"Operation Opera": Intelligence Behind-The-Scenes

Over the course of five years, the Israeli intelligence community was engaged in an intensive effort that led to "Operation Opera" –  the elimination of Iraq's Tammuz-1 nuclear reactor by IAF in June 1981

"Operation Opera": Intelligence Behind-The-Scenes

n June 7, 1981 at 18:40 hours, the tension experienced by the political and defense leadership of the State of Israel was relieved abruptly – the IAF fighters returned to base safely from their strike mission against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Nevertheless, some questions still remained unanswered regarding the actual results of the operation. A short while earlier, the officer appointed as the technical intelligence officer for the Iraqi nuclear reactor project on behalf of the IDF Intelligence Directorate reported to the technical section. He guessed correctly why he had been ordered to report to his unit immediately, despite the fact that the timing for Operation Opera had been kept as a closely-guarded secret within IAF until that time. Following a brief consultation with his superiors at the technical section, the officer was ordered to report to the "Pit" (the IDF underground operations center) to assess the information regarding the results of the strike in Iraq, which was expected to pour in during the night.

Around midnight, the officer was called over to the IAF aerial photo-reconnaissance unit to watch the footage from the fighters' video cameras and assess the damage inflicted on the Iraqi reactor. Eventually, some of that footage was published openly. By this time, the officer could determine with some satisfaction that the bombs had hit their marks – although the actual results of their impact could not be determined yet.

At 03:00 hours, an initial account regarding the results of the strike, as reported from within the reactor site, was delivered to the "Pit". A French engineer who had come in to review the damage reported to his people in France that the reactor had been destroyed completely. He entered the darkened reactor building carrying a flashlight, and descended about 3 meters to examine the reactor spent fuel pool, but all he saw were smashed slabs of concrete flooded with water. As soon as this information was received, the intelligence officer disseminated a "Flash Intelligence Bulletin" in which he reported that the Iraqi reactor, had, indeed, been destroyed. The bulletin was disseminated to all relevant recipients, including Israel's national leaders. In the following days, it turned out that the hits on the Iraqi nuclear facility were even more accurate than had been anticipated in a forecast calculated by the IAF operations research branch prior to the operation.

On the day following the operation, the Government of Israel announced on Israeli radio that IAF fighters had destroyed the Iraqi nuclear facility. This announcement was the result of a personal decision by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, contrary to the recommendation of the IDF Intelligence Directorate to claim that the attackers were Iranian aircraft in order to prevent diplomatic entanglements for Israel. Begin later explained his decision by saying: "…Should we have allowed Iraq to make the announcement firs – which they would have eventually – so that Israel would consequently be blamed for the absence of even minimal courage? What are we, thieves in the night?" (Shlomo Nakdimon, Tammuz in Flames, 1993).

The attention of Israeli intelligence had been drawn to the issue of the Iraqi nuclear facility about seven years previously. In late 1974, Iraq expressed its intent to purchase a graphite gas power generating nuclear reactor fueled by natural uranium. Owing to these characteristics, reactors of this type had also been used to produce plutonium for the French nuclear arms program (North Korea also uses the same type of plutonium-producing reactor). Although France refused to provide Iraq with such a reactor, mainly owing to concerns regarding the response of the international community, it offered the Iraqis, as an alternative, an Osiris type reactor – a fairly large research reactor (Osiris is the god of the afterlife, the dead and the underworld in ancient Egyptian mythology). A reactor of this type had been in operation since 1964 at the French nuclear center in Saclay, near Paris. The building containing the Osiris reactor in Saclay also contains a smaller, Isis reactor (Isis is the spouse of Osiris, according to Egyptian mythology). Although the core of the Isis reactor is similar to that of the Osiris model, its output is very low and is used mainly to train personnel in the operation of the Osiris reactor. Owing to the high output of the Osiris reactor (40 megawatts, scalable to 70 megawatts) and its high neutron flux, this reactor is used in France to test the resistance of nuclear materials and fuels intended for use in power-generating reactors. At the same time, it may be utilized to irradiate large amounts of natural uranium for the purpose of producing military-grade plutonium, albeit on a scale smaller than that of a graphite-gas reactor. Moreover, the nuclear fuel rods of the Osiris reactor contained about 13 kilograms of uranium enriched to 93%, an amount close to the one required in order to produce a nuclear weapon. Accordingly, assuming that France intended to provide Iraq with an amount of nuclear fuel that would be sufficient for several reactor cores, in order to replace spent nuclear fuel rods, the Iraqis could have diverted some of the enriched uranium in that nuclear fuel and use it to produce nuclear weapons.

