Although Israel’s secret service is known for its chutzpah and boldness, one of its most daring operations was the theft of Russia’s multi-million dollar warplane, the MiG-21 fighter jet.
One of a secret service’s first jobs is to figure out what not to do. After all, investing energy in too many directions leads nowhere. So, in 5723/1963, when Meir Amit replaced Isser Harel as head of Israel’s Mossad, he began consulting the top brass to map out the Mossad’s future goals. General Mordechai Hod, commander of the Israeli Air Force, was adamant that one of its most useful missions would be to “kidnap” one of Russia’s MiG-21s. True, Israel had captured an abandoned Russian plane after the Egyptians fled towards the Canal in the 5716/1956 Suez Crisis, but now that plane had been superseded by the new MiG-21, which Russia had introduced into the Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian air forces. It was the best fighter plane the Arabs had, and the Russians claimed that it was the most cutting- edge strike aircraft in the world.
KNOW YOUR ENEMY
First produced in 5719/1959, more MiG-21s have been manufactured than almost any other jet, and an estimated 10,000 have flown in more wars than any plane in the world. The dependable plane has served as a front line jet for more than 30 years, and is constantly redesigned to keep up with the times.
As General Dan Tolkowsky, who built up Israel’s air force in the early 5710s/1950s, always claimed, “It is a basic principle of warfare that knowing the weapons the enemy has, is already beating him.”
Besides military considerations, it was also worth Israel’s while to steal Russian secrets in order to have something to barter with America. After all, America was itching to look under the MiG-21’s hood no less than the Israelis.
Of course, the Russians knew this only too well and kept the planes under close security. The closest Israel ever got to learning about them was when Israel’s master spy, Eli Cohen, photographed one at a secret base in Syria. Israel’s failure was not for lack of trying. Through an Egyptian-born Armenian, Jean Thomas, Israel had offered an Egyptian pilot a million dollars to fly his MiG-21 to Israel. The pilot refused and Thomas and two accomplices were hanged. Then Israel tried to convince two Iraqi pilots to defect, but that attempt failed as well.
JOSEPH THE SLAVE
Finally, Israel got a lead. At the end of 5724/1964, a stranger contacted the Israeli embassy in Teheran (Iran was friendly with Israel until 5739/1979), and said that he had vital information.
A secretary later met the man in a small conference room and the message that was imparted was short and to the point:
“If Israel wanted a MiG-21, someone should telephone a certain phone number in Baghdad and ask for Joseph. Joseph would arrange it.” With that the man got up and left.
Was the whole thing a hoax, or, even worse, a trap? After all, most of Iraq’s 100,000 Jews had left in a massive airlift to Israel in the early 5710s/1950s, and only about a thousand remained. Who in Iraq would be interested in helping Israel? Despite all the questions and reservations,
Meir Amit decided that getting hold of a MiG-21 was so vital that it was worth the risk, choosing an intelligence officer, Jossef Mansor, to do the job. Mansor was told that he might be walking into a death trap, but that there was no choice. Four weeks later, Mansor flew into Baghdad with false papers, identifying him as an English X-ray equipment specialist. For a week, he made the rounds of Baghdad’s hospitals and health officials and, finally, he composed himself to make the intriguing phone call and asked for Joseph.
“Who’s speaking?” a voice asked.
“A friend from out of town,” Mansor replied.
Once Joseph came on the line, Mansor exclaimed, “You are the Joseph?”
“Are you the gentleman who met my friend?” Joseph replied calmly.
“Yes, I am,” Mansor mumbled.
The two men arranged to meet, intensifying Mansor’s feeling of being in danger. Just before noon the next day, Mansor was waiting at a coffee house, half-expecting a security man’s heavy hand to fall on his shoulder any moment.
Instead, at the stroke of noon, a well dressed man of about 60 arrived, took a seat opposite Mansor, and the two men began sipping coffee.
“It was nice of you to come,” Joseph began.
“We are most interested in the merchandise of which your friend spoke,” Mansor replied.
“You mean the MiG,” the stranger continued.
“It will cost you a lot of money and much time, but I think it can be arranged.”
