During his years as Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion was haunted by a recurring nightmare. In it, the Holocaust’s survivors had taken refuge in Israel only to become the targets of another Holocaust. The nightmare seemed to be coming true in July 1962, when Egypt’s then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced four successful tests of missiles capable of striking anywhere “south of Beirut”—that is, anywhere in Israel.
Israeli officials panicked. The Mossad had never guessed that Nasser was developing the means to destroy “the Zionist entity,” as he had repeatedly promised. Israel’s military intelligence quickly learned that Egypt had built a secret facility in the desert, known as Factory 333 and staffed by German scientists, builders of the V1 and V2 rockets that had devastated London. Even the project’s security chief was a veteran of Hitler’s SS. The Egyptians’ plan was to build some 900 missiles, all of them presumably to be aimed at Israel.
But the program had a weakness, and the Mossad found it: the Egyptians still needed the German scientists’ help to start mass production of the missiles. At that moment Israel began a decades-long campaign to eliminate scientists working for its enemies on missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The Mossad called that first operation Damocles, invoking an image of impending doom from Greek myth.
The aim was to scare off the Germans at least as much as to kill them, so efforts to cover the assassins’ tracks were often minimal, only enough to protect the killers. In September 1962 Heinz Krug, head of a Factory 333 shell company called Intra, vanished in Munich. In November two parcel bombs arrived at the office of the missile project’s director, Wolfgang Pilz, maiming his secretary and killing five Egyptian workers. In February 1963 another Factory 333 scientist, Hans Kleinwachter, narrowly escaped an ambush in Switzerland. In April of that year, two Mossad agents in Basel accosted Heidi Goerke, the daughter of project manager Paul Goerke, and threatened to kill both him and her. The two agents were briefly jailed.
The anti-Egypt campaign was starting to upset Israel’s allies. To cool things down, intelligence on Factory 333 was shared with the West German government, which pressured its scientists to quit the project, offering them jobs in Germany instead. Nearly all the scientists accepted—perhaps in fear for their lives—and Egypt abandoned its plot.
A period of relative quiet ensued until the late 1970s, when Israeli intelligence found signs that Saddam Hussein was pursuing a secret nuclear-development program in Iraq, and agents began hunting a new set of weapons scientists. In June 1980 Mossad agents unexpectedly spotted Egyptian nuclear expert Yehia El Mashad at a Paris hotel. He was working for Saddam, and the Mossad agents had orders to kill him on sight. Caught without their weapons, they improvised by breaking into his room and clubbing him to death. A prostitute told police she had heard what sounded like an argument from outside the room, but she died in a hit-and-run incident not long after her preliminary statement.
Iraq’s nuclear program was seriously damaged by Israel’s bombing of the Osirak reactor in June 1981, but Saddam did not give up his quest for powerful weapons. He soon signed up Gerald Bull, a Canadian-born, Belgium-based engineer and arms dealer who had invented what he called a supergun, an artillery piece with a range in the thousands of kilometers. As soon as Israeli weapons experts confirmed that Bull’s cannon was for real, he became a target. In March 1990 a Mossad hit team knocked on the door of his Brussels apartment, burst in when he opened it, and fired two bullets into the back of his head and three into his back. One member of the team took close-up photos of the corpse. The pictures were sent to other European employees of the Iraqi project with a note: “If you don’t want a similar fate, don’t go to work tomorrow.” Israel’s defense chiefs can only hope the message continues to resonate.
Bergman is a senior military and intelligence analyst for Yedioth Ahronot, an Israeli daily. He is currently working on a book about the Mossad and the art of assassination.