“Sayeret Matkal: Israel’s Top-Secret Elite Commando Unit” – with Aviram Halevi
Erin Dietrick: Welcome to "SpyCast", the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm Erin Dietrick, your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond's content partner. Each week we explore some aspect of the past, present, or future of intelligence and espionage. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. Coming up next on "SpyCast".
Aviram Halevi: It took all in all, from the moment they landed in the beach, to the moment they were collected by the dinghies of the Sayeret 13, Flotilla 13, half an hour exactly, extraordinary success.
Erin Dietrick: This week is our fourth installment of our Israeli intelligence special series. And this week, Andrew is joined by Aviram Halevi, former deputy commander-in-chief of Sayeret Matkal, Israel's top secret elite commando unit. Aviram served over two decades in various branches of Israeli intelligence and co-wrote the book, "Sayeret Matkal: The Greatest Operations Of Israel's Elite Commandos". In this episode, Andrew and Aviram discuss the origins and history of the unit, including the stories of some of Sayeret Matkal's most notable operations, Operation Spring of Youth and the Antebi Raid. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast". Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks so much for speaking to me this morning, Aviram. I'm really excited to discuss the history of Sayeret Matkal. So you've got this book out, and I really enjoyed reading it, but it was interesting to me at the beginning of the book, you say, this is not a military history. This is not about special forces Rambo style. This is about people. This is about colleagues. This is about people who fell in the line of duty. So I just wonder to start off, can you tell me what Sayeret Matkal means to you on a personal level?
Aviram Halevi: It's a very good one, and it's rarely that, you know, somebody really asks about that aspect of what they feel. So I volunteered to Sayeret Matkal about 47 years ago, exactly, almost to the date, and I spent there on and off 18 years or so, okay? The first 18 years of my life as an adult, and it means a lot because these years, this period is a very, has a very strong impression. It tends to kind of carve on many, many of my colleagues' psyche for almost the rest of their lives. Many times I wonder why, because usually we are not going through, you know, battles and wars as such, and still the operations we were involved with or the operations we took part in tend to etch something on almost everybody's heart and/or mind. So you know, it's a long answer to a simple question, but it means a lot. I mean, in many ways, it made me what I am, how I think, how I operate for better, for worse, and how I look at things mainly in the sense that we, okay, the 2,000-odd people that have graduated the service in Sayeret Matkal, tend to look at problems or challenges in life in general, nothing is impossible to resolve or to get a good answer for. So you are challenged or life tackles you with a big challenge or problem. So there is a sequence of, you know, subroutines and routines you are trained to think and act upon, and therefore, I mean, the result is that you almost never, ever say about something that it cannot be done. So it's about, you know, the resources you invest in, the time, the effort, the feelings and the thought, and some way or the other, it'll be done.
Andrew Hammond: You know, it was a simple question, but I think it opens up a lot of rich areas for discussion. So just on the making you the person that you are, I know that you're the CEO of a company at the moment. Has the Sayeret Matkal, is that mentality with you as a CEO?
Aviram Halevi: Always. Always. It's in the subtext, as I said, in the psyche of what I do, in the subconscious, I would say it's always there. You know, I tend to look at things in a very optimistic way. So it's not about the if, but almost always about the how. You constantly, and as a second nature, look for the ways to resolve things. Never give up. Okay. It's a never give up approach. And by which, if this is the approach you take, you are bound to find the solutions.
Andrew Hammond: That's really fascinating. And I want to go on to discuss the out-of-the-box mindset later in the interview, but for our listeners, can we just help our listeners understand a little bit more about Sayeret Matkal? So can you just tell them what the unit is and when it was founded?
Aviram Halevi: Absolutely. The unit was founded in 1958 in the spirit of its founder, the late Avraham Arnan, Brigadier General Avraham Arnan. At the time, he was a major. He looked after David Sterling from the SAS, and the SAS, not only did we stole their emblem and their motto, and they know about it, and they --
Andrew Hammond: It's a homage. It's not stealing.