The Iraqis – having no alternative, agreed to purchase the Osiris type reactor. The deal was discussed during Saddam Hussein's visit to France in early September 1975. About two months later, during a visit to Baghdad by French Industry Minister Michel d'Ornano, a framework agreement for nuclear cooperation "for peaceful purposes" was signed by the two countries. The highlight of that agreement was Project Osirak (Osirak: a designation combining the words Osiris and Iraq), the establishment in Iraq of a nuclear reactor identical to the French Osiris reactor.

The Iraqi regime designated the project "The 17th of Tammuz" – after the date of the coup staged by the ruling Ba'ath party. Accordingly, the Iraqi Osiris and Isis reactors were designated "Tammuz-1" and "Tammuz-2". 

The length of the building containing the two reactors (which was largely destroyed in the Israeli attack) was about 100 meters and its height at the reactor dome was 21 meters. The internal diameter of Tammuz-1 was 32 meters and the depth of its lower level was 15 meters. The spent fuel pool of Tammuz-1 was built below the level extending from a depth of 2 meters to a depth of 13 meters. The pool was 7.5 meters long by 6.5 meters wide and its thick walls were made of cast concrete. The building also contained the large control room of Tammuz-1, various laboratories, and the offices of the facility employees. Other installations included in the project and located close to the main building containing the Tammuz reactors were the LAMA (Laboratoire d'Analyses des Matériaux Actifs) building, a 'hot lab' that could be used to separate plutonium from the nuclear fuel irradiated at the reactor; the SAR (Station d'Assainissement Radioactif) building,  a nuclear waste decontamination station and the BAL (Bâtiment d'Atelier Laboratoire) building, a laboratory-grade workshop. The blueprints for the LAMA laboratory were based on the blueprints of a laboratory of the same name operating at the French nuclear center in Grenoble. The design of the SAR station was based on the SAR facility at the French nuclear center in Marcoule.

The Technicatome Company, specializing in the establishment of research nuclear reactors, was selected as the prime contractor for the French nuclear project in Iraq. The CERBAG Corporation (Centre d'Études et Recherche BAGhdad – the Baghdad study & research center) established by Technicatome was augmented by other companies that were to serve as sub-contractors: Bouygues – construction operations and civil engineering; CNIM – a company engaged primarily in shipbuilding but also specializing in metal work in various fields, including the manufacturing of nuclear reactor cores; COMSIP – installation of electrical, electronics and control systems; ROBATEL – piping installations, and S.G.T.N. (Saint Gobain Techniques Nouvelles), a specialist in the establishment of installations for treating irradiated nuclear fuel and separation of plutonium, that was placed in charge of the 'hot lab' and the systems for treating radioactive materials. Offices were purchased in Paris and Baghdad for the CERBAG Corporation. Additionally, at the same time as the construction of the Osirak installations at the al-Tawita center, the al-Ashtar residential neighborhood was built about 2 kilometers from the Osirak site. This neighborhood was intended to provide accommodations for about 2,000 French employees.

The details of the framework agreement regarding the establishment of the Osirak nuclear facility were initially a closely guarded secret in France, but within months they were leaked to the media. Following the revelations, various parties in France protested against the agreement, but the French government ignored those protests. Among the most prominent protesters was Miriam Aberdamm, head of Technicatome's information center. She was particularly shocked because as a 10 year old Jewish child she and her family had fled Germany to France during the Holocaust (Nakdimon, Tammuz in Flames).

At the same time, in 1979, the Snia Techint Company of Italy started building an additional nuclear reactor inside the nuclear research facility in al-Tawita, after a nuclear cooperation agreement "for peaceful purposes" signed in 1976 between the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission and its Italian counterpart, CNEN (Comitato Nazionale per l'Energia). The Italian project was also intended to fit into Iraq's plans to develop a military nuclear capability. This project included the following elements: THFCER (Technological Hall for Chemical Engineering Research) – a cover name for a 'hot lab'; FFL (Fuel Fabrication Laboratory); THTM (Technological Hall for Testing Materials) and RPL (Radioisotope Production Laboratory).

