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Authors: Michael Ross

The Volunteer

BOOK: The Volunteer
Volunteer, The
The Incredible True Story of an Israeli Spy on the Trail of International Terrorists
Michael Ross

Copyright © 2007 by Michael Ross

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Skyhorse Publishing, 555 Eighth Avenue, Suite 903, New York, NY 10018.

Epigraph on page 161: Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd. © J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954

Epigraph on page 257: “Load Me Up” words and music by Matthew Good, Dave Genn, Ian Browne, and Rich Priske. © 1999 EMI April Music (Canada) Ltd., Dunharrow. Music and Publisher unknown. All rights for EMI April Music (Canada) Ltd. and Dunharrow Music in the U.S. controled and administered by EMI April Music Inc. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Reserved. Used by Permission.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Printed in the United States of America

For Shannon, Moran, Sahar, and Tatum
You are all the redemption I could ever need


o nation on earth is as loved and loathed as Israel. To Jews, it is a sacred homeland; to Muslims, it is a neo-colonial tumor. But the conflict extends far beyond religion. As the twentieth century's various
waxed and waned, history has put the Jewish state at the eye of every ideological storm. Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s dressed up their manifestos with Marxist jargon. Gamal Abdel Nasser preached pan-Arabism. The Baathists of Syria and Iraq traced their intellectual roots to Nazism. Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the worldwide awakening of militant Islam, which in turn inspired Hamas, al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. Name an ideology that embraces random slaughter, and Israel has been made to fight it. This fact explains the intense devotion exhibited by many Westerners—Jew and gentile alike—to Israel's cause: they instinctively see in the state a microcosm of the civilized world's struggle against a murderous ideology and the people who embrace it.

This sense of solidarity was only strengthened when the Twin Towers fell, for it became clear that the world's jihadists despised the “infidels” in New York and Washington as much as those in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In the decades leading up to 9/ 11, these jihadists were regarded as a sideshow to more important geopolitical conflicts. Then the world discovered what I'd known for twenty years: Israel's battle is everyone's battle.

From 1988 until late 2001, I had the rare privilege of serving in the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service, better known as the Mossad. My mission during that time was to protect Israel from exactly the sort of nihilistic killers who struck the United States on 9/11. This book is the story of how I performed that mission.

I had a varied career. For seven and a half years, I operated as an undercover agent—a classic spy—deployed in a variety of hostile locales. Following that, I worked at headquarters for two and a half years as the counterterrorism liaison officer to the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Though this position lacked the glamour of a foreign posting, it coincided with a period during which the CIA became involved in the Middle East peace process and Israel was experiencing a spate of deadly terrorist bombings. The events I witnessed during that time cast much light on the jointly fought war on terrorism that continues in Israel and the United States to this day.

My story continues with my redeployment to the field in Africa and Southeast Asia, where my mission was to recruit sources and conduct covert operations aimed at weakening terrorist networks and countering the proliferation of unconventional weapons. It was a period of odd, unconnected jobs. But many of them were memorable, and these have found their way into this memoir.

I wish this book was a slice of bygone history—like the spy memoirs written by veterans of the Cold War. But sadly, this is not the case. Israel is still an unwanted presence in the Middle East. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared on October 26, 2005, that Israel must be “wiped off the map,” he was not delivering the opinion of a rogue hatemonger; rather, he was giving voice to the majority view in the Muslim Middle East.

During my time in the Mossad, I did my small part to prevent the Ahmadinejads, Saddams, and bin Ladens of the world from getting their way. In the chapters that follow, I will describe my role in missions to foil attempts by Syria, Libya, and Iran to acquire advanced weapons technology. I will also tell of my part in the capture of three senior al-Qaeda operatives in Azerbaijan; a secret operation by the Mossad and Israeli special forces to prevent Tehran from assisting Sudan's government in its genocidal campaign against the country's non-Muslim population; a joint Mossad-FBI operation that uncovered a senior Hezbollah terrorist operating in the United States; a mission to South Africa in which I intercepted Iranian agents looking to expand their country's military arsenal; as well as a bittersweet trip to neighboring Zimbabwe, where I helped rescue some of the country's few remaining Jews from Robert Mugabe's brutal regime.

