By Newt Gingrich
In 2014, during the Syrian civil war, ISIS occupied a site in the Syrian desert which once held a nuclear weapons facility. It reportedly had been built for the Syrians with North Korean help. If that reactor had been there, ISIS might have had a capability to inflict terrifyingly massive casualties.
However, seven years earlier, in September 2007, Israel launched a secret air attack against this obscure site in the Syrian desert called Deir es-Zoir. The reactor building was called al-Kibar.
Without that Israeli destruction of this Syrian-North Korean project, the world possibly would have had to deal with a nuclear armed ISIS and become a much more dangerous place.
The amazing story of how the Israelis discovered the secret site, figured out it was a nuclear reactor, connected the North Koreans to the project, and then decided to destroy it is a non-fiction story worthy of Daniel Silva’s great novels.
Yaakov Katz, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, has spent years pulling together the Israeli, American, Syrian, and North Korean pieces of this amazing story. His book, Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power is one of the most compelling stories I have read in a long time.
The Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had picked a remote, obscure, and unnoticed part of the Syrian desert to set up a bold (and illegal) project with the help of North Koreans. To this day we do not know if the North Koreans were building a reactor for the Syrians or if the Syrians were allowing the North Koreans to build a reactor for themselves with the payment to Syria being a few nuclear bombs once the reactor was up and running.
This was a remarkable decision by Assad and by the North Koreans. After the American invasion of Iraq and the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s decision to turn over his entire nuclear program (which was much bigger and further along than either the Americans or the Israelis had expected) Assad was running a real risk by building a secret program.
The North Koreans were in the middle of the Six Power talks about disarming their own nuclear program, and yet here they were breaking the most fundamental rule about nuclear weapons –they were helping another country develop a secret program.
Because the Israelis had been shocked by the degree to which they had been ignorant of the Libyan nuclear program, they began reviewing all of their intelligence about nuclear activities – especially in Syria and Iran.
The key breakthrough came when the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission visited Vienna. In an operation worthy of a Silva or Ian Fleming novel, Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, entered his hotel room, downloaded the contents of his laptop, and planted a bug to monitor it.
For people who wonder about security measures, this is a useful tale. It turned out the Syrian physicist had been taking pictures of the building at al-Kibar – including a picture with the North Korean physicist who was helping with their nuclear weapons program.
From the minute the image surfaced Israel faced a crisis.
Israeli doctrine was to never again accept the risk of a holocaust in which millions of Jews could die. When the Iraqis built a nuclear facility near Baghdad, Israel bombed it in 1981. Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin explained to the world that Israel would never accept an enemy possessing a nuclear weapon. They would always preemptively destroy it. This became known as the Begin Doctrine.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knew he would have to destroy the Syrian reactor before it went online and began creating radioactive material. However, he also knew he had to convince the United States that it was a nuclear facility and therefore unacceptable. He actually hoped that maybe the Americans would decide to destroy it.
The portions of the book that describe the dance in Washington are as fascinating as the scenes in Israel.
President George W. Bush is sympathetic but faced with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was hesitant about taking on a third Muslim country. The American national security establishment was split between those who wanted to pursue diplomacy and those who believed, in the end, the reactor had to be destroyed before it became operational. Only Vice President Cheney had intuited for years that there was a North Korean-Syrian relationship, and only Cheney was adamant about the need to destroy it.
Katz has an enormous range of sources and has written a remarkable story.
Anyone interested in national security in an increasingly dangerous world would learn a lot by reading this extraordinary book.