True Spies, Episode 111 - Sexpionage, Part 1: Operation Diamond
++WARNING: A word of warning. This episode contains descriptions of gun violence.
Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies, Episode 111 - Sexpionage, Part One: Operation Diamond.
MICHAEL SMITH: If you've got guys who are abroad, who are in the services, they are certainly going to be looking for young women and booze - and particularly if you're Iraqi. It's more difficult in Muslim society to obtain both women and booze, so somewhere like America is like being in the candy shop, really.
NARRATOR: San Antonio, Texas, 1965, a local watering hole. Tonight, the bar plays host to two foreign guests. The first is a fighter pilot from Iraq. His name is Hamid Dhahe. This is his first and final visit to America. And then, there’s ‘Zainab’. Like Hamid, she’s from out of town. She’s also young, pretty, and interested - a winning combination for the serviceman abroad.
MICHAEL SMITH: She picks him up in a bar and, obviously, they sleep together. She seduces him.
NARRATOR: And when the time comes for pillow talk, there’s only one thing on her mind.
MICHAEL SMITH: She talks to him there about the possibility of defecting.
NARRATOR: Romantic. Here’s the rub. ‘Zainab’, real name Jean Pollan, is an operative in the employ of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency. Hamid is one of a scant few Iraqi pilots with access to a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, a next-gen Soviet fighter plane favored by Israel’s enemies in the Middle East. The Israeli government wants that plane. Knowing the MiG’s strengths and weaknesses could give them a crucial air advantage if tensions in the region boil over into war. ‘Zainab’ would like very much for Hamid to be the man who brings it to them.
MICHAEL SMITH: You can imagine: "Here’s a wild idea. Why don't you fly one to Israel? They’d love that wouldn’t they." And he refuses, point-blank.
NARRATOR: You’ve heard of an offer you can’t refuse? This is one of those. But Hamid doesn’t know that yet. In a few days' time, thanks to Zainab, he’ll never know anything ever again. Welcome to the glamorous and deadly world of honeypots.
HENRY SCHLESINGER: These are very sophisticated operations, closely monitored with very specific targets in mind. It's fascinating when you think about it and it’s one of the most enduring elements of tradecraft.
NARRATOR: A honeypot is a spy who uses the art of seduction to ensnare a potential asset. It’s a word that’s closely associated with a variety of vaguely sexist female archetypes. The Black Widow. The Femme Fatale. Bond Girls. Need we say more? Of course, Bond himself is no slouch in this department. And, in reality, the honeypot is an equal-opportunities gambit. Throughout the long history of espionage, men have been just as likely as women to go to bed in the name of king and country. You’re listening to the first installment in a revealing True Spies anthology about the secret world of seduction. In these episodes, you’ll discover that one night of passion can change the course of history - even if it doesn’t move the earth. Time to meet your guide.
MICHAEL SMITH: My name is Michael Smith. I was in British military intelligence for nine years. I then became a journalist for 30 years. And now I'm an author. I write books on spies. And my most recent book is Anatomy of a Spy.
NARRATOR: Michael Smith lives and breathes espionage. But he’s led a varied career.
MICHAEL SMITH: When I left the Army, I didn't really want to write about intelligence at all. I just wanted to be a news reporter and do the normal news reporting stuff.
NARRATOR: Initially, Michael worked for the BBC Monitoring Service - a branch of the British national broadcaster that keeps tabs on world media. Founded during World War II to track German propaganda efforts, the Monitoring Service can be considered one of the world’s oldest Open-Source Intelligence groups.
MICHAEL SMITH: And from there, I went to The Telegraph and at The Telegraph I was initially on the Foreign Desk, but then a general news reporter - reporting from around the world - and war zones. And I reported from the Balkans, from Iraq, Afghanistan. My foreign editor suggested to me at the time, in the mid-90s, there wasn't that much stuff out about intelligence, and certainly anything that appeared in the paper that tended to lean toward conspiracy theory. And he said: “Well, you know all about this stuff. You should be writing about it. And that's how I got into writing books on intelligence.”