Aviram Halevi: Yes. It's a homage. But at the time, and for decades, they did not even know we did. But exactly as you said, it was a great homage to Sterling and his people in the Western Desert during the Second World War, and what they did, I mean, this was the symbol. They were the people we wanted to look like, and to be like, and to act like, okay? The American equivalent is something that used to be, at the time, the Green Beret of the Special Forces in the '60s and the '70s, and currently, I think that the best equivalent, the Navy SEALs, or the Delta Force, rather, somewhere in between. So the unit was established in 1958 without a real calling, as opposed to the others. Sterling knew exactly what he wanted to do once the SAS was up and running, and even before that, he knew, because it was wartime, blah, blah, blah, and he had kind of a vision what needs to be done. Not so for Avarham Arnan in the late '50s, some 15 years after the World War ended. So he was looking for a calling, okay? And not surprisingly, he thought that if there is a third round between Israel and the Arab states around it, we're talking about the time after the Suez debacle in 1956, if there was ever a third round, Sayeret Matkal should do or should act like the SAS did in the Western Desert and be able to destroy airfields, Egyptian airfields mainly, by helicopter-based raids and do much the same, but not by parachuting or, you know, taking a ride with a long-range desert group, but to fly with helicopters and so on and so forth. Okay, that did not hold water for long because in the Six Days War, the Air Force did the job without our assistance, and, you know, assistance was not needed at all. Anyway, soon enough, and since he was part of the Intelligence Corps, so soon enough, it took four years for Arnan to convince his superiors that this adventure is worth its while. To cut a long story short, he was able to convince the head of the IDF's Intelligence Corps commander, the late Mayer Mied, that it's worthwhile. Clandestine intelligence gathering operations behind enemy lines was given to Sayeret Matkal. It was our prerogative, and we were the only ones who were trained, authorized, funded, given the torch to bear of a clandestine intelligence, clandestine operation. Why do I delve on this so much? Because for instance, the SAS, this is not their force, intelligence operations. They did their tours in Malaya, currently in Malaysia, and then, you know, in Africa and Rhodesia, and of course, in the 1982 war down south in the Atlantic. So they act as special forces, and of course, later on in the Arab desert in Iraq, on the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, all of them. But not necessarily do they -- intelligence operations are not their first and foremost calling. Okay? They may know how to do that, but first of all, they are very, very good soldiers, very, very good kind of elite unit of the special forces, and you know, they act as such. Much the same, the Americans, okay? They have better, you know, funding, and they have the high command, the ears, and so on, especially since the JSOC was founded back in the '90s, late '90s, and here, it's the opposite. Sayeret Matkal is first and foremost an intelligence gathering operation, a clandestine operations unit, and only after that, we are a city unit, like the book suggests. Okay? So this is, I hope the listeners can understand, they, of course, can read more about it in the book and in other publications that's been around, you know, for many years. But this is the main difference. I mean, we are an intelligence gathering unit, clandestine intelligence operations.
Andrew Hammond: That's one of the things that I find really fascinating about it, because special operations and intelligence, sometimes they touch each other, sometimes there's a little bit of overlap, but in the case of Sayeret Matkal, this is their primary function, and the other functions come after that. So I find that really, really interesting. And so for Sayeret Matkal, the general staff's reconnaissance unit, so do they report to the head of Aman, Israel's military intelligence, or do they report directly to the chief of staff, or is that a combination of both?
Aviram Halevi: A combination of both, but primarily, the head of the intelligence corps is the direct commander of the commander of the unit, and, you know, he kind of screens, do the screening, what's to be presented to the general command and the chief of staff of the IDF. But it just so happened that because these are sensitive operations, tend to be sensitive operations, they are not only presented to the IDF's chief of staff, but, you know, an operation commander in the field usually is required to present the essence of a specific operation to the prime minister as well, and the minister of defense before it. So we, as very young officers, are kind of accustomed to speak to the higher command rather frequently, every three, four months.
Andrew Hammond: And we can go on to discuss this later, but quite a few chiefs of staff and prime ministers have also been in Sayeret Matkal at one point, right?
