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The Soldier Spy

book cover for the forthcoming book Harpoon

Meir Dagan was laid to rest on a rainy morning in March 2016 at a military ceremony in north of the country. The Israeli prime minister, elected officials, and generals stood at attention in front of Dagan’s coffin, a pine box draped with the Israeli flag, as the rain fell without pause. Dagan was eulogized as one of the nation’s great military and espionage heroes.

Meir Dagan was born in 1945 inside the smoldering debris of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union. His family made it to Israel when Meir was five, newcomers arriving to an uncertain future in an infant nation made up primarily of new immigrants and refugees. The Holocaust never left young Meir’s DNA. He carried it with him as a chip on his shoulder and fuel to fire his military aspirations. He made the army his life and served in the paratroopers as a commissioned officer. He fought gallantly in the Six Day War and befriended a swashbuckling general named Ariel Sharon. The friendship between Dagan and Sharon would last a lifetime.

In 1970, Sharon ordered Dagan to end a terrorist uprising in the Gaza Strip by any means necessary. Ever the visionary, Dagan formed an undercover commando force that masqueraded as local Palestinians and infiltrated every aspect of the terrorist safe haven. The unit and its operations rewrote the counterterrorism manual. Meir Dagan fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, displaying leadership and courage under fire. In 1982, he led tanks into Beirut during Israel’s Lebanon War. The fighting was fierce and bloody and Dagan’s brigade suffered heavy casualties; some of his closest friends were killed alongside him in the bitter fighting.

When Dagan led operations against Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, groups that attacked Israel’s cities with suicide bombers, he realized that a new tactic was needed to unconventionally battle terrorism off the battlefield. Islamic and nationalistic passions sparked the violence, Dagan realized, but money was the oxygen that fueled its fires. An analysis revealed that the sums of cash consisted of hundreds of millions of dollars, money that came in from Iran and the Gulf Arab states, as well as from donations made into charitable foundations based around the world. If Israel could prevent the terrorists from accessing this money, Dagan believed, the terrorists wouldn’t be able to fund the cells, the bombers, the salaries, and the slick propaganda machines that made the carnage possible.

In 1996, Dagan was placed in charge of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau. It was here that he created Harpoon, a financial counterterrorism task force encompassing representatives from the military, the intelligence services, the police, the customs service, and other ministries. In 2002, when Prime Minister Sharon appointed his old friend to serve as the head of the Mossad, Dagan brought Harpoon to Israel’s intelligence service and it became operational. Harpoon’s calling card was “follow the money, target the money, and kill the money.”