NARRATOR: The secret world of spies is, unsurprisingly, a hard nut for a journalist to crack. That’s especially true in Britain where a piece of legislation called the Official Secrets Act allows the government to hand down harsh punishments to those who speak publicly about intelligence work. That said, there has been some slow progress toward greater transparency in the past couple of decades. Michael has been part of that process.
MICHAEL SMITH: When I wrote my first history of the British intelligence services, I said to the Foreign Office Press Office: “Can you get me someone from MI6 to talk?” And they said: “Oh, they won't do that.” And then they came back to me a couple of days later and said: “They would like to talk to you.” And so, they got together a couple of old guys who had, both of them, served in the war in MI6 - and in the Cold War - and they were retired. But they still tended the service's archives, rather like old men. And they were answering questions from me and the guy who was talking with them was the chief aide to ‘C’, the head of MI6. And those guys, he and his successors, then went on to talk to the media in a more open way. So I think it was an exploration by them, whether it worked, talking to the media.
NARRATOR: Since then, Michael has written in-depth about some of the most dangerous, important, and intriguing events in the history of espionage. The story of Operation Diamond is one of them.
MICHAEL SMITH: In the late 50s, and early 60s, the Egyptians, the Syrians, acquired the MiG-21 fighter, the latest Soviet fighter aircraft. The Israelis had the French Mirage fighter, which at the time, that particular Mirage was not as good as a MiG-21, the MiG-21 was the latest technology. The Israelis were concerned about that technology and its extent, and they didn't really know much about it, nor did we. So we couldn't help them. We'd seen them, but only from a distance. We had no idea what the internal mechanisms were and what technology was. So they wanted to know how the MiG-21 flew, how it worked, and what were its weaknesses so that they could exploit those in any firefights or confrontations between their Mirage jets and the Egyptian or Syrian MiG-21.
NARRATOR: Acquiring a MiG-21 became a top priority for the Mossad. And they have a reputation for getting what they want.
MICHAEL SMITH: Mossad is one of the front-line intelligence agencies. It's smaller, clearly a small country, and much smaller than MI6 and certainly smaller than Chinese, Russian, and American intelligence services. But it is very, very efficient.
NARRATOR: That’s not to say that they have a 100% success rate. One attempt at securing a MiG, in 1962, ended in the capture and execution of three Mossad operatives by Egyptian authorities. A second attempt also failed. The third time’s a charm, then.
MICHAEL SMITH: In 1958, a coup in Baghdad brought a pro-Soviet government to power. And the Soviets sold the Iraqis the MiG-21. And then in 1963, there was another coup and a pro-Western government came back to power.
NARRATOR: This operation begins in 1964. Mossad puts out the word to its networks in Iraq that it is interested in speaking to pilots who have been trained on the MiG-21. Enter Ezra Zelkha, codename ‘Yusuf’.
MICHAEL SMITH: Well, Zelkha, he was an Iraqi who worked for the Israelis. Zelkha is working - Yusuf is working - in Iraq, in Baghdad.
NARRATOR: Zelkha was an Iraqi Jew with ties to Baghdad’s criminal underworld. He’s also a sort of unofficial head of station for Mossad in Iraq.
MICHAEL SMITH: He was really a super-agent in a sense. He was the guy in charge of the operations in Iraq and running those operations because the Israelis obviously, anyone who was Israeli, would be suspected straightaway.
NARRATOR: Through his contacts, Zhelka learned that several Iraqi pilots were due to visit San Antonio, Texas, to undergo flight training with the US Air Force.
MICHAEL SMITH: You've got to remember, yes, it was a Soviet government for five years, but by 1963 it’s pro-Western, and you want to build up relationships with pro-Western countries in the Middle East.
NARRATOR: Four of those pilots have trained on the MiG-21. Four potential allies - if they can only be persuaded.
MICHAEL SMITH: And this led to a very, very good honeytrap operation by Mossad in which they sent four Mossad female agents over to San Antonio. All four targeted an individual Iraqi pilot who'd been trained on MiG-21. They picked them up in bars. One by one, they asked the Iraqi pilot they were targeting to defect to Israel, taking a MiG-21 with them.
