Middle East

Published — May 30, 2007 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

An interrogation role model

U.S. picked up tactics — including torture — from Israeli intelligence


TEL AVIV, Israel — The King Hussein bridge is the most direct route from Amman to Jerusalem, but it was not a trip Marwan Ibrahim Mahmoud Jabour wanted to make — he had no choice. It was September 2006, and Jabour, a 30-year-old Jordanian engineer who says he made the mistake of going to Afghanistan in a fruitless attempt to join the jihad, had spent the last two years as a U.S. prisoner — possibly in Afghanistan but he wasn’t sure, since his captors had never revealed the location. According to a sworn affidavit he gave to an Israeli military court, he’d spent much of that time naked and alone in a tiny cell with a bucket to serve as a toilet, being subjected to loud music and hot or freezing temperatures, presumably to soften him up for interrogations that went on for as long as 14 straight hours.

Jabour found himself in the back seat of a car driven by Jordanian intelligence agents. At the other side of the King Hussein bridge, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, they handed him over to Israeli intelligence agents. In his affidavit, Jabour said that one of the Israelis mocked him in greeting: “Welcome, Osama bin Laden. Where are you coming from?”But now, apparently, the Americans were done with Jabour. They’d drugged him and sent him on a jet back to the Middle East. The trip was what is known in the U.S. war on terror as an “extraordinary rendition,” the transfer of a terror suspect to a foreign country for interrogation — and sometimes torture, human rights activists charge — outside of any legal process. Jabour says he never faced a judge, a prosecutor or a jury. When asked for comment on Jabour’s affidavit, the CIA cited its standing policy of not commenting on allegations of extraordinary rendition.

Jabour’s case is the first documented instance of a terror suspect who was not linked to Hezbollah or Palestinian terror groups making his way from American hands to Israeli custody. That such a thing could happen should probably come as no surprise, given the traditionally close cooperation between the United States and Israel on security matters. The controversial techniques Jabour says his American captors used were not concocted out of thin air; many were perfected and put into regular practice by the Israelis, who in the post-9/11 era have quietly become one of the world’s most important exporters of interrogation and counterterrorism methods decried by human rights groups as constituting torture and violating basic human rights.

One of Israel’s “students,” the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has found, has been the United States. For its part, the United States reciprocates through continued massive military aid and assistance to Israel, thanks in no small part to strong Israeli lobbying of the U.S. Congress. ICIJ’s database of foreign military assistance shows that Israeli governmental entities spent more than $30 million in the three years after September 11, 2001, on expenditures governed by the Foreign Agents Registration Act, including lobbying Congress and the executive branch.

Since the late 1940s, the United States has given Israel nearly $50 billion in military assistance — financial aid and access to weaponry that has helped make the Israeli armed forces one of the most technologically sophisticated, powerful militaries on the planet. Since 9/11, Israel has remained the No. 1 recipient of U.S. military aid, pulling in more than $9 billion in the three years after the terrorist attacks.

While other countries have been influenced by U.S. aid, Israel has influenced its patron as well. In the post-9/11 world, the United States has turned to Israel for advice and training for urban combat against insurgents in Iraq and has borrowed controversial tactics that Israeli forces have used against Palestinians. In Iraq and elsewhere, the United States also has emulated Israel’s hard-nosed methods against terrorism, allegedly including the use of torture in interrogations. The growing closeness between the two intelligence services also raises the question of just how far Washington will go in the future in continuing to apply one of Israel’s most controversial anti-terrorism techniques: targeted killings. (See related story.)

Learning from the best

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. intelligence officials have visited Tel Aviv to meet with their counterparts from Mossad, Israel’s version of the CIA, and Shabak (or Shin Bet), the Israeli counterintelligence and anti-terrorism agency, as well as the Aman, Israel’s military intelligence service, according to Israeli intelligence and diplomatic sources who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly with ICIJ. In addition to exchanging information on terrorist organizations with their Israeli hosts, the visitors are reported to have viewed presentations by special forces units of the Israeli Defense Forces and the Israeli National Police describing methods and equipment employed by Israel in anti-terrorism operations.

According to those same sources, other countries have also sent their own intelligence officials to learn from the Israeli experience and to be briefed and trained by their Israeli counterparts. Almost every week, the sources said, the Tel Aviv-based headquarters of Mossad, Shabak and Aman host guests from South America, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and South Asia, including countries such as Indonesia, which does not even have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Visitors also talk about ways to block the flow of financial funding from the United States, Europe and Latin America to Palestinian militants. “Under the disguise of donating money to Palestinian charity, contributions are channeled to terrorist groups in Gaza and [the] West Bank,” says a senior Israeli official dealing with terrorist issues at Israel’s National Security Council. “Before 9/11, it was hard for us to persuade governments that money raised in mosques in their respective countries found its way to buy weapons and explosives in the Palestinians areas which eventually was turned against innocent Israelis. In the last two to three years, we find more attention to our claims and readiness to cooperate. On several occasions we provided names of charities and bank accounts in the UK, Italy, Paraguay, Argentina and a few other countries, and the security services there followed accordingly and took action. Offices were raided, documents confiscated and in some rare cases accounts were frozen.”

