by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and Samuel M. Katz
Hachette Books, 352 pp., $27
Early in his long and eventful career, an ambitious Israeli intelligence officer named Meir Dagan recognized a core fallacy in our understanding of terrorism. Yes, $150 worth of hardware, fabric, and cheap explosives can transform a human being into an IED. But, as the authors of Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters, the latest addition to the Alexandrian library of books on Israeli intelligence, tell us, any suicide bomber is just the “final link in a long supply chain of men, machines and infrastructure that cost tens of thousands of dollars.” Terrorism is not cheap. It is a costly endeavour, especially for substate organizations without recourse to legitimate funding and dependable revenue streams. Find a way of taking terrorists’ money, the logic would seem to dictate, and you may have a way of shutting them down.
Working on that assumption, Dagan, who eventually became one of Mossad’s longest-serving directors, introduced a “follow the money” ethos into the high-stakes world of Israeli counterterrorism during the Second Intifada. He was assisted by a handful of visionary intelligence and special operations officers as well as one of Harpoon’s authors, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli lawyer specializing in advocacy on behalf of the victims of terrorism. Working closely with U.S. authorities, Dagan created a multidisciplinary team—code-named Tziltzal, or Harpoon—whose sole purpose was to find creative ways of denying funding to the terrorist groups routinely unleashing carnage on the streets of Israel. How they did this makes for lively, suspenseful reading.
Early on, the Harpoon team dangled a Latin American front company with a seemingly rock-solid investment portfolio in front of a prominent PLO financier. Encouraged by initial profits, the PLO and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, sank more and more money into the enterprise. Inevitably, and with more than a little help from Harpoon, the company, its assets, and its infrastructure vanished overnight, taking an estimated $100 million in PLO funds with it.