No suicide bomber had ever killed so many people in a single attack. Hotari’s neighbors in the West Bank congratulated his father. “I hope that my other three sons will do the same,” Mr. Hotari told an interviewer. “I would like all members of my family, all the relatives, to die for my nation and my homeland.”
Israel was more determined than ever to cut off the head of the snake. It should have learned by then, however, that if imprisoning faction leaders did nothing to stop the bloodshed, assassinating them was unlikely to work either.
Jamal Mansour was a journalist, and like my father, was one of the seven founders of Hamas. He was one of my father’s closest friends. They had been exiled together in south Lebanon. They talked and laughed on the phone nearly every day. He was also the chief advocate of suicide bombings. In a January interview with Newsweek , he defended the killing of unarmed civilians and praised the bombers.
On Tuesday, July 31, after a tip from a collaborator, a pair of Apache helicopter gunships approached Mansour’s media offices in Nablus. They fired three laser-guided missiles through the window of his second-floor office. Mansour, Hamas leader Jamal Salim, and six other Palestinians were incinerated by the blasts. Two of the victims were children, aged eight and ten, who had been waiting to see the doctor on the floor below. Both were crushed beneath the rubble.
This seemed crazy. I called Loai.
“What in the world is going on? Are you sure those guys were involved in suicide bombings? I know they supported the attacks, but they were in the political wing of Hamas with my father, not the military wing.”
“Yes. We have intelligence that Mansour and Salim were directly involved in the Dolphinarium massacre. They have blood on their hands. We had to do this.”
What could I do? Argue with him? Tell him he didn’t have the right information? It suddenly dawned on me that the Israeli government must also be determined to assassinate my father. Even if he hadn’t organized the suicide bombings, he was still guilty by association. Besides, he had information that could have saved lives, and he withheld it. He had influence, but he didn’t use it. He could have tried to stop the killing, but he didn’t. He supported the movement and encouraged its members to continue their opposition until the Israelis were forced to withdraw. In the eyes of the Israeli government, he, too, was a terrorist.
With all my Bible reading, I was now comparing my father’s actions with the teachings of Jesus, not those found in the Qur’an. He was looking less and less like a hero to me, and it broke my heart. I wanted to tell him what I was learning, but I knew he would not listen. And if those in Jerusalem had their way, my father would never get the opportunity to see how Islam had led him down the wrong path.
I consoled myself with the knowledge that my father would be safe at least for a while because of my connection with the Shin Bet. They wanted him alive as much as I did—for very different reasons, of course. He was their main source of inside information regarding Hamas activities. Of course, I couldn’t explain that to him, and even the Shin Bet’s protection could end up being dangerous to him. After all, it would seem pretty suspicious if all the other Hamas leaders were forced into hiding while my father was allowed to walk freely down the street. I needed to at least go through the motions of protecting him. I immediately went to his office and pointed out that what had just happened to Mansour could just as easily have happened to him.
“Get rid of everybody. Get rid of your bodyguards. Close the office. Don’t come here again.”
His response was as I expected.
“I’ll be okay, Mosab. We’ll put steel over the windows.”
“Are you crazy? Get out of here now! Their missiles go through tanks and buildings, and you think you’re going to be protected by a sheet of metal? If you could seal the windows, they would come through the ceiling. Come on; let’s go!”
I couldn’t really blame him for resisting. He was a religious leader and a politician, not a soldier. He had no clue about the army or about assassinations. He didn’t know all that I knew. He finally agreed to leave with me, though I knew he wasn’t happy about it.
But I was not the only one who came to the conclusion that Mansour’s old friend, Hassan Yousef, would logically be the next target. When we walked down the street, it seemed that everyone around us looked worried. They quickened their pace and glanced anxiously at the sky as they tried to move away from us as quickly as possible. I knew that, like me, they were listening closely for the chug of incoming helicopters. Nobody wanted to end up as collateral damage.
I drove my father to the City Inn Hotel and told him to stay there.