If you scan the list above, it becomes depressingly apparent that all of the terrorist groups and rogue states I fought—with the singular, contestable exception of Libya—remain enemies of the West. In the case of Iran, North Korea, and al-Qaeda, the threat has only grown.

With my spying days now behind me, I want to provide readers with what insights I can into the ongoing war against terror and rogue power that I embarked on two decades ago. In so doing, I will also tell my own story and describe some of the pitfalls of my craft. As in John le Carré's
, the world of spies is a place of great human drama, courage, and imagination. It can also be a place of banal human failings. Though I am proud of what I've done, and have few regrets, the fact is that the secret life I chose comes at great human cost. Estranged children, divorce, depression, anger, compulsive behaviors, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and general alienation are all too common among covert agents.

Few spies retire into money or fame. Speaking for myself, being a spy never got me a free beer anywhere. Aside from my collection of mementos—photos, military badges, and the odd newspaper clipping—memories are pretty much all that is left of my experiences. In the pages that follow, I will do my best to convey the smell, taste, and feel of the places and people I've seen around the world, and of the hollow men whose schemes I did my best to thwart.

A caveat: There have been other books written about the Mossad—some making broad, sensationalistic claims about the agency's means and mission. As in any intelligence agency, information is tightly guarded within the Mossad, even among active agents. Anyone who claims to know more than a small slice of what the Mossad does is probably lying. I therefore emphasize that
The Volunteer
is intended as a personal story, and not as a comprehensive history of the Mossad. If it didn't happen to me, it's not in this book.

A second caveat: Not every detail of every mission I performed in the Mossad is described here. That's because I have no wish to compromise “the Office” by disclosing sensitive information. Much of what I share on these pages is nominally secret, but I've left out anything that, in my judgment, would compromise my former colleagues or their allies in other intelligence services.

Before 9/ 11, I never gave a thought to writing a memoir. But now that the local conflict in which I willingly immersed myself two decades ago has become a global war, my attitude has changed. People everywhere now know that they are in a high-stakes war that pits civilization against a fascistic death cult. Having seen the enemy up close, I want to describe to the world the contours of its many faces.

If I am successful, I will not only arouse my readers' interest, but also impart a few grains of a retired spy's wisdom. The Mossad's much misquoted motto is not “By way of deception thou shalt do war” but rather a quote from the Book of Proverbs: “Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.”

Amen to that.


Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.


hen I first came to Israel in 1982, it was not as a soldier or spy, but as a tourist—a twenty-one-year-old Canadian fresh out of the army looking to ease himself back into civilian life. After three years of a strict military regimen in the Canadian armed forces, what I really wanted was to see the world through the eyes of a typical hedonistic backpacker—not through the crosshairs of a 7.62mm FN assault rifle, or out of the Plexiglas window of a military helicopter.

Leaving my home in Victoria, British Columbia, I flew to Europe and wandered the streets of London, Paris, and Rome, as well as those of a slew of picturesque small towns in the European countryside. I tried to pick up some of the local languages, while earnestly thrusting my own bad high school French, Italian, and German on the hapless locals. I didn't have to answer to anyone, let alone salute them. I got drunk with all kinds of people in all kinds of places, and had the opportunity to learn a little about European women, and their famously liberal sexual mores. In retrospect, those times were good preparation for some of the undercover work I would eventually be doing in Europe about eight years later.

By October, my plan was to winter somewhere warm, then go back to Canada and rejoin my friends, who were by now slogging away at university. Through the youth hostel grapevine, I'd heard that Israel might be a practical choice. Especially popular at the time were the country's
—collectives where visitors could work the fields or factories in exchange for room and board. I didn't know much about them, but it sounded fun.

