Undercover in Nablus
A skilled operator who can infiltrate his adversaries' neighborhoods may be the most valuable counter terrorism weapon
By Aaron Cohen
One morning in Tel Aviv, as I was trying to sleep off a Gold Star hangover, my pager sounded. I was being called in for a Level Four meeting, meaning all the Duvdevan teams (Israeli undercover military special operations teams) needed to be back at the base immediately. It would turn out to be the final major mission of my Duvdevan career.
Four hours later, the operations room was crowded, swirling with cigarette smoke. Zoar was sitting at the head of the table, next to Ilan, staring at the details of the terrorist warrant and breaking down the Ops plan.
"Tonight we've got a shot to take down Abu Jihad," he said. I glanced around the room — we all recognized the nom-deguerre, meaning "father of the Holy War," of the Hamas mastermind behind the Dizengoff Mall bombing. "Shabak's been working this on the inside for months. We've seen several chances come and go. This guy moves around from safe house to safe house constantly. We understand Abu Jihad's going to be at a wedding in Mishraim, just outside of Nablus. We're going to insert a small team undercover in the wedding party. We'll take him down right after the ceremony, at the reception hall."
I would be working Mista'aravim (undercover as an Arab), but I wouldn't be going inside the wedding reception. I was going to pose as a Palestinian sweet-corn vendor, acting as one of the eyes-on-target. The mission was so high priority that command had requested multiple and simultaneous eyes-on-target confirmation.
It was a huge operation, probably the most complex and well planned of my time with Duvdevan. Close to forty warriors on the mission were divided into four teams. Twenty men were going in undercover, two inside the wedding reception hall, posing as friends of the groom, and the rest walking around outside to confirm the target's arrival. Rooftop snipers would surround the target location. We would have a dozen undercover cars with heavy weaponry on the perimeter, circling the streets of Nablus.
We spent hours in the operations room, going over the logistics. We had guys on the inside who had been to the target locations a few days earlier. They had taken photos of the area, mapping the streets. We even had the floor plan of the community hall where the party was going to be held. We knew which door Abu Jihad was most likely to enter. The most unpredictable element was the street outside. Streams of people would constantly be coming in and out, and cars would be double-parked, blocking our lines of vision and possible escape routes.
It was a tight-knit neighborhood, staunchly loyal to Hamas, virtually impossible to infiltrate for any long period of time. The informal and unstructured nature of the wedding reception — more of a communal celebration for the neighborhood than a formal gathering with place cards and an RSVP list—gave us our window of opportunity. This section of Nablus was such a hotbed of Hamas leadership and recruitment that it felt completely secure. Who would have the audacity to try to crash this wedding party?
By 7 p.m. I approached the wedding hall wearing a thin-striped dress shirt, dark-grey slacks, and a fake moustache attached with mustard glue, pushing my sweet-corn cart down the block. Our undercover guys would have about 60 seconds to walk inside, shake some hands, offer congratulations, and then snatch Abu Jihad.
My primary role as one of the eyes-on-target would be to confirm that Abu Jihad actually showed up at the reception. We had to make certain that it was him, not some look-alike double or cousin with a close resemblance. We had a series of surveillance photos taken with extremely high-powered, long-lens cameras and enlarged into razor-sharp close-ups. Back at the base, I had studied the photographs for hours, and I knew Abu Jihad's distinguishing features, right down to the mole above one eyebrow.
I wheeled my vending cart into position, with a clear line of sight on the entrance to the reception hall. My undercover disguise was not designed to withstand deep scrutiny. The reason playing a sweet-corn vendor was a good role was that the actual vendors change a lot, providing one of the few excuses for new faces in the neighborhood. For the same reason, we also had several undercover operators driving taxis because there are lots of unofficial gypsy cabs in the territories.
I saw one of the passing cabs. The driver was a Duvdevan operator and the passengers in back were also our operators. For the next 15 minutes, our cab drivers dropped off their passengers and picked up new passengers, adding another layer of eyes-on-the-target as they circled the neighborhood.
My cart had a handwritten sign in Arabic listing my prices: sweet corn for 50 agurote, juices for 1 shekel each. The cart also had a live-action camera feed, meaning I had to position it carefully to capture images of the front entrance. If a firefight were to break out, I had my SIG tucked at the small of my back and the bottom of the cart was custom lined with Kevlar. Flipped on its side, the cart would provide cover as a bulletproof barricade.
I looked up to see a guy about my age handing me a 50-agurote coin. I handed him one ear of corn. I didn't want to risk making conversation, so I looked away. Luckily, it was the only sale I made during the mission.
My earbud was in place. As soon as we had confirmation that Abu Jihad was on the scene, our instructions were to double-click. I could hear transmissions from one of the circling white Savannahs in which the officers were receiving camera feed from my sweet-corn cart as well as other video images coming from several undercovers carrying briefcases and backpacks with cameras.
