At the heart of this book is a cracking yarn: the cack-handed attempt by Mossad, the Israeli external secret service, to kill one of the leaders of Hamas, the hardline Palestinian party, in Amman in 1997 by spraying a lethal poison into his ear from a device cunningly disguised in a camera belonging to a ‘Canadian tourist’. Everything that could go wrong for the Israeli spooks did go wrong, so a cloak-and-dagger exercise on Jordanian territory ended in rich farce. James Bond it wasn’t.
For the hit to work, no one should have noticed that anything unusual had taken place – just a casual brush past, not even a bump – between the ‘Canadian’ hitman with his strange device and the target, Hamas hardman Khalid Mishal. Instead, disaster: long before the planned contact, Khalid’s bodyguards had clocked a suspicious car, had spotted the foreigners lounging around on the street, and saw the brush-by. They were instantly suspicious. One bodyguard gave chase and the two Canadians, ‘Barry Beads’ and ‘Shawn Kendall’, legged it. After tumbling across a busy dual carriageway, the Hamas man caught them and a huge fight with rocks resulted. Finally, the Jordanian police arrived and locked all three up.
As Khalid slipped into a coma, Hamas tipped off local Agence France Presse reporter Randa Habib that their leader had been a victim of an assassination attempt:
‘Did someone try to shoot him?’ Habib asked.
‘Was it an explosion?’
‘No – they used a bizarre instrument.’
Hamas’s call to AFP meant that the story was out in the open, never a good thing for the creeping things that prefer the shade. For Mossad, it was to get worse and worse.
The Jordanian secret police realised that the two Canadians they had in their nick might be Mossad agents. That spelled big trouble for the spy agency and the man who was ultimately responsible for this mess, the then recently elected Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu.
Three years before, Israel and Jordan had pledged peace, and both countries’ secret police had since been working together to close down Islamic extremists. For King Hussein (also known as the PLK – the Plucky Little King), the possibility that Mossad had staged an assassination attempt in Amman against Khalid represented an outrageous breach of trust. If Khalid died, Jordan’s Palestinian subjects – more than half the population – might suspect collusion between the King and Mossad in the killing. The King phoned up the White House, demanding that Mossad hand over the antidote to their poison, fast. Bill Clinton wasn’t in Washington, but Little Rock, doing fundraisers, dining on black beans and grits. So far, what had happened was all conjecture. It looked bad, but the two men in the Jordanian prison hadn’t coughed.
The key was to discover their true identities. Enter Steve Bennett, Canadian diplomat. He went down to the holding tank and interviewed Barry Beads and Shawn Kendall.
Paul McGeough sets out what happened next with the delight of a born storyteller. Watched by bemused Jordanian guards, the diplomat subjected each man to his bespoke test of Canadianness. Could he name a street in Canada where he lived as a child? No. One of his Canadian teachers? No.
The test continued. All Canadians are proud of the spectacular success of the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series in the mid-1990s. The Canadians in the prison cell had no idea what he was talking about – the ‘Blue Whats?’
Finally, the diplomat asked them to sing the first few bars of ‘O Canada’. He helpfully hummed the opening line: ‘O Canada! Our home and native land …’. After their failure to join in, McGeough observes, the diplomat was satisfied that both men were impostors.
The pressure began to build on ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu and Mossad. The spy agency had indulged in a high-tech assassination attempt similar to the Bulgarian secret police’s attack on Georgi Markov – but they had bungled. They had humiliated a key ally in the region, King Hussein. They had annoyed the Canadians – OK, they could live with that. And they faced the wrath of the Americans. Ludicrously, Bibi and Mossad still said they couldn’t hand over the details of the poison and its antidote. More pressure from the Americans meant that they changed their minds and coughed up.
The Mossad team had used levofentanyl – a synthetic, morphine-like drug originally created by a Belgian subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. Just a few whiffs of it can numb the brain and start a slow death. Because the drug is rare and breaks down without leaving an obvious trace, it was a perfect method of silent killing. Or so it had seemed.
Khalid got his antidote and lives to fight (and see his supporters stage suicide-bomb attacks) another day. Bibi got kicked out of power, trailing a whiff of corruption, but today is back again as Prime Minister of Israel. Neither man seems particularly admirable.
Paul McGeough knows his Middle East well, but sometimes his breathless prose slips into self-parody. That said, it’s a great story of Israel’s much-feared secret service getting egg on its face.