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Getting to Know the Engineer: Hamas’s Military Capability Revealed

Dirar Abu Sisi in Israeli custody, April 4, 2011This one is straight out of le Carré.

On the evening of February 18, Dirar Abu Sisi, a 41-year-old engineer from Gaza and director of its sole power station, boarded a train in Kharkiv in the Ukraine, bound for Kiev. In the early hours of February 19, two men in civilian garb were seen by the train’s conductor and porter entering Abu Sisi’s compartment. Shortly thereafter, the men were observed escorting Abu Sisi off the train.

Abu Sisi vanished completely until eight days later, when he called his wife to tell her he was in a prison cell near Ashkelon, on the southern coast of Israel. Nothing more was heard until March 20, when Israel announced that Abu Sisi was being held in “administrative detention,” a British Mandate-era legal status generally employed with regard to security prisoners. The Ukrainian conductor and porter have retracted their statements and now claim to have seen nothing on the train, and the Ukrainian government has denied any involvement in either the capture or the rendition.

When Abu Sisi’s capture became public, the first wave of news indicated that he is thought to have information about the status of Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier who has been held hostage by Hamas for over four years. That may still turn out to be the case, but it appears that there is a great deal more to Dirar Abu Sisi.

Abu Sisi is believed to have been recruited into Hamas’ weapons developing committee in 2002. He quickly rose through the ranks, eventually running the committee. In 2009, following Operation Cast Lead, Hamas apparently decided to establish a military academy. Abu Sisi was given the task of setting it up and running it.

The creation of the academy is but one of many striking details to emerge from Abu Sisi’s interrogation. If the intelligence is to be believed, Hamas has developed a military capability on the level of what one might expect from an established country. They have moved well beyond gatherings in basements for lessons on how to build suicide belts. Over the past five years, their weapons capacity has apparently increased four-fold, and their military apparatus has evolved to the point that it entails not only brigades, battalions and special forces, but also an in-house defense industry. Abu Sisi’s skills are alleged to have been behind the rapid development of that industry.

The indication of in-house weapons manufacture is particularly interesting. As the Jerusalem Post suggests, that initiative might reflect a desire on Hamas’s part to “become independent one day of its patrons in Tehran and Damascus. It could also be a sign of Hamas concern that one day Israel, Egypt and the rest of the world will begin to take more effective steps to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza, meaning that its supply from Iran will slow down.”

Yesterday, Israel’s Southern District Prosecution in Beersheva handed down an indictment alleging that Abu Sisi — who emphatically denies any connection to Hamas — “was engaged in the development of missiles to be launched by Hamas, including increasing their range and ability to pierce steel so as to penetrate armored vehicles and thus strike at soldiers. Abu Sisi is accused of nine charges regarding activity in a terrorist organization, hundreds of counts of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and production of weaponry offenses.”

The indictment also names a Ukrainian professor at the Kharkov Military Engineering Academy, Konstantin Petrovich, as Abu Sisi’s mentor. Petrovich is identified as “an expert in Scud missile control systems,” and it is from him that Abu Sisi — who completed a doctorate in electrical engineering at Kharkov — allegedly “acquired extensive knowledge in missile development, control systems, propulsion and stabilization.”

The indictment alleges that under Abu Sisi’s direction, Hamas lengthened the range of its homemade Qassams from six to 22 kilometers, and the armor penetration capability of its anti-tank missiles from six to 26 centimeters. Abu Sisi is believed to have been developing a mortar shell that could penetrate meter-thick armor and damage a Merkava tank. The indictment claims, too, that Hamas has attempted to acquire Russian anti-aircraft missiles, as well as missiles that could hit Israeli naval vessels