Every one of the eyes-on-target — there were more than a dozen in the immediate vicinity — were instructed to doubleclick upon confirmation of sighting Abu Jihad so there would be no chance of false identification. Zoar and Ilan were adamant: We needed double-clicks from everybody working eyes-on-target before initiating the takedown. If any of us decided to call it off, we each had a squelch button transmitting a highpitched tone to everyone on the team, letting them know that the mission had been aborted.
My team was designated as the second cordon. The first cordon was responsible for the security of the two operators entering the reception hall as wedding guests. The second cordon was responsible for the takedown vehicles — SUVs from the Duvdevan base to be used when Abu Jihad and any accomplices were apprehended — while the third cordon, still about a kilometer out, consisted of bulletproof green military vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns for use in the event of a violent riot or massive neighborhood shoot-out.
An older model Mercedes sedan pulled up in front of the reception hall, doubleparking. Three men exited, all wearing open-necked dress shirts. All were in their late 20s or early 30s with dark complexions, moustaches, and trimmed beards. As they approached the entrance to the reception hall, I recognized the face of Abu Jihad. I gave the double-click.
If anyone clicked a third time, or if Abu Jihad got spooked and started to run, we had orders to break cover and transition immediately from Mista'aravim into takedown mode.
The two officers assigned to infiltrate the wedding were legends in the unit, with hundreds of missions under their belts. Seasoned and cool headed, they didn't hesitate, and they didn't panic.
They walked directly into the reception hall and we could hear the casual exchanges as they shook a few hands, offering congratulations, saying, "A salaam alaykum."
Boom — it all transpired within six seconds. The two operators grabbed Abu Jihad, without drawing their weapons, and pulled him outside the wedding hall by his elbows and shoulders. He was struggling, his face a mask of confusion, but he barely had time to shout. The moment our operators yanked him outside, an unlicensed taxi with three more of our operators inside lurched to a screeching stop. The back door flew open. Abu Jihad was bundled inside. The taxi made a clean getaway.
It was all over so fast that everyone inside the hall was stunned. Abu Jihad had no formal bodyguards, but one of the wedding guests now rushed outside, enraged, and drew a pistol from his waistband. He brandished the black handgun, but before he could get off a shot there was the crack of rifle fire. Three whistling reports. He fell to the pavement dead.
Three of our rooftop snipers hit him with nearly simultaneous telescopic shots. The wedding guests were streaming out into the street, shouting, pointing.
"Allah u akbar! Allah u akbar!"
It was a scene of pure mayhem. People were shrieking, women were falling to the ground, and still no one knew which direction the gunshots came from, how Abu Jihad was kidnapped from the reception so quickly, or how this other guest ended up bleeding to death in the street.
I reached behind me and felt for my SIG at the small of my back. But there was no need to pull it now. The mission was completed. I could see the taillights of the getaway taxi, carrying Abu Jihad, rounding the corner. As casually as possible, I ditched my sweet-corn cart and walked in the direction of the predetermined rendezvous spot a block away.
When I got there, another undercover taxi was pulling over to the curb. Ilan was at the wheel, smoking a cigarette, radio in his lap. Enon was in the backseat, grabbing me by the elbow as I opened the door to pull me inside the moving cab.
Now Ilan's radio began to crackle with more fast-breaking news. Two other wanted Hamas terrorists were spotted as guests inside the reception hall.
There was no more element of surprise. Duvdevan's job was done. The order was given for the third cordon to go to work. The uniformed brigades from Golani and Givati were ordered to snatch up the other two wanted men.
The stealth Mista'aravim mission was over; it had now turned into a massive display of military might. As Ilan wheeled the undercover taxi around the corner, I watched the scene unfolding outside my window: more than 100 IDF soldiers were taking up positions and the bulletproof, armored vehicles were beginning to roll, surrounding the reception hall. Leaving Nablus, the entire neighborhood looked like it was under siege.
I chose to share this excerpt from my book "Brotherhood of Warriors" because I believe that it demonstrates some very important operational lessons.
A skilled operator who can infiltrate his adversaries' neighborhoods may be the most valuable counter terrorism weapon. All soldiers must strive for a mastery of local language, an intimate understanding of local culture and customs, and to develop an advanced sense for reading the environment. An individual who cannot communicate with the people he encounters, has only a rudimentary understanding of the local culture, and has not honed his level of awareness is an operational liability to counter terrorism and counter insurgency efforts. He is a hazard to operational success and to (his teammate's/a bystander's/and his own) safety.
Finally, I would add that armor, technology, and standoff from the population cannot replace operational skill. These deceptively appealing traps provide neither the operational effectiveness nor the safety that they might provide in a conventional war.
The counter terrorist must have the skill and confidence to work within the population, face to face with adversaries and friends.
About Aaron Cohen
Mr. Cohen is a veteran of Israel's special operations unit, Duvdevan. This unit dispatched operatives disguised as Arabs into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank to apprehend terrorist leaders. Upon returning to California, he founded IMS Security (www.imssecurity.net). The author's book, "Brotherhood of Warriors: Behind Enemy Lines with a Commando" in one of the World's Most Elite Counterterrorism Units, was coauthored with Douglas Century (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2008).