Former Mossad Combatant Michael Ross Looks Back - and Forward

The Challenges of Shifting Threats and Emerging Technologies

Michael Ross Michael Ross was born in Canada and served as a soldier in a combat unit of the Israel Defence Forces prior to being recruited as a “combatant,” (a term designating a deep-cover operative tasked with working in hostile milieus) in Israel’s legendary secret intelligence service, the Mossad. In his 13 year career with the Mossad, Ross was also a case officer in Africa and South East Asia for three years, and was the Mossad’s counterterrorism liaison officer to the CIA and FBI for two-and-a-half years. Ross is a published writer and commentator on Near Eastern affairs, intelligence and terrorism. He is the author of The Volunteer: The Incredible True Story of an Israeli Spy on the Trail of International Terrorists. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrossletters. John Little tweets at @blogsofwar.

John Little: You left the Mossad in October 2001. You have cited the isolation and personal sacrifices made (chiefly the impact on your family) during your intelligence career as motivators. With a decade behind you are you happy with your decision? What’s life like for you now?

Michael Ross: To be honest, there are times when I wish I was back in harness simply because it would have been a most interesting and dynamic period to be a spy but then, it wasn’t exactly dullsville during my tenure either as I was in the field when 9/11 occurred. Having said that, I think I was ready to move on to other things and return to Canada. I realized that my lifestyle in Israel didn’t always include meaningful interaction with others outside the profession – which I believe to be an essential element to maintaining good mental health in this business. It’s also important to add parenthetically that my marriage had faltered and while it would be easy to blame this on my work, there is no doubt that it played a contributing factor. My life now is very good although I wish I could see my sons more often. I certainly feel that I have much to contribute in an advisory, teaching or consultancy role given that I had such a unique and rich insider’s view of a part of the world – that for obvious reasons – has an increasing impact on our lives in the west whether we want it to or not.

John Little: The Israeli position is never a dull one is it? I know you moved on in the aftermath of 9/11 but what is your sense of how the Mossad was impacted by those events? The impact on the US intelligence community was, and continues to be, significant. Do you think the Mossad experienced similar expansion, structural changes, or cultural shifts?

Michael Ross: I was off and on in Mossad headquarters well after 9/11 and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There were some fundamental changes primarily in the realm of counterterrorism (CT). The branch dedicated to al Qaida – which we called “Global Jihad” due to the amorphous patchwork confederation of Jihadist entities we were dealing with – increased significantly in manpower, resources, and scope. Traditionally, those of us at the sharp end of CT operations were regarded as the poor cousins of the intelligence world. Nobody considered terrorism to be anything more than a major nuisance and we were always reminded by our peers working counter-proliferation that terrorist entities did not constitute any strategic threat to national security in the manner that non-conventional weapons pose. Of course no clear thinking individual thinks that way anymore. In many ways however, the U.S. has been concentrating so much on al Qaida that it has been overlooking other terrorist threats. The Mossad appears to be the only intelligence service that is devoting any significant resources to Hizballah and their Iranian sponsors. It didn’t seem to alarm the U.S. very much that a senior Hizballah commander, Ali Mousa Daqduq, was caught helping Shi’ite militias target coalition forces in Iraq or that the Taliban are carrying Irainian-manufactured weapons.

John Little: And now Hizballah, along with everyone else in this struggle, is trying to cope with the scope, pace, and chaos of the Arab Spring. Despite the opportunity for positive change the landscape has rarely been this unstable and unpredictable. Do you have a sense for how the Mossad is prioritizing and adjusting? How do you think they and their partners in allied intelligence communities should be positioned in this environment?