NARRATOR: A trip Stateside carries a lower risk to the operatives involved than carrying out the operation in the Arab world. Remember, Israel has already lost three officers chasing the MiG-21. Of course, the USA has, historically, been one of Israel’s closest allies. So it’s reasonable to imagine that the Americans would be sympathetic to the Mossad’s aims.
MICHAEL SMITH: They didn't know and wouldn't, of course, have given it the go-ahead if they did know.
NARRATOR: Ah. You see, a truly ‘special relationship’ between the US and Israel had only just begun to be established by the time of Operation Diamond. And, generally, the American government can be sniffy about foreign regimes carrying out covert operations in their backyard. No, in this instance, Mossad thought it better to ask forgiveness than permission. Which brings us back to that bar in San Antonio, where Mossad officer Jean Pollan has seduced an unsuspecting Hamid Dhahe - the first of the four pilots to be contacted by the Israelis. After their night together, she makes her pitch.
MICHAEL SMITH: And he refuses point-blank.
NARRATOR: But, curiously, he doesn’t report the approach. Perhaps the lure of another night with Zainab overwhelms his sense of civic duty. Three days later, Dhahe is out on the town again.
MICHAEL SMITH: He's in a bar one night in San Antonio, presumably due to meet her. He doesn't meet her. The lights go out. Shots ring out. And he meets his death, that's what he meets. He's lying on the floor when the lights go back on, with a bullet in his head, killed by an unknown assailant. They don't know who.
NARRATOR: American authorities are stumped, but we can make an educated guess. If you’ve listened to Episode 71 of True Spies, Rise and Kill First, you’ll know that the Mossad has a long history of using targeted assassination to achieve its goals. If Dhahe had talked, he might have scuppered the entire operation. To Israel, this was unacceptable. The operational team strikes the first name from their list of potential targets. You see, during the time that Dhahe had spent succumbing to the deadly charms of Jean Pollan, three other agents had been seduced in a similar fashion. But now, with one of their number dead, they returned to Iraq. They were understandably spooked, but they didn’t suspect the involvement of their new American paramours, who, at this stage, still hadn’t revealed their true occupations. What followed was a numbers game. One by one, the Mossad operatives targeted the remaining three MiG pilots. Surely one of them would take the offer. If not? As we’ve heard, contingencies were in place. The first was Shakir Mahmoud Yusuf. When his holiday romance tracked him down in Baghdad, he must have been flattered by her tenacity.
MICHAEL SMITH: Shakir Mahmoud Yusuf, he goes back to Baghdad and she follows him there and arranges to meet him in a hotel room.
NARRATOR: The pair rekindle their relationship alone in the hotel room. Or so Shakir believes.
MICHAEL SMITH: What he doesn't know is in the next hotel room, is Zelkha and the whole thing is being recorded. She asks him whether he would do it, and asks him to defect.
NARRATOR: Ezra Zhelka, the Mossad’s ‘Man in Baghdad’, has ears everywhere. He listens as the pilot is promised riches and a safe extraction for his family. All Shakir has to do is give the Mossad one little plane - not much to ask, surely?
MICHAEL SMITH: And he turns down the offer.
NARRATOR: It’s possible that Shakir is motivated by patriotism. It’s just as likely that he’s scared. If he’s caught working for the Israelis, the outcome is almost certainly death. Then again, if he doesn’t…
MICHAEL SMITH: The Israelis can’t risk the chance that he would go back and tell his bosses that Israel is trying to get this MiG-21. So Zhelka walks in there and shoots him dead.
NARRATOR: No loose ends. As a player in Baghdad’s criminal fraternity, Zhelka is anything but sentimental. One more name is stricken from the Mossad’s list. Unsurprisingly, having seen two of his brothers come to untimely ends, the third pilot that the Israelis approach is more receptive. His name is Mohammad Raglob.
MICHAEL SMITH: Mohammad initially agreed. He initially says: “Yeah, okay, I'll do that.” And he's invited to Germany, a neutral territory. Okay, so he's not going to be watched by the Iraqis there. He's invited to Germany, West Germany as it then was.
