Shad­ow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mis­sion to Elim­i­nate Syr­i­an Nuclear Power

By – October 24, 2019

Israeli jour­nal­ist Yaakov Katz pro­vides a detailed account of the events lead­ing up to and con­se­quences of the Israeli air attack on a build­ing in the Syr­i­an desert in Sep­tem­ber 2007. Sub­ject to many years of spec­u­la­tion, the secret attack — which nei­ther Syr­ia nor Israel acknowl­edged at the time — was final­ly iden­ti­fied by Israel in March 2018 as a suc­cess­ful oper­a­tion to elim­i­nate what Israel claimed to be a nuclear weapons facil­i­ty. The facil­i­ty, known as al-Kibar,” was in north­east­ern Syr­ia near the Iraq-Syr­i­an bor­der, and was con­struct­ed by North Korea (per­haps with financ­ing from Iran) repli­cat­ing a North Kore­an nuclear weapons plant, accord­ing to Israeli intel­li­gence ana­lysts. In the after­math of the Sec­ond Lebanese War and the upsurge of Hamas and Hezbol­lah, the pres­ence of a sus­pect­ed nuclear weapons pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty so close to home was a pro­found exis­ten­tial threat for Israel. The attack was a major gam­ble; Syr­ia could have retal­i­at­ed with dev­as­tat­ing mis­sile attacks on Israel but they chose not to, as Israel hoped they would if they did not trum­pet the attack.

Katz’s is not the first account of the event. With­in days, there was spec­u­la­tion about what hap­pened. As the years passed, addi­tion­al mate­r­i­al came to light, includ­ing mem­oir accounts by George W. Bush and mem­bers of his admin­is­tra­tion who had a sup­port­ing role in the unfold­ing of the event. By the time Israel acknowl­edged the attack, the main out­lines had been estab­lished and in the pub­lic domain for near­ly a decade, although many details remained unclear. Katz pro­vides detailed report­ing based on inter­views with many of the prin­ci­pal deci­sion-mak­ers in Israel and the U.S. He also places the event with­in the con­text of Israel’s on-going cam­paign against ter­ror­ist and oth­er mil­i­tary threats, espe­cial­ly Iran­ian nuclear capa­bil­i­ty. On the Amer­i­can side of the pic­ture, the deba­cle of the Iraq War and skit­tish­ness over the fail­ure of Amer­i­can intel­li­gence esti­mates lead­ing up to it played major roles in For­mer Pres­i­dent Bush and his administration’s deci­sion to refuse to car­ry out the bomb­ing that Israel urged, while also not imped­ing the Israeli deci­sion to launch the oper­a­tion on its own.

Katz’s nar­ra­tive moves along with the pace and snap of a spy thriller, although the read­er less famil­iar with Israel’s mil­i­tary his­to­ry might get a bit lost in the chronol­o­gy and iden­ti­ties of the myr­i­ad Israeli intel­li­gence offi­cials par­tic­i­pat­ing in the oper­a­tion. The main actors in the dra­ma — For­mer Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Olmert, For­mer Defense Min­is­ter Ehud Barak, For­mer Pres­i­dent Bush, and For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney — some­times sound like movie char­ac­ters as Katz’s writ­ing peri­od­i­cal­ly descends to cliché. But read­ers will get an inside look at how momen­tous deci­sions are made and exe­cut­ed and what polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal fac­tors play into the final out­come. While Katz accepts the tes­ti­mo­ny of the prin­ci­pal par­tic­i­pants at face val­ue, there has been some skep­ti­cal report­ing that the facil­i­ty was not what Israel claimed and that Israel was manip­u­lat­ing the U.S. to take out more con­ven­tion­al weapons that Syr­ia was sup­ply­ing to Hezbol­lah, all while warn­ing Iran about its nuclear ambi­tions. Ulti­mate­ly, Katz judges that the Israel intel­li­gence was right about the facil­i­ty and Olmert was jus­ti­fied in his deci­sion to take action and there­by remove the exis­ten­tial threat of a nuclear-capa­ble neigh­bor. Iran’s con­tin­ued nuclear project and the ongo­ing dance of the U.S. and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear weapons pro­vide an addi­tion­al dimen­sion of seri­ous­ness to Katz’s account. The world still remains a dan­ger­ous and scary place, not only for Israel.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions

Shad­ow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mis­sion to Elim­i­nate Syr­i­an Nuclear Pow­er by Yaakov Katz reads like an inter­na­tion­al thriller, but it is actu­al­ly a com­pelling fac­tu­al day-by-day (and some­times hour-by-hour) account of an inci­dent of acute threat and deci­sive action by the Jew­ish state — the 2007 airstrike that destroyed a Syr­i­an reac­tor and denied Pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad a nuclear arse­nal. The sto­ry that Katz tells is hero­ic, but the author nev­er los­es sight of both the geopo­lit­i­cal ori­gins and strate­gic impli­ca­tions of Israel’s deci­sion to take out the Syr­i­an nuclear tar­get. In ear­ly 2007, Israel detect­ed the reac­tor when it was still under con­struc­tion, using per­son­nel and nuclear tech­nol­o­gy pro­vid­ed by North Korea, in a wadi in the Syr­i­an desert — pre­cise­ly the same exis­ten­tial threat that now looms so large in the Iran­ian nuclear pro­gram. An omi­nous ques­tion hangs over every page of Shad­ow Strike—can Israel do it again in order to pre­vent Iran from acquir­ing a nuclear arse­nal? Not until the clos­ing pages of the book does Katz offer an answer: This book shows how, if need­ed, it can still be done,” he con­cludes. What hap­pened in 2007 is a play­book for how one coun­try neu­tral­ized an exis­ten­tial threat.” Above all, Shad­ow Strike allows us to see the inner cal­cu­lus of deci­sion-mak­ing when it comes to deploy­ment of mil­i­tary assets in the face of an exis­ten­tial threat.