How Israel Destroyed Syria's Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor By Erich Follath and Holger Stark, Speigel Online Nov 2, 2009 - 1:29:16 PM In September 2007, Israeli fighter jets destroyed a mysterious complex in the Syrian desert. The incident could have led to war, but it was hushed up by all sides. Was it a nuclear plant and who gave the orders for the strike? The mighty Euphrates river is the subject of the prophecies in the Bible's Book of Revelation, where it is written that the river will be the scene of the battle of Armageddon: "The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East." Today, time seems to stand still along the river. The turquoise waters of the Euphrates flow slowly through the northern Syrian provincial city Deir el-Zor, whose name translates as "monastery in the forest." Farmers till the fields, and vendors sell camel's hair blankets, cardamom and coriander in the city's bazaars. Occasionally archaeologists visit the region to excavate the remains of ancient cities in the surrounding area, a place where many peoples have left their mark -- the Parthians and the Sassanids, the Romans and the Jews, the Ottomans and the French, who were assigned the mandate for Syria by the League of Nations and who only withdrew their troops in 1946. Deir el-Zor is the last outpost before the vast, empty desert, a lifeless place of jagged mountains and inaccessible valleys that begins not far from the town center. But on a night two years ago, something dramatic happened in this sleepy place. It's an event that local residents discuss in whispers in teahouses along the river, when the water pipes glow and they are confident that no officials are listening -- the subject is taboo in the state-controlled media, and they know that drawing too much attention to themselves in this authoritarian state could be hazardous to their health. Some in Deir el-Zor talk of a bright flash which lit up the night in the distant desert. Others report seeing a gigantic column of smoke over the Euphrates, like a threatening finger. Some talk of omens, while others relate conspiracy theories. The pious older guests at Jisr al-Kabir, a popular restaurant near the city's landmark suspension bridge, believe it was a sign from heaven. All the rumors have long since muddied the waters as to what people may or may not have seen. But even the supposedly advanced Western world, with its state-of-the-art surveillance technology and interconnectedness through the mass media, has little more solid information than the people in this Syrian desert town. What happened in the night of Sept. 6, 2007 in the desert, 130 kilometers (81 miles) from the Iraqi border, 30 kilometers from Deir el-Zor, is one of the great mysteries of our times. 'This Incident Never Occurred' At 2:55 p.m. on that day, the Damascus-based Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that Israeli fighter jets coming from the Mediterranean had violated Syrian airspace at "about one o'clock" in the morning. "Air defense units confronted them and forced them to leave after they dropped some ammunition in deserted areas without causing any human or material damage," a Syrian military spokesman said, according to the news agency. There was no explanation whatsoever for why such a dramatic event was concealed for half a day. At 6:46 p.m., Israeli government radio quoted a military spokesman as saying: "This incident never occurred." At 8:46 p.m., a spokesperson for the US State Department said during a daily press briefing that he had only heard "second-hand reports" which "contradict" each other. To this day, Syria and Israel, two countries that have technically been at war since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, have largely adhered to a bizarre policy of downplaying what was clearly an act of war. Gradually it became clear that the fighter pilots did not drop some random ammunition over empty no-man's land on that night in 2007, but had in fact deliberately targeted and destroyed a secret Syrian complex. Was it a nuclear plant, in which scientists were on the verge of completing the bomb? Were North Korean, perhaps even Iranian experts, also working in this secret Syrian facility? When and how did the Israelis learn about the project, and why did they take such a great risk to conduct their clandestine operation? Was the destruction of the Al Kibar complex meant as a final warning to the Iranians, a trial run of sorts intended to show them what the Israelis plan to do if Tehran continues with its suspected nuclear weapons program? In recent months, SPIEGEL has spoken with key politicians and experts about the mysterious incident in the Syrian desert, including Syrian President Bashar Assad, leading Israeli intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei and influential American nuclear expert David Albright. SPIEGEL has also talked with individuals involved in the operation, who have only now agreed to reveal, under conditions of anonymity, what they know. These efforts have led to an account that, while not solving the mystery in its entirety, at least delivers many pieces of the puzzle. It also offers an assessment of an operation that changed the Middle East and generated shock waves that are still being felt today. Syria's Unpredictable President Tel Aviv, late 2001. An inconspicuous block of houses located among eucalyptus trees is home to the headquarters of the legendary Israeli foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad. A memorial to agents who died in commando operations behind enemy lines stands in the small garden. There are already more than 400 names engraved on the gray marble, with room for many more. In the main building, intelligence analysts are trying to assemble a picture of the new Syrian president. In July 2000, Bashar Assad succeeded his deceased father, former President Hafez Assad. The Israelis believed that the younger Assad, a politically inexperienced ophthalmologist