NARRATOR: In West Germany, things are progressing nicely. The same offer is made - money and safety - but Raglob wants more, to the tune of $1m.
MICHAEL SMITH: So he demands more money. He wants more money. And if he doesn't get it, he's going to tell his bosses in Baghdad. And that would end any chance of the Israelis obtaining a MiG-21.
NARRATOR: The problem with blackmail is that once you start, it’s hard to stop. The Israelis envision a future in which Mohammad Raglob continues to make demands, dangling the MiG just out of reach, with no real guarantee that he’ll ever make good on his word. No prizes for guessing how they feel about that. As you might have suspected by now, arrangements are made. Naturally, the Mossad has a tail on Raglob. When the moment is right, they plan to make his trip to Germany tragically one-way.
MICHAEL SMITH: So, he's on a train in Germany, and he's thrown out the door. That's it. He's dead. So he's not going back to Baghdad to tell his bosses.
NARRATOR: Another name is crossed out. One left. The untimely death of Mohammad Raglob leaves one final option - Munir Redfa. He’s Mossad’s final shot at a MiG-21. Like the other men, he’d recently made a new friend. Fortunately for him, he was open to making more.
MICHAEL SMITH: Lisa Brat, who was the Mossad agent who seduced Munir Redfa, the last of the pilots still alive, invites him to Greece for a holiday. And by apparent coincidence, there is a guy, a Polish Air Force pilot in the bar that they’re drinking in and he gets into conversation with Munir Redfa. And of course, the two men, they bond.
NARRATOR: The Polish pilot’s name is Ze’ev Liron, and, yes, he really was an airman. In fact, he was the head of the Israeli Air Force’s intelligence wing, having emigrated from Poland after surviving the Holocaust. Pilot to pilot, the two men prop up the bar for a few evenings getting to know each other. It’s a seduction of a less obvious kind, but a seduction all the same.
MICHAEL SMITH: He was a Polish Air Force officer, Ze’ev Liron, but he is now Israeli. He is a Jew, so he's gone to Israel, emigrated to Israel, and he's chatting away to Munir Redfa. And you've got these two guys and they're bonding together because obviously Ze’ev is working on that deliberately, and they're drinking together and they're both Air Force pilots so they have an affinity with each other. They have an understanding.
NARRATOR: A few nights into the Greek excursion, Ze’ev decides to take the relationship to the next level.
MICHAEL SMITH: So they're chatting away and they're good mates, getting on, drunk together a couple of times now and Ze’ev - well into the evening, and well into their alcohol - and Ze’ev makes the pitch then.
NARRATOR: Remember, this is Israel’s last chance to turn one of the Iraqi pilots. As with any proposal, they need to be as sure as humanly possible that the object of their attention is going to say ‘yes’. Fortunately, over the course of their conversations, Ze’ev Liron has performed an essential piece of spycraft - rooting out his target’s key motivation. The chip on Munir Redfa’s shoulder came from his status as a Christian in a predominantly Muslim country.
MICHAEL SMITH: He feels that his career has not been as good as some of the other guys who are Muslims. He feels like he's been treated badly. So he does actually have that key part that you need with a defector - that he's unhappy for some reason in the society that he's in.
NARRATOR: So Ze’ev Liron knows exactly which buttons to press.
MICHAEL SMITH: “Look, we're looking for a MiG-21. How about you come and move to Israel. You're not happy where you are.” That conversation is being had, about how badly he's treated because he's a Christian and Muslim. How he really should be in charge of his squadron, but he isn't. And that's purely because he's Christian. “You're unhappy in Iraq. Why don't you come to Israel? If you bring a MiG-21, you will be treated really like a hero. You will live a wonderful life in Israel. You and your family - we’ll get your family out - and we'll make sure that you have a great life in Israel.” And Munir Redfa, he buys this, he falls in with it.
