Israel has long carried out a ruthlessly effective policy of targeting scientists and engineers to deprive its enemies of a technological advantage.
Why was Fadi al-Batsh, an anonymous lecturer in electrical engineering, assassinated in Malaysia by Mossad? His occupation is the key to his ultimate fate. Al-Batsh was sent to Malaysia to obtain technical expertise and weaponry in the service of Hamas’ budding drone program.
According to intelligence sources, al-Batsh was involved in brokering arms deals between the Palestinian group and the North Korean government. Israel had late last year killed Mohammed Zawahri, a Tunisian scientist and Hamas military commander who was said to be developing aerial and underwater drone technology.
There has been a long-standing argument over how effective the targeted assassination of terrorists is. The major argument against the killing of members of terrorist organizations is that they are easily replaced, particularly since targeted killings fuel the sort of rage that inspires terrorist attacks to begin with.
Well aware of this dynamic, Israel has tried to kill those who are difficult to replace. In some cases this has led to the killing of charismatic leaders such as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas or Abbas al Moussawi of Hezbollah. However, far more effective has been the tactic of targeting those with scientific know-how.
This fits well into the overall Israeli strategy. Israel has traditionally seen itself as a demographically small country surrounded by enemies with a far larger overall population. Despite this it has developed into the most powerful military actor in the region. It has done so by developing a qualitative edge over its rivals which has generally made up for the disadvantage in numbers. The Israeli advantage rested on two planks: quality of manpower in terms of training and technological supremacy.
The pursuit of qualitative advantage has led it to safeguard its technological advantage obsessively, not only by developing its own but also by depriving its rivals of advancement through assassination and sabotage.
The pursuit of qualitative advantage has led Israel to safeguard its technological advantage obsessively, not only by developing its own but also by depriving its rivals of advancement through assassination and sabotage.
The first known example of this strategy occurred when Mossad was a primitive and underfunded organization. In 1962, Israel learned that Egypt had built a secret facility in the desert staffed by former Nazi scientists, builders of the V-1 and V-2 rockets launched against London in the later stages of World War II. Egypt planned to build 900 missiles to be aimed at Israel.
The thought of Nazi scientists working under the employ of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who to Israelis was the No 1 bogeyman at the time, spurred Mossad into action. It launched “Operation Damocles.” The idea was to attack the German scientists. This was motivated not only by an emotional hatred of the Nazi scientists but also by the rational realization that without their contribution, the Egyptians would lack the technological ability to develop a high-quality missile program.
Although Mossad’s capabilities at the time were unimpressive, motivation was high. German scientists were threatened, letter bombs were sent and at least one successful assassination took place.
The operation was a public relations fiasco. Two agents were arrested in Switzerland trying to intimidate the daughter of one of the scientists. The incident damaged relations with West Germany at a time when Israel was dependent on it for reparation payments and arms sales.
However, it was an operational success. The combination of diplomatic pressure and Mossad intimidation led to the termination of the German contribution to the Egyptian missile program and to its eventual dismantlement.
Israel has since used the same tactics on several occasions and has used violence irrespective of sovereignty or the nationality of its victims. For example, in 1990 Mossad assassinated a Canadian arms inventor named Gerald Bull who worked for Saddam Hussein while he was on a visit to Brussels.
It also in 1996 assassinated the Hamas bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash. Ayyash was another talented engineer, responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis in suicide attacks. He found his own death when the Israeli security forces detonated 15 grams of RDX explosive in a phone he was using. The suicide-bombing capabilities of Hamas were seriously degraded as a result.
Perhaps the most famous and ambitious example of Israel using assassinations to preserve its technological advantage was part of its attempt to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel assassinated leading Iranian nuclear scientists as part of a multi-pronged effort to derail Iranian ambitions through economic sanctions, support for opposition groups, sabotage and diplomatic pressure. Several high-ranking scientists were killed in various ways. Cars were booby-trapped, people were shot in the street, planes crashed under mysterious circumstances.
These steps slowed down Iranian progress significantly. Several high-profile Iranian scientists left the program to pursue civilian projects and a great deal of resources and energy were spent trying to protect the scientists and to locate moles.
Michael Hayden, head of the US Central Intelligence Agency, told then-president Barack Obama, “What they’re building at Natanz [the Iranian nuclear reactor] is confidence, and then they will take that knowledge and that confidence and they’ll go somewhere else and enrich uranium. That knowledge, Mr President, is stored in the brains of the scientists. My broad intelligence judgment is that the death of those human beings had a great impact on their nuclear program.”
It is quite likely that the assassination program played a role in the Iranian decision to seek an international agreement rather than continue to pursue nuclear arms unilaterally.
The assassination of individuals with militarily applicable scientific knowledge has been one of the most effective tools in the Israeli arsenal. The Israeli philosophy is that it is not important how many terrorists you kill, what matters is how replaceable they are.
Charles de Gaulle once caustically remarked that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” To have been targeted in this manner, Fadi al-Batsh must have been of great value to Hamas’ nascent drone program. As long as the assassination of scientists and engineers continues to get results, Israel will continue to dispense with the indispensable.