This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 13, 1997. Partner content is not updated.Khaled Meshal knows he is lucky to be alive - even if he remains mystified about precisely what it was that almost killed him.
Canadian Passport Abuse
Khaled Meshal knows he is lucky to be alive - even if he remains mystified about precisely what it was that almost killed him. "It happened all of a sudden," recalled the 41-year-old Palestinian, politburo chief of the militant Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, as he recounted the bizarre details of his brush with death on Sept. 25. Accompanied by three of his sons and two bodyguards, Meshal was approaching his office in the bustling heart of Amman, Jordan's hilly capital city, when two men clad in blue jeans and T-shirts pounced upon him. One threw an arm around Meshal's neck, then brought a metal device wrapped in white cloth near his face. "I don't remember them touching me," Meshal said late last week as, fully recovered, he relaxed in his modest home in a middle-class sector of Amman. "But in my left ear, from the back of my head, there was a loud sound, a ringing. I got the chills, like I had been electrocuted. After that, I don't know anything."
The Hamas leader may have no memory, but what happened next was almost as strange as the incident itself - a tangled tale of Middle Eastern intrigue. Like any good spy story, it involves shadowy agents, murderous encounters, lethal gadgets and international double-dealing. Unlike espionage sagas, however, Canada is implicated, if only as an aggrieved - and highly indignant - victim. Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians who live in both countries are the principal players in the affair. But Canada's involvement is significant enough to have chilled diplomatic relations between Ottawa and Israel. It resulted in the recall "for consultations" late last week of Canada's ambassador to Israel, an official signal of displeasure proposed by Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and sanctioned by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, both of whom, according to a senior Ottawa adviser, "are mightily pissed off" at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Jerusalem.
Passports are the reason for Canada's official ire: the fact that Meshal's assailants were masquerading as a pair of Canadian tourists. While details remain unclear, it appears that the two men who attacked the Hamas leader had entered Jordan along with three male companions, all of them travelling on tourist visas stamped into forged or doctored Canadian passports. Despite Israeli denials, there is little doubt the five were part of a team sent into Jordan by Israel's secret services - Mossad in all probability - to assassinate Meshal. Israeli media reported that Netanyahu's government was seeking to retaliate for suicide bombings blamed on Hamas. The Israelis bungled the attempt and, in so doing, provoked a crisis in the complex, triangular relationship between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians in the Middle East. The inept Mossad hit squad also managed to infuriate Canadian officialdom - at least for the public record. "I don't accept the fact that Canadian passports are being used for illegal purposes, by anybody," snapped Axworthy in a scrum with Ottawa reporters. "In this whole affair, we are an innocent party that has been badly used."
On the face of it, Axworthy seems to have a point. It is, however, a connection that might never have come to light had it not been for the bulldog tenacity of a single individual, Mohammed Abu Seif. He was one of Meshal's two bodyguards that morning in Amman when the Hamas leader was sprayed with what appears to have been a time-delayed nerve gas, an insidious poison that within 24 hours prompted an acute form of respiratory failure. It could very well have cost Meshal his life.
Abu Seif ultimately prevented that by taking off in pursuit of the two assailants, refusing to give up even after the pair jumped into a rented green Hyundai, carrying three other men. As the car sped off into Amman's heavy traffic, Abu Seif followed on foot. Twenty minutes later, he spotted the two attackers who, having abandoned the Hyundai at a local school, were casually strolling along a downtown street. Abu Seif tackled both, igniting a brawl that quickly attracted the attention of passers-by. Jordanian architect Omar Abu Rozeh was one of them. Arriving on the scene, he found a desperate, screaming local man, bleeding badly from a gaping wound in his head but clinging to two foreigners who, he gasped, were assassins. While the bystanders collared the foreigners, Abu Seif borrowed Abu Rozeh's cellular telephone. "He told someone on the other end of the line," Abu Rozeh told Maclean's, "that he had captured the men who tried to kill [the Hamas official], that he was taking them to the police station and that he thought they might be Israelis."
