Inside a secret bomb-proof building in a Tel Aviv suburb, which Google Earth does not include on its website, some of the occupants last week exchanged high-fives at their work stations. According to insiders, several sent each other the same message: The Chief’s Last Hit.
That “chief” was Meir Dagan, the outgoing head of Mossad. On his first day in office eight years ago, Mr Dagan had stood on a table in the organisation’s canteen and promised to support any operation against any of Israel’s enemies, with every means he had — legal or illegal.
He could allow his field agents to use prescribed nerve toxins, dumdum bullets and methods of killing that even the Russian or Chinese secret services would not use.
“We are like the hangman, or the doctor on Death Row who administers the lethal injection,” he said, as – by his own account – his agents listened, enthralled.
“Our actions are all endorsed by the state of Israel. When we kill we are not breaking the law. We are fulfilling a sentence sanctioned by the prime minister of the day.”
Earlier this month, “the chief” and a small team of specialists — analysts, weapons experts and psychologists – met in a conference room adjoining his office. With them was a brigadier-general, the head of the kidon. Named after the Hebrew word for bayonet, the kidon is a unit with 38 elite assassins at its disposal, including five women.
Operating out of a military base in the Negev Desert, all are in their twenties, and trained both as expert killers and as expert linguists: a number are fluent in Persian.
Last Monday, a thousand miles further east in the Iranian capital, Tehran, it appears that the kidon put both of those skills into practice, killing a top nuclear scientist and critically injuring a second as they drove through the rush-hour traffic.
Both were key figures in the Iranian nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is for civilian use only, but which Mossad has long perceived as the ultimate expression of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threat to “wipe Israel off the map”.
In one car was 45-year-old Majid Shahriyari, Iran’s leading expert in designing nuclear switches, a key part in the construction of nuclear weapons. Ali Alker Saler, an Iranian nuclear official, has described Shahriyari’s work as “only handling the big projects”.
The week before he was assassinated, the nuclear scientist had returned from North Korea. Intelligence sources in Seoul have suggested that Mr Shahriyari had gone to Pyongyang to discuss a co-production deal over nuclear centrifuges.
Claims have also emerged that on his flight home via Syria, a Mossad deep cover agent had spotted Mr Shahriyari at Damascus International Airport as he waited for a connecting flight to Tehran.
In another quarter of Tehran, another top nuclear scientist, Fareydoun Abbasi-Davani, was also on his way to work at his laboratory at Shahid Beheshti University.
A world expert on isotope separation, he was routinely driven around by a member of the Revolutionary Guards and, like Mr Shahriyari, had a phone link on his car to Tehran’s security headquarters. That, however, was the only protection the car had.
To assist in the attack, Persian-speaking Mossad deep cover agents have been steadily infiltrating Iran for years. How exactly they helped the hitmen flit in and out of the country remains a secret.
But clues to their methods have been provided by Hossein Sajedina, Tehran’s police chief. He confirmed last week how Shahriyari was killed and Abbasi-Davani seriously injured. “Two motorcyclists had approached their cars and attached bombs on the vehicle which exploded at once,” he said.
There have been unconfirmed reports that the bombs had suction pads fitted to them which had enabled them to be attached to the windscreen of each car.
Within hours Mr Sajedina had accused Mossad of the crimes. In Tel Aviv a government spokesman said Israel had not been involved.
When the news reached Mossad headquarters, the high-fives started, I am told. Yet the day the attack was carried out had also been chosen by “the chief” to formally announce his resignation.