The Preparations

The Israeli intelligence community did not rest on its laurels. Once the agreement between France and Iraq became public knowledge, it harnessed the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose representatives conveyed Israel's protest to the Government of France and asked for clarifications regarding the particulars of the agreement. By that time, Israeli intelligence had compiled information about Project Osirak, based on the initial design submitted to the Iraqi authorities. The French Government did its best to appease the Israelis and convince them that their cooperation with Iraq was "for peaceful purposes". Among other things, France announced in 1977 that they had developed a new type of nuclear fuel named "Caramel". It contained uranium enriched to 7.5% that would be suitable for fueling the Tammuz reactors, as an alternative to the original fuel which contained uranium enriched to a military grade of 93%. Israeli experts realized that the French proposal was no more than a smokescreen: firstly, because the development of the "Caramel" fuel was expected to be completed only in a few years' time, after the reactors have already been delivered to Iraq and fueled with the original fuel; and secondly, because the option of utilizing Tammuz-1 to produce plutonium remained valid. In any case, the "Caramel" plan wasmet with outright Iraqi rejection.

As time passed, Israeli intelligence acquired additional evidence of the military aspects of the Iraqi nuclear program. Nahum Admoni, who served as deputy head of Israel's Mossad during the relevant period, revealed in an interview to the Walla Internet portal (Yossi Melman, August 15, 2012) some of the details about the preparations of the Israeli intelligence community for the attack against Osirak. According to Admoni, he headed a work group within the Israeli intelligence community called "New Era", that was charged with the task of collecting and evaluating information regarding the Iraqi nuclear facility for the purpose of preventing its establishment. The group consisted of Mossad operatives, military intelligence officers and scientists from the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. The intelligence officer who was ordered to report to his unit on the eve of the holiday of Pentecost (July 7, 1981) in order to assess the results of Operation Opera was a member of that group. He had become involved in the Osirak issue in late 1976.

The first indicator that Project Osirak was materializing was the invitation of senior scientists and members of the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission, to France to discuss the issue of Osirak. Later on, in mid-1977, visual intelligence was obtained which indicated that earth-moving works at the project site had begun. The information received even included the project plan. The location of the Tammuz reactor building was highly conspicuous – at the expected position of the building, the earth was excavated vertically. The visual information received became very useful as of mid-1977, as the subsequent layout and identification of the building and facility setup of Iraq's nuclear research center at al-Tawita was based upon it.

A highly important stage in the development of a methodical, structured setup for an intelligence attack against Project Osirak involved the charting of all elements in France and Iraq that could be linked to the project, followed by a particularistic allocation of the intelligence gathering resources in accordance with the characteristics and capabilities of each intelligence agency within the Israeli intelligence community. The information was concentrated in a manual containing dozens of pages that the technical section of the IDF Intelligence Directorate disseminated to all intelligence agencies.

The Mossad played a major role in the intelligence gathering effort, especially as Nahum Admoni headed the "New Era" team, but the contribution made by Intelligence Unit 8200 in the field of SigInt (Signal Intelligence) was highly significant, too. As far back as early 1977, a close cooperative alliance had been established between Unit 8200 and the technical section of the IDF Intelligence Directorate in connection with the Osirak issue. One preliminary reflection of that cooperation was the compilation of a glossary of key words that would enable the SigInt unit to intercept telegrams that were relevant to Project Osirak out of the massive amount of international telegraphy traffic. The glossary, which had initially contained words of technical significance such as "nuclear" or "atomic" was quickly refined. The fact that Western companies preferred to purchase teleprinters (teletypewriters) for their offices instead of relying on the telegraphy services of the local postal authorities made a major contribution to that refinement. Each company was allowed to have a telex number of its own. From an intelligence point of view, this had two positive results. Firstly, the use of international telegraphy increased significantly; secondly, some of the technical words in the glossary could be converted to telex numbers, which were more effective. Subsequently, Unit 8200 and the technical section developed another cooperative alliance when they compiled a glossary for intercepting telephone calls, with the emphasis placed on calls between Baghdad and Paris, an effort which also yielded a massive amount of information. This effort led to an urgent need for mobilizing and concentrating all of the French-speaking individuals within the intelligence community and assigning them to the task of transcribing and interpreting the intercepted telephone calls. The synergy that emerged from the cooperative effort of Unit 8200, the Mossad and the technical section made it possible to pinpoint precise intelligence gathering objectives.

