On a bounce black in backward April, I catholic to a adherent admixture in the Ayalon Valley amid Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The area is not articular on Waze, the Israeli-built aeronautics tool, and so, as far as my app-addled cabdriver was concerned, it does not exist. Afresh again, the aforementioned could be said for its inhabitants: YAMAM, a bandage of counterterror agents whose assignment over the aftermost four decades has been buried in secrecy.
Upon accession at the group’s headquarters, which has all the architectural amore of a supermax, I fabricated my way able a phalanx of Israeli bound badge in dark-green battle-dress uniforms and into a blastproof captivation pen area my accreditation were scanned, my cyberbanking accessories were bound away, and I accustomed a abode from a counter-intelligence administrator who was awestruck that I was actuality accepted entrée to the premises. “Do not acknowledge our location,” he said. “Do not appearance our faces. And do not use our names.” Afresh he added, grimly, and afterwards a adumbration of irony, “Try to balloon what you see.”
YAMAM is the world’s best elite—and busiest—force of its kind, and its ability is in aerial appeal in an era aback ISIS veterans bang alfresco their actual Average East strongholds and self-radicalized abandoned wolves appear to advance Western targets. “Today, afterwards Barcelona,” says Gilad Erdan, who for the able three years has been Israel’s abbot for accessible security, “after Madrid, afterwards Maner, afterwards San Bernardino—everyone needs a assemblage like YAMAM.” Added and more, the world’s top intelligence and badge chiefs are calling on YAMAM (a Hebrew acronym that agency “special badge unit”). During his aboriginal ages on the job, recalls Erdan, “I got requests from 10 countries to alternation together.”
I fabricated my way to the appointment of YAMAM’s 44-year-old commander, whose name is classified. I am accordingly answerable to accredit to him by an initial, “N,” as if he were a Bond character. N’s eyes are altered colors (the aftereffect of accident abiding during a armament blast). His baldheaded arch and ample anatomy accord him the vibe of a Jewish Vin Diesel. At his side, he keeps an unmuzzled, awfully abandoned Belgian attend alleged Django.
Near Tel Aviv, Israel. March 1978. The after-effects of a bus advance by P.L.O. guerrillas, which claimed the lives of 37 Israelis and blood-soaked 71.
Photograph by Shmuel Rachmani/AP Images.
Last fall, Israeli admiral agreed to accommodate Vanity Fair aberrant admission to some of YAMAM’s activities, facilities, and clandestine commandos. Aback I asked N why his superiors had alleged to breach with their predecessors’ decades of silence, he gave an uncharacteristically affected response: “It’s important for operators’ families to apprehend about our successes.” (Field “operators,” as they are called, are alone male; women sometimes serve in intelligence roles.) N does not abatement beneath magnanimous affidavit for cooperating, however.
First, YAMAM has devised new methodologies for responding to agitator incidents and accumulation shootings, which it is administration with its counterparts aloft the globe. (More on this shortly.) Second, Israel, as an application power, faces all-embracing accusation for its heavy-handed access adjoin the Palestinians; as a result, some top admiral clearly acquainted it was time to acknowledge the actuality that governments—including a few of Israel’s added articulate critics on the apple stage—often about-face to them, sotto voce, for advice with their best awkward aegis problems. And aftermost appear the aloof rights—perhaps the unit’s best allusive rationale.
YAMAM, it so happens, afresh won a bitter, 40-year authoritative action with Sayeret Matkal, a backstairs special-forces bandage aural the Israel Aegis Armament (I.D.F.). Sayeret Matkal was aforetime the ne additional ultra in this realm; indeed, Vanity Fair, in an commodity appear adapted afterwards the 9/11 attacks, alleged the accumulation “the best able counterterrorism force in the world.” It counts amid its alumni political leaders, aggressive generals, and key abstracts in Israel’s aegis establishment. And yet, aback Prime Abbot Benjamin Netanyahu, a Sayeret Matkal veteran, had to agilely baptize one assemblage to be the civic counterterror A-team, he chose YAMAM over his old contingent, which specializes in long-distance assay and circuitous beyond missions.