Aviram Halevi: Yes, and this is kind of, it's a riddle. It's really a riddle. I don't think there is a unit this size in the world, out of which came three prime ministers and four or five, depends how you count exactly, chiefs of staff, let alone ministers, heads, three heads of Mossad, including the current one, two heads of general security agency, Shabab. The only explanation I can come up with is, it's related to what I said before. I mean, these people, not only are they problem solvers, okay? We do not wait for orders to come to us to tell us what to do. We come with proposals and we tend to take on us the biggest questions or the biggest problems we can imagine regarding what is the state of Israel interest and the IDF's interest and the intelligence corps interest. That's natural. And yes, I think that these questions has been asked many times and there is no really sufficient answer to that why and what makes it so unique. But the fact is that these people, and you mentioned that before, we are not Rambos and there is no Ramboism in the unit in Sayeret Matkal. On the contrary, the basic building block of the Sayeret is the team, okay? So the team is what you're kind of imprinted with once you get drafted, and this will be your designation forever, okay? I'm Team Raz. Raz was my commander, and my soldiers are Team Aviram for the rest of their lives, okay? So a team is a team, teamwork, team thinking, blah, blah, blah, is the essence and these are not -- they are individuals, but they know how to operate in tandem with many other units, people.
Andrew Hammond: And how big is Sayeret Matkal? Is that classified?
Aviram Halevi: In my time, it was, you know, 40 something years ago, it was 200 people, 250 people. So it's a few hundreds, I guess, I don't know exactly. But it's a large unit. It's not something very impressive in the UK or USA terms. It's a unit somewhere between battalion and a regiment.
Andrew Hammond: Let's just move on to discuss some of the, you know, in the book, you discuss lots of the operations. Is there one at the beginning that you think is really foundational for Sayeret Matkal, or one in the book that you think, if any of our listeners want to look something up, have a look at this?
Aviram Halevi: If I need to choose, I think the Spring of Youth that operated in 1973 is the second -- I mean, if I had to choose, these two represent greatly both the spirit and the capability of Sayeret.
Andrew Hammond: So could you speak a little bit more about Spring of Youth? And maybe you can speak about the Munich Olympics and how it ties into that.
Aviram Halevi: Okay, so yes, the Spring of Youth, that was a raid in the city of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. It was done April 1973, and it was the pinnacle of a series of assassinations of the people who were both responsible or planned or enacted the 1972 Summer Olympics massacre, during which 11 athletes and trainers and referees were abducted by the Black September operatives that infiltrated into the Olympic village, took them hostages. And, you know, while the games kept going, you know, and a horrendous, you know, act that we won't talk much about now, the German police, the Bavarian German police, failed miserably in trying to release them or to act upon the terrorists. 11 athletes were killed and burned in the two helicopters, while everybody from the head of Mossad and the ministers of the federal German government, looking with and whatever they could have done, they did not. By the way, Sayeret Matkal at the time suggested or kind of, you know, suggested to Golda Meir and to the head of Mossad and Moshe Dayan, the minister of defense, to, you know, help release the hostages. Ehud Barak was the commander of the unit and he was absolutely sure that he and his people can do that, but the Germans would not allow them even to hop on a plane and land in Munich. Okay, so that event was an earth-shaking event in a sense that it really started a war. It wasn't a real war, but six, seven or eight operatives that took place, that took part in planning or executing that horrendous operation of the Black September, found their fate in European cities, in Paris, in Rome, in Belgium, in Lanarka, in Cyprus, and so on and so forth. Then a very capable intelligence officer in the Mossad found out that three of Yasser Arafat's deputies, three high office executives of the PLO, live in Beirut in the two high-rises next to one another. He said, okay, it can be done by the Mossad, but the Mossad said, no, we can't do that, we cannot make sure that our operatives would find their way back and retreat safely. So they took to the army, and at the same time that intelligence officer found his counterpart in Sayeret Matkal and told him, this is the situation, so and so, blah, blah, blah. Okay, we think, and Ehud Barak's response was, of course, yes, we think we can do that. The only thing we need is information about exactly what the buildings look like, either a concierge at the entrance, what kind of switches you use to light on and off, and if possible, the internal design of each and every apartment. And the Mossad supplied all of that and then some. In the meantime, Sayeret Matkal, with Ehud Barak and other famous people like Muki Betzer, Amir Hamlevi, and Yoni Netanyahu, start training. They train for maybe two weeks at all to raid those buildings. It was a kind of an operation that had to be done by landing from the sea. Okay, Beirut is a city on a beach, and it's a big city, so you can't just go there from the Israeli-Lebanon border. Israeli Navy ships brought the raiding parties to the landing beaches inside Beirut, really. I mean, they could see the hotels that were on the promenade a few hundred yards from the place they landed. Mossad's operatives rented cars, so they took them from the beach to the high-rises where the objectives resided, about five, six miles drive, 18 people in total, and they raided the buildings. They killed all their objectives without harming -- well, not harming intentionally, but there were two or three bystanders that got in the line of fire, and some Lebanese policemen. It took all in all from the moment they landed in the beach until the moment they were collected by the dinghies of the Sayeret 13, the Flotilla 13, half an hour exactly.