Although it took several days for the news to finally surface, Abu Seif's suspicions eventually proved to be correct. The Canadian passports of the two men currently being held in Jordanian jails - identifying one as Shawn Kendall, 28, and the other as Barry Beads, 36 - turned out to be fakes. And while Israeli officials have yet to publicly admit that the jailed impostors are Mossad agents, Israel's role was tacitly confirmed last Wednesday when Sheik Ahmad Yassin arrived in Amman aboard a Jordanian armed forces helicopter.
The ailing, 61-year-old Yassin founded Hamas in 1987, an act that two years later earned the deaf, near-blind, quadriplegic sheik a life sentence in Israel. His sudden release from Ramle Prison hospital was widely seen to be the result of a hasty deal, worked out between Israel's Netanyahu and Jordan's King Hussein with the timely intervention of U.S. President Bill Clinton. According to diplomatic sources in both the Middle East and North America, Hussein was outraged on learning of Mossad's involvement in the attack on Meshal, fearing it would undermine the fragile peace process in the region. He was also concerned about the stability of his own kingdom where 60 per cent of the population is of Palestinian origin - most of them deeply suspicious of Hussein's relationship with Israel. The King telephoned Netanyahu, warning that relations between the two countries teetered on the brink of collapse.
The Israeli prime minister responded by quietly dispatching a cabinet-level team of officials to Amman for a weekend of face-to-face negotiations with the King's younger brother, Crown Prince Hassan. Hassan, in turn, flew to Washington, where he sought the "good offices" of President Clinton in persuading the Israelis to accept a deal that called for the release of Sheik Yassin in return for a promise to make "every possible effort" to free the two jailed attackers with the fake Canadian passports. There was an added proviso - Israel had to agree to supply an antidote for whatever it was that was gradually killing Meshal, by then hospitalized at the King Hussein Medical Center in Amman. In the end, faced with no practicable alternative, Israel agreed, freeing Yassin and providing the antidote for Meshal.
None of which would have likely happened had it not been for bodyguard Abu Seif's intervention. "The guard foiled the whole thing," noted Moraiwid Tell, a former Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations, who is now a political analyst in Amman. "Without him, the Israelis would have succeeded in killing Meshal because nobody would have been sure that it was a Mossad attack and no antidote would have been supplied. Israel could then have easily blamed it all on [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat, who is already engaged in a crackdown on Hamas, which would have caused further divisions among Palestinians."
By the same token, Canada would not have been drawn into the affair either, simply because no one would have known that Meshal's assassins had performed their gruesome task disguised as Canadian tourists. Instead, once the news broke about the Israelis' use of Canadian documents, anger began to mount in Ottawa. David Berger, Canada's ambassador to Israel, arrived back in Canada on the weekend after his recall for consultations, a move described by Foreign Minister Axworthy as "a fairly serious step." Not serious enough for the Reform party's foreign affairs spokesman Bob Mills, who called for visa, trade or intelligence sanctions to force Israel - or at least Mossad - to sit up and take notice. "To get the message across, I'm not sure that recalling an ambassador is enough," said Mills.
Despite the uproar, it was still unclear precisely how Canadian passports came to be in the hands of the Israeli hit squad. The five members of the team, all travelling on Canadian documents, apparently entered Jordan on Aug. 19, each with a tourist visa, and eventually took four rooms at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Amman. Only three have been identified so far: the two jailed in Jordan - posing as Shawn Kendall and Barry Beads - and a third individual - using the name Guy Eris - whose whereabouts remain unknown. Last week, the real Shawn Kendall, a Toronto-born Canadian working for the United Israel Appeal in Tel Aviv, showed up, telling CTV News from behind the closed door of his home in the Israeli city: "I am the innocent victim in some screwed-up situation and I just wish it would all go away."
That is highly unlikely, at least for the moment. The genuine Kendall has been twice visited by Canadian Security Intelligence Service operatives. He has, according to Axworthy, been "fully co-operative," providing information that demonstrated the impostor's passport was a "forgery, using false photographs and signatures on another passport, which was in some form a duplicate of the one he was holding." As for the real Beads, he, too, is believed to be a Canadian-born resident of Israel.
