Friday, October 3, 2014

YNET: Human intelligence under fire Operating in the gap between the Mossad and the Shin Bet, Unit 504 – the Human Intelligence Division – is one of the IDF's most secret units; handling a network of agents, their members offer the ultimate layer of intelligence for the military. Oded Shalom

The events of that day of fighting on the outskirts of Khan Younis still stir emotions among the members of Unit 504. It all went down on the seventh day of the ground operation, in the central portion of the Gaza Strip. Paratroopers who were on a mission to locate tunnels and shafts in the densely packed urban area had commandeered key positions of control in the area the previous evening. In the early afternoon, three Hamas fighters were seen emerging from one of the buildings. The fire power that rained down on them left them no chance; all three were killed.

A shaft leading down into a tunnel was found in the building from which they had emerged. The commander of the company of paratroopers decided nevertheless to continue combing the area, but left behind a small force to keep an eye on the opening in case more Hamas militants surfaced. Unit 504's field operatives explain that deciding not to deal with a tunnel opening right away isn't something that should be taken for granted.

"After all, it's a place from which terrorists can emerge and endanger our fighters," says R., a Unit 504 soldier who was operating in the area at the time. "So why leave it intact? The easiest thing to do is to blow it up. But as a field investigator, as someone who is responsible for extracting tactical intelligence from detainees captured during the fighting, I think one step ahead. If three terrorists emerged from the shaft, why shouldn't more terrorists come out from there? And if others do come out, they don't necessarily have to be killed in a battle. You can interrogate them and extract information that will help our forces in the fighting to come."

Soldiers from Unit 504 with Palestinian detainees in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge (Photo: IDF Spokesman's Office)
Soldiers from Unit 504 with Palestinian detainees in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge (Photo: IDF Spokesman's Office)

Thus, while most members of the company of paratroopers continued their searches, a small force remained behind to keep watch on the shaft. The sounds of gunfire and explosions fill the air, and the communications radio carries the noise of the fighting, but the paratroopers don't take their eyes off the opening. They wait. Half an hour, an hour, two hours go by since the firefight with the three Hamas militants. Well into the third hour, and tensions are running high; the time that has passed does nothing to ease it. And all of a sudden, two figures emerge from the shaft.

At first, only heads appear, and then come torsos. Through the ruins of the structure in which the paratroopers are stationed one can see that the two men have their arms raised after having thrown down their weapons. "There's a term, 'a cornered terrorist,'" R. explains, "and this occurs when you have the edge over him in terms of your vantage point and have him in your sights. You're in a protected area and he isn't. You can watch his every move too, and know that at any given moment, if he tries anything funny, you can take him down.

"So my first move is to advise the company commander not to open fire on the terrorists, not to kill them. He sees them as a threat, but the field investigator sees them as a source of information. I am then authorized to speak to them. I shout to them, explain to them that they're surrounded and don't have a chance against us. I instruct them to come out slowly and stand in an area where they are fully visible; and then I ask them to strip down to just their underwear. The majority of the terrorists who emerged from the shafts were suicide fighters, and that's how you make sure they aren't strapped with explosives. So the two are standing there naked, in their underwear only, their arms in the air, and this is where your work begins, the field interrogation."


Givati and the 70 Gazans

Unit 504 – or the Human Intelligence Division, as it is now known – is one of the Israel Defense Forces' most classified units. Its members will never be photographed, not even from the back at best, and their names will generally be represented by just a single letter, if at all. We are sitting in the only place deemed suitable for this type of encounter, for an interview with the unit's soldiers and commanders – a room at the Intelligence Heritage Center in Glilot. The unit's base is off-limits to those like us who do not have the appropriate security clearance. The unit's covert operations are carried out along two axes – the recruitment and handling of agents in the West Bank and enemy states bordering Israel, and the interrogation of prisoners both on a routine basis and during times of war. The division of duties with Israel's two other intelligence-gathering entities, the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, is geographical. The Mossad works further afield, and the Shin Bet closer to home. Unit 504 operates in the gap.

