JERUSALEM — Aziz Asbar was one of Syria’s most important rocket scientists, bent on amassing an arsenal of precision-guided missiles that could be launched with pinpoint accuracy against Israeli cities hundreds of miles away.He had free access to the highest levels of the Syrian and Iranian governments, and his own security detail. He led a…
JERUSALEM — Aziz Asbar was one of Syria’s most important rocket scientists, bent on amassing an arsenal of precision-guided missiles that could be launched with pinpoint accuracy against Israeli cities hundreds of miles away.
He had free access to the highest levels of the Syrian and Iranian governments, and his own security detail. He led a top-secret weapons-development unit called Sector 4 and was hard at work building an underground weapons factory to replace one destroyed by Israel last year.
On Saturday, he was killed by a car bomb — apparently planted by Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.
It was at least the fourth time in three years that Israel has assassinated an enemy weapons engineer on foreign soil, a senior official from a Middle Eastern intelligence agency confirmed on Monday. The following account is based on information provided by the official, whose agency was informed about the operation. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity to discuss a highly classified operation.
The attack took place on Saturday night in Masyaf, where Syria’s military research organization maintains one of its most important weapons-development facilities. It quickly prompted finger pointing at Israel by both Syria and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamic militant group whose fighters have played a major role in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.
Scientific Studies and Research Center has long been a focus of Western intelligence agencies and is subject to financial sanctions in the United States and France. Before the civil war, it operated Syria’s main manufacturing and storage sites for chemical weapons, many of which have since been destroyed or abandoned. It employed around 10,000 people developing and producing missiles, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Israel’s hand has often been discerned in attacks on Syrian weapons production. In 2007, an explosion at a warhead production line at the Scientific Studies and Research Center facility in Al Safir killed 15 Syrians and a number of Iranians. Syria concluded it was the work of Israeli saboteurs.
Israel did not claim responsibility. It never does. But the Mossad has a long history of assassinating scientists developing weaponry seen as a threat.
In the late 1950s, a group of German scientists and engineers who had worked on Hitler’s rocket program began building missiles for Egypt, setting off a panic in Israel and helping bring about David Ben-Gurion’s retirement from politics. The Mossad tried repeatedly to kill the scientists before recruiting agents inside the project who helped bring it to a halt.
the Mossad’s most frequent target: Since 2007 it has assassinated six Iranians, most of them scientists involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs on their way to work in the morning. An Iranian general in charge of a missile project was also blown up in his headquarters along with 17 of his men.
Israeli operatives have also killed a number of Syrians: a general involved in its nuclear program in 2008, on a beach in Tartus, Syria; a senior Hamas operative responsible for its acquisition of sophisticated missiles and weapons from Iran, in Dubai in 2010; the head of research and development for Hezbollah, in Beirut in 2013; and two Hamas scientists, one in Tunis in 2016 and one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in April.
Not every assassination attempt has been successful: In January, a Hamas official, Muhammad Hamdan, was gravely injured but survived a car bombing in Sidon, Lebanon, where Hamas was building a workshop for manufacturing components for missiles and drones.