“My friends don’t understand how you will be able to achieve this, to be frank, where others have tried and failed,” Mansor countered.
With a smile, Joseph suggested another meeting the next day on a quiet park bench, and this is where Mansor learned Joseph’s story.
Joseph spent the first 10 years of his life with impoverished Jewish parents before being indentured as a servant in the home of a rich, Maronite-Christian family.
Although he was illiterate and practically a slave, over the years, his natural intelligence gained him a prominent position in the family and he was regarded as a family elder. No decisions were ever made without his input. Two years before, Joseph had an argument with the family head, in the course of which the gentleman yelled at Joseph claiming that without the family, he was nothing.
Devastated, Joseph realized that this accusation was absolutely true and began searching for something deeper in life. At the age of 60, he decided to return to his Jewish roots, studied with a rav and joined a discussion group. Six months later, he discovered a unique way to help his newly re-discovered people. The Maronite- Christians of Iraq were oppressed and Joseph’s family wanted to leave. But how could they get out without losing their money?
Joseph’s keen brain figured out a way. The eldest son of the family was a deputy squadron leader in the Iraqi air force who was flying the Russian MiG-21. He could smuggle a MIG-21 to Israel in return for Israel getting the family out and providing them with enough money to continue living in their accustomed luxury.
“How much will the family need?” asked Mansor.
“A million pounds sterling. For myself, nothing.”
Two months later, Joseph informed Mansor that the family was demanding money up front. To show their good faith, Israel must pay a quarter million to an uncle in Switzerland. Was the whole thing a scam? Despite everything, Meir Amit felt that it was worth gambling a quarter million pounds for the chance of getting his hands on the Russian plane, and so did Yitzchak Rabin who was then Chief of Staff of Israel’s Armed Forces. Israel’s cabinet gave the green light.
WE’LL SHOOT YOU DOWN!
The toughest part of the plan was persuading the son of the family, deputy Squadron Leader, Munir Redfa, to do his bit for the cause. His loyalties were torn. On the one hand, he wanted to help his family while, on the other hand, he felt patriotic towards Iraq and was certainly not interested in helping its arch-enemy, Israel. To ease his conscience, Israel embarked on a two-pronged campaign. A senior diplomat of the American embassy in Baghdad secretly met Redfa and explained that America was also anxious to examine the plane to help its war against Communism.
In addition, a Mossad agent made social contact with Redfa and engaged him in ideological discussions. Redfa admitted that he had harbored resentment against Iraq for being passed over as commander of his squadron and that, as a Christian, he was only allowed to fly the MiG with half-full fuel tanks to prevent his defection. In addition, it bothered him that he and his squadron were sometimes ordered to bomb the almost defenseless Kurds, who were revolting against Iraq in the North. The friend took Redfa to Israel via Europe where he met with Israeli military men who promised him protection for his family, Israeli citizenship, a home and a job for life.
Redfa finally complied and the plan rolled into operation. Members of Redfa’s large family began to quietly leave Iraq. On August 16, 5726/1966, Mossad agents hired two large vans and picked up the rest of the family who had left town for a picnic. At the border, Kurdish guerillas, whom Israel was helping in their struggle against Iraq, helped the family over the border into Iran, from where they were flown to Israel.
That same morning, Redfa asked his ground crew to fill his tanks to full capacity against the rules, and he took off towards Baghdad. Suddenly, he changed direction, put on his afterburners and rocketed towards Israel.
“Turn round or we’ll shoot you down,” his earphones crackled.
Redfa turned off the radio. Israel picked Redfa up on radar and sent a flight of Mirages to escort him on the last leg of his 500-mile journey to a base in the Negev Desert.
Israel and America tested the plane extensively and learned all its secrets. It is believed that this paid off in the 5727/1967 Six-Day War when Israel shot down six Syrian MiGs, with no losses of their own, and gained general air superiority in every theatre of the war.
Joseph never joined his people in Israel, preferring to spend the rest of his days in Iraq. How he escaped the wrath of the Iraqi authorities is unknown.
(Chief source: “Spymasters of Israel” by Stewart Steven, Ballantine Books, New York 1982)