Shin Bet sto­ries

... ‘con­verted’ a Ha­mas sup­porter to Ju­daism

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By YONAH JEREMY BOB

Move over, Fauda. One could hardly imag­ine a more sur­real scene. There he was, a top Shin Bet (Is­rael Se­cu­rity Agency) of­fi­cial hav­ing smug­gled a mem­ber of Ha­mas from the West Bank into Tel Aviv. And the pur­pose was to help make him feel like he was on the path to con­vert­ing to Ju­daism so that he would keep giv­ing them leads to bust ter­ror cells. No, this is no Purim joke.

Arik “Har­ris” Barb­bing just re­tired about a year ago af­ter 27 years in the Shin Bet, dur­ing which he nearly rose to the top of the Is­rael Se­cu­rity Agency. Tall and im­pos­ing, but able to sud­denly be gre­gar­i­ous and fit into what­ever the sit­u­a­tion might dic­tate, his sin­gu­lar skills are quickly ap­par­ent.

In re­cent years he held po­si­tions with awe­some re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, such as head of the counter-ter­ror divi­sion for all of Jerusalem, Judea and Sa­maria, as well as be­ing the first head of the agency’s cy­ber divi­sion.

But over the years, he served in a wide va­ri­ety of roles. In re­cruit­ing Pales­tinian dou­ble-agents, he was sec­ond to none.

In order to suc­cess­fully “turn” Pales­tini­ans, es­pe­cially mem­bers of groups like Ha­mas, against their ter­ror com­rades, Har­ris noted that “you need great chem­istry with the per­son, us­ing emo­tional in­tel­li­gence more than IQ.”

Next, “it’s very im­por­tant that you do not in­ter­act from a po­si­tion of co­er­cion… You need to be sen­si­tive. You need to un­der­stand more about where he feels he is miss­ing or needs some­thing. With many agents, they are adventurer­s. Life is bor­ing and they want more.”

“All of us hide and lie and want more. We want more money, more at­ten­tion and more love… there is lots of ma­nip­u­la­tion. Even if you don’t think you want more, I can lead you on. Peo­ple con­ceal things that they don’t want to dis­cuss,” said the for­mer top Shin Bet of­fi­cial.

‘You need great chem­istry with the per­son [you are try­ing to “turn”] – us­ing emo­tional in­tel­li­gence more than IQ’

HAR­RIS SAID that years ago there was one hard­ened ac­tive Ha­mas ter­ror­ist in the south­ern area of the Judea re­gion who the Shin Bet dis­cov­ered “had some kind of con­nec­tion and in­ter­est in Jews, a Jewish girl, and even pos­sessed books about Ju­daism in He­brew.”

The unimag­in­ably bizarre sit­u­a­tion meant that for years this man lived with the dis­so­nance of be­ing both a Ha­mas op­er­a­tive and an ad­mirer of Ju­daism.

“He was not just a mem­ber of Ha­mas, he was a big ter­ror­ist who col­lected ma­te­ri­als for and man­u­fac­tured bombs,” he re­called.

The Shin Bet ar­rested the Ha­mas op­er­a­tive and he and Har­ris dis­cussed the paths his life might take from that point.

The Ha­mas op­er­a­tive told Har­ris that “he did not want to go to jail. He wanted to con­vert to Ju­daism!”

“It wasn’t im­por­tant whether this was prac­ti­cal. But we told him you can do it, but you need to do it as part of the proper process. You can do it qui­etly. But you need to un­der­stand – when you are in the process of con­vert­ing, you can’t act against Jews any­more,” he re­counted with a twin­kle in his eye.

The Ha­mas op­er­a­tive ob­jected, “But you kill us!” Har­ris and the Shin Bet re­sponded, “If we con­vert you, then you are a Jew. You’ll help us with small things, to stop ter­ror at­tacks and im­prove re­la­tions” be­tween the two peo­ples.

With a wry look, he ex­plained that the Shin Bet “brought him an el­derly man wear­ing a kippa who spoke Ara­bic as his mother tongue.” This Shin Bet agent was orig­i­nally from an Iraqi-Jewish back­ground, but the Shin Bet pre­sented him as an Arab who had con­verted to Ju­daism. They wanted the Ha­mas op­er­a­tive to feel that he was not the first con­vert from an Arab back­ground.

The Ha­mas op­er­a­tive “be­lieved the story big time, be­cause oth­er­wise he could not ex­plain how the man spoke Ara­bic so per­fectly – like some­one who had spo­ken it even in his youth.”

