Israel's "AI Kill" against Iran has no long-term strategic benefit, but profound moral and legal ramifications
You've watched these TV shows and movies scores of times: an FBI or CIA agent or police commander gathers his unit in a gleaming conference room around a video screen, and in a flourish of technological wizardry brings up a picture of their quarry. He stares out from the monitor, scowling, a bearded, scruffy-looking terrorist wanted for terrible crimes. Or a hitman working for the mob. The lawmen (mostly men) then commence in a knowing discussion, how nasty and devious he is. What it will take to bring him and his gang down. You know it will be dangerous, but the good guys are up to the task.
Imagine though, the intelligence agents or police officers are not looking at a video screen featuring a picture of a killer. But instead, they're using facial recognition and looking at a satellite video feed of the real person viewed in real-time. As the camera zooms in for a closeup, the screen shows the target's face in the cross-hairs as he drives down a street. When it locks in, a missile or machine gun fires and kills him.
In preparation for the 2020 Mossad operation which executed Moshen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran's nuclear program, many factors and variables needed to be accounted for: camera sensors uploaded real-time images of the car and victim. AI (artificial intelligence) needed to compute how fast the car was travelling, wind speed, the time it would take from pulling the trigger remotely before the gun fired, how long would take to strike the target, the force of the bullet or missile needed to penetrate the vehicle, who else was in the car or nearby and how to ensure they were not injured.
"Israel has become the world's leading purveyor of AI murder with the assassination of Fakrizadeh last year in Tehran"
All these complicated elements of murder were infinitely simplified by means of artificial intelligence. Subtle calibrations can be made among the many variables involved. Israel has become the world's leading purveyor of AI murder with the assassination of Fakrizadeh last year in Tehran.
We know this thanks to Ronen Bergman's love letter to Kidon, the Mossad assassination squad, published in the New York Times earlier this month. The article breathlessly recounts the technological prowess of the purveyors of murder. How skilled they were in devising a "killer robot," a remotely-operated machine gun which could be disassembled into small pieces, smuggled into Iran, then reassembled, mounted on a truck, and deployed for the Israeli killer, who pulled the trigger 1,000 miles away:
"The straight-out-of-science-fiction story of what really happened that afternoon and the events leading up to it, published here for the first time...was...the debut test of a high-tech, computerized sharpshooter kitted out with artificial intelligence and multiple-camera eyes, operated via satellite and capable of firing 600 rounds a minute.
The souped-up, remote-controlled machine gun now joins the combat drone in the arsenal of high-tech weapons for remote targeted killing. But unlike a drone, the robotic machine gun draws no attention in the sky, where a drone could be shot down, and can be situated anywhere, qualities likely to reshape the worlds of security and espionage."
Israel has become a pioneer in ever more sophisticated counter-terror methods. It was the first to employ racial profiling in security screening. It was the first to perform targeted killings (ie extrajudicial executions) to murder Arab militant leaders. In Bergman's book, Rise and Kill First, he estimates the Mossad has performed 3,000 such murders since its founding in the early 1950s. Israel was the first to use drones in such a murder campaign. Now it leads the way in yet another "advance" in the art of killing.
A technology analyst confirms the Iran killing is a "first" in the history of AI, but warns of the abuses likely to follow:
"This is the first time AI is confirmed to have played a key role in an assassination...In a near future, anyone may be able to order a kill on the dark web by just uploading a photo and paying in cryptocurrencies...The moral implications of the kill and accountability issues arising with this technology would be huge. The accountability part of a wrong hit would become a lot messier..."
As it does with all its advanced weapons systems, Israel "field tests" them on Arab guinea pig/victims. This offers a significant marketing boost to persuade buyers to purchase them. It also promotes Israel's massive weapons export industry, the eighth-largest in the world. It also strengthens political-military alliances with countries like India, Myanmar, the Philippines and UAE, which pursue similarly murderous policies against their own ethnic minorities or political dissidents.