“Okay, this guy here at the desk is going to change your room every five hours. Just listen to him. Don’t bring anybody to your room. Don’t call anyone but me, and don’t leave this place. Here’s a safe phone.”
As soon as I left, I told the Shin Bet where he was.
“Okay, good. Keep him there, out of trouble.”
To do that, I had to know where he was every moment. I had to know every breath he took. I got rid of all his bodyguards. I couldn’t trust them. I needed my father to rely on me totally. If he didn’t, he would almost certainly make a mistake that would cost him his life. I became his aide, bodyguard, and gatekeeper. I arranged for all of his needs. I kept an eye on everything that happened anywhere near the hotel. I was his contact with the outside world, and I was the outside world’s contact with him. This new role carried the added benefit of keeping me entirely free from suspicion of being a spy.
I started acting the part of a Hamas leader. I carried an M16, which identified me as a man with means, connections, and authority. In those days, such weapons were in big demand and short supply (my assault rifle went for ten thousand dollars). And I traded heavily on my relationship to Sheikh Hassan Yousef.
Hamas military guys began to hang around me just to show off. And because they thought I knew all the secrets of the organization, they felt comfortable sharing their problems and frustrations with me, believing I could help them with their issues.
I listened carefully. They had no idea they were giving me little bits of information that I was piecing together to create much bigger pictures. These snapshots led to more Shin Bet operations than I could describe to you in a single book. What I will tell you is that many innocent lives were saved as a result of those conversations. There were many fewer grieving widows and shattered orphans at gravesides because of the suicide bombings we were able to prevent.
At the same time, I gained trust and respect within the military wing and became the go-to Hamas guy for other Palestinian factions as well. I was the person they expected to provide them with explosives and to coordinate operations with Hamas.
One day, Ahmad al-Faransi, an aide to Marwan Barghouti, asked me to get him some explosives for several suicide bombers from Jenin. I told him I would, and I began to play the game—stalling until I could uncover the bombers’ cells in the West Bank. Games like that were very dangerous. But I knew I was covered from several directions. Just as being the eldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef kept me safe from Hamas-on-Hamas torture in prison, it also protected me when I worked among terrorists. My job with USAID gave me a certain amount of protection and freedom as well. And the Shin Bet always had my back.
Any mistake, however, could have cost me my life, and the Palestinian Authority was always a threat. The PA had some fairly sophisticated electronic eavesdropping gear that had been provided by the CIA. Sometimes they used it to ferret out terrorists. Other times it was deployed to root out collaborators. So I had to be very careful, especially of falling into the hands of the PA, since I knew more about how the Shin Bet operated than any other agent.
Because I had become the only point of access to my father, I was in direct contact with every Hamas leader in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Syria. The only other guy with that level of access was Khalid Meshaal in Damascus. Meshaal was born in the West Bank, but he lived most of his life in other Arab countries. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait and studied physics at Kuwait University. After Hamas was founded, Meshaal headed up the Kuwaiti chapter. And following the Iraqi invasion, he moved to Jordan, then to Qatar, and finally to Syria.
Living in Damascus, he was not subject to the travel restrictions of Hamas leaders in the territories. So he turned into a kind of diplomat, representing Hamas in Cairo, Moscow, and the Arab League. As he traveled, he raised money. In April 2006 alone, he collected one hundred million dollars from Iran and Qatar.
Meshaal didn’t make many public appearances; he lived in secret places, and he could not return to the occupied territories for fear of assassination. He had good reason to be careful.
In 1997, when Meshaal had still been in Jordan, a couple of Israeli intelligence agents broke into his room and injected a rare poison into his ear while he slept. His bodyguards spotted the agents leaving the building, and one of them went to check on Meshaal. He saw no blood, but his leader was down on the ground and unable to speak. The bodyguards ran after the Israeli agents, one of whom fell into an open drain. The agents were captured by Jordanian police.
Israel had recently signed a peace agreement with Jordan and exchanged ambassadors, and now the botched attack jeopardized that new diplomatic arrangement. And Hamas was embarrassed that one of their key leaders could be reached so easily. The story had been humiliating to all the parties involved, and thus everybody tried to cover it up. But somehow the international media found out.