Andrew Hammond: This is like the Navy SEALs Flotilla 13, right?
Aviram Halevi: Yes, exactly. Half an hour. Extraordinary success, and the kind of the new thing about it, apart from the surprise raid, was the cooperation with the Mossad. Okay, for the first time, the Sayeret Matkal, really a joint operation with the Mossad operatives. There were seven Mossad operatives taking part in this raid, including a woman operative that resided there for weeks before, actually to look for the indication that the objectives were really in their flats during the raid or before the raid. So it was very, not only sophisticated, but it was the first time that the Mossad and the Sayeret Matkal kind of put hand in hand together, and it was successful on all accounts.
Andrew Hammond: This maybe gets at some of the things that are specific to Israel because of the context, because of the region, because of its neighbors. So say the British or the Americans, generally their special operations don't get deployed into neighboring countries because it would be seen as a provocation or an escalation. So you would maybe have intelligence officers doing it because then it's still civilian, it's not people that are in uniform. The only exception I can think of maybe is the Osama Bin Laden raid where the Navy Seals went into Pakistan, but generally speaking that doesn't happen. But Israel, the Sayeret Matkal are in a different position because of the regional context and because some of the countries that surround it, like Lebanon, Hezbollah, there's not a strong state that's got a monopoly of violence within Lebanon. So the Sayeret Matkal and Israel are in a different regional position, so I think that that's quite interesting.
Aviram Halevi: It is, and you described it correctly. I think that the Entebbe operation was the exception here because it was a raid that took place 2,500 miles off the shores and the borders of Israel, which is really something that nobody was not only accustomed to, but nobody thought it can be done until it was done. Okay, so this was the exception in this case, but you're absolutely right. When our neighbors are mostly our enemies, except for the Egyptians and the Jordanians, which we have peace agreements with, and they are kind of out of the equation. They are not considered enemies anymore, okay? But Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, depends how you look at it, and Iran, which is a kind of third, I mean, it's not really -- the proximity is not really there, okay? They don't have any neutral borderline with Israel, neither does Iraq. But Iraq is about 500 kilometers, 300, 400 miles from Israel, and Iran is about 1,000 miles off Israel, and so it's kind of beyond the horizon, but still there. The Entebbe operation was in that regard a very unique, different one, and the truth is to be told that it couldn't have been dreamed of if there wasn't a single person in the air force that kind of mumbled to himself under his mustache, you know? If we land at midnight without telling anybody, let alone the tower, and we won't communicate with it, and we won't turn on the signaling lights, then who would know? It's so far-fetched, then who would know? And he was right. And that was the kind of turning point in the pre-planning stage of the operation that kind of shook everybody, and at the same time aligned them with the course that in retrospect proved to be the correct one.
Andrew Hammond: And I would like to discuss Entebbe a little more. Just before we get there, though, for Operation Spring of Youth, you mentioned Ehud Barak as the commander at that point, and he's a really fascinating figure. He goes on to become the Prime Minister of Israel. I believe that he's either the most decorated officer in Israeli history, or one of the most decorated officers in Israeli history. Did you interview him for your book? Have you ever met him? I'm assuming he's something of a legend within the Sayeret Matkal community?