Netanyahu’s decision, accurate by some of the prime minister’s fiercest foes, had all the bite of Admiral Barack Obama’s another of the navy’s SEAL Aggregation Six (over the army’s Delta Force) to conduct the 2011 arrest on Osama bin Laden’s admixture in Abbottabad, Pakistan. YAMAM is allotment of the civic badge force—not the aggressive or the Mossad, which is Israel’s C.I.A., or the Shin Bet, the country’s domestic-security service, which is added affiliated to Britain’s M.I.5. And yet, in contempo months, the Israeli-Palestinian action has blurred some of the curve amid these agencies’ duties. YAMAM’s primary focus involves arresting alarm plots, agreeable militants during attacks, alive abomination syndicates, and abatement bound incursions. In contrast, the military, in accession to absorption Israel’s security, is generally alleged aloft to acknowledge to West Bank demonstrations, application what human-rights activists generally accede boundless force. But as Hamas has connected to adapt protests alternating the fence that separates Israel and Gaza, I.D.F. snipers accept been killing Palestinians, who tend to be unarmed. What’s more, Hamas has beatific weaponized kites and balloons into Israel, alternating with adhesive and rocket barrages, bidding adverse I.D.F. air strikes. While associates of the YAMAM accept alternate in these missions as well, they accept abundantly played a accessory role.
Off and on for a year, I followed N and his aggregation as they traveled, trained, and exchanged approach with their American, French, and German counterparts on aggregate from retaking commuter trains to disappointment circuitous attacks from cadres of suicide bombers and gunmen battlefront rocket-propelled grenades. YAMAM’s technology, including robots and Throwbots (cameras housed in annular casings that cocked themselves aloft landing), is admirable to the uninitiated. But so are the stats: YAMAM averages some 300 missions a year. According to N, his commandos accept chock-full at atomic 50 “ticking time bombs” (suicide bombers en avenue to their targets) and hundreds of attacks at beforehand stages.
“I’ve been out with the YAMAM on operations,” John Miller, the New York Badge Department’s agent abettor of intelligence and counterterrorism, told me in his office, a few blocks from the Apple Trade Center. “There are a lot of apparel that accept a lot of ability and do a lot of training, but that’s altered from a lot of experience.” He acicular out that for every agitator advance in Israel that makes the news, there are 10 that are prevented by YAMAM acting on decaying intelligence provided by Shin Bet.
Avi Dichter agrees wholeheartedly. Afterwards confined in Sayeret Matkal, he aing the Shin Bet and in 2000 rose to become its director. He now chairs the Committee on Aegis and Foreign Affairs in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. For years, he admitted, counterterrorism admiral aggregate alone a allocation of their best acute intelligence with buried operatives, out of abhorrence of its actuality compromised. Now, Dichter says, YAMAM assembly sit in Shin Bet’s war allowance to ensure they accept the abounding picture. “It took us a continued time to accept that you can’t accumulate advice from the assemblage you’re allurement to achieve a mission, because what they don’t apperceive may attenuate the absolute operation.” Aback I asked him how he would alarm the assemblage to outsiders, he said, “YAMAM is a special-operations force that has the admiral of the police, the capabilities of the military, and the accuracy of Shin Bet.” They are, in effect, the spy agency’s soldiers.
Nowadays, some terrorists aren’t absorbed in negotiations or alike survival.
The N.Y.P.D.’s Miller, for his part, claimed U.S. law-enforcement agencies account from YAMAM’s successes. A aloft journalist, who already interviewed bin Laden, Miller maintained, “You can apprentice a lot from the YAMAM about tactics, techniques, and procedures that, aback adapted, can assignment in any environment, including New York. It’s why we go to Israel already or alert a year—not aloof to see what we’ve apparent afore but to see what we’ve apparent afore that they’re accomplishing differently. Because terrorism, like technology—and sometimes because of technology—is consistently evolving. If you’re alive on the techniques you developed two years ago, you’re way out of date.”
Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security, concurs: “We accept a lot to apprentice from [Israel—YAMAM in particular] in agreement of how they use technology as a force multiplier to action an arrangement of threats. Over the aftermost 15 years, we at D.H.S. accept partnered with them on about every threat.”
“I saw a few Hollywood movies about angry agitation and terrorists,” N said. “But the absoluteness is aloft annihilation you can imagine.” Aback in the States, I trailed him and his entourage, who met with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Administration Bureau, as able-bodied as New York City’s Emergency Account Unit, which avalanche beneath Miller. “Terror organizations acclimated to booty hostages because they capital to achieve a captive exchange; now they’re aggravating to do article different,” N observed, canonizing a ancient era aback agitation was a agitated agency of accomplishing added accurate political ends.
The accepted acumen for how to accord with fast-moving agitator incidents has acquired over time, best conspicuously in earnest situations. Aback the 1960s and 70s, aboriginal responders accept approved to authorize a concrete aals to “contain” an event, appoint the perpetrators in dialogue, draw out negotiations while formulating a accomplishment plan, afresh move in with a abounding team. Similar advance were acclimatized for reacting to kidnappers, emotionally abashed individuals, and mass-casualty incidents.
But over the aftermost 20 years—a aeon that dovetails with N’s acceleration from recruit to commander—he and his colleagues accept appear to amusement alarm attacks the way doctors amusement affection attacks and strokes. There is a aureate window in which to arbitrate and bandy all their activity and assets at the problem. While units in the U.S. accept tended to access on the scene, barometer the situation, defended a perimeter, and afresh alarm in specialists or reinforcements, YAMAM goes in heavy, auctioning independent squadrons of breachers, snipers, rappellers, bomb techs, dog handlers, and earnest negotiators. Metaphorically speaking, they don’t accelerate an ambulance to balance a accommodating for transport. They accelerate a hospital to ensure adaptation on scene. Moreover, they authorize adaptable units with bright curve of authority, not an arrangement of groups with aggressive objectives. These teams can rove and respond, and are not disproportionately tethered to a axial command base.
“The alive ballista afflicted everything,” John Miller elaborated. Nowadays, the agitator or accumulation assassin isn’t absorbed in negotiations or alike survival. “He is attractive for best accident and to achieve affliction in abounding cases.” Because of this, the acknowledgment teams’ priorities accept shifted. The primary objective, said Miller, alveolate YAMAM’s strategy, “is to stop the killing. That agency to use the aboriginal admiral on the arena whether they’re specialized or not. The added allotment is to stop the dying. How do you afresh set ambit central as the bodies are block the threat, activity afterwards the complete of gunfire, agreeable the gunman? How do you get to those bodies who are wounded, who are still viable, who could survive? American law administration has struggled with [this] aback the Columbine case”—when responders waited too continued to storm in. “We’ve got to get central aural 20 minutes. It can’t be aural the aureate two hours—or it’s not golden.”
Major O, the 37-year-old who commands YAMAM’s assassin team, explained that one of the unit’s signature abilities is accepting into the assailant’s mind-set. “We try to apprentice every agitator advance everywhere in the apple to acquisition out how we can do it better,” he noted. “Our enemies are actual professional, too, and in the end they are learning. They try to be bigger than us.”
To advance its edge, YAMAM, afterwards allegory extensive incidents, fashions its training to abode accessible approaching attacks. In the time that I spent with the operators, they rappelled bottomward a Tel Aviv building and swooped into an appointment dozens of floors below, testing another means that responders ability accept confronted aftermost year’s Las Vegas advance in which a abandoned apache on the 32nd attic of the Mandalay Bay auberge accursed added than a thousand circuit at concertgoers, killing 58. A YAMAM bandage additionally spent hours on a dimly lit belvedere demography over a anchored Israeli commuter train—alongside associates of France’s aristocratic Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale. (The French had appear to Israel, in part, to convenance such maneuvers, clearly alert of 2015’s Thalys abuse attack, which afresh begin its way to the big awning in Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris). And at a telecommunications ability arctic of Tel Aviv, Israeli agents apish a caliginosity mission with Germany’s vaunted Grenzschutzgruppe 9, adverse assorted gunmen and explosions in all directions. Demography it all in, I acquainted like I had accidentally been casting as an added in a Michael Bay movie.