Demonstrations broke out in the streets of Jordan, and King Hussein demanded that Israel release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s spiritual leader, and other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the red-faced Mossad agents. In addition, Mossad was to send a medical team immediately to inject Meshaal with an antidote to the poison. Reluctantly, Israel agreed.
Khalid Meshaal called me at least once a week. Other times, he left very important meetings to take my phone calls. One day, Mossad called the Shin Bet.
“We have a very dangerous person from Ramallah who talks to Khalid Meshaal every week, and we can’t find out who he is!”
They were referring to me, of course. We all had a good laugh, and the Shin Bet chose to keep the Mossad guessing about me. It seems there is competition and rivalry between security agencies in every country—as with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency in the United States.
One day, I decided to take advantage of my relationship with Meshaal. I told him I had very important information that I could not give him over the phone.
“Do you have a secure way to deliver it?” he asked.
“Of course. I will call you in a week and give you the details.”
The normal means of communication between the territories and Damascus was to send a letter with someone who had no police record and no known relationship with Hamas. Such letters were written on very thin paper, rolled down to a tiny size, and then slipped into an empty medicine capsule or simply wrapped with nylon thread. Just before crossing the border, the courier swallowed the capsule, then regurgitated it in a restroom on the other side. Sometimes, a courier would have to carry as many as fifty letters at once. Naturally, these “mules” had no idea what the letters contained.
I decided to do something different and open a new secret channel to outside leadership, thus extending my access from the personal level to the operational and security levels.
The Shin Bet loved the idea.
I chose a local Hamas member and told him to meet me at my old cemetery in the middle of the night. To impress him, I showed up carrying my M16.
“I want you to carry out a very important mission,” I told him.
Clearly terrified yet excited, he hung on to every word from the son of Hassan Yousef.
“You can tell no one—not your family, not even your local Hamas leader. By the way, who is your leader?”
I asked him to write out his entire history in Hamas, everything he knew, before I would tell him more about his mission. He couldn’t get everything down on paper fast enough. And I couldn’t believe the amount of information he gave me, including updates on every movement in his area.
We met a second time, and I told him he was being sent out of Palestine.
“Do exactly what I tell you,” I warned, “and don’t ask questions.”
I told Loai that the guy was involved in Hamas up to his neck, so if the organization decided to check him out, they would find a very active and loyal member. The Shin Bet did its own vetting, approved him, and opened the border for him.
I wrote a letter, telling Khalid Meshaal that I had all the keys to the West Bank and he could totally rely on me for special and complicated missions that he could not entrust to normal Hamas channels. I told him I was ready for his orders, and I guaranteed success.
My timing was perfect, since Israel had assassinated or arrested most of the Hamas leaders and activists by that time. Al-Qassam Brigades was exhausted, and Meshaal was desperately low on human resources.
I did not, however, instruct the courier to swallow the letter. I had designed a more complicated mission, mostly because it was more fun. I was discovering that I loved this spy stuff, especially with Israeli intelligence paving the way.
We bought the courier some very nice clothes—a complete outfit, so that his attention would not be drawn to the shoes in which, unknown to him, we had hidden the letter.
He put on the clothes, and I gave him enough money for the trip and a little extra to have some fun in Syria. I told him his contacts would recognize him only by his shoes, so he had to keep them on. Otherwise, they would think he was someone else and he would be in serious danger.
After the courier arrived in Syria, I called Meshaal and told him to expect to be contacted soon. If anyone else had told him that, Khalid would have immediately become suspicious and refused a meeting. But this man had been sent by his young friend, the son of Hassan Yousef. So he believed he had nothing to worry about.
When they met, Khalid requested the letter.
“What letter?” our courier asked. He didn’t know he was supposed to have a letter.
I had given Khalid a hint about where to look, and they found the compartment in one of the shoes. In this way, a new communications channel was established with Damascus, even though Meshaal had no idea that he was actually on a party line with the Shin Bet listening in.