This gap is a complex and complicated one, particularly in light of the changes in the region. Lebanon and Hezbollah may indeed have been sucked into the Syrian mess, but tensions have risen somewhat of late along the border with the Land of the Cedars. The Golan Heights border is no longer quiet either, with rebel organizations now in control of areas on the Syrian side that were previously held by President Bashar Assad's forces. But Unit 504's commanding officer, Colonel A., agrees to utter one banal yet very meaningful sentence concerning the goings-on in the north: "The developments around us are a challenge to the entire defense establishment," he says.

This comes from the man whose charges do not sit on orthopedic chairs in an air-conditioned and fortified space with headphones to their ears and a cool beverage within reach. As opposed to technology-based signals intelligence, or SIGINT, human intelligence, dubbed HUMINT, requires face-to-face encounters. Such encounters can be extremely risky, so every meeting between a handler and an agent is planned, for all intents and purposes, like an operation. The unit learned just how dangerous its work is in June 2001, when it lost Lieutenant Colonel Yehuda Edri, one of 504's legendary handlers. At the time, Edri was waiting in his car on the shoulder of the Tunnels Road near Bethlehem for one of his informants from the West Bank. Edri was in the car with two security personnel, but the Palestinian managed to surprise them, drew a weapon and shot his handler in the heart. The shooter then fled, but one of the security guards gave chase and killed him. Ever since, meetings of this kind have become complex security operations that are planned in great detail.

Soldiers from Unit 504 with Palestinian detainees (File Photo: Gadi Kabalo)
Soldiers from Unit 504 with Palestinian detainees (File Photo: Gadi Kabalo)

The intelligence gathered by the Unit 504 members who interrogate prisoners, as opposed to those who handle the agents, is collected during the actual fighting. "In times of war, the unit focuses its efforts primarily on field interrogations because it's hard to operate the agents at such times. They're afraid to wander around," Colonel A. explains. "The information the interrogators retrieve from the people the fighters capture in the battle zones can save lives and alter offensive or defensive plans. The questioning takes place in the field, in homes the IDF has commandeered, sometimes under fire. If the prisoner has the potential to provide intelligence, he is taken for further interrogation in Israel."

Lt. Col. H., who heads the unit's interrogations division and will soon be named A.'s deputy, says there's no substitute for face-to-face encounters when it comes to gathering intelligence. Handling the agents and interrogating the prisoners in the field are the foundations of HUMINT, he states. "There are numerous sensors in this field of work, but HUMINT adds the final color and odor," H. says. "There are things that you can only learn through direct contact with an individual and that you have no chance of learning by means of signals intelligence. This has always been the understanding. In case you've forgotten, Joshua operated a network of spies. And while some of them may have failed to carry out their tasks, it was the start."

Unit 504 entered the campaign in Gaza with a force of active reservists who had been recruited earlier to participate in Operation Brother's Keeper in the West Bank. "All the unit's prisoner interrogators are reservists," says Colonel A. "And we called them up initially to join up with the forces searching for the three abducted boys. Those same people, several dozen, went from one operation to the next and ended up doing reserve duty for 50-60 days straight."

As a matter of routine, Gaza doesn't figure at all in Unit 504's scope of operations. The Shin Bet is responsible for recruiting and handling agents in the Strip. During wartime, however, the unit's soldiers operate wherever the fighting is taking place, retrieving intelligence from people they locate in the field. "Because we are not familiar with the Strip from our daily operations, our efforts focused on interrogating the detainees captured by the fighting forces," A. says. "One of our interrogators accompanied every one of the forces that operated there. And as the forces moved further into the populated areas, the significance of HUMINT increased."

Unit 504's reservists are all former combat soldiers, and all are attached to different combat battalions and train with them in preparation for wartime. "During the course of the training, my investigators simulate interrogations so that the battalion commander, the officers and the soldiers are made aware of their capabilities," says Lt. Col. L.M., 52, a Unit 504 field interrogation commander in times of emergency and the deputy CEO of a retail company in civilian life.