Tel Aviv in the morning: The scene resembled something like rush hour in any major American city—except the drivers were a lot less polite. Fat palm trees and lush green gardens surrounded low-slung apartment blocks—a strange combination of Santa Monica and the Italian Riviera. The language spoken sounded odd and entirely foreign. How amazed I would have been to learn that within a few years, I would become completely fluent in Hebrew.

From the sidewalk, I could see the sun reflecting off the Mediterranean. A group of wetsuit-clad boys not much younger than I carried their surfboards to the sea. You'd never have known that Israel was then at war, having invaded Lebanon in June to roust Palestinian terror groups from the southern part of the country.
Soldiers of both sexes were everywhere, their body language and manners casual. Military service is compulsory for Israelis between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, and most men remain in the army's reserves until middle age, so people are used to carrying weapons and seeing others doing the same. The presence of armed men doesn't arouse the sense of anxiety it does in other parts of the world.

At the kibbutz placement agency, I was met by a friendly man who spoke English well. As we gazed at a map of Israel pinned to the wall behind his desk, he asked me where I wanted to go. I asked him to send me someplace warm that I could get to by bus. He scribbled the name of a kibbutz in the Bet Shean Valley on a piece of paper. Then he handed me a transit pass and gave me directions to the city's central bus station, where I caught a bus out of Tel Aviv.

Traveling roads once used by the Romans, Greeks, and a dozen other great empires, we passed through a succession of Jewish and Arab villages. Then we turned into a fertile valley bordered by the Gilboa Mountains to the south and a set of low acacia-studded hills to the north. I saw the dun-colored mountains of Gilead off to the east, property of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I was awestruck—not just by the physical beauty, but by the centuries of history in which I knew this land was steeped.

At the kibbutz, I was warmly greeted by twenty-somethings from New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Sweden, and South Africa. The place had something of a party vibe, complete with a pub that some 1960s-era volunteers had converted from an old poultry-processing plant. The beer was plentiful and absurdly cheap. Whatever loneliness I'd felt when I arrived the night before quickly dissipated.

In recent decades, Israel's kibbutz movement has fallen into decline—along with the socialist political ideology that gave rise to it. But during the country's early years, the kibbutzniks were Israel's heart and soul. Most were stoical, avowedly secular Jews whose parents and grandparents had survived the Holocaust or other intense hardships. They'd arrived with a dream to forge a new identity for themselves and shed the dark cloak of Diaspora Judaism.

Though they always comprised a small percentage of Israeli society, kibbutzniks formed the core of Israel's founding warrior class—once staffing as much as eighty percent of the country's top military jobs. To this day, whole special forces units are still composed of kibbutzniks. Getting up early, working the land, camping, and hiking were activities kibbutz children did practically from the cradle. They were tough and self-confident, and they knew how to work as part of a team.

I stayed on the kibbutz for several months, working the cotton plantation while trying to learn Hebrew and exploring the country in my spare time. Like most tourists, I spent much of my time in Jerusalem. Canada is not a religious country, and this was the first time I'd been to a place where people took their communion with God so seriously.

Of course, I knew nothing of the prayers I heard from the pious bearded men bowing before the Old City's Western Wall, but I could certainly appreciate the awe-inspiring historical significance of the site. This was the one surviving piece of the Jews' ancient Roman-era temple. The very idea that modern-day Jews could reclaim it two millennia later boggled my mind.

I was barely an adult at the time, at the stage in life when many of us begin to look for meaning—something beyond the quest for girls and peer-group acceptance that dominates the teenage years. For some, this search leads to identity politics, or to nationalism, or to a reversion to an ancestral religion. Looking back, perhaps it was fate that I found myself in Israel at this impressionable time of life. Born into an Anglican family, I'd never thought much about matters of faith.

That began to change. As I traversed the country and drank in more of its history, I began to feel the stirrings of spiritual interest in Judaism. I felt something of a political awakening as well. Though I'd never followed foreign affairs closely when I was in Canada, I'd always felt a vague but oddly powerful sense of solidarity with Israel in its fight to survive amid hostile neighbors. Now that I was living in the country, learning more about its people and the threats they faced, this feeling grew.