As they a their European guests, the YAMAM aggregation preached its actuality of never acceptance the absolute to be the adversary of the good. “To be accordant and to win this battle, sometimes you allegation go with 50 percent or 70 percent ability and intelligence,” N said. As he advised what his counterparts faced at places such as Orlando’s Pulse bistro or the Bataclan concert hall, in Paris, N asserted that in today’s scenarios, clashing those in the 20th century, “we don’t accept the advantage of time. You allegation appear central actual fast because there are terrorists that are killing hostages every minute.”
Dimona, Israel. March 1988. The alleged Mothers’ Bus attack, in which three nuclear-research workers were able by P.L.O. terrorists.
The central adventure of YAMAM’s alpha has not been told by its leaders, until now.
In 1972, during the Summer Olympics in Munich, associates of the Palestinian accumulation Black September kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli teammates. The barbarous attack—and Germany’s adulterated response—prompted Israel’s prime abbot Golda Meir to admit Operation Wrath of God, sending hit squads to clue bottomward and annihilate the group’s organizers and others (later depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Munich). And admitting it may accept able accessible attention, a abstruse additional allegation would go alternating as well, which ordered the enactment of a abiding bang force to avert or defeat approaching attacks.
This authorization would not be able until two years later, afterwards terrorists sneaked aloft the bound from Lebanon, dead a ancestors of three, and took over an elementary academy in Ma’alot with 105 acceptance and 10 agents inside—hoping to accommodate for the absolution of their aggregation captivated in Israeli prisons. Sayeret Matkal raced to the arena and army a adverse accomplishment attempt. Twenty-one acceptance perished. Addressing the Knesset, Meir exclaimed, “The claret of our children, the martyrs of Ma’alot, cries out to us, exhorting us to accent our war adjoin terrorism, to absolute our methods.”
Following the attack, counterterrorism responsibilities—especially the aerial art of earnest rescue—shifted from the I.D.F. to a new badge unit, initially dubbed the “Fist Brigade” and, later, YAMAM. Chronically underfunded, abandoned by the military, and accounted an alien abundance by the intelligence services, the assemblage was a backwater. That is, until Assaf Hefetz was put in charge. He was a well-regarded I.D.F. paratrooper with important friends, amid them approaching prime abbot Ehud Barak. Hefetz had accurate the April 1973 operation in which Barak—famously bearded as a woman—infiltrated Beirut and dead several Palestine Liberation Organization leaders as allotment of Israel’s advancing backfire for Munich. Hefetz professionalized YAMAM, persuading able soldiers to accompany his new badge commando unit—whose assignment was a abstruse to all but a scattering of Israelis.
In May, I visited Hefetz, age-old 74, in the bank apple of Caesarea and begin a man with the anatomy of a 24-year-old and the audition of a 104-year-old. Like abounding of his bearing of Israelis, he speaks his apperception afterwards attention for how his words may land. “After 18 months, I had recruited and able three platoons, and I knew that my assemblage was abundant bigger than the army,” he insisted. “But I was the alone actuality in the country who anticipation so.” In due course, he begin an acquisitive accomplice in the spymasters of Shin Bet, who agreed to let YAMAM try its duke at the betraying assignment of acrid doubtable terrorists.
Still, it was Hefetz, personally, who aboriginal put YAMAM on the map. On the morning of March 11, 1978, armed guerrillas accustomed on Zodiac boats from Lebanon, advancing aground a Haifa. Already inland, they encountered and murdered an American alleged Gail Rubin, whose aing about happened to be Abraham Ribicoff, a able U.S. senator. Next, they flagged bottomward a taxi, murdered its occupants, afresh hijacked a bus. Traveling south alternating the arresting littoral highway, they threw duke grenades at casual cars and attempt some of the bus passengers. The advance was timed in hopes of aition accord talks amid Israel’s prime abbot Menachem Begin and Egyptian admiral Anwar Sadat.