Why did the Mossad share this story with Bergman? He is its go-to journalist. Whenever a Mossad chief wants to boast about an accomplishment, Bergman is the first they call.
Then-agency boss, Yossi Cohen was notorious for grabbing the limelight. And why wouldn't he in this case? As he was about the leave the agency, he wanted to have one last media hurrah. What better way than on the front page of the New York Times?
But there are important caveats omitted from Bergman's account. Thankfully, they were addressed in a Haaretz editorial and separate media account. Israel's leading liberal newspaper was sceptical about the assumptions behind Bergman's account, and the Mossad assassination program itself. Just after the killing, it published an editorial, Killing of Iranian Scientist Is a Dangerous Provocation:
"These threats mean Israel now risks an intensified head-on clash with Tehran...at a time when [the former is] being led by a divided, dysfunctional government in which people around the prime minister even boast of routinely excluding the foreign and defense ministers from diplomatic and military-related developments...Few ask how Israel would respond were Iranians to carry out a hit on a senior official on Israeli soil, much less one of its best scientists..."
In an editorial published this month following the NY Times article, Haaretz added further scepticism:
"The assassination is an example of the huge technological, diplomatic and financial resources Israel has invested in tactical moves that have no strategic value. Worse than that: Israel, under Netanyahu’s leadership and with the aid of his factotum Cohen, focused on operations that garnered headlines but did little to undermine Iran’s nuclear progress...We should remember the lesson that robot assassins need smart operators and that operational audacity is no substitute for sensible policy."
Studies by security think tanks and scholars have shown, as Haaretz notes above, that such operations do not bring much in the way of long-term benefit. With most political movements or militant groups, taking out the kingpin rarely degrades their capabilities in a serious manner. Invariably, there is already a line of succession anticipating just such an eventuality. And the successor is likely to be more ruthless, cagier, and more capable than the individual who was eliminated.
Political disputes are rarely resolved through murder. Political movements rely on ideology and passionately held beliefs, and less on a single charismatic individual. You can kill a man, but it's much harder to kill an idea. Hezbollah is a more formidable enemy under Hassan Nasrallah than it was under Abbas Musawi, who Israel murdered. Hamas remains as wily an enemy under Yahya Sinwar as it was under Sheikh Ahmed Yassine, the wheel-chair bound cleric who Israel murdered. And despite claims of Fakhrizadeh's genius and the indispensable nature of his role in the nuclear program, he undoubtedly trained a number of physicists as capable or more so than he was. They will step forward with pride to continue his work.
"You can kill a man, but it's much harder to kill an idea"
So before becoming too enamoured with Bergman's account of Mossad tactical brilliance, we should take a long, hard look at the utility of the assassination program; and face the troubling conclusion that it offers short-term benefit, at best. But no long-term benefit. That's of course leaving aside the profound moral dimensions of this heinous crime and its violation of international law. A consideration entirely lacking from Bergman's account.
In fact, outrages such as the Fakhrizadeh murder only reinforce the power and influence of Iranian hardliners. They provide yet another national martyr to bolster the deep sense of grievance and victimization felt by Iranians. They contributed to the sweeping victory of the clerical conservatives who came to power with last June's presidential election. They drive Iranians to the conviction that instead of relinquishing the nuclear program, it is vital to their national interests. It could conceivably drive the regime's leadership from the relatively pragmatic option of inching toward a nuclear weapon without actually assembling one--to full nuclearization.
The naked truth is that if Iran wants a bomb there is little Israel can do to stop it short of a military invasion, overthrowing the regime and installing a puppet substitute. Especially not without the full participation of the US, which has little stomach for a military showdown with the ayatollahs.
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog and is a freelance journalist specialising in exposing secrets of the Israeli national security state. He campaigns against opacity and the negative impact of Israeli military censorship.
Follow him on Twitter: @richards1052
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.