Aviram Halevi: Well, I know him well, and we speak frequently, you know, almost once a week. We're not friends. I don't think he has friends as such. Okay. So, yes, we speak a lot because I serve as the heritage torchbearer of Sayeret Matkal. And as such, I get to meet all the veterans. And since he was Chief of Staff, he was Prime Minister, he was Minister of Defense, and, you know, 50 years ago, he was the unit commander. So we get to talk a lot about -- and, you know, I kind of made a documentary, an internal documentary in which, you know, he kind of describes and tells the story behind the story. So, yes, I know him very well, and we talk a lot. I think that it is very difficult to overestimate his contribution to the planning or the thinking and planning side of the unit's mindset. Okay. And he did that, he began doing that as a, you know, very young officer when he was 20, 21, back in the early '60s, when he was really the mastermind of how to plan and execute a really clandestine intelligence operation. But he has a very, very creative mind. Therefore, in the Spring of Youth, I mean, for him to come up with the idea that all 18 soldiers would wear civilian clothes, and he specifically would wear women's clothes, was not something out of the box as such, but a kind of a way of, I mean, to match the required details, to maximize the operation's chances to succeed. Okay. It's not something that's very odd to him, because it was the right thing to be done, by the way, as opposed to what the then Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, thought. I mean, he was in the mood, kind of -- you are soldiers, wear uniforms. Okay. And they told him, no, this will not be good enough. Okay. That's kind of to tell you the differences. So, yes, I don't think he thinks that people should admire him. On the opposite, he likes people who speak their mind and, you know, not quarrel with him, but, you know, kind of counter his commanding thoughts. So a very intelligent person, and as such, you know, he puts the bar on a very high standard.
Andrew Hammond: And, I mean, our listeners should also know that you went on to become the Deputy Commander of Sayeret Makkal, right?
Aviram Halevi: Yes. As you can see from my hair, it's been a while. That was the position I held about 30 years ago, 33 or so. Yes, and it was a very, not only interesting times, and we don't have the time to get into all the operations that took place at the time. Notably, operations, kind of abduction operations, you know, that we did, and Entebbe.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, Entebbe, so we go on to, you know, one of the most famous operations that Sayeret Makkal have been involved in, as you said, a huge logistical challenge, two and a half thousand miles away, and a country that you've never operated in before. So, just tell us a little bit more about that raid. And, you know, I don't want to make this about former Prime Minister, but Benjamin Netanyahu was in Sayeret Makkal at one point, and for Entebbe, it was his brother Yonatan that was leading it. So just go on to discuss in Entebbe, please, tell our listeners a little bit more about the more operational part of that.
Aviram Halevi: Okay, the background was that the Air France jet was abducted on the 27th, 1976, on its way from Tel Aviv, Athens to Paris, and was redirected to Benghazi in Libya, and then to Entebbe in Uganda. Uganda was then ruled by a dictator named Idi Amin. In his early years, he was a friend of Israel, but then he opted for the PLO, and served their purposes in hosting both the abductors, the terrorists. There were four of them, we knew later, and 150-odd people, out of which 50 non-Jewish, non-Israeli, were released after three, four days, and were flown to Paris, France, which was an opportunity for us to debrief them and understand where the hostages are, how many people caught them, how many terrorists, who are they, where are they, what's it like? Because, you know, we talk in 1976, there is no internet, there are no cell phones, no satellite communication, nothing at all, so it was mostly human-based intelligence. Okay. And as I said before, it took the IDF and the Israeli government about three, four days to come up with a plan, and before that, to come up with the will to do something, as opposed to negotiate and release hostages or release prisoners as the terrorists asked. Cut a long story short, there are about three important, utmost important decisions that made this operation real. First and foremost, the Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's decision to go for it. Okay. It took him a lot of time, and a lot of convincing, and a lot of understanding what intelligence do we have that will maximize the chances to succeed in this really out of reach, very far, unheard of threats of many kinds, so the decision to go for it is the first. The second was taken by the Air Force Chief Benny Pellet, the late Benny Pellet, when he decided that this can be done by C-130 transport cargo planes that will go above their capacity as Lockheed has written in the books. To do that, and to land in the dark, the hierarchy is the second, but it's a real operational decision that he took, and he ordered his pilots to do so, and that was it. And third, fighting capability of the forces that were led by Sayeret Matkal. There were 63 Sayeret Matkal operatives in this operation. 