Michael Ross: Hizballah has been on the ropes for a while now. While they claim that the 2006 war with Israel was a great victory, in the scheme of things, it had a very detrimental effect on this wholly-owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime. Nasrallah is in perpetual hiding and the arch-terrorist, Imad Mughniyeh, is dead leaving behind a significantly diminished operational capability. Hizballah is also in financial dire straits and has lost billions from its coffers (hence the increased criminal enterprises aimed at making money for the organization popping up around the world) but the greatest set-back has been the international pressure on Iran and the civil war in Syria. This has Hizballah very worried because they are not only losing a chief sponsor and logistical corridor in Syria, the Syrian regime has been shooting at Lebanese citizens across the border. For an organization whose raison d’etre is the ostensible defence of Lebanon from foreign threats, this has placed them in a very awkward position. You only have to imagine a scenario where the IDF shoots a Lebanese journalist across the border to grasp the situation. The Lebanese are very savvy and as the body count rises in Syria and the conflict spills over into Lebanon (and it will) with Hizballah supporting the Assad regime, it’s not going to bode well for Hizballah’s already tattered support in Lebanon.

I don’t envy the analysts in the Mossad or the CIA these days. The ground is shifting so quickly underneath their feet, it must be very hard to come up with a cogent analysis of what the future holds anywhere in the region. The Mossad has a clear advantage from a finger-on-the-pulse perspective as it lives in the neighborhood and there is a sense of urgency simply because what happens in Syria can quickly escalate to something on your immediate doorstep as it has with Turkey and Lebanon. Israel has maintained a very low profile throughout the so-called “Arab Spring” but that doesn’t mean it’s asleep and I think this is a very wise course of action. Now is the time for subtlety in Middle East diplomacy and intelligence services should be active partners in determining the best course of action for policymakers to take. It’s one of many reasons why I advocate a hands-off position vis-a-vis Syria.

John Little: There is obviously something to gain for Israel and its allies if Syria transitions to a more reasonable posture but can you foresee a scenario where regime change occurs without also triggering significant downstream violence and weapons proliferation issues? Israel arguably has the most to lose if Syria slips into chaos and chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands. From Israel’s perspective could the unintended consequences of intervention currently pose a bigger threat than Syria itself?

Michael Ross: Knowing the status of and providing options to secure Assad’s prodigious chemical weapons (and deployment systems) arsenal is a top priority for the Mossad and western intelligence services. I participated in an unsuccessful foiling operation against rogue Russian General Anatoly Kunsevich in the late 1990′s who was assisting Syria obtain nerve agents for their Scud missiles. Syria has been developing a non-conventional weapons capability for some time (and until the 2007 Israeli raid on al-Khibar, a nuclear weapons program).

It’s an axiom of the intelligence world to hope for the best but to prepare for the worst and this absolutely applies to Syria right now. First off, I’m not convinced that Assad won’t prevail and successfully crush the uprising. He may end up significantly weaker than he was, but still retain power over the majority of the country. The Allawite regime still enjoys Russian – and to a lesser degree – Chinese support so this civil war is far from over. In fact, right now I see it as a Middle eastern version of the Third Balkan War circa 1992-1995. It could still go in several directions for a long time.

If Assad loses and a strong faction of anti-western jihadists emerges as the dominant power in Syria, a potential scenario arises where a terrorist entity brandishing non-conventional weapons threatens Israel and the west. We have to monitor this situation very closely and especially the intervening foreign factions that could ultimately radicalize Syria. Syria still is a secular nation and its people not easily given to Islamic extremist urges, but we’ve all seen how quickly Islamism can take root when there is a power vacuum in the region. My hope is that the Syrian resistance relies on that strong secular base of support and a new Syria – divested of both Iran and Hezbollah – emerges with a more reasonable geopolitical posture.

John Little: Mossad officers are probably faced with a wider array of hostile operating environments than any other service. As a result they periodically catch some heat for their false-flag operations and cover methods. Some of that criticism has come from “unnamed sources” within the US intelligence community. In your experience do these types of issues ever impact the level of professional cooperation between the Mossad and the US intelligence community or is this background noise?

Michael Ross: There is no doubt that there is a vocal constituency of U.S. intelligence officials that for whatever reason, don’t like the Mossad. It’s been my experience however, that the loudest critics of the Mossad are the furthest from the bilateral intelligence dialogue and operational relationship. The Mossad is indifferent to these critics and it would be fair to say that some of these negative sentiments are reciprocated but at the working level and especially while in the pursuit of joint operational objectives, there is a warm and intimate relationship that is appreciated by both sides.