Additionally, at least twice a year, delegates from various branches of the Israeli intelligence community visit the United States to exchange information and engage in brainstorming sessions with their U.S. counterparts. These discussions are “frank, open and intimate,” according to an Israeli intelligence source who has been involved.

Due in part to these exchanges of ideas, the United States has been able to copy and learn from Israeli counterterrorist methods. Although Israel certainly did not invent techniques such as clandestine kidnapping or the use of stress positions during interrogation, it was one of the first countries to employ those techniques as part of a broader counterterrorism campaign.

Eichmann case a precedent

The CIA’s abduction of Egyptian cleric Hassan Osama Nasr (also known as Abu Omar) as he walked to a Milan mosque in 2003, for example, had a famous precedent — the 1960 Mossad operation that tracked, cornered and abducted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“He [Eichmann] passed our car, which was parked on the margin,” Rafi Eitan, the Mossad officer in charge of the operation, recounted in an interview with ICIJ. “One member of our team, Tzvi Malchin, was shadowing and closing in on him. It all took a few seconds. Tzvi jumped on him. Both of them fell down into a ditch. Tzvi grabbed him. We opened the door, and Tzvi put him inside.” The parallels with the 2003 Abu Omar abduction are striking, where, according to Italian prosecutors investigating the involvement of 26 Americans, Omar was grabbed off the street by CIA agents and thrown into a waiting van.

Just as the detainees of CIA “extraordinary renditions” are reported to have been hidden at secret prisons and transported across borders in clandestine flights, Eichmann was taken to a safe house in the Argentine capital, interrogated, sedated and dressed in the uniform of a crew member of El Al, Israel’s national airline. He then was driven to the airport, forced to board an Israeli aircraft and flown to Israel for trial, according to Eitan and other published accounts of the operation. Eichmann was later convicted and put to death.

Twenty-six years later, the Mossad conducted a similar operation. According to interviews with relatives and Israeli intelligence officials involved in the operation, in the fall of 1986, the agency acted against Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli technician who worked at Israel’s secret nuclear reactor in Dimona. Vanunu was fired, left the country and then revealed to The (London) Sunday Times that Israel had produced in Dimona sufficient plutonium to manufacture 200 nuclear bombs. The Israeli government instructed the Mossad to abduct Vanunu and bring him to justice in Israel.

Mossad teams tracked Vanunu in London, where a female agent seduced him and persuaded him to accompany her to a “love nest” in Rome. There he was kidnapped by other Mossad operatives, sedated and taken by force to a yacht that sailed to a rendezvous off the Italian coast with an Israel naval boat manned by cadets.

“In the middle of the sailing we were told to put anchor off the Italian coast,” according to the recollections of the Israeli cadets relayed to ICIJ by Israeli intelligence sources. “We didn’t bother to ask why. We were only cadet officers who hoped to be soon commissioned. After three days, I believe, a yacht arrived near us at the middle of the night. We were all asked to stay in our cabins — only a few officers were allowed to be on the deck. Only a few days later by word of mouth and rumors spreading around, we found out that a group of people, mostly male and few females in civilian clothes, had boarded our ship. They stayed throughout the remaining sail in their cabins. A few weeks later when the government announced that Vanunu was captured, we understood that we were the ship which was ferrying him.”

When the boat reached Israeli soil, Vanunu was interrogated, charged and convicted of treason, espionage and unauthorized disclosure of secrets.

He served 18 years in prison.

Despite the strong similarities between Israeli abductions and those carried out by the CIA after 9/11, one important distinction remains: Eichmann and Vanunu were eventually put on trial [correction], whereas Jabour and his fellow “ghost” detainees by the United States have rarely been subject to official legal proceedings — or legal protections.

Similar techniques

When the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the close U.S.-Israeli relationship became even more pronounced.

U.S. forces soon found themselves in a bloody, protracted struggle against non-uniformed Iraqi insurgents in Iraqi cities and villages, a conflict that bears eerie parallels to Israel’s battles with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. American forces knew where to turn for advice.