NARRATOR: Well, wouldn’t you? It’s a strong pitch, but Liron tells Redfa to sleep on it. He does, and Redfa’s first seducer, Lisa Brat - who’s taken a backseat in the proceedings so far - joins him for the night. In bed, she reveals her true identity, and intimates that they could resume their relationship when Redfa and his family arrive in Israel. She produces an Israeli passport with his name on it, and tickets to Tel Aviv. They leave in the morning. To Redfa, the positives seem overwhelming. The negatives… well, who cares. Negativity kills.
MICHAEL SMITH: Munir Redfa, unsurprisingly, perhaps given what happened to his three mates, agrees to defect.
NARRATOR: When the lovers arrive in bustling Tel Aviv, Munir Redfa is whisked away for a round of high-profile briefings. By now, Mossad chief Meir Amit has personally stepped in to handle the operation. Amit leads the third seduction of Munir Redfa. The Iraqi is given an enthusiastic audience with the big boss, alongside the commander of the Israeli Air Force. He is made to feel like a man who carries the weight of history on his shoulders. It’s intoxicating.
MICHAEL SMITH: He really is buttered up.
NARRATOR: A plan is put in motion - devilish in its simplicity. But for now, Munir Redfa has to get back to Iraq without raising suspicions. He and Lisa Brat fly back to Greece and resume their holiday alone. From there, he flies back to Baghdad. His superiors are none-the-wiser about his sidebar in Tel Aviv. By now it’s the summer of 1966, and in Baghdad, Mossad super-agent Ezra Zhelka begins the process of extracting Redfa’s family. His wife - yes, of course, he’s married - is flown to Paris for a holiday, where she’s briefed. His extended family is given a less dignified exit.
MICHAEL SMITH: So the Israelis, they actually arranged for his family and his wife's parents to go on a picnic near the Iranian border.
NARRATOR: An Israeli helicopter descends onto Iranian soil.
MICHAEL SMITH: And the Israelis get the family across the Iranian border.
NARRATOR: While his family is en route to their new home, Munir Redfa is in the cockpit of his MiG-21. He’s about to embark on a routine high-altitude training flight. The Russian supervisors who train MiG pilots enforce a fuel limit on flights like these to prevent exactly this kind of betrayal. However, Redfa is an experienced pilot - no supervisors are necessary. He asks the ground crew to fill her up. He wants a nice, long flight. They have no idea.
MICHAEL SMITH: And the Israelis have given him a route to take, and it goes via Jordan - via the Jordanian border.
NARRATOR: The MiG soars skyward, and Redfa opens up the throttle. His route skims the border with neighboring Jordan - nothing unusual in the Iraqi Air Forces’ book. Knuckles white, heart racing, he banks to-and-fro in a zig-zag pattern. Air force controllers on the ground are lulled into a false sense of security until the crucial moment arrives. Redfa takes one last turn.
MICHAEL SMITH: He then quickly crosses the Jordanian border.
NARRATOR: The outraged voices of the air controllers fall silent as Redfa switches off his radio.
MICHAEL SMITH: And by that time, the Iraqis have lost him and then travels down to Ashdod in Israel, where he lands the MiG-21 after a 500-mile flight.
NARRATOR: Mission accomplished. On the ground, the Israeli Air Force set to work.
MICHAEL SMITH: The Israelis take it to pieces. Bit by bit, they have his training manuals. They have his aircraft manual.
NARRATOR: And, as with so many spy stories, the tech is hardly ever as valuable as human intelligence.
MICHAEL SMITH: They look at all the technology, but crucially, one of the most important things is that they can debrief a pilot who's been trained by the Soviet Air Force to fly a MiG-21, trained to do various tactics, trained in how to approach another aircraft, trained in the MiG-21 and every single tactic that they - that the Egyptians and the Syrians - are going to use because they've been trained by the same people, are uncovered and logged and the Israelis can train against them.
