence. What went wrong?
The Challenge of Non-State Actors
By Haim Malka
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 12, 2014
After half a century during which the Middle East was divided along Cold War lines between U.S. allies and adversaries, the United States now has friendly relations with nearly every Arab state, save the Assad regime in Syria. Yet, non-state armed groups have emerged as key protagonists in conflicts around the region, and they are often hostile to the United States. Today they undermine U.S. policy goals, destabilize fragile states, and kill civilians. More than ever before, the United States must address a mutating set of foes that operates in increasingly complex political environments. Doing so will require U.S. government officials to demonstrate vigilance, dynamism, and creativity at a time when security concerns push many to huddle inside embassy walls.
Iraq’s Existential Crisis: Sectarianism Is Just Part of the Problem
By Maha Yahya
November 6, 2014
Much of the recent analysis of the Islamic State’s sweep into Iraq has followed a sectarian narrative. Many have focused on linking the rise of the militant group with Sunnis’ disenfranchisement and growing anger at the way former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki systematically excluded them from power. Others have viewed this as a “crisis a century in the making” and the death knell for the post–World War I order, leaving religion, and not the state, as the primary unit of analysis. So, too, have some of the subsequent policy recommendations, in particular suggestions that partition along religious and ethnic lines is the best solution to Iraq’s long-standing problems. Such analysis is not only shaping the military response to the crisis, but also the long-term solutions to it. This sectarian perspective makes the breakup of Iraq a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Who Cares about an Iranian Nuclear Breakout? Beware of an Atomic “Sneak-out”
By James M. Acton
November 4, 2014
It’s time for America to rethink its strategy for preventing Iran from getting the Bomb. Negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program are foundering on the question of how much enrichment capacity it can be permitted. So far, Tehran has refused to dismantle any of the 19,000 or so centrifuges it has installed. Its negotiating partners, led by the United States, insist that Iran can only be allowed to operate a few thousand at most. There is no clear path to breaking the deadlock. The United States’ current strategy would make sense if Iran’s only option for acquiring nuclear weapons were a crash program using declared facilities that are inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency—the much-discussed “breakout” scenario. If Tehran goes nuclear, however, it will almost certainly be more surreptitious and build a secret, parallel program dedicated to military ends. The United States should, therefore, aim to negotiate measures to prevent “sneak-out”
Obama’s Pandering to Iran Has No Limits
By Fred Fleitz
Center for Security Policy
November 7, 2014
The Obama administration is in desperation mode on the nuclear talks with Iran. With the prospect of a Republican Senate taking action next year to thwart its controversial nuclear diplomacy and a fast approaching November 24 deadline for the talks, the Obama administration reportedly has doubled down on its previous one-sided concessions to Tehran by offering to allow it to operate up to 6,000 uranium centrifuges. Further confusing this situation, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the president wrote a secret letter to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei in which he reportedly stressed that “any cooperation on the Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by a November 24 diplomatic deadline.”
Jabhat al-Nusra Deepens its Foothold in Northwestern Syria
By Jennifer Cafarella
Institute for the Study of War
November 10, 2014
Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) seized large swaths of the Jabal al-Zawiya area of southern Idlib Province (in northwest Syria bordering Turkey) from Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups beginning in late October 2014 (see fig. 1). JN, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, began to carve out direct territorial control in Idlib Province beginning in July 2014, and its advance in southern Idlib has considerably extended its stronghold in the province. JN’s campaign in Idlib has largely targeted terrain held by the FSA-affiliated Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), and is therefore an important indicator of JN’s strength in relation to Syria’s moderate opposition and its willingness to escalate against Western-backed groups in pursuit of its own core interests.
Policies and Politics Will Test U.S.-Israel Ties
By David Makovsky
November 10, 2014
In the coming weeks, a number of foreign and domestic developments will affect U.S. and Israeli policy, with each potentially testing the already tense bilateral relationship. One key date is November 24, the deadline for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama has publicly said there is a “big gap” between the parties, making the prospects of a breakthrough unclear, but high-level U.S., EU, and Iranian envoys have completed two days of talks in Oman in a bid to reach such a breakthrough. If a deal is in fact made and the terms are not to Israel’s liking, then the war of words with Washington may resume on this very sensitive issue. Exacerbating the situation was a statement this weekend by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei detailing a plan for eliminating the state of Israel. Furthermore, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has been skeptical of the negotiations, has just announced that Congress will seek to review the terms of any agreement with Tehran. This comes on the heels of a midterm election in which the Republicans won control of the Senate, and shortly after the Obama administration reiterated its authority to suspend certain sanctions against Iran in the event of a breakthrough.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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