The analysts of the IDF Intelligence Directorate faced a situation of "rich people's problems". Out of the reports transmitted, they learned about the progress of the work at each of the facilities under construction. One particular anecdote is representative of those days: sometime in early 1980, an intercepted telegram indicated that a welding machine had been misplaced somewhere within the building of the Tammuz reactors, and none of the workers was able to find it. Theoretically, the analysts of the IDF Intelligence Directorate could have sent a telegram informing the reporting party of the room where the welding machine was actually located.

It was abundantly clear to all of the members of the "New Era" forum that collecting and analyzing intelligence regarding the Iraqi nuclear effort were not a goal in itself, and that the goal was to assemble a "Made in Israel" capability to neutralize the threat. It was also clear that the substantial economic rewards that France and Italy expected to gain by entering the Iraqi market would override any moral considerations, and that Israel's protests to the governments of those countries would not stop the nuclear aid they were extending to Iraq. In any case, even if the protests of the Israeli Government on the diplomatic level failed, at least they provided the justification for the subsequent counter operations.

In an interview he granted a few years ago to Yossi Melman, Nahum Admoni spoke about covert operations that were reported in the media and that foreign sources attributed to Israel. One of the operations involved the blowing up of the core of the Tammuz reactor on April 6, 1979. Following completion of the manufacturing process, the reactor core was stored in a hangar at the CNIM plant in Toulon-Sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean shore, in preparation for shipping to Iraq. An unknown organization presenting itself as a group of "green" environmental activists assumed responsibility for the sabotage. According to various reports, the reactor core had not been completely destroyed, and the French reached an agreement with the Iraqis regarding the prompt repair of the damaged equipment.

Shortly after the Israeli intelligence community obtained details of the explosion and its results, a decision was made to further exploit the situation and delay the core's shipment to Iraq. Messages were sent to Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis had serious doubts before they accepted the French offer, and these doubts had probably led to a further delay in the timetable of the completion of the Tammuz reactors. Information about this particular anecdote has not been published to this date.

Moreover, according to Nakdimon's book, Dr. Yahia al-Mashad (an Egyptian nuclear scientist recruited by Iraq and appointed to a senior position in their nuclear program) was assassinated on June 14, 1980 at his hotel in Paris, while visiting the French nuclear center at Fontenay-aux-Roses. Another senior official of the Iraqi nuclear system who died 3 months later "under similar circumstances" (ostensibly by poisoning) while staying in Paris was Abd al-Rahman Rasoul. Some sources claimed that the Mossad was responsible for those assassinations. Additionally, in August 1980, the employees of the French companies involved in the Iraqi nuclear project received letters threatening their lives unless they left Iraq, and some of those employees did, indeed, return to their country. Consequently, on September 22, Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosen was summoned to the Quai d'Orsay (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs). He was told circuitously that France thought Israel was behind the threatening letters, and that they should be stopped. In any case, as a result of the departure of the French workers, work at the Osirak site was discontinued for several months.

The objective of the "New Era" forum was to stage a counter operation which, if possible, should completely stop Project Osirak. When it was realized that a covert counter operation was impossible, the options for a military counter operation were examined. Initially, as Nahum Admoni recounted, the option of a ground operation by special operations units was considered, but was rejected in a discussion at the 'Pit' chaired by Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan. This option was rejected as it lacked operational feasibility, as it was feared that the Israeli force would become entangled, as the defenses around the Iraqi nuclear facility in al-Tawita had been reinforced. The officer from the technical section (the same officer who was sent to the "Pit" on the eve of the holiday of Pentecost in 1981 in order to assess the results of Operation Opera) attended that discussion. Consequently, in early 1980, Minister of Defense Ezer Weizman decided to take the option of having the Iraqi nuclear facility bombed from the air by IAF.