A little before 2 p.m. on August 9, 2001, twenty-two-year-old Izz al-Din Shuheil al-Masri blew himself up at the crowded Sbarro pizza parlor at King George Street and Jaffa Road. Al-Masri was from an affluent family in the West Bank.
Between five and ten kilograms of explosives sprayed nails, nuts, and bolts into the summer crowd, killing 15 people and maiming another 130. Between this horror and the Dolphinarium bombing a few months earlier, the citizenry of Israel was almost blind with grief and rage. Whatever group or faction was behind these attacks had to be identified and stopped before more innocents were killed. Otherwise, events would very likely spiral out of control and unleash unprecedented death and heartache across the region.
Again and again, the Shin Bet pored over every detail of the bombing, trying to connect it to the five guys at the safe house—Muhammad Jamal al-Natsheh, Saleh Talahme, Ibrahim Hamed, Sayyed al-Sheikh Qassem, and Hasaneen Rummanah—but not a shred of evidence tied them to the Dolphinarium or Sbarro attacks.
Who could have made such bombs? Certainly not some chemistry or engineering student. We knew every one of them, the grades they got, and what they ate for breakfast.
Whoever was building these bombs was an expert, didn’t seem to be affiliated with any of the Palestinian factions, and was flying way below our radar. Somehow, we had to find him before he made more bombs. This guy was superdangerous.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that Arafat’s people had received a call from the CIA shortly after the Sbarro attack. “We know who made the bombs,” the Americans told them. “His name is Abdullah Barghouti; he lives with a relative named Bilal Barghouti. Here is their address. Go arrest them.”
Within hours, Abdullah and Bilal Barghouti were in PA custody—not that the Palestinian Authority wanted to arrest them, but to keep the money and logistical support flowing from Washington, Arafat knew it had to at least appear that the PA was doing its part to keep the peace. I believe Arafat would have preferred to give Abdullah Barghouti a medal rather than a prison sentence.
No sooner was Abdullah comfortably secured at Preventive Security Headquarters than another Barghouti—Marwan—showed up to get him out. The PA could not release Abdullah—the CIA had dropped him into their laps, and America expected them to deal with him. Israel expected the same and would definitely take more decisive action if the PA neglected its duty. So Marwan gave Abdullah food, clothes, and money, keeping him under a type of house arrest—working in a nice office, smoking, drinking coffee, and chatting with top security officers.
Though not related, Marwan Barghouti and Abdullah Barghouti shared an interesting common history. They both had connections to the twenty-three-year-old certifiable lunatic named Muhaned Abu Halawa, who had been a lieutenant to Ahmad Ghandour.
Halawa was a Fatah field commander and a member of Force 17. When you think of elite troops like Force 17 and Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards, discipline, skill, and sharp training come to mind. But Halawa didn’t fit the model. He was an uneducated loose cannon who often carried around one of the huge machine guns usually mounted on jeeps. Halawa routinely distributed guns to other extremists and unsavory characters who then used them when driving by checkpoints, strafing soldiers and civilians indiscriminately.
Back in May, for example, he had given someone a couple of loaded AK-47s and a sack of bullets. Not long after, this man and a friend waited in ambush along a road coming out of Jerusalem and put thirteen of those bullets into a Greek Orthodox monk named Tsibouktsakis Germanus. Halawa rewarded the killers with more guns for an attack he was planning at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.
Understandably, it wasn’t long before Israel pressured the Shin Bet to put Halawa permanently out of business. Because of my Hamas connections, I was the only one in the Shin Bet who could identify him. But for the first time in my life, I was facing a real moral dilemma. Something inside me was completely opposed to killing this man, regardless of how bad he was.
I went home and pulled out my now-worn Bible. I searched and searched and could find nothing in the Bible that would sanction murder. But I also couldn’t deal with the blood that would be on my hands if we let him go on living and shooting people. I felt caught.