We all have moments when we look back and think about the important crossroads in our lives. For me, the defining moment was in 1983, while riding a bus between Haifa and the pastoral fields and hills of the lower Galilee, near the sleepy town of Yokneam.

The spring sunshine was streaming through the old Egged bus windows, illuminating the crudely tattooed sequence of numbers on the upraised arm of an old man seated beside me. He looked old, wizened, yet alive—seemingly living in quiet obscurity. It dawned on me that this was the first person I'd ever seen whom I knew to be a Holocaust survivor. Despite the fact my knowledge of the Nazis' “final solution” didn't extend much beyond what I'd learned in school, the realization had a powerful effect. At a time when I needed direction in life, it awoke in me a reflexive need to protect and defend those who cannot protect themselves—the same reflex which, on a geopolitical level, led to the creation of the Jewish state itself after the Second World War. Many other factors and experiences influenced my desire to cast my lot in with the Jewish people. But this was the moment that I began to heed the words of Ruth 1:16: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Other feelings were at play as well. One of my fellow kibbutzniks had a one-eyed Irish setter named Pogey that I would take out for long walks. Occasionally I would bump into a certain German shepherd and her mistress, Dahlia, and we fell into the habit of walking and chatting together.

I spent so much time walking Pogey that he started sleeping in my room. And it was thanks to him that I mastered my first few words in Hebrew—“sit,” “stay,” and “come here.” By the time a year had gone by, any thought of returning to Canada was gone. Israel had become my home.

The kibbutz's leadership helped me stay in Israel. Through their auspices, I secured placement in an Orthodox conversion program that provided me with a year of intense study in Judaism and Hebrew. The application process said a lot about my new faith: while Christianity and Islam proselytize aggressively, Judaism almost seems eager to discourage new converts. During my interview with a representative of the ministry of religious affairs, which oversaw the program together with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the interviewer was downright confounded as to why I—or anyone else, for that matter—would want to join such an afflicted, downtrodden religion. He looked at me as if I were some sort of masochist.

I would not be discouraged. I had fallen in love not only with an Israeli woman, but also with an entire culture and religion. They'd embraced me as one of their own during the past year, and the least I could do was demonstrate my sincerity by joining the tribe. Conversion wasn't a decision I took lightly, and I realized that I was embarking on a journey that had a deeper meaning than what I had intended when I left Canada.

My second year in Israel was very different from my first. As part of my conversion program, I moved to a different kibbutz. This one was run by Orthodox Jews, with nary a pub or merry New Zealander to be seen. I prayed three times a day, worked the fields in punishing one hundred four-degree heat, and spent the rest of my waking hours hitting the books. It was at least as tough as anything I'd endured in the army.

But I survived—one of only three who completed the program out of an original twenty-eight. When the year was up, I had to write final exams, undergo an oral examination in front of three university professors, and sit before a quorum of rabbis from the Chief Rabbinate. Only when I'd demonstrated my learning to their satisfaction was I granted the privilege of entering the
—a Jewish communal bath that symbolically washes away spiritual impurities. I'd officially become a Jew. (There is another step in the process, of course, but I was spared; mercifully, my parents had the good sense to circumcise me at birth.)

Judaism blurs the line between religion and ethnicity, and so some Jews look askance on converts. But the scripture provides a rejoinder to such snobs: according to Jewish law, no person is permitted to remind others of a Jew's convert status for seven generations (after which the whole issue is guaranteed to be moot). As for me, I had an easier way of dealing with the issue. I'd simply remind the very few doubters I encountered that King David's Moabite grandmother, Ruth, was herself a convert.

After my conversion, I was granted Israeli citizenship and got married to Dahlia, the raven-haired German shepherd owner. Not long thereafter, I was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I was twenty-four when I received the letter from the government, the same age as my maternal great-grandfather when he was called up to fight in the Great War of 1914-18. Around this time, our first son was also born, and it was at that moment that I fully realized that my life had changed forever.

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