Who do they interrogate in training?
"One of the guys in the unit who pretends to be a prisoner. The interrogator doesn’t know him at all; they've had no previous contact with one another."

Do you use force against the detainees?
"Never, there's none of that," says Lt. Col. H. "The use of force in field interrogations doesn't yield information, so interrogation is an acquired skill. You need an excellent command of Arabic and you need to know the different dialects; you need a high level of emotional intelligence and the ability to connect well with people. Our screening net is very tightly knit. You can't be an impulsive person with a short fuse. Imagine you're sitting with a Hamas member in Khan Younis and you're interrogating him while the fighting rages; and because of the pressure and force you subject him to, he gives you the information he thinks you want to hear but it is not necessarily the truth. Every detail you exact from him must stem from a willingness to cooperate."

Intelligence Unit 504 (Photo: Tal Shahar)
Intelligence Unit 504 (Photo: Tal Shahar)

N., 34, a field interrogator as an IDF reservists and a business development manager at a large company in civilian life, spent Operation Protective Edge attached to the Givati Brigade. "During my national service, I was part of the Jordan Valley Brigade, a roadblock soldier," he says. "My Arabic was roadblock Arabic. Years after my release, I went to learn the language privately. I was referred to 504 by someone I know; and after a series of screening processes and psychological tests, I began the training. But you only learn just how important your role is when you go into war. Givati captured more than 70 Gazans, of which more than half were valuable interrogation subjects – in other words, ones who provided effective information."

Give me an example of effective intelligence.
Eight soldiers are sitting in the room, and seven of them have their eyes fixed on one girl, an officer from the Information Security Division. A nod from her allows the conversation to continue, or stops it – depending on her expression. And thus, N. looks at her and waits for the nod; and she, distinctly unwilling, allows him to go on – but with caution.

"One night, the brigade's deputy commander was supposed to lead a force into an area south of Khan Younis, and he came and told me he was lacking information about the area in which he was operating – information about IEDs, booby traps, the location of ambushes and snipers, vantage points, tunnel shafts," N. says. "These are details that can alter the tactical course of an operation and save lives. This intelligence was provided by our guys who interrogated the prisoners we extracted from the field to our facility in Israel."

What is this facility?
"It's a facility that was set aside for use by the unit before the fighting started, and was readied for the task at the start of the operation," says H. "We brought in showers, toilets, a kitchen, a clinic, everything we needed."

N.: "But not everyone we interrogated in the field was taken out of Gaza to the interrogation facility in Israel. Because we're the adults in the field, reservists who have a broader perspective, we understand that it's not a game of black and white, that the reality consists of gray too. We view the population in the field differently. From our perspective, not everyone is an enemy. We spoke with several Palestinians who got caught up in combat areas because they had nowhere else to go and because Hamas wouldn't let them flee. They tried, but the organization blocked off the escape route from the neighborhood. Those who tried to escape along a different route were beaten with clubs or shot at by Hamas fighters."

Colonel A. interjects. "But it's important to understand," he says, "that in the end, we were involved in combat in a crowded urban area, so there's no way the civilians there weren't aware of the infrastructure set up by Hamas. It's impossible to dig a shaft from within a mosque without the knowledge of the general public. The civilian population is a well of intelligence information."

A rag, a shirt and zip ties

One of the most memorable pictures from the ground operation during Protective Edge is a photograph taken in the Strip of some 20 Palestinian youths dressed only in their underwear and with their hands on their heads. A total of around 190 prisoners – who the IDF prefers to call "detainees" as they do not belong to the regular army of an enemy country – were captured during the operation. Around 150, like the boys in the well-known picture, were taken for questioning at the interrogation facility the unit had set up somewhere in the south. A few dozen – the army doesn't give a precise number – remained in Israeli detention and were handed over to the Shin Bet.