32 of them raided the old terminal in Entebbe, and they were the best soldiers there are, the best soldiers that Israel could supply. At the time, they were at their peak, and Yoni Netanyahu and his officers really cherry-picked only the best soldiers. They were absolutely sure they could do it, be successful in an operation with tons of unknowns and uncertainties from here to eternity, and they were sure that they can do it still. Okay, so the operation itself was a very tactical raid. Not much really to talk about, except for the sad fact that the unit commander, the commander of the operation on the unit's behalf, Yoni Netanyahu, was killed by probably Ugandan soldiers that were abundant in the area, because it's a small war. There is a battle to fight, and no one can control all the bullets that are flying around. 104 hostages were rescued. Three died, three in the operation, and one old lady in a hospital issue. She wasn't there, but they either killed her later, or she got sick and died out of that. The fact that it was successful, because the threat was nulled and void by this raid, and it was accentuated by two things. First of all, as I said, Yoni Netanyahu was killed. Second, it just so happened that six hours later, the U.S. Bicentennial ceremonies started. It was 200 years of independence the same day, so it kind of all helped to make this operation what it was. It was really something that most people who took part in it started to understand how great it was 10 years after the fact. Okay. Until then, it was another operation for them, but it grew up on them. Currently, decades later, they all came to the realization that they better either write their memoirs about it, which we published in another book about seven years ago, or sit in front of a camera and tell the story for generations, for families and then friends and so on and so forth. It was really a mind-changing operation. And at the same time, it was 1976, Israel, three years after the Yom Kippur War. It helped the national self-pride.
Andrew Hammond: How many soldiers were on the Entebbe raid in total?
Aviram Halevi: I think 250 or so.
Andrew Hammond: Okay. Okay.
Aviram Halevi: Paratroopers, other brigades, tons of doctors and paramedics and then all that. Of course, the Air Force units and pilots. In total, about 250 or so.
Andrew Hammond: How many of them were Sayeret Matkal?
Aviram Halevi: 65.
Andrew Hammond: I've got this great quote by a well-known British military historian, Richard Holmes. He says that Entebbe raid is one of the great classic examples of success of special operations forces.
Aviram Halevi: I think he's right. There are many raids. It's a kind of a head-scratching problem for historians because you have to take each and every occurrence in its context. Special operations during World War II or even Japan-Chinese War in Manchuria, there can be a lot to learn from them, but ever trying to compare operations like they do with sportsmen or singers or so, it's really something you cannot. Not only is it to try to compare oranges to apples, the context, the timing, the situation, the overall context is so different. They probably all are great operations. There isn't an Olympics or a World Cup of special operations. Okay.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. You see these YouTube videos, you know, what would happen if the SAS fought Delta Force and things like that. Yeah. So there's no World Cup for it. Yeah.
Aviram Halevi: You'll remember Bravo 2-0, right?
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. Yeah.
Aviram Halevi: It's almost a hoax or not a hoax, but it's kind of, you know, these operations, they have enough merit, so you don't need to ridicule them. I mean, it's people's lives, so you see what I mean.
Andrew Hammond: And just to bring it up closer to our own period, so we've discussed those two classic examples from the '70s, Operation Spring of Youth and Operation Yonatan. Maybe we can speak about the operation to get Nachshon Waxman. That's the final chapter in the book.