“Then he helped stop many at­tacks… in the He­bron and south He­bron ar­eas, in­clud­ing sig­nif­i­cant Ha­mas weapons in­fra­struc­ture for car­ry­ing out shoot­ings and kid­nap­pings.”

In the above in­stance, when Har­ris brought the Ha­mas in­for­mant to Tel Aviv, he said he was care­ful to bring him to a lo­ca­tion with no wine. Pre­vi­ous Shin Bet ex­pe­ri­ences showed that some dou­ble agents, even as they are ready to turn on Ha­mas, get un­com­fort­able when of­fered wine.

Har­ris could not re­veal how they smug­gled the Ha­mas dou­ble-agent into Tel Aviv. But he said there is a clever pro­ce­dure dat­ing back around 20 years that avoids prob­lems seen in two past in­ci­dents. He noted that if Ha­mas killed a Shin Bet agent “it would be their big­gest pos­si­ble win.”

HAR­RIS’S UN­PAR­AL­LELED and up-to-date ex­pe­ri­ence in the Shin Bet also gives him unique in­sight into the ques­tion of who might re­place ag­ing Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas, when frailty or death end his reign.

“Abu Mazen has not picked a suc­ces­sor, so we can’t tell who it will be” for sure, but Har­ris, nar­rowed his gaze and listed off some top po­ten­tial con­tenders.

First, he dis­cussed Jib­ril Ra­joub. He said Ra­joub has “lots of power” as head of the PA’s sports min­istry be­cause “soc­cer is huge for Pales­tini­ans and it gives him pop­u­lar­ity on the street.”

Ra­joub has the ben­e­fit of com­bin­ing a re­sume of for­merly head­ing the PA’s se­cu­rity ser­vices for an ex­tended pe­riod with his cur­rent street power, he com­mented.

Next, Har­ris men­tioned Mah­moud Aloul, Ab­bas’s vice pres­i­dent and Fatah’s head of Nablus. He said that Aloul is “highly in­flu­en­tial in north­ern West Bank ar­eas, while less con­nected in the south­ern West Bank.”

An­other name he dis­cussed was Ma­jid Faraj, the cur­rent head of PA in­tel­li­gence and the top na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser for Abu Mazen. He said that Faraj is “one of Ab­bas’s clos­est ad­vis­ers and a very strong fig­ure.”

Com­par­ing Ra­joub and Faraj, Har­ris said that al­though Faraj was strong with the se­cu­rity ser­vices, Ra­joub has done far more to build wide po­lit­i­cal sup­port.

Next, Har­ris eval­u­ated PA Civil­ian Af­fairs Min­is­ter Hasin A-Sheikh, who is a li­ai­son with Is­rael. He said A-Sheikh “has lots of in­flu­ence with Abu Mazen and sig­nif­i­cant power among the pub­lic, but not enough in­de­pen­dent power to suc­ceed him un­less Abu Mazen ex­plic­itly se­lected him as his suc­ces­sor.”

A fur­ther po­ten­tial can­di­date he dis­cussed was Taw­fik Ti­rawi. On one hand, he said that Ti­rawi “has sig­nif­i­cant power in the refugee camps” where the PA is weaker and there is a higher quan­tity of weapons not tied solely to the PA. On the other hand, all of this par­tially de­rives from Ti­rawi be­ing close to and hav­ing the fi­nan­cial back­ing of Mo­hammed Dahlan, a for­mer chief of Pales­tinian se­cu­rity forces.

Dahlan was once thought of as a po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor of ei­ther Yasser Arafat or Ab­bas. But af­ter a fall­ing out with Ab­bas, who wor­ried Dahlan was try­ing to push him out, he was ex­pelled from PA ar­eas. While Dahlan helps pro­vide Ti­rawi and his al­lies with money and guards, Ti­rawi’s close­ness to Dahlan could sink his chances of suc­ceed­ing Ab­bas.

One fas­ci­nat­ing point was a name that Har­ris dis­qual­i­fied as out of the game. For years, many dis­cussed Mar­wan Bargh­outi as a po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor. Bargh­outi was a top Fatah of­fi­cial who led the Tanzim forces dur­ing the Sec­ond In­tifada and has man­aged work­able re­la­tions with Ha­mas through contacts he made with their of­fi­cials while in Is­raeli prison since 2002.