Norman Spector, Canada's former ambassador to Israel and now publisher of the Jerusalem Post, helped to fuel the controversy by publicly wondering if "Canadian intelligence authorities were involved in this operation with the Israelis." That remark drew a blunt denial from current CSIS director Ward Elcock. "We had absolutely no involvement whatsoever in any of the activities that took place in Jordan or are alleged to have taken place in Jordan," he declared. At the same time, Elcock dismissed suggestions that CSIS might have helped Mossad to obtain Canadian documents. That particular denial was heartily endorsed by James Warren, who retired three years ago from his post as deputy director of CSIS. "In all my 35 years in the security services," Warren maintained, "I can only recall one instance when Canadian passports were knowingly issued to foreign nationals, and that happened when we documented those American diplomats to get them out of Teheran [in 1980] before they were taken hostage."
If there has been a cooling in the relationship between Canada and Israel as a result of the passport scandal, however, it is not a chill that is likely to endure. Officials at Canada's foreign affairs department doubt that Ambassador Berger's consultations in Ottawa will take very long, probably just time-consuming enough to allow him to return to Israel soon after the current Jewish religious holidays, which end with Yom Kippur this weekend. "In the grand scheme of things, all of this is just a blip," observed Alex Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies. "The Canadian government is obviously taking this incident very seriously - recalling your ambassador is a strong diplomatic move, after all. But in the long run I don't think it will fundamentally damage Canada-Israel relations."
It may make it slightly more difficult for Mossad, or any of Israel's other security services, to resort to the use of Canadian passports - for a while, at least. But there are plenty of Canadian passports in circulation, some six million at the moment. And 10,000 of those are reported lost every year. At least a few will likely end up in the eager hands of Israel's spies.
In the Middle East, however, the impact of the failed attempt to assassinate Meshal may be more lasting. Jordan University political scientist Radwan Abdullah said that most of the kingdom's inhabitants are viewing the deal that Hussein struck with the Israelis as an attempt to make the best of a bad situation. "The public is not pleased by the king's manoeuvre," he argued. "They see it as fake, as a cheap public relations move, that a way was found, probably by the Americans, for him to save face." Abdullah predicts that Hussein will slowly cool the peace process with Israel. "If he is prudent, and he usually is, he will gradually freeze the peace just like the Egyptians did."
As for Israel, the affair's impact is likely to be mixed. The Israelis found an expedient way to release Sheik Yassin before he died in prison and became yet another martyr. But the incident has deeply embarrassed many in the Israeli leadership. "There will be egg on a lot of faces, from Netanyahu on down," said Benny Morris, author of a history of Israel's intelligence community. The prime minister, who almost certainly gave the personal go-ahead for the Jordanian operation, is already under attack by opposition legislator Yossi Sarid, who late last week demanded a parliamentary investigation of the "infantile decision taken by the prime minister."
If there are any winners in the affair, it is probably Hamas. Meshal is still alive, exuberantly describing the attempt on his life as an incident that has "destroyed the legendary image of the Mossad." Hamas's archenemy Israel has been embarrassed, its tactics exposed. Even more, Hamas has won the implicit political recognition of King Hussein. And finally, Mossad, having botched one attempt to kill a Hamas leader, may now, in the words of political scientist Abdullah, "think again" before attempting something similar with the rest of the organization's hierarchy.
For the moment, the two alleged assassins remain locked up in a Jordanian jail, awaiting the outcome of an investigation into attempted murder. Few in Jordan expect the pair ever to face trial. Most feel they will be quietly shipped back to Israel once the current uproar dies down. But all concur that they chose the perfect cover to mask their activities. "If it were not for that [body]guard, I'm sure they would have got well away," said former UN ambassador Tell. "Who would ever have suspected a couple of Canadian tourists?" Who indeed.