The negative grumbling really is nothing more than background noise. Mark Perry wrote a piece in Foreign Policy last January describing Mossad officers posing as CIA while in London as a means to recruit Iranian dissidents. The Mossad never uses U.S. cover because of a bilateral agreements and to be frank, U.S. cover is only marginally better than Israeli and to even consider a scenario where it would be conducted in London under the noses of one of the best security services in the world (MI5) is beyond ludicrous. The Mossad also doesn’t need U.S. cover to recruit and train its own cadre of Iranian dissidents. Suffice it to say, you can pretty much say and/or write whatever you want about the Mossad and it will go unchallenged and to be quite frank, as a service it could care less what a journalist or conveniently unnamed CIA official writes or says.

It’s worth noting that it’s the CIA that employs a press office and small army of communications professionals to keep its image untarnished. Imagine if all that money, time and effort were expended in putting case officers in the field to recruit foreign sources of intelligence? The Mossad is on the ground in places where Angels fear to tread and as a result has operational cover imperatives that other services either refuse to employ or take for granted. I find it somewhat ridiculous that competing intelligence services disingenuously make heavy weather out of the fact that the Mossad uses foreign cover to conduct its operations as if this is supposed to be out of bounds. Of course this never stopped any service from accepting the extremely valuable intelligence (obtained at high risk by Mossad combatants and case officers) and shared via the Mossad’s liaison division.

For an interesting insight into the CIA’s organizational culture, I highly recommend my friend Ishmael Jones’ book, “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture.” It’s quite an eye-opener.

John Little: While we’re discussing identity and operations – The reconstruction of the 2010 Mahmoud al-Mabhouh assassination highlights the surveillance capabilities increasingly deployed by private entities and local governments and the challenges those systems pose to covert activities. Are technological advances in surveillance, biometrics, and other forms of identity management outpacing tradecraft or are they creating as many opportunities as they are barriers?

Michael Ross: While I believe that there is more to the al-Mahbouh assassination than meets the public eye, there is no doubt that it was a wake-up call for anyone conducting covert operations in these sensitive milieus. Clearly there was a gross underestimation of the willingness of the authorities in Dubai to pursue this case. The overlooked and unreported irony in the whole story is that al-Mahbouh was traveling on alias identities, was known to the Dubai security services, and was conducting clandestine meetings with Iranian officials concerning advanced weapons systems for HAMAS. These activities apparently failed to arouse the interest of the Dubai authorities which in itself says a lot.

Biometrics and advanced surveillance/security systems pose real challenges for covert operations and will affect intelligence service’s overseas clandestine activity on just about every level. This is especially problematic now that European companies like Germany’s Trovicor and Italy’s SpA have been selling and implementing cutting edge hi-tech intelligence platforms aimed at providing rogue regimes with communications interception and monitoring capabilities. Much of this technology has been used in Syria and Iran against dissidents and it’s entirely possible that this technology was used by the regime in Syria to locate foreign journalists in Syria by locating their satellite phone signals. Once you have this geo-location technology, it’s a simple matter to transfer that information to an artillery battery or when spy-catching, to a team of Mukhbarat thugs.

Having said that, one of the Mossad’s great strengths is its incredible ability to innovate and adapt to new obstacles be they technological or otherwise and even more importantly, to engage in a lessons learned process and improve its capabilities. Dubai notwithstanding, the Mossad is also adept at tackling hurdles in advance of the emerging technology. I saw some inventions in the Mossad’s Science and Technology Division that would make anyone in the private sector go very green with envy.

John Little: There were online communities when you were active but I assume they weren’t pervasive enough to require much thought except in very specific cases. Now virtually everyone in the developed world, and many beyond, has a social presence online. Have you thought much about the impact that social media is having on intelligence? The upside from a mass collection / data mining perspective is pretty obvious but it is also presents intelligence professionals with a unique operating environment in its own right doesn’t it?

Michael Ross: Social media and the possibilities for open source intelligence collection have expanded exponentially with the advent of all the various social media platforms available online. It also opens up a whole world of operational cover and networking possibilities that in the past involved a lot of leg-work when I was in harness.