Har­ris said Bargh­outi used to be so pow­er­ful that if he called a hunger strike in jail, it could cause a na­tion­wide cri­sis. How­ever, he said Bargh­outi has lost some of his fol­low­ing and mo­men­tum. Af­ter a hunger strike protest around two years ago, Bargh­outi re­ceived fewer con­ces­sions than usual and ba­si­cally has not been pub­licly heard from since. Be­tween Is­rael’s de­ter­mi­na­tion never to re­lease Bargh­outi and the 18 years that he has been in prison and out of the ac­tive po­lit­i­cal arena, Har­ris viewed him as yes­ter­day’s news.

Har­ris pre­dicted that when Ab­bas’s reign ends, “there will be no rev­o­lu­tion. There is not ma­jor ten­sion or fight­ing be­tween the PA’s fac­tions. But if they have trou­ble agree­ing on some­one, this could cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion where armed groups from Jenin and the refugee camps could in­flu­ence the PA pub­lic us­ing their weapons.”

“Also, at­tacks on Is­rael could get out of hand” in that sce­nario, he warned.

With all of the dis­cus­sion of suc­ceed­ing Ab­bas, Har­ris said there will be no wide Pales­tinian elec­tion ei­ther un­der Ab­bas or to suc­ceed him – the PA would not risk this be­cause Ha­mas’ power could grow un­in­ten­tion­ally.

In­stead, he said that at most af­ter PA lead­ers picked a suc­ces­sor for Ab­bas, they might hold a kind of rigged elec­tion sim­ply to en­dorse the se­lec­tion.

Asked which of the above can­di­dates Is­rael would want to suc­ceed Ab­bas, Har­ris put up a strong stop sign.

Is­rael must avoid tak­ing sides at all costs, he stressed, since any­one it sig­naled it sup­ported would in­evitably lose all pub­lic sup­port and be tarred as a col­lab­o­ra­tor.

CROSS­ING OVER to dis­cussing the im­pli­ca­tions of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s Deal of the Cen­tury for the Jewish state and the PA, he said, “As long as Trump is in of­fice, some of the Arab states may help Is­rael, since they see the Pales­tini­ans as a small state… Geopo­lit­i­cal changes have caused the Pales­tinian is­sue to be viewed not as the big­gest prob­lem. The at­ten­tion of other Arab states is di­rected much more at be­ing wor­ried about Ira­nian ex­pan­sion. The Sunni-Shi’ite con­flict is the big­gest is­sue.”

Beyond that, while he would not an­a­lyze many of the plan’s diplo­matic pro­pos­als, he did an­a­lyze its se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions. He zoned in on the ques­tion of how any Is­raeli an­nex­a­tion move in line with the Trump plan could im­pact se­cu­rity, not­ing that all the ma­jor Is­raeli po­lit­i­cal par­ties sup­port an­nex­ing the Jewish set­tle­ment blocs even­tu­ally, but that the de­bate is about tim­ing. The Right might like to rush for­ward now. The Left and Cen­ter are more con­cerned about Pales­tinian and global ac­cep­tance in a ne­go­ti­ated process.

What if a new gov­ern­ment moves in the near fu­ture to an­nex, say, the Jor­dan Val­ley, be­fore a fully ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment is reached?

“If you take a big de­ci­sion, you must ask what it can cause. With the Pales­tini­ans, there can be con­se­quences. They could limit or end the se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion deals since Oslo,” he said.

This is cru­cial be­cause, based on his ex­pe­ri­ence, Har­ris cred­ited the PA with help­ing thwart up to 20% of ter­ror threats against Is­raelis em­a­nat­ing from the West Bank.

“But with the se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion, you need to un­der­stand that the Pales­tini­ans’ in­ter­est in con­tin­u­ing this is no less than our in­ter­est. It helps them to sur­vive ver­sus Ha­mas. The co­op­er­a­tion is not just for Is­rael.”

He ex­plained that if there was no IDF and no Shin Bet to crack down on Ha­mas and es­sen­tially pro­tect the PA, their rule could be en­dan­gered.

“So the se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion is a win-win for both sides.”

If the PA needs the se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion so des­per­ately, why does Har­ris think any Is­raeli de­ci­sion could risk the PA can­cel­ing it?

Es­sen­tially, he noted that se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion is not zero-sum. It “can go up and down. Some­times they are more or less suc­cess­ful,” and that even par­tial PA will­ful blind­ness to ter­ror at­tacks on Is­rael could lead to dead Is­raelis.

