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Dubai killing shines unwelcome spotlight on Mossad

CCTV showing how Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was followed to his hotel room in Dubai (19 January 2009)
Suspects were filmed following Mahmoud al-Mabhouh to his hotel room in Dubai

By David Gritten
BBC News

In 1973, a Moroccan waiter working in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer was shot dead by agents of the Israeli foreign intelligence service, Mossad, who mistook him for Ali Hassan Salameh, a Palestinian behind an attack during the previous year's Munich Olympics in which 11 Israeli athletes died.

Two members of the hit squad were arrested the next day as they reused a getaway car to travel to the airport.

One of them, an inexperienced Danish-born volunteer, provided police with a paper trail that led to the capture and imprisonment of several of his comrades, and sparked a diplomatic incident.

Wanting to recoup the expenses he had incurred during the operation from his Mossad handlers, he had kept his receipts.

Thirty-seven years later, a paper trail - though this time electronic - has once again exposed the work of a group of assassins, pointed the finger of suspicion at Israel, and raised questions about the future of covert operations in foreign countries.

On Wednesday, the police in Dubai identified a further 15 suspects in the killing last month of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a leader of the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas, raising the number believed to have taken part to at least 26.

What the Dubai authorities are uncovering now is not just the assassination team, but probably the entire Mossad station
Bruce Riedel
Brookings Institution

As with the previous 11, investigators were able to give the names, nationalities and passport numbers the suspects had used, the photographs inside their fraudulent passports, and provide high-resolution CCTV footage showing what they had done.

Using immigration records and receipts from the credit cards used by 14 of the suspects, the authorities were also able to discover the movements of all 26 into and out of Dubai both during an earlier mission last year and around the time of Mr Mabhouh's death.

According to officials, the suspects flew into Dubai on board separate flights from Europe on 18 and 19 January. Five of them left after less than 24 hours on 19 January - when the killing took place - while the others departed the next day.

Dubai Police

Though the paper trail then appears to end, the names and details on the UK passports used by eight of the 12 suspects have so far turned out to belong to British-Israeli citizens living in Israel. All of them have denied involvement.

Even before the apparent link to Israel emerged, Hamas had blamed Mossad for Mr Mabhouh's death.

Then on 15 February, Dubai police chief Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan announced that he was nearly "100%" certain that Israeli agents had masterminded the killing.

The five Western countries whose passports were faked - the UK, Ireland, France, Germany and Australia - also reacted angrily and immediately demanded explanations from Israeli diplomats.

The Israeli diplomats replied that there was no proof of Mossad involvement, although they did not deny it, in line with their government's policy of "ambiguity".

'Couldn't be Israel'

Israel's media and former Mossad agents initially praised the agency for carrying out another successful assassination abroad, but soon Dubai revealed unprecedented information about the operation and it emerged that Israeli citizens had had their identities stolen.

Hamas supporters carry a poster of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was a founder of the military wing of Hamas

Some commentators have since gone so far as to question whether it was even a Mossad hit, citing contradictions in the initial reports of Mr Mabhouh's death, the large number of suspects, their inability to evade detection, and the apparent decision by two of them to travel by boat to Iran last year.

"Twenty-six agents, perhaps even 30, sent to assassinate one person? Granted if they could flee the scene by sea, how could one think that Mossad agents would take cover in Iran? I ask myself. Even if they have unprecedented self-confidence the likes of which are unknown?" wrote Yossi Melman in Haaretz.

A former Mossad agent, Rami Igra, also dismissed its involvement due to the assassins' failure to disable CCTV cameras at key moments and their use of passports belonging to foreign nationals living in Israel.

"It was so stupid, it couldn't be Israel," he said. "You don't go over the speed limit in a place where there are going to be cameras, because you are going to be photographed."

"The whole thing shows that whoever did it was very unprofessional."

'Long-term operation'

Some details about Mr Mabhouh's killing do, however, tally with past statements by retired Mossad agents with knowledge of the reprisals for the Munich attack.

They say the assassinations were carried out by large numbers of people, in stages. For instance, an investigation by the Norwegian government found 14 people had been involved in Lillehammer.

In my view, there was a gross underestimation of the reaction of the Dubai authorities given the UAE's close relationship with the West and the rather odious past activities of Mr Mabhouh
Michael Ross
Ex-Mossad covert operative

Once they knew where the mission would take place, the teams would go through practice runs in Israel and arrive at the location no more than a few days in advance, withdrawing as soon as it was over, they add.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, says Wednesday's revelations did not change his opinion that Israel was behind the assassination in Dubai.

"This most likely was a Mossad operation. All the signatures - European passports, the way the team moved quickly to leave the country - cumulatively paint a pretty convincing case," he told the BBC News website.

Mr Riedel says it would have been highly unusual for the hit squad to have visited Dubai using the stolen identities last year just for reconnaissance, as the police claim, and that this may have been an attempt to eliminate the Hamas leader that had failed.

He also doubted that all of the suspects had been in the Gulf just for one mission.

"What the Dubai authorities are uncovering now is not just the assassination team, but probably the entire Mossad station," he explains. "Dubai would be a perfect place to carry out not just a one-off operation, but a long-term one against Iran."

CCTV of new Hamas murder suspects

A retired officer for Mossad's covert-operations division, who writes under the pseudonym Michael Ross, agrees that there may have been more than one operation in motion in Dubai.

"If this is a Mossad operation, this is an unprecedented number of combatants deployed for an operation of any kind," he told the BBC News website.

"Given the relatively scant operational manpower resources available to Mossad, the general rule of thumb has always been, 'never send two when one is enough and never send three when two is enough'."

Mr Ross says the use of a mix of cloned, manufactured and authentic passports by the assassins "do not follow any document protocols that I recall". The use of credit cards from a US bank is also "very odd", he says, given the co-operation between Israel and the US.

"It would be disingenuous to say Israel wasn't involved in some fashion, but I think there are more aspects and international players involved in this case than are visible to the naked eye," he adds.

'Authentic' documents

The Dubai killing has also raised questions about the future of covert operations.

The game of espionage is not about to go out of business because of CCTV
Bruce Riedel
Brookings Institution

With the widespread introduction of CCTV, biometric identification data and interconnected immigration control centres, will agents be able to continue to fake passports and work abroad undetected as they could a decade ago?

Many countries' new passports have chips that hold easily verified data such as retina scans, which are both unique and unfakeable - though the chips may be faked. The data generated when someone takes a flight, crosses a border, uses a credit card or makes a call makes it increasingly easy to find them even if they change their identity.

"Biometrics pose a real problem for the use of alias identities by intelligence services. Officers travelling and operating under cover will have to make sure their documents are 'authentic'," says Mr Ross.

He believes the assassins did not anticipate that the Dubai authorities would be so comprehensive in their investigation or generate so much attention.

A man has his fingerprint scanned on a biometric check-in kiosk in the UK (2006)
Many countries' new passports have chips that hold easily verified data

"We live in the surveillance era and this is now an integral component of planning for modern intelligence-gathering and covert operations. No top-tier intelligence service conducts operational activity without first gathering all the necessary operational intelligence required - especially concerning existing security measures in place.

"In my view, there was a gross underestimation of the reaction of the Dubai authorities given the UAE's close relationship with the West and the rather odious past activities of Mr Mabhouh, who used no less than five alias identities himself."

Mr Riedel says Israel will not necessarily mind the adverse coverage, however, as it sends a clear message to militants that Mossad can target them wherever they are.

Intelligence agencies will simply find something to counter every technological advance, as they have in the past, he adds.

"The game of espionage is not about to go out of business because of CCTV."



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