Spear Phishing in the Desert: Harpoon: Inside the Covert War Against Terrorism’s Money Masters by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner & Samuel M. Katz

Harpoon: Inside the Covert War against Terrorism’s Money Masters by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner & Samuel M. Katz is a revelatory account of the cloak-and-dagger Israeli campaign to target the finances fueling terror organizations—an effort that became the blueprint for U.S. efforts to combat threats like ISIS and drug cartels.

When we read “Israel” and “counterterrorism” in the same sentence, we usually think of what the military calls “going kinetic”—a silenced .22, cell-phone bombs, Hellfires, invading Lebanon, that kind of thing. But there’s more than one way to skin a camel. Just like everything else, money makes terrorism go ‘round, and when the money stops, so does the music.

That, in a nutshell, is what Harpoon: Inside the Covert War against Terrorism’s Money Masters is all about. Israeli civil-rights attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and co-author Samuel M. Katz give us an inside-ish look at a years-long Mossad operation targeting the banks, money-changers, and paymasters who keep the Benjamins flowing to the welter of terrorist organizations elbowing each other in the Middle East.

Suicide bombers have been called “the poor man’s cruise missile,” but they’re not free. People have to be paid to recon the targets and recruit the bomber. They have to pay for safe houses, vehicles, the parts to make the bomb, and the specialist to build it. Once the bomber has self-detonated, the organization is on the hook for pension payments to his family.

Beyond that, the largest organizations (such as Hezbollah and Hamas) have turf to run (southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, respectively). They have to maintain their armies, pay their cops and teachers and trash collectors, fund public works projects, buy weapons as well as all the other things governments do, and—since this is the Third World—line leadership’s pockets too. All this can cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year that can’t be had from the normal sources.

So where does it come from? Hamas and Hezbollah can levy taxes on the people they govern, though as poor as they are, there’s not much to take. There’s aid from allies such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Zakat, or alms-giving, is one of the pillars of Islam, and a good deal of this was diverted into less-than-charitable activity with or without the knowledge of the givers. Many shops run by the Lebanese and Palestinian diaspora have a jar or box by the till for donations to the cause. (They weren’t the first to do this; donation jars “for the brothers” supplied the Irish Republican Army and its offshoots with money from Chicago to Cork to Canterbury.) Entrepreneurial activity—smuggling drugs, arms, people, whatever—has become a profitable sideline, especially for Hezbollah; Harpoon includes a chapter describing its lash-ups with Columbian and Mexican narcotraficantes. All this money winds through the world’s financial plumbing by wire transfer, hawala, or suitcases full of cash into thousands of accounts in Western and Middle Eastern banks.

This was the target-rich environment that career commando and special operator Meir Dagan decided to go after. Dagan worked his way through the ranks to lead a tank brigade in the 1982 Lebanon invasion, become Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s national security advisor, and then take over the Mossad in 2002. He convinced Israel’s movers and shakers that taking out terrorist commanders in wholesale lots wouldn’t change a thing, but if they could kill the guy who knows where all the bank accounts are, they’d bring an entire organization to a halt. For example, the authors claim the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war came to an abrupt end because Harpoon cut off Hezbollah’s money; ditto the wave of suicide bombings during the second intifada.

Harpoon starts with the 1993 Israeli-PLO peace accord, when Uri L., a pseudonymous junior officer in the Israeli Army, began promoting financial war against terrorism. Along the way, it recounts the milestone terrorist outrages committed in Israel, the slow building of the Harpoon organization, its flashier operations, partnering with the American Treasury Department, and some of the courtroom moves Ms. Darshan-Leitner’s social-justice group Shurat HaDin made against the major terrorist groups and their sponsors.

Despite the hyperventilating on the dust jacket, Harpoon isn’t really a tell-all or a thriller. The authors passed this book through Israeli censors, and their accounts of Dagan’s various financial machinations are usually couched in careful neither-confirm-nor-deny language that sucks the life out of them. One especially frustrating example is the story of Salah Ezzedine. The authors insinuate this Lebanese multimillionaire and Hezbollah benefactor was taken in by an Israeli con job that wiped out most of his wealth and that of much of the Hezbollah high command. Unfortunately, they don’t give any details how the scam went down, which would’ve been fascinating.

This is journalism, not Daniel Silva. The prose is direct, engaging, and doesn’t come off like a string of newspaper feature articles. There are photos, footnotes, extensive endnotes, and an index—all must-haves in a nonfiction book. One caution: the authors make no attempt to balance their strongly pro-Israel viewpoints. To them, Israel is always right and Arabs are all either hapless victims (of other Arabs) or the embodiments of evil. As long as you don’t mind reading the equivalent of a history of the American Indian wars written entirely from the cavalry’s standpoint, you’ll do okay.

Harpoon is an interesting take on a little-known aspect of the endless Middle Eastern terrorist wars, one in which the battle cry is “follow the money” and banks are the battleground. You’ll learn a lot about the financial underpinnings of terrorism and see how killing an accountant can have more impact than taking out a whole battalion of gunmen. Take the dust-jacket copy with a few grains of Dead Sea salt and you’ll get a pretty good read.


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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His international thriller Doha 12 involves the more kinetic parts of the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict. Dirty money is the root of many plot points in his DeWitt Agency Files art-crime seriesHis Facebook author page features spies, art crime and archaeology, among other things.



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