In terms of whether the sim­ple pre­sen­ta­tion of the Trump plan would lead to a new in­tifada, as some had pre­dicted, Har­ris, who was speak­ing just af­ter the plan was rolled out, calmly said this would not oc­cur.

He calmly di­ag­nosed how even a few days of mul­ti­ple ter­ror at­tacks were re­ally mostly co­in­ci­dence, spon­ta­neous and not an or­ga­nized ef­fort.

With­out an or­ga­nized ef­fort, he did not see enough pent-up anger on the street to lead to an­other lone-wolf in­tifada and felt the vi­o­lence would likely sub­side to stan­dard lev­els much faster than the 2015-2016 Knife In­tifada.

In ad­di­tion, he said, “Abu Mazen is not for ter­ror. He wants a state.”

Har­ris agreed with the state­ment that “diplo­matic ter­ror is not ter­ror” and that as dis­turb­ing as Ab­bas’ sup­port is for BDS and In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court pro­ceed­ings against Is­rael, he has been much bet­ter than Arafat be­cause “he did not al­low ter­ror” (whereas Arafat did.)

On the other hand, he said that Ab­bas “hasn’t brought the Pales­tini­ans a state. He didn’t suc­ceed at any­thing. There is an ex­pec­ta­tion the next gen­er­a­tion may be able to make changes that he could not.”

HAR­RIS’S DECADES in the Shin Bet also give him a plat­form for com­par­ing the eras of the many chiefs he served un­der.

Avi Dichter (Shin Bet chief 2000-2005), he said, “was one of the big movers” who helped get the West Bank and east Jerusalem se­cu­rity bar­ri­ers built. De­scrib­ing the sit­u­a­tion be­fore the bar­rier, he listed off a range of ar­eas in the West Bank that the Shin Bet could throw a se­cu­rity blan­ket over, while fail­ing some­times to catch the one nee­dle in a haystack with a bus bomb. He cred­ited Dichter’s push for the wall and his abil­ity to im­prove joint co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the Shin Bet, the IDF and the po­lice for sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing ter­ror.

He com­pli­mented Yu­val Diskin (chief 2005-2011) for “fully de­vel­op­ing the idea of in­te­grat­ing the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and its col­lec­tion units in all places, in­clud­ing the quick shar­ing of in­tel­li­gence to dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions” for where it would be most rel­e­vant.

“We should get a global patent for it. The US and the French didn’t fully know how to do it. Now, they are de­vel­op­ing the ca­pa­bil­ity for quick shar­ing of in­tel­li­gence among agen­cies, but we cre­ated it.”

He said that Diskin un­der­stood “if the Shin Bet, IDF and po­lice were thought of as dif­fer­ent units, then we would miss the dan­ger and an­other bus could ex­plode. The lessons im­ple­mented [by Diskin] con­cretely stopped ac­tual ter­ror at­tacks. There were many ter­ror at­tacks where some agency knew some­thing, but didn’t co­or­di­nate” in­tel­li­gence shar­ing fast enough.

He said that Diskin started us­ing big data min­ing to fight ter­ror, but that un­der Yo­ram Co­hen (chief 20112016), “there was a huge jump in data min­ing and de­vel­op­ing new kinds of in­tel­li­gence from that data.”

Co­hen “con­nected data min­ing with cy­ber ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Cy­ber grew un­der Yo­ram into its own sep­a­rate divi­sion. He ap­pointed me the first cy­ber divi­sion chief. I then saw how Yo­ram brought the or­ga­ni­za­tion over from clas­sic in­tel­li­gence abil­i­ties like HUMINT (hu­man spies), in­ter­ro­ga­tions [of ter­ror­ists] and SIGNINT [sig­nal in­tel­li­gence] from Unit 8200, to a dra­matic rev­o­lu­tion of com­bin­ing cy­ber and in­tel­li­gence to­gether. Yo­ram took it much deeper,” he said.

“Af­ter we with­drew from Gaza in 2005, for the first time the Shin Bet could not op­er­ate freely there. We needed to de­velop new ca­pa­bil­i­ties” to stay on top of in­tel­li­gence there and “cy­ber kills geo­graphic ob­sta­cles. Yo­ram pushed harder to find many new ways to de­tect and stop ter­ror from Gaza, and even from Si­nai,” not­ing that Egypt pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak al­lowed a Be­duin area to be­come in­fested with ISIS.

