by Dr Magnus Norell
The assassination of Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a luxury hotel in Dubai on January 19, has given a rare glimpse of the shadowy world of Intelligence work.
There are a lot of rumors and information swirling around what was, if nothing else, a very professionally executed operation. Most indications point to the Israeli Mossad being behind the operation; this is due both to the swift and highly professional execution of the operation – very few Intelligence agencies would be able to muster resources and personnel for such an operation – and to the fact that there is an on-going under-cover Intelligence war being conducted against Hamas by the Israelis.
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was one of the founders of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was reportedly in Dubai for a meeting — without security and body-guards — and stopped in Dubai before he was going on to Sudan (where, according to press-reports, a convoy smuggling weapons to Hamas was destroyed by the Israeli air-force last year) to meet with Iranian officials about prospective arms sales to Hamas. He was found dead on January 20. The Dubai police have released CCTV-footage of several of the suspects arriving in Dubai and from some of their movements inside the Bustan hotel. Back-tracking these people, the Dubai authorities were able, through this same CCTV-footage, to identify individuals and put out international arrest-warrants through Interpol. All suspects also attempted to alter their physical appearance in varying degrees. The demeanor of team members visible on the CCTV- footage also did not deviate at all from that of regular businesspeople or tourists, something that also indicates a high level of training and professionalism. From the footage, it is also clear that the suspects arriving before al-Mabhouh were split into several specialized teams, including several surveillance-teams that were able to stake al-Mabhouh, assuring the operations success.
After the killing, all the 11 identified individuals flew out of the Dubai International Airport between 2 and 10 hours after the murder. They flew to several different locations such as South Africa, Hong Kong and to Germany, France and Switzerland in Europe.
The team used real passports with faked photos and that has led to a diplomatic blowback against Israel with the UK, Ireland and France summoning Israeli envoys to ‘explain’ and ‘clarify’ what happened (Six of the perpetrators were Israelis born in the UK with dual citizenships for example). It goes without saying that these individuals had nothing to do with this operation (photos released by Dubai police show people with no resemblance to the real owners of the passport-numbers used) and in some instances they still had their passports; only the numbers on the passports had been compromised.
However, it is common knowledge that the use of real passports – sometimes stolen, sometimes borrowed – is an integral part of Intelligence work. With the introduction of biometric passports, the need to use real ones becomes even more necessary. So unless any more, and for Israel much more damaging, evidence is produced the summoning and diplomatic stirrings on the heels of this cause celébre, may not go beyond what we’ve seen so far (thus far, there is no evidence linking Israel to the killing). Furthermore, there are reliable reports that at least the UK knew about the operation before-hand (without being told the exact location or target of the operation) warning that British passports could be compromised. This is denied by British officials who insist they knew nothing beforehand.
Another interesting twist of the whole affair is everything that isn’t said. Usually, when something like this happens, Israel is quickly blamed. Not so this time. Not even Dubai officials have blamed Israel outright. And apart from the predictable accusations from Iran and Hamas, other Arab countries have been unusually restrained in commenting. In Egypt for example, the murder has barely been mentioned at all in the press, the story relegated to back-pages. Moreover, two Palestinians with ties to Palestinian President Abbas have been arrested in connection with the killing. Possibly, if these two Palestinians decide to spill the beans and opt to “confess” to their ties to Israel, it could provide a “smoking gun”. But even so, the consequences are unlikely to be too dramatic.
So was the operation a success or not? From the assassinator’s point of view it probably was: the operational goal was achieved; all the operators safely made it out of the country before anyone even knew what had happened; some of them were photographed but there is no guarantee that those photos actually show their real faces. They knew this was a possibility (and in today’s CCTV-infested world, it is difficult to completely avoid).
For Hamas, finally, it was a clear blow; one of their most trusted and influential leaders, with years of experience and connections to Iran, was killed. Furthermore, the fact that the operation was carried out so fast and expertly (the assassination team came into the country 14 hours before Mahmoud al-Mabhouh and 19 hours before the assassination, proving that the team had knowledge of al-Mabhouh’s travel plans beforehand), shows that some of Hamas most secretive and sensitive operations was penetrated and compromised. Hamas must now find out how its smuggling network was thus rolled up, before it can resume its operations. The attempts to keep Mahmoud al-Mabhouh identity secret failed and a key player in Hamas’ smuggling operations is dead. It is likely that Hamas will try and avenge his death with an operation directed against Israel as soon as it can, pointing to a possible drawback of the operation, even if it was a success.
Of course we may never be able to finally get to the whole truth of who killed Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, but one thing remain clear; a message – loud and clear – has been sent that no matter where and under what circumstances, operators and activists of Hamas will not be safe, not even in their most sensitive and secretive positions.