Aviram Halevi: Yes. First of all, it just tells you that many CT counter-terrorism operations that the unit is responsible for since. And this is about 30 years ago, almost. First of all, there are other units, namely the police special forces unit that really took over many of the occurrences in the West Bank and either civilian or terror-related operations. So maybe the next book will be theirs, okay, because they are really a great unit, more like a big SWAT team of -- I don't know, NYPD or Chicago PD or LAPD, well-equipped and well-trained, and they have their own merits. So the last time we had a chance there was an abduction operation we were involved in, it was in 1994, a Golani soldier was abducted by Hamas, then kind of, not unknown, but kind of almost unknown organization that wanted to get to the front pages and get its cause known and talked about, publicized. They abducted a soldier on his way home for, you know, weekly vacation, and for two or three days, nobody knew where they kept him. Okay. The Hamas misled us to believe that they kept him in Gaza strip, while all the time they were in the West Bank near Ramallah, 20 minutes off Jerusalem, not far from there. Okay, only about, well, 15 hours before ultimatum was up on Friday, October 14th, 1994, we were noticed that this is the situation, and we better head to that area. So the unit went on and sent its avant-garde before to reconnaissance area to see what it's like and get as much information about the house he was kept by three terrorists, three Hamas people, what the surrounding like. It was kind of a, you know, a country area with no closed buildings or apartments around, I mean, about a few hundred yards isolated of fields and orchards around it. We knew it was all about surprise. If we surprise them, then we might be able to rescue the soldier Waxman. If not, the terrorists will have enough time to kill him. It's a three versus one. He was kept in an internal isolated room with no external walls or other outlets. So it was really about the surprise. Cut a long story short, not an hour maybe before the ultimatum was up, the unit was split into three forces that did their way in a stealth mode. It was dusk, okay, just before sunset, or just after sunset, because we prefer to operate in nighttime. We like the nighttime, and, you know, darkness is a friend, as we used to say. So all three teams found their way to their opening or the points from which they can get in upon the countdown. And upon the countdown, all went in and countered heavy fire such that one of the teams, its leader was killed and eight of the team members were wounded by salvos that were aimed to them by one of the terrorists, who naturally could place himself in a strategic position to do just that. Okay, not only that, some of the other team was kind of head on with the first one, so they shot one another and some other soldiers who were wounded. But they could not get fast enough to the inner room where they kept the abducted soldier. And once they got there, terrorists locked the door from the inside. They did not care much about getting killed themselves. So when you're dealing with these kind of people, it's only harder to deal with because they don't care about themselves. So if they die, okay. If they don't, the better, but they don't really care. So they were successful in locking two of the terrorist with Nachshon Waxman within the inner room, and it took us about two minutes to break in with explosives because we couldn't just break the lock and open it in the cold manner. In the meantime, they killed the soldier, they were killed also, and this was a real loss because not only did we lose him, I mean, did we not succeed in rescuing the abducted soldier, we lost one of the lead officers who led one of the teams. And overall, it was, you know, not only retrospective -- in real time we knew it's not an operation with high chances of success. And that was, you know, it was 1994, all TV cameras were aimed. They were not there, but, you know, the whole country was waiting to see what the results of the abduction might be. Ultimatum was up, everybody knew that. And there was a press conference right after that. Prime Minister Rabin took full responsibility, not that it mattered to anybody. Barak was chief of staff. And, you know, we knew it's a very complicated situation. We knew the chances were low, but you always want to be successful, certainly in this kind of, you know, life or death operation, and we were not. I mean, this affected in years to come, the way we thought about how to resolve such a situation in the future, both on the munition, on the explosives, on the methodology, on the training, on, you know, how to break in, reinforce the doors, internal, external, all that. Luckily, it did not come to -- we did not need to prove it later on. And, you know, maybe this was the best part of it.
Andrew Hammond: It's quite insidious, the way that they captured the soldier. I believe that he was hitchhiking and they stopped and they had kippahs on and they were playing Hasidic music and so forth. And he got in the car and then that's how they got him. So I think that's just as we get towards the end of the interview, I just wanted to ask for that case there with the soldier, he was kept in an inner room. Do you think that that's because the people that Sayeret Matkal and forces like them have been going up against are studying what Sayeret Matkal have done in the past? I mean, do you think that they're going to be buying copies of your book and so forth?
Aviram Halevi: Not necessarily Sayeret Matkal, but, you know, it was the mid-90s, so enough information about hostages situation around the world was available. Not in the internet, the internet did not exist much, at least in Israel. There was enough information around to learn from. And not only was it information, it was not only that, it was also common sense. I mean, they knew how past operations, counter-terrorism operations, are operated, or at least the concept of operation. For instance, I mean, the fact that you get in, that we get in from all available entrances is a well-known one, but it's not a secret. They must have known that as well and prepared for it. So, yes, I'm sure we all kind of, in retrospect, in the debriefing that took place after the operation, it was a common understanding that they knew what they will be up against, and they did their best. I mean, they reinforced walls and doors and locks and all that. They knew maybe not exactly what to expect, but roughly and generally, they did. 30 years later, with all the knowledge and books and movies and then the articles in the internet all over, they know what to expect, absolutely.