“Bibi built a fence” on the Si­nai bor­der, but there was still the ISIS-Be­duin ter­ror at­tack on a nearby road. “Yo­ram jumped on col­lect­ing in­tel­li­gence not just with men in the field,” but also in car­ry­ing out tar­geted killings and other op­er­a­tions even with­out an agent in the field. Some­times wait­ing for an agent could take an hour and a counter-ter­ror op­por­tu­nity would be lost, he elab­o­rated.

Un­der cur­rent Shin Bet Di­rec­tor Na­dav Arga­man, in of­fice since 2016, and who Har­ris worked di­rectly with un­til about one year ago, he said, “there were new jumps in us­ing tech­nol­ogy.”

He said that Arga­man patented some new “more dar­ing meth­ods of ac­tion, sub­stan­tial re­or­ga­ni­za­tion” of the Shin Bet’s dif­fer­ent units to “make things more tai­lored to spe­cific threats” and in­ter­nal changes to ad­dress new chal­lenges, as well as mak­ing the agency “much more open to the me­dia and the pub­lic.”

Not­ing that the Shin Bet’s web­site shares more in­for­ma­tion than ever, he also said that Arga­man is par­tic­i­pat­ing in far more con­fer­ences, like Cy­bertech, than in the past.

THIS LED to a dis­cus­sion about chang­ing times in terms of the Shin Bet and Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence in gen­eral part­ner­ing more with the pri­vate sec­tor.

“We don’t need to de­velop whole new tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems our­selves. We can buy them from the pri­vate sec­tor, from start-ups and then make the nec­es­sary mod­i­fi­ca­tions for our needs.”

There are still some is­sues where hu­mans out­per­form cy­ber. Har­ris gave a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count­ing of how – based on so­cial me­dia posts – the Shin Bet de­cides when to ar­rest some­one or when to just give them a warn­ing. One might ex­pect that the more vi­o­lent the post sounds, the more likely the Shin Bet will ar­rest some­one. Yet, even as the Shin Bet does use cy­ber and ma­chine-learn­ing abil­i­ties to col­lect so­cial me­dia in­for­ma­tion, the de­ci­sion about what to do is al­ways still made by hu­man an­a­lysts.

He ex­plained that only hu­man an­a­lysts can weigh the com­plex­i­ties of an in­di­vid­ual case to es­ti­mate whether prison is nec­es­sary or whether prison might har­den a teenager into a ter­ror­ist who, un­til now, just wanted to ex­press angst loudly on so­cial me­dia. In such cases, a warn­ing call to the teenager’s par­ents about their posts might do far more good both for the teenager and for Is­raeli se­cu­rity long-term.

These calls with po­ten­tial lone wolf-at­tack­ers, re­cruit­ing dou­ble-agents and max­i­miz­ing new cy­ber abil­i­ties are just some of the ways that Har­ris helped keep the coun­try safe in re­cent decades.

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

ARIK ‘HAR­RIS’ BARB­BING: Sec­ond to none in re­cruit­ing Pales­tinian dou­ble agents.

(Corinna Kern/Reuters)

A BILL­BOARD over a Tel Aviv high­way shows pho­to­shopped war zone im­ages of Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas (right) and Ha­mas leader Is­mail Haniyeh, both blind­folded, with a slo­gan that reads, ‘Peace is Made ONLY with De­feated En­e­mies,’ on Fe­bru­ary 15.

(Mo­hamad Torokman/Reuters)

AB­BAS CON­FERS with se­nior Fatah of­fi­cial Mah­moud Aloul (right) dur­ing a cer­e­mony mark­ing the an­niver­sary of the death of late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, in Ra­mal­lah on Novem­ber 11, 2018.

(Amir Co­hen/Reuters)

LEFT: AVI DICHTER, for­mer chief of the Shin Bet (fourth from right), and then­for­eign min­is­ter Tzipi Livni (third from right) speak to the me­dia dur­ing a visit to an ob­ser­va­tion point over­look­ing Gaza, in De­cem­ber 2008.

(Mo­hamad Torokman/Reuters)

A PALES­TINIAN demon­stra­tor holds an anti-US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump poster dur­ing a rally in sup­port of Ab­bas and against Trump’s Mid­dle East peace plan, in Ra­mal­lah on Fe­bru­ary 11.

(Nir Elias/Reuters)

FOR­MER SHIN BET head Yu­val Diskin speaks at a home­land se­cu­rity con­fer­ence in Tel Aviv in 2010.

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