According to American and British newspapers, U.S. soldiers journeyed to Israel to train in a mockup of an Arab town that the Israeli army has used to prepare for urban warfare in the occupied territories, and the Israeli Defense Forces sent urban warfare specialists to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to help train U.S. special forces for counterinsurgency operations.

Not surprisingly, U.S. forces in Iraq began using an array of tactics previously employed by the Israelis in the occupied territories. When U.S. Marines conducted house-to-house searches for insurgents, they used portable battering rams to knock holes through interior walls as a way of avoiding booby-trapped doors — one of the classic urban warfare tactics borrowed from the Israelis.

U.S. forces also began demolishing houses and buildings used by insurgents, mimicking the controversial Israeli practice of using bulldozers to take down the homes of Palestinian militants or their families. And, as the Israelis had done, the Americans cordoned off villages and neighborhoods suspected of harboring insurgents and set up armed checkpoints through which Iraqis were forced to pass.

“I see no difference between us and the Palestinians,” an Iraqi man named Tariq told The New York Times in 2003. “We didn’t expect anything like this after Saddam fell.”

The U.S. Army officer formerly in charge of the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison, Col. Janis Karpinski, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio in 2004 that during a visit to a U.S. intelligence center in Baghdad, she met an Israeli who was involved in interrogating Iraqi prisoners.

“I asked him what did he do there, was he an interpreter? He was clearly from the Middle East,” said Karpinski, who was demoted from her previous rank of brigadier general after the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. “He said, ‘Well, I do some of the interrogation here. I speak Arabic but I’m not an Arab. I’m from Israel.’ ” The Israeli government has strongly denied that any of its own interrogators were working with the Americans in Iraq, as has Virginia-based CACI, the large American defense contractor that performed interrogations at Abu Ghraib.

However, some of the techniques used by American interrogators — such as putting hoods on prisoners and subjecting them to loud music, and forcing them to remain in painful physical positions — bear discomforting similarities to controversial techniques Israeli intelligence has used for decades.

Beginning with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israeli intelligence agencies — mainly the Shabak — have interrogated Arab and Palestinian terrorism suspects. For years, Shabak interrogators used brutal methods that included sleep deprivation, hanging subjects from walls and threats of sexual assault. Rough treatment of interrogation subjects essentially was legal. Even after a 1987 special inquiry commission led by former Israeli Supreme Court Judge Moshe Landau found that Israeli interrogators not only used torture to compel confessions, but also were instructed by superiors to lie about it to the courts, it recommended that interrogators be allowed to continue “moderate physical pressure” on suspects who might have information about an impending terrorist attack.

In a 1999 ruling, the Israeli Supreme Court described in detail some of the methods used by Israeli interrogators. One particularly violent practice was the “forceful shaking of the suspect’s upper torso, back and forth, repeatedly, in a manner which causes the neck and head to dangle and vacillate rapidly.” The court noted that “the shaking method is likely to cause serious brain damage, harm the spinal cord, cause the suspect to lose consciousness, vomit and urinate uncontrollably and suffer serious headaches.” Another technique was the “shabach” position, in which a prisoner would be left between interrogations in a small chair with his arms tied, in a position that “causes serious muscle pain in the arms, the neck and headaches.” Interrogators also covered the subject’s head with a sack and played “powerfully loud music” in the room.

The Israeli Supreme Court decided that such practices were illegal. But Israeli human rights activists contend that the ban was never fully enforced and that Israeli interrogators sometimes continue to mistreat prisoners today.

For example, a Palestinian government official who was arrested and held by the Israelis for six weeks in the summer of 2005 later said that interrogators had left him tied for six to seven hours straight in the “shabach” position. “It caused a lot of pain in my neck,” Palestinian Minister of Labor Mohammed Barghouthi told The Christian Science Monitor. “But the psychological pain is much worse.”

Coming home

Marwan Ibrahim Mahmoud Jabour said in his sworn affidavit that he would find himself subjected to similar — but even more intense — mistreatment by U.S. interrogators before he ended up on Israel’s doorstep.

In Jabour’s sworn affidavit, he presents himself as little more than a would-be jihadist. In subsequent interviews with human rights groups and The Washington Post, he acknowledges having facilitated transportation and assistance for al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan into Pakistan after the 2001 U.S. invasion; a U.S. counterterrorism official described him as “an all-around bad guy” who had contact with senior al Qaeda officials.