"The fact that most of the interrogation subjects remained in the field or were returned to Gaza following questioning at the facility in Israel is evidence of our purposefulness," A. says. "We weren't looking to send people to prison just like that. We questioned, retrieved intelligence that went to the forces in the field, and we released them back to their homes."

R., 44, the CEO of a furniture company in civilian life, notes that every interrogation begins with a security check. "First we check to ensure that the detainees are not carrying explosive charges," he says. "We blindfold them with a rag or their shirt and we tie their hands behind their backs with zip ties. We then look for a secure location, a structure that hasn't been hit in a bombardment and is more or less whole. It's important to isolate them from what is happening outside so that they aren't concerned about anyone seeing them being taken for questioning. You sit with them like we are sitting together now, only I am the one holding a notebook and a pen; and further back, at a safe distance, the fighters provide security. They're with you, but they're not part of the situation. It's what we call the initial interrogation. You try to get the subject to tell you about potential threats in the area where you are – like tunnel shafts, snipers, booby traps and IEDs."

And if they don't cooperate?
"Try for a moment to picture yourself in that situation," R. says. "It's war; the sound of weapons fire of all kinds is everywhere around you. You are sitting with someone who just moments earlier thought he was about to die, perhaps wanted to die. Not only that, but you are dealing with an individual who has been training and preparing to kill you for a long time. You're his enemy. He's in a tough psychological state; he's confused and scared. And it's your job to make him go from being in the state of consciousness of a man who just moments earlier thought he was going to die to the state of consciousness of someone for whom the war is over, that that's it for him, he's not going to die."

How do you do that?
"You calm him down," R. continues. "You explain to him that he's in trouble, but you look at him and tell him that you are both going to get out of it together. You don't raise your voice, but speak instead calmly and make sure he is focused. You explain the situation to him one-on-one. You ask his name, the name of his family, his parents' names. If you aren't able to calm him from the outset, to convey the sense that you are his friend, his father, his brother at that moment in time, you'll get nothing out of him. We call it getting the subject into the 'kissing position,' a state of mind in which he willingly chooses to cooperate and speak freely because of the sense of security you have given him."

Did the two who emerged from the shaft in Khan Younis speak?
"A lot," R. says. "Let's put it this way: There are paratroopers who are alive today thanks to the information extracted from those two. We retrieved information from them about a complex of buildings that forces from the brigade were about to enter, about booby trapped entrances, including along the path around the complex. The soldiers had no idea what they were walking into. I can say with certainty that if we hadn't retrieved the information, we would have sustained more fatalities. Other forces that entered booby trapped complexes sustained very heavy losses."

What were your impressions of the Hamas fighters you captured?
"I was surprised," R. says. "I didn't know they were so intelligent. One tends to think of a terrorist as someone who has eight years of schooling, 10 at best, as someone who is inarticulate, a fanatic, filled with hatred; but then you sit down opposite a person, like one of those who emerged from the shaft in Khan Younis, and it turns out that he's a college graduate, has studied some profession to broaden his knowledge, that he trained for almost two years in order to join Hamas, ran on the beach in the evenings, lifted weights and joined a special commando force. His language is of a high level; the guy speaks to you about what is happening in Gaza but also knows what is happening in the world outside of Gaza. He tells you about a harsh ideology but also shows openness. I found it enthralling."

Soldiers from Unit 504 with Palestinian detainees (File Photo: Gadi Kabalo)
Soldiers from Unit 504 with Palestinian detainees (File Photo: Gadi Kabalo)

A., the commander, says the level of the members of Hamas' military wing has improved significantly since the last time they ran into them, during Operation Cast Lead some five and half years ago. "We're dealing today with fighters on a completely different level," he says. "This is not a song of praise to Hamas, but they have undergone processes of learning the lessons of the past and bettering their fighting capabilities. I don't mean all of them, but some of the people we interrogated are quality people. Their combat and survival capabilities are impressive. They've undergone significant military and ideological training, including military training in enemy states."

