In World War II’s aftermath, MI5 turned to fight a new threat. It wasn’t the Soviets. It was bombers from Jerusalem.
The years after World War II were not kind to Britain’s intelligence services — especially MI5, its domestic counterintelligence and security agency. In the name of austerity, funding of the nation’s intelligence services was slashed, their emergency wartime powers removed, and their staff numbers drastically reduced. MI5’s ranks were reduced from 350 officers at its height in 1943, to just a hundred in 1946. Its administrative records reveal that it was forced to start buying cheaper ink and paper, and its officers were instructed to type reports on both sides of paper to save money. And there were some serious discussions within the government, as there had been after World War I, about shutting MI5 down altogether. Unfortunately for MI5, in the post-war years it faced the worst possible combination of circumstances: reduced resources, but increased responsibilities. After the war Britain had more territories under its control than at any point in its history, and MI5 was responsible for security intelligence in all British territories.
But MI5’s most urgent threat lay not in its diminished resources, nor from its new Soviet enemy. Recently declassified intelligence records reveal that at the end of the war the main priority for MI5 was the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, specifically from the two main Zionist terrorist groups operating in the Mandate of Palestine, which had been placed under British control in 1921. They were called the Irgun Zevai Leumi (“National Military Organization,” or the Irgun for short) and the Lehi (an acronym in Hebrew for “Freedom Fighters of Israel”), which the British also termed the “Stern Gang,” after its founding leader, Avraham Stern. The Irgun and the Stern Gang believed that British policies in Palestine in the post-war years — blocking the creation of an independent Jewish state — legitimized the use of violence against British targets. MI5’s involvement with counterterrorism, which preoccupies it down to the present day, arose in the immediate post-war years when it dealt with the Irgun and Stern Gang.
MI5’s involvement in dealing with Zionist terrorism offers a striking new interpretation of the history of the early Cold War. For the entire duration of the Cold War, the overwhelming priority for the intelligence services of Britain and other Western powers would lie with counterespionage, but as we can now see, in the crucial transition period from World War to Cold War, MI5 was instead primarily concerned with counterterrorism.
As World War II came to a close, MI5 received a stream of intelligence reports warning that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were not just planning violence in the Mandate of Palestine, but were also plotting to launch attacks inside Britain. In April 1945 an urgent cable from MI5’s outfit in the Middle East, SIME, warned that Victory in Europe (VE-Day) would be a D-Day for Jewish terrorists in the Middle East. Then, in the spring and summer of 1946, coinciding with a sharp escalation of anti-British violence in Palestine, MI5 received apparently reliable reports from SIME that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to send five terrorist “cells” to London, “to work on IRA lines.” To use their own words, the terrorists intended to “beat the dog in his own kennel.” The SIME reports were derived from the interrogation of captured Irgun and Stern Gang fighters, from local police agents in Palestine, and from liaisons with official Zionist political groups like the Jewish Agency. They stated that among the targets for assassination were Britain’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was regarded as the main obstacle to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East, and the prime minister himself. MI5’s new director-general, Sir Percy Sillitoe, was so alarmed that in August 1946 he personally briefed the prime minister on the situation, warning him that an assassination campaign in Britain had to be considered a real possibility, and that his own name was known to be on a Stern Gang hit list.
The Irgun and the Stern Gang’s wartime track record ensured that MI5 took these warnings seriously. In November 1944 the Stern Gang had assassinated the British minister for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, while he was returning to his rented villa after a luncheon engagement in Cairo. Moyne’s murder was followed by an escalation of violence in Palestine, with incidents against the British and Irgun and Stern Gang fighters being followed by bloody reprisals. In mid-June 1946, after the Irgun launched a wave of attacks, bombing five trains and 10 of the 11 bridges connecting Palestine to neighboring states, London’s restraint finally broke. British forces conducted mass arrests across Palestine (codenamed Operation Agatha), culminating on June 29 — a day known as “Black Sabbath” because it was a Saturday — with the detention of more than 2,700 Zionist leaders and minor officials, as well as officers of the official Jewish defense force (Haganah) and its crack commandos (Palmach). None of the important Irgun or Stern Gang leaders was caught in the dragnet, and its result was merely to goad them into even more violent counteractions. On July 22, the Irgun dealt a devastating blow, codenamed Operation Chick, to the heart of British rule in Palestine when it bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the offices of British officialdom in the Mandate, as well as serving as the headquarters of the British Army in Palestine.
The bombing was planned by the leader of the Irgun, Menachem Begin, later to be the sixth prime minister of Israel and the joint winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. On the morning of July 22, six young Irgun members entered the hotel disguised as Arabs, carrying milk churns packed with 500 pounds of explosives. At 12:37 p.m. the bombs exploded, ripping the facade from the southwest corner of the building. This caused the collapse of several floors in the hotel, resulting in the deaths of 91 people. In terms of fatalities, the King David Hotel bombing was one of the worst terrorist atrocities inflicted on the British in the twentieth century. It was also a direct attack on British intelligence and counterterrorist efforts in Palestine: both MI5 and SIS — the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 — had stations in the hotel.
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