The offspring of Palestinian refugees, he spent his youth in Jordan and Saudi Arabia before moving to Pakistan in the 1990s to study computer engineering. While in Pakistan he found religion, and a few years later he tried to answer the call of Saudi religious leaders who were urging followers to take up jihad against the Russians in Chechnya. Jabour managed to make his way to Kabul, where he got a few months of rudimentary firearms instruction in a camp operated by the Taliban before being told that the Chechens didn’t really want any more Arab fighters. He returned to Pakistan and got married. A couple of years later, after the September 11 attacks led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he again felt the call — not to fight for al Qaeda, but “to protect Afghanistan as a Muslim country.” Jabour went to Afghanistan and tried to join a group of Arab fighters, but when the Taliban deserted them on the front line, he decided to go home again without firing a shot.

Jabour made the mistake of befriending an assortment of wounded, destitute ex-comrades who wandered into Pakistan after the conflict, his affidavit goes on. In 2004, he says, Pakistani intelligence agents forced him and a friend into a car, put hoods on their heads and took them to a facility in Lahore where Jabour was beaten and tortured for several days before his captors handed him over to the Americans.

He then describes a haze of sedative injections and a jet ride. Jabour found himself in a nameless facility where he says men in black uniforms and masks stripped off Jabour’s clothes, bound him and put him in a tiny cell with a bucket for a toilet. He remained naked and bound for three months, with a video camera suspended from the ceiling watching his every move. Outside, large speakers played jet engine noises.

According to Jabour’s affidavit, a U.S. interrogator told him that “whenever you hear this sound, you will remember why you are here” — a reference to the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

After interrogators questioned Jabour, he related, they would throw him back in his cell, tie him in various uncomfortable positions and then subject him to loud noises and music, sometimes for up to four days at a time. “I would scream for them to stop … and I would tell them I was going to talk,” he says. On other occasions, he says in the affidavit, interrogators tied a rope to his handcuffs and lifted him up for several minutes at a time or squeezed him in a tiny closet that had breathing holes punched in the door (he would later tell human rights advocates and journalists that he was threatened only with being put in the closet).

By the time a year had passed, the affidavit goes on, the severity of Jabour’s treatment eased somewhat. He was still subjected to interrogations, but he was in a larger cell and his captors let him out occasionally to watch documentary films on DVD or to take books out of the facility’s library, which had thousands of books in Arabic and other languages. Eventually, they gave him a drawing pad and an electronic chessboard.

By then, apparently, the United States had decided that Jabour either had no more useful information to offer or was too small of a catch to bother keeping in custody. In July 2006, a clerk at the facility suddenly told Jabour that he was about to be transferred. “Where to?” Jabour asked. The American, the affidavit says, told him he didn’t know. The next day, guards came to Jabour’s cell, bound him in chains, taped cotton over his eyes and put plugs in his ears. He says he was driven to an airport, loaded on another jet and injected with something that made him lose consciousness.

After the jet landed hours later, Jabour reports that he was carried into a building. When his blindfold was removed, he was in a room with portraits of King Hussein and King Abdullah on the wall. Jabour was back in Jordan, the land of his birth. Jordanian agents began questioning him, he says, but the sessions were less brutal. “The interrogators told me they know everything I’ve been through,” he says. For the first time, he was allowed to meet with a Red Cross representative. He also was allowed to see his parents and other relatives.

But instead of releasing Jabour, the Jordanians turned the former U.S. prisoner over to the Israelis. While U.S. interrogators reportedly have used the threat of rendition to Israel to frighten captives into talking, Jabour says that after a humiliating initial search (in which he was stripped and forced to squat several times), the Israelis didn’t treat him quite as roughly as the Americans had. He relates that he was questioned by a Shabak interrogator named Levi, who talked to him roughly a dozen times, three to four hours each time. Levi had Jabour tell his life story, while Levi took notes on a computer. None of the questions had anything to do with Israel or its national security, Jabour recalled in the affidavit.

Even so, Jabour was held without charges and was not allowed to see an attorney for the first month of his Israeli captivity. Then, in late September 2006, he finally got a chance to speak with Nizar Mahajna, a lawyer for the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, an Israeli human rights organization, who happened to run in to Jabour in the Kishon Prison where Jabar’s military court hearing was taking place.

“I’m not one of them,” Mahajna quotes Jabour as telling him, meaning that he was not a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza. “Do you have time for me?”

“He seemed very frightened,” the attorney would later recall.

In October 2006, Israeli security sources told ICIJ that Jabour most likely would be charged with membership in a terrorist organization, unauthorized military training and posing a threat to state security.

But apparently, over the next several weeks, Israeli officials changed their minds and decided that the former U.S. prisoner was not so much of a threat after all. In November 2006, the day before a military court was scheduled to consider extending his remand, authorities simply released him to relatives in Gaza.

Correction: It was incorrectly stated that Mordechai Vanunu was put on public trial. Vanunu’s trial was held behind closed doors, with only his verdict being made public.

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