I kept thinking and praying to God Almighty, until finally I prayed, Forgive me, Lord, for what I am about to do. Forgive me. This man cannot live.
“That’s good,” Loai said, when I told him my decision. “We’ll get him. You just make sure that Marwan Barghouti is not in the car with him.”
Marwan was not only a big-shot Palestinian, he was also a terrorist in his own right with a lot of Israeli blood on his hands. And as much as the Shin Bet hated him, they did not want him assassinated because he would make a formidable martyr.
On August 4, 2001, I was sitting in my car outside of Barghouti’s office when I saw Halawa walk in. A couple of hours later, he came out, got into his gold VW Golf, and drove off. I called the security forces and assured them that Halawa was alone.
From inside a tank at the top of a nearby hill, IDF soldiers watched Halawa’s car, waiting for a clear shot with no civilians close by. The first armor-piercing missile headed for the windshield, but Halawa must have seen it coming, because he opened his door and tried to jump out. He wasn’t fast enough. The missile exploded and threw him out of the car. My car—which was sitting several hundred yards away—shook with the force of the blast. A second missile missed and hit the street. The Golf was in flames, and so was Halawa—but he wasn’t dead. As I watched him run through the streets, screaming in pain as the flames engulfed his body, my heart nearly pounded out of my chest.
What had we done?
“What are you doing!” the Shin Bet yelled at me through my cell phone when they caught sight of my car so close to the scene. “Do you want to get killed? Get out of there!”
Though I was not supposed to be anywhere near the attack site, I had driven down to see what would happen. I felt responsible and obligated to see what I was a part of. It was indeed stupid. If I had been spotted, it would have been too much of a coincidence for anybody to believe that I wasn’t involved in the assassination attempt, and I would have been exposed for sure.
That evening, I went with my father and Marwan Barghouti to the hospital to visit Halawa. His face was so horribly burned I couldn’t even look at him. But it seemed he was too fanatical to die.
He went into hiding for several months, and I heard that he had shot himself accidentally and almost bled to death. But even that wasn’t enough to slow him down. He just kept killing people. Then one day, Loai called me.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at home.”
“Okay, stay there.”
I didn’t ask what was going on. I had learned to trust Loai’s instructions. A couple of hours later, Loai called again. Apparently, Halawa had been eating with some friends at a fried chicken restaurant close to my house. An Israeli spy spotted him and verified his identity. When Halawa and his friends left the restaurant, two helicopters dropped out of the sky, launched their missiles, and that was it.
After Halawa’s assassination, some members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades visited that restaurant and found a seventeen-year-old kid who had been one of the last people to see Halawa before he got into his car. He was an orphan with no family to protect him. So they tortured him, and he confessed to collaborating with the Israelis. They shot him, tied his body to the back of a car, dragged it through the streets of Ramallah, and hung him from the tower in the square.
At the same time, the media started screaming that Israel had tried to kill Marwan Barghouti, which of course, it hadn’t. I knew the organization had taken care to avoid killing him. But everybody believed the newspapers and Al-Jazeera, so Marwan Barghouti decided to make some political capital out of the rumor. He began boasting, “Yes, they tried to assassinate me, but I was too smart for them.”
When Abdullah Barghouti heard the news in prison, he believed it, too, and sent a few of his special bombs to Marwan’s assistant to be used to unleash a terrible revenge on the Israelis. Marwan very much appreciated the gesture and felt indebted to Abdullah.
* * *
Abdullah’s arrival had marked a dramatic change in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. First, his bombs were dramatically more sophisticated and devastating than anything we had seen before, making Israel a lot more vulnerable and increasing pressure on the administration to stop the bombers.
Second, the Al-Aqsa Intifada was no longer confined to Palestine. Barghouti was an outsider, born in Kuwait. Who could tell what other threats to Israel might lie in wait beyond its borders?
Third, Barghouti was not somebody who was easy to keep track of. He wasn’t Hamas. He wasn’t PA. He was just Barghouti, an anonymous independent death machine.
