A common tactic for intelligence agencies is the use of front companies. In books about Israeli spy agencies, the tactic is a frequent reappearance.
Former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky’s book “By Way of Deception” gives details of some of the ways Israel’s notorious overseas spying and assassination agency operates. He recounts the use of front men and fake company representatives in an effort to recruit an unwitting, highly placed Syrian target.
But the use of front companies often goes far deeper than such a temporary pretence for the purposes of an individual operation. Israel has in the past set up and run such business fronts as wholly owned subsidiaries of its spy agencies.
Such enterprises serve a dual purpose. Firstly, they help to infiltrate their agents into strategic countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa. And secondly, run for a sometimes lucrative profit, these companies act as an additional income source.
Alexander and Leslie Cockburn’s 1991 book “Dangerous Liaison” gives several such examples.
In the 1950s and 1960s, one such Israeli front was Incoda, which exported Ethiopian beef. According to the Cockburn’s account, it was a wholly-owned Mossad operation.
A former director of the company quoted in the book said: “Incoda was a station for Israeli intelligence in Africa. We had a huge arms cache … We were only a cover in Mossad deals. When they had to send someone to an Arab country, they did it through us … We transmitted mail to spies in Arab countries in our ships.”
This was part of a plan which Israeli intelligence officials called “the periphery strategy”, which I wrote about some years ago.
These days, Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia are pretty openly in bed with Israel, so it is perhaps harder to remember a time when Arab dictators had to at least pretend to offer lip service to the Palestinian cause, or face the anger of the Arab people.The Arab world was seen as more united against Israel in those days. As part of a way to counter this, Israeli planners attempted to break any prospect of unity by appealing to regimes and groups seen as on the “periphery” of the Arab world – in geographical, sectarian and ethnical terms.
The staunchly anti-communist feudal monarchy which ruled Ethiopia in the 1950s was seen as one such periphery. The country is majority Christian as opposed to the majority Muslim North African countries. And being positioned along the Red Sea, it was an ideal staging post for Israeli agents to infiltrate the region.
Other such peripheries were Turkey and Iran: both of which are not Arab, and the latter of which is majority Shia Muslim.
Despite occasional anti-Israel rhetoric from the current AKP government, and the temporary decline in diplomatic relations over the murderous Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara in 2010, the Israeli-Turkish military-intelligence relationship is still very much ongoing.
Since 1979, the Israeli-Iranian relationship has of course been very different – openly hostile in fact. But before the days of the Islamic Republic, the relationship was quite the opposite.
When a group of Iranian students in 1979 stormed the US embassy in Tehran, it famously led to the long-running hostage crisis which was a major factor in President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 election loss.
But there was another, less famous, result of the students’ militant action. When they took over the embassy, they also obtained most of its top secret documents, including vast numbers of CIA papers.
In the days long before WikiLeaks, the students took it upon themselves to declassify the documents, using their own particular unconventional, direct methods. This was done in some 60 volumes published mostly in the 1980s and 1990s, under the rather brilliant title “Documents from the US Espionage Den“.
Volume 11 of this series focused on Israel and its relationship with the brutal regime of Iran under the Shah. You can read it for free in English online at the Internet Archive. The larger portion of the book is taken up by a CIA study on the nature and structure of Israeli intelligence services.
As the Cockburns points out, the spy agencies of Iran under the Shah, Israel and Turkey formed an alliance known as the Trident Organisation. This “formal trilateral liaison” was “established by Mossad with Turkey’s National Security Services (TNSS) and Iran’s National Organisation for Intelligence and Security (SAVAK) in late 1958.”
The SAVAK had been created in 1957 under the auspices of the CIA. The SAVAK’s Third Department was its internal secret police which was, as the Cockburns accurately summarise, the reason the organisation became a “byword for savagery and repression”.
It was Israel’s Mossad which tutored SAVAK in torture, according to CIA officials. Proving that Israel’s global terrorist network has cast a long shadow over the region and indeed several parts of the world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.