Spies Love Canadian Passports
Among the cloak-and-dagger crowd, it has long been coveted as the passport of choice. Inoffensive, multi-ethnic and untainted by any past history of imperial sin, the small blue booklet with Canada's gold coat of arms on its cover has masked a multitude of misdeeds in the shadowy world of international espionage. "Israeli agents are not the only people with a fondness for Canadian passports," confides a veteran warrior of Canada's clandestine services. "The Germans use it to document their illegals, the Russians use it to document their illegals, the British have done it for the same reason, even the Americans have been known to use it on more than one occasion."
There is no mystery about the reasons. "Canadians are the good guys," says Alex Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies. "We've never been a colonial power, never declared war on anybody. We're noted for inventing peacekeeping, for our foreign aid, for our objectivity. It's all helped to make us one of the world's most attractive nationalities, welcome just about anywhere." Just as importantly, Canada is a nation of immigrants, populated by people of virtually every race and creed. "Our passport's color-blind," says Morrison. "Everybody's got a cousin somewhere."
Not least in Israel. The bungled assassination attempt in Jordan is not the first time that Israel's secret service has been caught manipulating Canadian passports. In 1973, Israeli agents travelling on doctored Canadian passports botched another execution attempt in Lillehammer, Norway. A team from Mossad, the Jewish state's external security service, killed Ahmed Bouchiki, mistaking the Moroccan-born waiter for the Palestinian who planned the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. One member of that hit squad, arrested by Norwegian police, was found to be using the identity of Canadian Patricia Roxborough, a legal secretary whose passport had been stolen months earlier from the desk of her Montreal office.
The following year, 50 blank passports were stolen from the vault of the Canadian Embassy in Vienna. One of those documents, traced by the registration number, turned up a year later in Nicosia, Cyprus. It was left behind by a member of a Mossad team that had detonated explosives under the hotel bed of a sleeping Palestinian guerrilla leader, killing him instantly.
In addition to outright theft, Israel's clandestine services have other means to obtain Canadian documents. It is an open secret that new immigrants to the Jewish state, especially from Canada, are sometimes encouraged to donate passports, both valid and expired, to unidentified bureaucrats in the interests of what is euphemistically known as "the security of the state."
There also appears to be a thriving black market in Canadian passports, both genuine and faked. Canadian officials have no inkling of how large the illicit traffic might be in the 1.3 million passports that are issued annually, but they privately acknowledge that it is happening. As for the forgeries, Mossad defector Victor Ostrovsky, in the 1991 book he co-authored with Canadian journalist Claire Hoy, By Way of Deception, described a secret Israeli factory engaged in the manufacture of forged passports, including a batch of more than 1,000 Canadian documents. Israel's spies might be embarrassed by the revelation. But, as events in Jordan have clearly demonstrated, not enough to forgo the benefits of posing as the world's nice guy.
A History of Assassination
In the deadly shadow war between Arab and Jew in the Middle East, Israel's secret services have demonstrated a ruthless and inventive mastery of the black arts of kidnap and assassination. Among the many casualties attributed to the long arm of Israeli vengeance:
Ali Hassan Salameh, architect of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, is killed on a Beirut street by a remote-controlled car bomb.
Khalil al-Wazir, aka Abu Jihad, the PLO's second-in-command, is shot to death in his beachfront office in Tunis by a squad of seaborne Israeli commandos.
Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, spiritual leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, is kidnapped in south Lebanon and transported to an Israeli prison.
Hezbollah guerrilla leader Abbas Musawi is ambushed and killed in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon.
Islamic Jihad activist and journalist Hani Abed dies when his car explodes in the Gaza Strip.
Islamic Jihad leader Fathi al-Shiqaqi dies on a busy street in Sliema, Malta, when he is shot five times in the head by two assailants on a passing motorcycle.
Yahiya Ayyash, known in the Hamas movement as "the engineer" for his skill in bomb-making, is decapitated when 50 g of explosives planted in his cellular telephone detonates as he makes a call.
Maclean's October 13, 1997