Andrew Hammond: And what years were you in Sayeret Matkal, Aviram? Was it '76, you said?
Aviram Halevi: 1991, 1992, yes.
Andrew Hammond: It would be fascinating to speak more about the training of Sayeret Matkal, but that would take quite some time. I know that the training culminates on a four-day beret march, 75 miles.
Aviram Halevi: The beret is a symbol. I mean, the beret you get way before that, so it's not the beret, it's the insignia that you never wear.
Andrew Hammond: Insignia, okay.
Aviram Halevi: You get it and you put it in the drawer, which is the same as the SAS. So very close, everybody that gets there, from the team of the squads finalizing their 18-month training course or training session, it ends after reading some proverbs and all that and getting this emblem and a book. So everybody puts their backpacks off, put their magazine with the tracers, okay? And everybody, upon the order, opens fire in unison. So 10, 15 people in unison empty their magazines towards the north, which is a void in the Dead Sea. And if the Jordanians were on their guard, they would know that another team of Sayeret Matkal has concluded their training. But I'm kidding, of course.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. So you hear about the unit, you join, but then you go on your first active operation, and I'm assuming that that's a formative experience. So can you just tell us a little bit more about what that was like for you?
Aviram Halevi: Most of the experience we go through is related to cross-border, quiet clandestine operations, which is a totally different state of mind, as opposed to counterterrorism. Counterterrorism operations are few and far between, and they are not the rule, they are the exception. The rule is a very quiet, in the dark, as I said, intelligence clandestine operations that, you know, it's very difficult to describe what you go through, but mainly it's a sense of what I need to do, what I need to do, what I need to do now, what I need to do next, where my commander is, who am I looking for, and what's my position in the column, if it's a by foot operation. So it's a very kind of operational, cut to the chase mindset, not much room for fear or anything like that. Mostly you think about the next time you'll have a break and have some water to drink, and this is the mindset. You are very focused on what to do, what to do now, and what you need to do in case something happens, something like this, like that, or the other. So it's a very functional state of mind, not much room for fear, as I said, because it is not D Day on Normandy. It's something else completely. It's a totally different mindset. Therefore, people who are in a war or fought in battles, they have experienced a way more extreme situation, and the glory is for them, not necessarily for us.
Andrew Hammond: Well, this has been a really fascinating discussion, Aviram. I've really enjoyed speaking to you. We should close out speaking about your book. So originally out in Hebrew, but it's now out in English. Can you just tell the listeners when it came out and tell them a little bit about the book?
Aviram Halevi: The book, which was written by my colleague and friend, Avner Shur, he's a writer. Okay. He's the real author. I do the research. I interview the people in question and organize all the materials for him to write the stories. Okay, so this is the division between us, and this has been the third book we've done together, and there are two in the making since. Okay. And the thinking behind it was that, as opposed to other books of this kind, this is one that's been written by the people who were there, okay? We are both combatants. We were both combatants in the units, and we bring what we think is a special point of view, as opposed to outside people like journalists or professional writers, authors. And this is the angle we wanted to bring forth for the reader. And I think that the reader can really experience, as you said correctly, what is the spirit of the unit, what the people in it are like and what they are like not, or what they are not. And out of this, we feel that the unit's theory speaks itself in a way that we can be proud of. And the operations that we took part in and the others were justified at the time and were the right thing to do. And that's why it was important for us to write the book and bring it to the public. Thanks ever so much for your time, Aviram. This has been a pleasure.
Erin Dietrick: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast". Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Coming up on next week's show is the final installment of our Israeli Intelligence Special Series. It'll be a double bill, featuring Shlomo Mofaz, the former head of counterterrorism analysis for the IDF, and Zohar Palti, the former head of intelligence for Mossad. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @intlspycast. If you go to our page, the cyberwire.com /podcasts/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and full transcripts. I'm Erin Dietrick and your host is Dr. Andrew Hammond. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincy, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Emily Renz, Afua Anakwa, Ariel Samuel, Elliott Pelzmann, Trey Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.