R. returns to the two who emerged from the tunnel shaft. "I asked the college graduate how long they were down there for, and he said two weeks," R. recounts. "For two weeks, they slept on makeshift beds, ate dates and drank water. He said they could have held out down there for a long time, at least a month and a half. They were trained to wait patiently until out forces passed their line of shafts and then to emerge and attack them from behind."

So why did they emerge with their arms raised?
"Perhaps because they saw what happened to their comrades who emerged a few hours before them and they decided they didn't want to die," R. says. "They gave themselves a few hours down there to think about it and chose to get out of the war alive."

Did you get the impression that they hate us?
"I didn't ask and no one said he hates me," R. responds. "But yes, they see us as the enemy. Only one of them told me that he had no choice, that he needs to make a living and that's the work he found."

In the military wing?
"Yes," R. continues, "a fighter in Hamas' military wing makes a living from that. The same guy said he was a lookout at first, and then went on to become a fighter. He is employed in that role on a permanent basis and earns NIS 120 a day. That's a tidy sum in the Strip. The lookouts are employed on a part-time basis and earn NIS 30-60 for a day's work."

The HUMINT potential

The danger involved in operating in the field with the combat forces exacted a price from Unit 504 during Operation Protective Edge. On July 21, Ohad Shemesh, 27, a field interrogator attached to a paratroopers' battalion, was killed in an exchange of fire in the southern part of Khan Younis. The battle that ensued as the paratroopers went from house to house left 13 IDF officers and soldiers injured; nine Palestinians were killed in the fighting.

R., who oversaw all the field interrogators who were attached to the paratroopers, says the information Shemesh gathered during the fighting was very significant and was used to pinpoint targets for the air force. "On one of the days," he recounts, "the force he was with spotted a cell making preparations to launch a rocket towards Israel. And of course the guys wanted to open fire on them and take them out; but Ohad convinced the company commander not to kill them, and really insisted on it, even though this required that the soldiers outflank them and capture them alive.

"He was aware of the HUMINT potential of this group of launchers, and their capture gave us a lot of information that we didn't have. Ohad got information from them about 15 launch sites, information that was immediately passed on to the air force, which, within minutes, then closed the circle and bombed those sites. We learned from those terrorists how Hamas was deployed in that area, where the lookouts were, and what weapons they were carrying. We also learned their method of operation – how far away they stand from the concealed launch sites and wait for an opportunity to emerge and load the launchers with rockets, how they move around in the area, who gives them the launch orders, and by what means – telephone or radio device."

Colonel A. says the SIGINT units that are not in the field cannot provide such intelligence. "Those who sit there with headphones on their heads may perhaps be able to monitor a conversation from which we could learn about one launch site," he says. "Here we're talking about a Unit 504 field operative who retrieved intelligence about 15 sites. This is what we say – that with all due respect to the sophisticated surveillance devices and advanced hi-tech technologies, there's no substitute for the human factor. When you have an interrogation subject or agent, you can ask him questions, have a conversation with him, understand what you're dealing with. When it comes to listening in, you hear something and its open to interpretation, because not everything is clear. Shemesh, God rest his soul, retrieved information that did not require any interpretation. We put it into the system, the sites were photographed by VIZINT means, visual intelligence, and underwent deciphering. Verification was quick and facilitated the destruction of the targets within a short space of time."

After Shemesh was killed, Hamas maps were found on his person; he had found them in homes he had entered with the troops during the fighting. A. says they were maps with tactical markings that showed the location of lookout points and Hamas command posts and places where ambushes had been set up against the IDF forces. The information Shemesh got from these maps also soon became targets for the air force.

But the case of the fallen field interrogator is not only a story about the intelligence he retrieved. A. recounts that the maps were stained with Shemesh's blood, a fact that required the involvement of the military rabbinate. "In keeping with Jewish law, anything stained with the blood of the deceased must be buried with him," A. explains. "Some of the maps that were found on Shemesh and were stained with his blood didn't make it to the forces in the field and we didn't have copies of them. We had to retrieve them from the rabbinate, photograph them and return them. In the end, those maps were buried together with him."