Jerusalem - Israel's Best Kept Secret, The Super Spy Shlomo Barda
Jerusalem - This week, the government censor permitted the publication of the name of one of Israel’s mythical Mossad agents, a man of a thousand disguises, and author of some of Israel’s most daring exploits. The censor still doesn’t allow Shlomo Barda’s picture to be published, despite his passing away a year ago.
Who was Shlomo Barda? Many believed he was Egyptian, Syrian, and even Romanian, but in fact Barda was born in Libya in 1930 to a wealthy Jewish family that lived in Bengazi which maintained friendly, close ties with the local Arab populace. His father Raphael was a textile businessman who was forced to relocate with his family from his comfortable home to the poor Jewish ghetto after the Italians conquered Libya during World War II. The Jews occasionally organized protests against the Italians. On one occasion, a grenade was thrown at the Jewish protestors and Barda’s father was killed. Shlomo was only 14 at the time.
The trauma physically paralyzed the young Barda and it took him 2 years until he suddenly regained his mobility. He decided to leave his family and make aliya to Israel. With the help of a relative who was a government official, he received documents attesting that he was a British soldier. He leisurely took the train from Alexandria straight to Palestine. He immediately joined the Palmach “Harel” division, and received the nickname “Bengazi.”
Barda served as an air force technician after the State’s founding, and then joined the Tel Aviv police’s anti-drug unit due to his ability to speak Arabic. His mission was to catch drug smuggling originating in Jordan. Many times, he secretly entered the West Bank to confirm details of the transactions, establish ties and set the drug smugglers up for capture.
Realizing his potential, the Mossad offered him to join. In those days, the early 1960’s, Mossad agents had to prove their skill by getting anonymous restaurant clients to open up and reveal their personal and credit card details. After passing this test successfully, he was taken to a nearby Arab country where he waited in the lobby while his colleague went up to their room. By the time his colleague came down 20 minutes later, he was already joking with a group of army captains in the lobby like old friends.
Barda, they say, could be more Arab than an Arab. He was proficient in all the Arabic dialects, and was able to imitate both colloquial and literary Arabic, as well as the Egyptian, Lebanese, Damascene, Libyan and Baghdad dialects. He also knew French and Italian from home, and learned Romanian from his wife.
At the beginning of his career in the Mossad, he connected with Tzvike Malchin, the agent who captured Adolph Eichmann. A former Mossad agent says, “They were like a pot and a lid. Malchin would send Barda out on missions. He would give him orders in Yiddish and Barda would answer him in Arabic.”
Malchin and Barda belonged to the old generation of Mossad agents, whose main tools were their intuition, gut feelings, quick thinking and ability to improvise. Their work for the Mossad comprised their entire world. Malchin was the genius, inventor, and technical person who could open any lock of a safe or a door. Barda was the one who cleaned the grounds for Malchin’s team to do its work.
“Shlomo Barda was an astounding actor, a real artist,” one of his commanders recalls. “He could by himself change the reality on the ground and enable classified units to do their work without interference.”
Barda had a thousand disguises and could change identities like a chameleon. Once he arrived at a European airport and was stunned to see that his passport picture was very different than his appearance. The passport showed a blond man with blue eyes, while he was swarthy appearing. He left the passport control line, went to a side room and simply tore the passport into small pieces and ate it. Afterwards he complained that his passport was lost and somehow managed to get on the plane.
“To understand his amazing ability,” said a Mossad oldtimer, “imagine a group of thieves planning to rob a bank safe. They have only one problem: a guard is watching the room of safes. So they send someone to convince the guard to leave his watch. It sounds incredible, but that man is able to amiably convince the guard to leave his watch t and go to a local restaurant. Barda’s ability to do this enabled the Mossad to carry out many daring exploits. He could get people to act in ways that were completely opposite to their will.”
Another Mossad oldtimer describes him, “He had tremendous charisma combined with an Oriental mentality. His ability to take over the mind of his target was an immense advantage. He would get another person to act in a way that was risky to himself. Barda would work over his target carefully until he was ensnared. The main thing was to weave the web around him but the rest wasn’t that important. He didn’t take part in interrogations and extracting information.”
“The Mossad doesn’t have people like Barda anymore, for the simple reason that there is no more aliya from Arab countries. He was born there, he lived among Arabs and was familiar with them. You could say that he knew more about Arabs than Arabs know about themselves,” says one Mossad agent.
“When the Mossad was small, people would call by phone or send notes,” recalls a former senior agent. “Suddenly the Mossad became computerized and a large organization. Barda was somewhat lost. The world had changed, the Arabs too. We began to use him only for pinpointed activities.”
Barda had traveled on trains in Europe throughout his life. Suddenly a youth entered his traincar and offered to drink coffee with him. The youth slipped a drug into his coffee and then escaped with Barda’s wallet and suitcases. The youth probably didn’t know that he had preyed on a master spy, but at the end of the journey, the conductor noticed the fainted passenger and called emergency services. Police found a passport in his pocket, and called the Israeli embassy. A short investigation revealed that—miraculously—all the secret material he carried on him hadn’t been discovered. A hospital examination revealed that he had suffered a stroke while he was drugged.
In the hospital, he was visited by Mossad head Shabtai Shavit, who informed him he was going on pension. When Barda protested, Shavit told him, “I have no choice. I can’t send a doctor with you on every mission.”
Rehabilitation wasn’t successful, and Barda never returned to himself. For the rest of his life, he sorely missed his Mossad activity. He was only called to take part in one especially daring and dangerous mission during the 90’s, when the commander of the mission said, “No one but Barda can pull this off.” From this mission, Israel still enjoys fruits today.
It was Barda’s last mission, culminating a lifetime of danger and accomplishment.
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