who had lived in London for many years and who was only 34 when he took office, would be a weak leader. Unlike his father, an unscrupulous political realist nicknamed "The Lion" who had almost struck a deal with the Israelis over the Golan Heights in the last few months of his life, Bashar Assad was considered relatively unpredictable. According to Israeli agents in Damascus, the younger Assad was trying to consolidate his power by espousing radical and controversial positions. He supplied massive amounts of weapons to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, for their "struggle for independence" from the "Zionist regime." He received high-ranking delegations from North Korea. The Mossad was convinced that the subject of these secret talks was a further upgrading of Syria's military capabilities. Pyongyang had already helped Damascus in the past in the development of medium-range ballistic missiles and chemical weapons like sarin and mustard gas. But when Israeli military intelligence informed their Mossad counterparts that a Syrian nuclear program was apparently under discussion, the intelligence professionals were dismissive. Nuclear weapons for Damascus, a nuclear plant literally on Israel's doorstep? For the experts, it seemed much too implausible. Besides, the senior Assad had rebuffed Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani "father of the atom bomb," when Khan tried to sell him centrifuges for uranium enrichment on the black market in the early 1990s. The Israelis also knew all too well how complex the road to the bomb is, after having spent a lengthy period of time in the 1960s to covertly procure uranium and then develop nuclear weapons at their secret laboratories in the town of Dimona in the Negev desert. They took extreme measures to prevent then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from following their example: On a June night in 1981, Israeli F-16s, in violation of international law, entered Iraqi airspace and destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. Key Phase The Israelis took a pinprick approach to dealing with the "little" Assad. In 2003, the air force conducted multiple air strikes against positions on the Syrian border, and in October Israeli fighter jets flew a low-altitude mission over Assad's residence in Damascus. It was an arrogant show of power that even had many at the Mossad shaking their heads, wondering how Assad would respond to such humiliating treatment. At that time, the nuclear plant on Euphrates had likely entered its first key phase. In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military's "8200" unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv. Al-Kibar was "flagged," as they say in intelligence jargon. In late 2006, Israeli military intelligence decided to ask the British for their opinion. But almost at the same time as the delegation from Tel Aviv was arriving in London, a senior Syrian government official checked into a hotel in the exclusive London neighborhood of Kensington. He was under Mossad surveillance and turned out to be incredibly careless, leaving his computer in his hotel room when he went out. Israeli agents took the opportunity to install a so-called "Trojan horse" program, which can be used to secretly steal data, onto the Syrian's laptop. The hard drive contained construction plans, letters and hundreds of photos. The photos, which were particularly revealing, showed the Al Kibar complex at various stages in its development. At the beginning -- probably in 2002, although the material was undated -- the construction site looked like a treehouse on stilts, complete with suspicious-looking pipes leading to a pumping station at the Euphrates. Later photos show concrete piers and roofs, which apparently had only one function: to modify the building so that it would look unsuspicious from above. In the end, the whole thing looked as if a shoebox had been placed over something in an attempt to conceal it. But photos from the interior revealed that what was going on at the site was in fact probably work on fissile material. One of the photos showed an Asian in blue tracksuit trousers, standing next to an Arab. The Mossad quickly identified the two men as Chon Chibu and Ibrahim Othman. Chon is one of the leading members of the North Korean nuclear program, and experts believe that he is the chief engineer behind the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Othman is the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission. By now, both Israeli military intelligence and the Mossad were on high alert. After being briefed, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked: "Will the reactor be up and running soon, and is there is a need to take action?" Hard to say, the experts said. The prime minister asked for more detailed information, preferably from first hand. The CIA Catches a Big Fish Istanbul , a CIA safe house for high-profile defectors, February 2007. An Iranian general had decided to switch sides. He was a big fish, of the sort rarely caught in the nets of the CIA and the Mossad. Ali-Reza Asgari, 63, a handsome man with a moustache, was the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s and became Iran's deputy defense minister in the mid-1990s. Though well-liked under the relatively liberal then-President Mohammad Khatami, Asgari fell out of favor after the election victory of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Because he had branded several men close to Ahmadinejad as corrupt, there was suddenly more at stake for Asgari than his career: His life was in danger. Sources in the intelligence community claim that Asgari's defection to the West was meticulously planned over a period of months. However Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a former Iranian media attaché in Beirut who fled to Berlin in 2003 and who had known Asgari personally for many years, told SPIEGEL that the general contacted him twice to ask for