Soon after Abdullah’s arrest, the PA asked Marwan to talk to him about any future attacks he may have planned.
“Okay,” Marwan said. “I’ll have Hassan Yousef talk to him.”
Marwan knew my father felt strongly about political corruption and had heard about his efforts to make peace between Hamas and the PA. He called my dad, who agreed to go talk with Abdullah.
My father had never heard of Abdullah Barghouti, who certainly wasn’t a member of Hamas. But he warned Abdullah, “If you have anything planned, you need to tell the PA so we can stop it for now and take off some of the pressure we’re getting from Israel, at least for the next few weeks. If there is another explosion like the ones at the Dolphinarium or Sbarro, Israel will come into the West Bank in force. They’ll get tough with the PA leaders, and they’ll take you.”
Abdullah admitted that he had sent several bombs to Nablus, where some fighters were planning to load the explosives into four cars, surround Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres while he was traveling, and assassinate him. He also revealed that Hamas operatives in the north were going to blow up a number of Israeli lawmakers. Unfortunately, he didn’t know who the bombers were, who they had targeted, or who was planning to assassinate Peres. He had only a telephone number.
My father came home and shared what he had learned with me. We were now privy to information about a plot to assassinate one of Israel’s highest-ranking officials—the foreign minister. The ramifications were chilling.
Obviously, there was nothing to do but place a call to Abdullah’s contact. Marwan Barghouti didn’t want Abdullah to use his phone, and my father didn’t want him to use his either. We all knew that the Israelis would be listening, and neither man wanted to be connected with the terrorist operations.
So my father sent me out to buy a disposable cell phone on which we could make the call before throwing the phone into the trash. I bought the phone, wrote down the number, and called it in to the Shin Bet so they could trace the call.
Abdullah called his contact in Nablus and told him to stop whatever he was doing until he heard otherwise. As soon as Israeli intelligence learned what had been planned, they put extra security on every member of the Knesset and the cabinet. Finally, after a couple of months, things began to calm down a little.
In the meantime, Marwan continued to work toward Abdullah’s release, not only because Abdullah had provided him with bombs, but also because he wanted him free to kill more Israelis. In addition to being one of the leaders of the Second Intifada, Marwan Barghouti was also a terrorist who was personally shooting soldiers and settlers.
Eventually, the PA did release Abdullah Barghouti. The Shin Bet was furious.
Then everything got really crazy.
Summer 2001–Spring 2002
On August 27, 2001, an Israeli helicopter fired two rockets into the office of Abu Ali Mustafa, secretary-general of the PFLP. One of the rockets struck him as he sat at his desk.
The following day, more than fifty thousand outraged Palestinians, along with Mustafa’s family, attended his funeral. Mustafa had opposed the peace process and the Oslo Accords. Nevertheless, he was a moderate like my father, and we had gone together to hear him lecture many times.
Israel credited him with nine car-bomb attacks, but it wasn’t true. Like my dad, he was a political leader, not a military leader. Israel had absolutely no evidence against him. I knew that for a fact. But it didn’t matter. They assassinated Mustafa anyway—perhaps in retaliation for the carnage at the Sbarro restaurant, or perhaps because of the Dolphinarium massacre. More likely, they simply wanted to send a message to Yasser Arafat. In addition to his role in the PFLP, Mustafa was also a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee.
Two weeks later, on September 11, nineteen Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four jetliners in the United States. Two crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Another crashed into the Pentagon in Washington. And the fourth went down in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. All told, 2,973 people died in addition to the terrorists themselves.
As the news media struggled to keep up with the unbelievable events continuing to unfold, I sat with the rest of the world watching again and again the reports of the Twin Towers collapsing, white ash covering Church Street like a February blizzard. I felt a rush of shame when I saw the footage of Palestinian children celebrating in the streets of Gaza.
The attack reduced the Palestinian cause to ashes, too, as the world shouted with one voice against terrorism—any terrorism, for any cause. In the weeks to follow, the Shin Bet began searching for lessons to be found in the rubble of what would come to be known simply as 9/11.