The Belgian authorities are at sea over the May 24 terrorist attack at Brussels’ Jewish Museum, which left four people dead: Miriam and Emmanuel Riva, an Israeli couple from Tel Aviv in their 50s, and two museum staffers.
The Belgian police have since aired two short video clips of the shooter that have set tongues wagging with speculation about a targeted hit against the Israeli couple by Hizballah, an affiliate or hireling – especially when it was perpetrated on the anniversary of Israel’s military withdrawal from South Lebanon on May 24, 2000.
So who are the Rivas, and why would Hizballah or its Iranian masters single them out for assassination?
There are a number of suggestive features, but DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that none of the theories abounding has been authoritatively corroborated.
Emmanuel Riva once worked for Nativ, an organization that promotes Russian Jewish immigration to Israel and reports to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. In the past, Nativ was said to have been involved in espionage, particularly in the Eastern Bloc before the fall of the Soviet Union.
The circumstances of Riva’s exit from the organization are unclear, but it was accompanied by a civil suit filled against him by Nativ’s accountant-general, accusing him of slander and causing mental anguish.
The couple later went to work at the Prime Minister’s Office in unspecified positions.
When an Israeli says he is at the Prime Minister’s Office without stating in what capacity, it is taken for granted that he is employed by one of the secret services – be it Mossad or Shin Bet.
Most recently, Emmanuel Riva worked at the Ministry of Internal Security. His job description was “accountant.”
A covert sequence of revenge killings?
Significantly, television crews and press photographers were barred from the Tel Aviv funeral Tuesday, May 2; only family photos were released to the media. This censorship which kept the faces of non-family mourners away fro the public eye suggested that the pair had been part of an intelligence body.
The theory of a targeted assassination gains support when taken in sequence with the murder on April 15 of the high-ranking Israeli police officer Baruch Mizrahi while he was driving on the road to Hebron with his family.
Mizrahi joined the police force at the top with the starting rank of brigadier general, jumping over from his job as intelligence officer in Unit 8200, a unit dedicated to cyber warfare. It was he who set up the Israeli Police’s electronic intelligence – (SIGINT – signals intelligence) system.
His killer stood in the middle of the Jerusalem-Hebron highway and shot up his car as it drew near.
The run-of-the-mill terrorist rarely risks exposure to harm in this way, preferring to snipe at his victims from a safe vantage point. Yet this shooter was also able to get away without leaving a trace.
Investigators were left with the strong impression of a professional assassination, possibly ordered by Hizballah or Iranian intelligence. They considered the possibility that he had been contracted to hit a high-profile Israeli intelligence officer in revenge for the unsolved killing of Hassan al-Laqqis in Beirut.
Hizballah loses its key cyber warfare expert
Laqqis, a senior Hizballah commander close to secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, was slain in an underground parking garage in the Dahiyeh section of south Beirut on Dec. 4.
This operative’s secret value to the Lebanese terrorist militia was incalculable.
He was in charge of setting up an Iranian fiber optic cable-based underground communications system in Lebanon. He also established a cyber warfare system for Hizballah.
In a sense, he was Hizballah’s counterpart to Mizrahi.
Close analysis of the security camera footage released this week by Belgium’s state prosecutor and other videos leaked online, caught the image of a skilled, poised and coolheaded killer, who took just 84 seconds to execute his mission from the moment he arrived at the Jewish Museum.
The gunman wore sunglasses, a nondescript baseball cap and a blue button-down shirt, which betrayed the presence underneath of a bullet-proof vest.
He carried two long-strapped black bags. From one, he drew a short-barreled Kalashnikov. A device resembling a video camera appeared to be attached to his chest, a feature which recalled the Toulouse murders two years ago.
In 2012, a 23-year old French Islamist terrorist called Mohammad Merah went on a murder rampage wearing a camera strapped to his body. He first shot dead three French soldiers in the suburb of Montauban, then went on to gun down four Jews at a Jewish school in Toulouse.
Merah was believed to be sent on his killing mission by radical Islamist elements with ties to Al Qaeda.
But this has never been confirmed.
If a targeted killing, why didn’t the shooter escape sooner?
The Brussels assassin encountered the Riva couple in the museum’s entrance foyer near Minimes Street. He shot them dead at close range to their upper bodies, before heading for the museum’s entrance and killing two museum employees with several volleys of gunfire.
As he fled the scene, the killer passed his victims, turned right onto Minimes Street, then cut through a crowded public square. One video clip shows him with a hand thrust inside the bag from which he drew his weapon – apparently ready to shoot if any attempt was made to capture him.
Speculation is divided over the reasons for the Brussels killer deciding to stay on the scene after murdering the Israeli couple on the street. Instead of making his escape, he proceeded to the museum’s entrance and killed two museum employees.
A professional killer on contract for a targeted hit against the Israeli couple, some say, would have made off at speed after completing his mission, and not wasted precious escape time by gratuitous killings.
Others surmise that he performed the second round of murders with the deliberate intent of obscuring his real mission.
And it worked: the crime was initially labeled as an indiscriminate anti-Semitic act against a Jewish target, part of the rising tide of anti-Semitic violence in Europe.
Belgium lacks serious counterterrorism intelligence structure
With passing time, the chances of catching the killer dwindle, especially since Belgium has no serious intelligence infrastructure in place to deal with terrorism. While the investigation’s transfer from the general prosecutor to State Security points to a terrorism crime, it also suggests that local security forces simply have nothing to go on.
In the absence of strong ties between Israeli intelligence and Belgium’s GISS intelligence agency, there has been no significant intelligence-gathering in the attack’s aftermath. Although it is home to NATO and the EU capital, Belgium has not dealt with terrorism in the recent past and its counterterrorism capabilities have been dulled by inaction.
In similar cases in the past, cooperation between Israeli and foreign intelligence agencies has yielded immediate results. The host country typically handled the “forward” operations such as wiretaps, surveillance, arrests and interrogations, while Israeli experts dealt with logistics.
If this investigation had been swiftly entrusted to those with SIGINT (signals intelligence) awareness of the likely perpetrators, their methods, languages – and even accents – the manhunt would have been more efficient. The trails to be followed included OSINT Open Source Intelligence (information available on social media), by which dormant or active terrorist networks might have been identified, monitoring set up for their cellular and online communications, IP addresses and a target group of communications analyzed.
But with no arrests and no leads, and without the aid of an ally or friendly superpower, Belgium’s independent investigation is likely to let the Brussels shooter and his controllers go free. And if the killings of Baruch Mizrachi and Miriam and Emmanuel Riva were indeed planned assassinations by Iran or Hizballah, that would mean that Tehran and Beirut have escalated their covert war on Israel. It may even suggest disconcertingly a serious breach in Israel’s intelligence services.