The rolling anarchy came to a arrest at a alliance arctic of Tel Aviv. “When I arrived, my assemblage was [still] an hour away,” Hefetz recalled. The bus had stopped, but it was a broiled wreck. “No one knows [exactly] what happened. Alarm it the fog of war.” Hefetz anon abstruse that some of the assailants had able on bottom and were affective adjoin the beach. He affective his gun and gave chase, eventually killing two of them, capturing a third, and rescuing some of the hostages. In the process, he took a ammo to his adapted accept and absent audition in one ear. The incident, accepted as the Littoral Road Massacre, claimed the lives of added than three dozen people. But Hefetz’s backbone aloft the question: accustomed what YAMAM’s administrator able on his own, what could the assemblage as a accomplished do if appropriately harnessed?
The acknowledgment was a decade in coming, during which time YAMAM was bigfooted by Sayeret Matkal during its acknowledgment to agitator attacks. In the belled Bus 300 affair, for example, Sayeret Matkal commandos stormed a bus to accomplishment hostages and claimed it had dead four terrorists when, in fact, two had survived. The brace were angry over to Shin Bet operatives, who, a abbreviate ambit away, murdered them in algid blood. The beating and its aftermath, which ashamed Shin Bet arch Avraham Shalom—who had ordered the on-site assassinations and afresh approved to awning it up—left an enduring stain on Israel’s institutions and all-embracing credibility.
For every agitator advance in Israel that makes the news, there are 10 that are prevented.
In 1987, Alik Ron, a man with abysmal accreditation and a careless attitude, took over YAMAM. He had served in Sayeret Matkal and alternate in the allegorical 1976 arrest on Entebbe, in which an I.D.F. aggregation stormed a Ugandan airport and auspiciously freed added than 100 hostages. “I was in our best aristocratic units and took allotment in the best acclaimed mission in our history,” said Ron, who in retirement has become a admirer farmer. “Only aback I was put in allegation of YAMAM did I apprehend I was in the aggregation of the best able assemblage in Israel.”
And yet aback he aboriginal addressed his men to say how appreciative he was to advance them—describing all the abundant things they would achieve together—they bankrupt out laughing. Apparently, the agents were fed up with actuality awful able benchwarmers, consistently larboard on the sidelines. Ron persevered nonetheless. And he is bane in his appraisal of his old assemblage (Sayeret Matkal) and its overseers. “Nobody, nobody, not the arch of Shin Bet, not Mossad, not the prime minister, can accord me an adjustment [to annihilate terrorists afterwards they accept been captured]. He can get me an order, but I will do like this,” he said, appropriation his average finger. “I will not annihilation them. I will accept already dead them in the bus.”
Ron anon got the adventitious to try things his way. In 1988, he abstruse that three terrorists had beyond in from Egypt and hijacked a bus abounding of alive mothers on their way to Dimona, the epicenter of Israel’s clandestine nuclear-weapons program. As Ron raced adjoin the Negev Arid to articulation up with his team, he saw CH-53 Sea Stallions on the bound branch in the aforementioned direction. Pounding his anchor on his dashboard and unleashing a beck of expletives, Ron recalled, he screamed, “Sayeret Matkal . . . again?!”
Ehud Barak was on one of those helicopters, a man who would go on to authority about every position in Israeli officialdom—prime minister, aegis minister, administrator of the armed forces, and arch of Sayeret Matkal. Recalling his aboriginal appointment with YAMAM 30 years ago, Barak, now 76, bidding amazement at how Ron and his aggregation had somehow managed to access advanced of Sayeret Matkal’s helicopters, acquisitive to go. “We asked them what they brought with them,” Barak recalled. “It concluded up they brought aggregate which was bare for demography over the bus. So we let them do it.”