Social media has both strong offensive and defensive elements in its makeup. For a “poacher” like myself, I can mine a considerable amount of data on a potential target for recruitment (including vulnerabilities or avenues for exploitation) long before I even come into any contact with the target. For my “gamekeeper” colleagues in the counterintelligence realm, it offers a number of possibilities in determining potential for attack and what the “poachers” are targeting.

Social media and the internet are a double-edged sword also because they are open to abuse by outfits like Stratfor that sell jargon, open-source information, and fabrication as a finished intelligence product for corporate and government consumers. The other edge of the sword is that people like myself and others can access social media and set the record straight.

The most interesting aspect for me however, is that I can interface with someone in say, Beirut and find out in real time what’s happening in the southern suburbs of that city while I sit at my table Laphroaig at elbow. Now that’s social media.

John Little: The Mossad brand is a powerful force multiplier. It is a relatively small force but its enemies see it lurking everywhere. It has maintained this fearsome image though its share of embarrassing episodes and high profile failures. The organization seems to shrug off mistakes and boldly plow forward. How does the Mossad deal with failure and how much brand self-awareness is there in the senior leadership’s decision making processes? Is there tension between the need to work covertly while still making their presence felt or reinforcing their public image?

Michael Ross: The Mossad brand is very powerful and I have to admit that I am quite surprised by this simply because to me it’s comprised of a small number of human faces that I worked with. Admittedly these are very talented and dedicated people, but people all the same.

Outsiders tend to disproportionately concentrate on the sensationalized subject of assassinations. This comprises probably 0.01% of the Mossad’s activities as an intelligence service. When you put it into perspective, the majority of the Mossad’s time is spent determining and analyzing the intentions of Israel’s enemies using the full suite of collection platforms available – much in the same way as the CIA or MI6. I think people would be surprised by the similarities between top tier intelligence services at the operational level. Much of the tradecraft is similar among these services and it’s a little-known fact but the Mossad was actually based on post-war MI6. If I was to single out the one aspect of the Mossad that remains misunderstood by the public, the media, and other intelligence services, it’s that the Mossad is operating like the OSS or MI6 during the Second World War. Sometimes my colleagues in Washington DC tend to think of Tehran, Damascus, Amman, Cairo and Beirut as distant exotic locales reached after a long jet-lag inducing flight. For the Mossad, they’re next door neighbors in a very unstable and threatening neighbourhhood.

When you are a very active intelligence service operating 24/7 365 days a year then mistakes are going to happen. Some of them have been significant mistakes but the Mossad is a learning organization with a culture of integrating lessons learned. At the completion of every operation, regardless of size and scope, there are sessions where everyone sits down and asks, “How we could we have done that better?” It’s not a punitive process but rather a necessary element to maintaining the upper hand through continual improvement. The Mossad makes mistakes but you never hear of the incredible successes – and they are legion.

The Mossad does not think about or concern itself with image. It never enters into the equation. We know we have a fierce reputation but nobody really thinks or talks about it. The fearsome reputation has been an unintentional consequence of the Mossad simply getting the job done.

John Little: You titled your book “The Volunteer”. What advice do would you give to other volunteers following in your footsteps at the Mossad or other intelligence services? They’re choosing a difficult path aren’t they?

Michael Ross: I don’t think my particular path of recruitment could easily be re-created or is in anyway typical but then I believe that in the Mossad’s case, no two recruitments are ever alike. I know the CIA likes to troll the Ivy League schools but the Mossad is looking for qualities that don’t exclusively involve academic scholarship. I didn’t get to university until later in my career. If you are smart, can think on your feet, cope with uncertainty, and above all maintain a sense of humor in all situations, then you have the prerequisites.Some of the funniest people I know are spies because like good comedians, they have a nose for the absurd and are very keen observers of human nature. Mossad selection is very rigorous but anyone interested should go to their website. Likewise for the CIA and MI6. My only advice is that being a spy is anything but glamorous. A lot of it involves meetings in dingy hotels in third world hell-holes trying to convince some person – often afflicted with only a passing acquaintance with personal hygiene -that they should sell their country’s secrets. Honestly, does it get any more fun than that?

Blogs of WarJohn Little has been breaking national security news and leveraging thousands of conflict, intelligence, security, technology & political sources to provide level-headed analysis in a complex news environment since 2002.