help in his escape -- first from Iran in the second half of 2006 and later from Damascus. In Ebrahimi's version of events, Asgari succeeded in crossing the border into Turkey at night with the help of a smuggler. Ebrahimi says he only notified the CIA and turned his friend over to the Americans after Asgari had reached Istanbul. But from that point on, the versions of the story coincide again. The Americans and Israelis soon discovered that the Tehran insider was an intelligence goldmine. For the Israelis, the most alarming part of Asgari's story was what he had to say about Iran's nuclear program. According to Asgari, Tehran was building a second, secret plant in addition to the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, which was already known to the West. Besides, he said, Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans. But Asgari claimed he did not know any further details about the plan. After a few days, the general's handlers flew him from Istanbul, considered relatively unsafe, to the highly secure Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt. "I brought my computer along. My entire life is in there," Asgari told his friend Ebrahimi, who identified him for the Americans. Asgari contacted Ebrahimi another two times, once from Washington and then from "somewhere in Texas." The defector wanted his friend to let his wife know that he was safe and in good hands. The Iranian authorities had announced that Asgari had been "kidnapped by the Mossad and probably killed." But then nothing further was heard from Asgari. The American authorities had apparently created a new identity for their high-level Iranian source. Ali-Reza Asgari had ceased to exist. The Need for US Support Olmert was kept apprised of the latest developments. In March 2007, three senior experts from the political, military and intelligence communities were summoned to his residence on Gaza Street in Jerusalem, where Olmert swore them to absolute secrecy. The trio was to advise him on matters relating to the Syrian nuclear program. Olmert wanted results, knowing that he would have to gain the support of the Americans before launching an attack. At the very least, he needed the Americans' tacit consent if he planned to send aircraft into regions that were only a few dozen kilometers from military bases in Turkey, a NATO member. In August, Major General Yaakov Amidror, the trio's spokesman, delivered a devastating report to the prime minister. While the Mossad had tended to be reserved in its assessment of Al Kibar, the three men were now more than convinced that the site posed an existential threat to Israel and that there was evidence of intense cooperation between Syria and North Korea. There also appeared to be proof of connections to Iran. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, who experts believed was the head of Iran's secret "Project 111" for outfitting Iranian missiles with nuclear warheads, had visited Damascus in 2005. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Syria in 2006, where he is believed to have promised the Syrians more than $1 billion (€675 million) in assistance and urged them to accelerate their efforts. According to this version of the story, Al Kibar was to be a backup plant for the heavy-water reactor under construction near the Iranian city of Arak, designed to provide plutonium to build a bomb if Iran did not succeed in constructing a weapon using enriched uranium. "Assad apparently thought that, with his weapon, he could have a nuclear option for an Armageddon," says Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, the former director of Israeli military intelligence. Suspicious Ships Olmert approved a highly risky undertaking: a fact-finding mission by Israeli agents on foreign soil. On an overcast night in August 2007, says intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant. The group had to abort its daring mission prematurely when it was discovered by a patrol. The Israelis still lacked the definitive proof they needed. However those in Tel Aviv who favored quick action argued that the results of the samples "provided evidence of the existence of a nuclear program." One of them was the head of the trio of experts, Yaakov Amidror. Amidror, a deeply religious man strongly influenced by his fear of a new Holocaust, also found evidence suggesting that construction on the Syrian plant was to be accelerated. He told Olmert about a ship called the Gregorio, which was coming from North Korea and which was seized in Cyprus in September 2006. It was found to have suspicious-looking pipes bound for Syria on board. And in early September 2007, the freighter Al-Ahmad, also coming from Pyongyang, arrived at the Syrian port of Tartous -- with a cargo of uranium materials, according to the Mossad's information. At the time, no one was claiming that Al Kibar represented an immediate threat to Israel's security. Nevertheless, Olmert wanted to attack, despite the tense conditions in the region, the Iraq crisis and the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Olmert notified then-US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and gave his own military staff the authority to bomb the Syrian plant. The countdown for Operation Orchard had begun. 'Target Destroyed' Ramat David Air Base, Sept. 5, 2007. Israel's Ramat David air base is located south of the port city of Haifa. It is also near Megiddo, which according to the Bible will be the site of Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil. The order that the pilots in the squadron received shortly before 11 p.m. on Sept. 5, 2007 seemed purely routine: They were to be prepared for an emergency exercise. All 10 available aircraft, known affectionately by their pilots as "Raam" ("Thunder"), took off into the night sky and headed westward, out into the Mediterranean. It was a maneuver designed to deflect attention from the extraordinary mobilization that had been taking place behind the scenes.