The IAF Enters

The above notwithstanding, at a discussion conducted in Ezer Weizman's office a while later, Weizman decided to suspend the operation. The intelligence officer from the technical section had been summoned to attend this discussion, too, but at the very last moment, as he was a relatively junior officer, he was asked to remain on standby in the office of Mordechai Tzipori, deputy minister of defense, until he would be called in. To his bitter disappointment, after waiting for a long time, he was told that he was no longer needed, as Defense Minister Weizman decided to call off the operation. As everyone knows, however, nothing is irreversible until the final act has been played out. On May 18, 1980, Ezer Weizman resigned his position as Minister of Defense owing to serious disagreements with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Begin, who stepped in as acting Minister of Defense, decided to order IAF to renew their preparations for the operation which, at this point, was code-named "Ammunition Hill".

By this time, as far as the technical section of the IDF Intelligence Directorate was concerned, most of the work had already been completed. All that remained was to keep the national and military leaders and IAF current on all possible developments.

A high degree of importance was assigned to obtaining detailed, accurate information regarding the structure and layout of the Tammuz nuclear reactors. The intelligence officer had often raised the issue of the need for information regarding the thickness of the walls inside the reactor, and in particular the thickness of the concrete walls of the spent fuel pool. Indeed, over the course of 1980, the required information was obtained.

Among other things, the intelligence officer analyzed the times of the telephone calls conducted, in terms of the day of the week and the time of day. He reached the conclusion that on Fridays and Saturdays almost no activity took place at the Osirak site, while on Sundays activity did take place there, although on a limited scale. He submitted these findings to the analysis division of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, but he never found out whether that information proved useful in any way. Operation Opera was staged on a Sunday, and one of the French engineers working at the site was killed in the bombing.

The technical section was subsequently requested to submit the drawings and data of the Iraqi nuclear facility in al-Tawita to the operations research branch of IAF (headed at the time by Major Itzhak Ben-Israel, who subsequently advanced all the way up to the rank of major-general) so that they may evaluate the amount and characteristics of the ordnance the fighters would have to drop on the Osirak facility in order to eliminate the site.

Later on, current information was required regarding the timetable for the completion of the construction of the nuclear facility, and in particular with regard to the shipping of the nuclear fuel to Iraq. Eventually, the landing of an Iraqi transport aircraft at an airport close to the French nuclear center in Cadarache was spotted in real time. That aircraft airlifted the nuclear fuel to Iraq.

The most critical information required by the Israeli national and military leaders referred to the time when the Tammuz-1 reactor was expected to become 'hot' (the time when the nuclear burn-up of the fuel in the reactor would begin). There were concerns about possible radioactive emissions from the reactor if it were bombed after it had become 'hot', which could harm the local population. These concerns addressed the moral aspect as well as the severe political damage the State of Israel could sustain as a result. According to the intelligence bulletin disseminated by the technical section, the reactor was to become 'hot' by July 1981.

Eventually, on the eve of the holiday of Pentecost, the operation was staged and succeeded beyond all expectations, despite all of the concerns of the intelligence community and the Government of Israel at the time.

A Doctrinal Milestone

The delivery of US-made F-16 fighters originally intended for the Iranian Air Force to Israel at the appropriate time contributed to the successful execution of the operation without losses and malfunctions. The appropriate time had presented itself, in retrospect, owing to the delay in the timetable of Project Osirak pursuant to the Tammuz-1 reactor core having been sabotaged on April 6, 1979, before it was shipped to Iraq. This could indicate the significance of every small delay with regard to issues of strategic threats.

With regard to the future, Operation Opera was a milestone in Israeli doctrine – the elimination of any nuclear threat to Israel's existence.

The operation also had international strategic implications. Firstly, it heightened the issue of the non-proliferation of technologies that may be used to develop weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, with regard to the Middle Eastern aspect, it suggested that if Iraq had possessed nuclear weapons at the time of the invasion of the Iraqi Army into Kuwait prior to the First Gulf War, that war would have been completely different.

In conclusion, the deafening roar of jet engines will defeat the threats imposed on the State of Israel, but just like back then, it would be preceded by many days of covert intelligence gathering and the clicking of the computer keyboards of the intelligence analysts. 

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligence community as a senior researcher and analyst.

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