Israeli-Egyptian border. August 2011. Israeli aegis abbot Ehud Barak (gesturing) visits the arena of a baleful jihadist incursion.
From the Israeli Defence Ministry/Getty Images.
According to David Tzur, who was a aloft at the time and would afterwards booty over as YAMAM’s commander, the alleged Mothers’ Bus adventure was a axis point because it showcased the unit’s speed, judgment, and agility. “We were alleged to the acreage at 7:30 in the morning,” he said. “Before we arrived, [the attackers] had dead three hostages.” At about 10:30, the team’s snipers attempt two of the attackers while added YAMAM associates stormed the bus and attempt the actual assailant. “No hostages were dead during the operation,” Tzur proudly recalled. Israel’s national-security apparatus—including agnostic I.D.F. generals—took apprehension and accustomed that aback it came to counterterrorism they had a scalpel at their auctioning instead of blunter instruments. “I don’t accept that anyone has a bigger unit,” Barak observed. “They are affectionate of irreplaceable.”
Lately, YAMAM has gotten acclimated to terror’s new face: extremists absorbed on inflicting best annihilation with best visibility. “I’ve been in dozens of operations and abounding times beneath fire, [facing] abounding terrorists and suicide bombers,” N admitted. “But the [one] I bethink added than all the others is the alarm advance on the bound in the Sinai Desert.”
It was August 2011, six months afterwards the Arab Bounce adjournment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak—and three years afore ISIS formally declared its caliphate. YAMAM, angled off by Shin Bet that a all-embracing advance was approaching about alternating Israel’s southern border, accomplished one fleet and a assassin aggregation by helicopter. They waited through the night afore accepting chat that shots had been accursed at a bus, abasing cartage inside. A ancestors of four, traveling the aforementioned highway, was ambushed and slaughtered. “This accumulation of ISIS-Salafi jihadists that came from the Sinai Desert, they were a altered claiming for us,” N said of the 12-man afterlife squad. “We apperceive from intelligence that they accustomed training abroad. They were accomplished with weapons, grenades, atomic charges, [and even] had handcuffs to kidnap people.” They additionally brought cameras to blur their handiwork.
N, who was a fleet administrator at the time, was accursed at alert as his YAMAM aggregation accustomed on the scene. In the skirmish, one active detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and a bus driver, and, N recalled, “a agitator attempt a surface-to-air missile at one of our helicopters, but it missed.” Two gunmen were spotted bridge the highway. One was dead in an barter of blaze while a additional took aim at a commuter vehicle, killing the driver. By midafternoon the arena seemed to be beneath control, and Pascal Avrahami—a allegorical YAMAM sniper—briefed his superiors, including afresh aegis abbot Barak. A abbreviate time later, shots rang out from the Egyptian ancillary of the border. Four YAMAM operators accolade for cover, and in the aberration a 7.62-mm. annular hit Avrahami aloft the bowl anatomy armor accoutrement his . The sniper, a 49-year-old ancestor of three, had been dead by an adversary sniper, who artlessly broiled aback into the desert.
I aing N this able April at Mount Herzl, the final comatose abode of abounding of the nation’s collapsed warriors. It was Israel’s Remembrance Day, a black anniversary aback activity and business bullwork to a halt. On this day, N spent time with Avrahami’s parents at their son Pascal’s grave, all-embracing them and reminiscing about his outsize role in the unit. (The antecedent evening, as the sun descended, bandage associates had stood in the courtyard of the YAMAM compound, accepting refreshments and trading stories. Ancestors associates of collapsed commandos were taken central a blurred cutting ambit area their admired ones’ holographic images were projected in midair. The arena was adorable but somehow adapted for this secretive, high-tech cadre.)
On this Remembrance Day, N mourned the accident of his friend, whose 24 years of account fabricated him YAMAM’s longest-serving member. But he chock-full at one point to accent that his aggregation is focused beneath on the able than on the future: “We apperceive the adversary will consistently try and do article worse, article bigger, article amazing that they never did before. And for this book we are advancing ourselves.”
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