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Los Angeles Times Interview

Nahum Admani

Going Public: Former Head of Mossad Talks of Terrorism--and How to Fight It

September 01, 1996|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Strauss is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

TEL AVIV — From the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to U.S. army housing in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even to TWA Flight 800 over the skies of New York, the United States is becoming a key target of terrorism, with acts of greater frequency and ever more deadly effect. While this is a relatively new phenomenon for Americans, it is something the people of Israel have grappled with for close to a half century. And in their continuing quest for security in an open society, Israelis turn first to their secret intelligence service, the Mossad.

The Mossad's feats are the stuff of legend, even to battle-hardened Israelis. And to reach the top of this organization--one of the most respected jobs in Israel--requires not only a flair for derring-do, but also finely honed analytical skills. Nahum Admani combined these talents in serving as chief of the Mossad from 1982 to 1989. Yet, because of the Mossad's culture of secrecy, most Israelis did not even know his name. In sitting down for this conversation, Admani spoke publicly for the first time about his 35-year career in intelligence.

When discussing the world of terrorists, Admani, 67, still combines the hands-on attitude of an operative with the mien of a scholar. For, before running the agency, Admani was involved in such daring anti-terrorist exploits as the raid on the Entebbe airport in Uganda, when an Israeli team rescued the passengers of a hijacked Air France jet on July 4, 1976.

Sitting with Admani for the interview were two former colleagues, who, earlier this year, along with several other ex-intelligence types, established a consulting firm specializing in Middle East political and business intelligence. During the talk, Admani sometimes called on his two colleagues, as more recent veterans of the clandestine world, to update him on a subject or confirm his analysis. They also served somewhat as in-house censors--since Admani would consult them when deciding whether he could divulge certain information. For example, when asked about his role in hunting down the killers of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Admani turned to the two for guidance. After a brief consultation, he decided that Israel "did not admit to this."

The father of two grown daughters, Admani lives with his wife, Nina, the executive director of the U.S.-Israel Chamber of Commerce, in a fashionable section of Tel Aviv, where many of Israel's political elite reside. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres lives down the street. The interview took place in a modest apartment, similar to the one in which Yitzhak Rabin's widow, Leah, received world leaders after her husband's assassination last year.

Though his reticence is ingrained, Admani could, nonetheless, be quite forthcoming on certain matters, ranging from his own experiences with Saddam Hussein's henchmen in Iraq to his meeting with the former head of the Soviet KGB. He offered candid analysis and sympathetic advice for dealing with the perpetrators of this new kind of terrorism that Americans increasingly confront.

*

Question: What do you consider the most challenging or dramatic action in your career?

Answer: Entebbe. To understand what happened at Entebbe, you must go back to the origins--which was actually an attempt by one of the Palestinian organizations to down an El Al flight into Nairobi. They had a group of people there with two rocket launchers planning to actually shoot down an El Al aircraft coming from South Africa and landing in Nairobi on its way to Israel.

We succeeded in foiling that attempt with the help of the Kenyans. At that time we apprehended some of the Arabs, and some Germans helping them, as they were taking up positions outside of the airport . . . .

So the hijacking of the Air France plane that came later was done with the aim to release those guys that we managed to apprehend and had in jail [in Israel]. We now talk about it in three or four sentences but at the time it was quite a dramatic affair.

Q: But the terrorism and hijackings you faced then were different from today in many ways--beginning with the fact that it was done mainly by Palestinian Arabs and their allies. But wasn't it during your tenure as head of the Mossad (1982-1989) that your major opponents became Muslim fundamentalists?

A: Absolutely . . . . It was during our involvement in Lebanon that Shiite terrorism became the major problem, although it was not the task of the Mossad to counter terrorism there . . . .

Actually, I think I witnessed the first instance of Shiite suicide terrorism as long ago as 1971. At that time we were helping the Kurdish revolt in Iraq, and I happened to be with the [then] chief of the Mossad in Iraq in the camp of [Kurdish rebel leader Masoud] Barzani.

One morning [Barzani] asked us to leave, as he had a visit from Shiite clergymen, who were sent to him by Saddam Hussein to discuss matters.

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