NARRATOR: Of course, a cover story is necessary. It wouldn’t do for the Americans to discover a quadruple-honey trap operation - and extra-judicial killing - on their soil. Redfa dutifully takes part in a press conference, where he claims that the discrimination he faced as a Christian, and misgivings over the bombing of Kurds by Iraqi forces, led him to contact the Israelis of his own accord. There is no mention of San Antonio, Lisa Brat, Ze’ev Liron, or the three other pilots who met their untimely ends during the course of the operation. By the Spring of 1967, war is brewing in the region, and Redfa’s intel is about to come into its own. On April 7th, a skirmish erupts between Israeli Mirage jets and Syrian MiGs over the Sea of Galilee.
MICHAEL SMITH: The Syrians take on Israeli Mirage jets and it's a mistake - it's Syrians that do it - and it's a mistake because the Mirage loses no one and the Israelis shoot down six Syrian MiG-21s. And that reduces, seriously reduces, the strength of the Syrian Air Force, which has only got about 24-30 aircraft anyway.
NARRATOR: The Syrian’s superior aircraft are no match for the Israelis. After all, it’s hard to win at poker when your opponent has spent a good portion of his black budget studying your cards. And that’s only the beginning. On June 10th, tensions escalated into open warfare between Israel and a powerful clutch of Arab states, including Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. It’s a conflict that will come to be known as the Six-Day War.
MICHAEL SMITH: And so the tactics, the knowledge of how the MiG-21 works, the knowledge of the tactics Syrians and Egyptian pilots would use is of enormous assistance to the Israeli Air Force when it comes to the Six-Day War because, out of the clashes beginning in the air, they completely dominate the Egyptian and Syrian MiG-21s and gain complete control of the air, which ensures that the Israelis win within six days, less than a week, which was the prediction of the Mossad boss when he went to Washington before the war. He said it would be over within a week.
NARRATOR: Of course, that’s not the whole story - a series of pre-emptive strikes on Egyptian bases also dealt heavy blows to enemy airpower. But in the many air-to-air engagements that followed, MiG pilots were denied an easy victory, time and time again. The Six-Day War was won in the air. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that a different outcome would have produced a radically different Middle East to the one we know today. At this early stage in its history, Israel’s survival was by no means assured. And at the heart of that historic victory for Israel was one pilot - the one who survived, anyway: Munir Redfa.
MICHAEL SMITH: It's interesting that he was extraordinarily, highly regarded because his family and he get to Israel eventually, and they don't settle, they can't settle, and the Israelis moved them to a Western European country.
NARRATOR: Twenty years later, Redfa died in Europe from a heart attack.
MICHAEL SMITH: And, when he dies, Mossad really does have a little celebration in memory of him - celebrating his life, and celebrating what he did. And they really did take to him. They really thought he was a great guy.
NARRATOR: Whether the cause of his heart attack was good living - the Israelis paid him $1m for his troubles - or residual stress, remains unclear. If we’ve learned anything in this episode, it’s that honeytrap operations are anything but ‘soft’ espionage. Like life, they can be nasty, brutish, and short. But where Operation Diamond had an immediate and urgent objective, some honeytraps burn more slowly. In the next episode of this anthology, we’ll meet a spy who embedded herself in the enemy’s society and waited patiently for the right target to present himself.
HENRY SCHLESINGER: From what people said, she could tell you the weather and make it seem like a come-on.
NARRATOR: In the exclusive nightclubs of New York and London, cash is in ready supply. With cash, comes power, and with power - secrets. Between 2005 and 2010, Russian spy Anna Chapman used her superhuman interpersonal skills and nightlife connections to get close to some of the Western world’s highest-rollers - lawyers, bankers, oligarchs, even princes. Author Henry Schlesinger tells her story. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next time for a glamorous glimpse into the life and times of a spy sensation. *Or*, if you’re a subscriber to *Spyscape Plus* on Apple Podcasts, there’s no need to wait: you can listen to it *right now*.
Michael Smith (pictured) served in the British Army Intelligence Corps and has worked as a journalist for the BBC, Daily Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. He is also the author of several books including The Secrets of Station X, The Spying Game, and Foley. He lives in England with his wife and family.
Henry Schlesinger is a New York author and journalist who has covered intelligence technologies, counterterrorism, and law enforcement. His work has appeared in many publications including Popular Science, Technology Review, and Smithsonian magazine. He is also the author of Spycraft.