Assassination shows skilful planning


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TEL AVIV -- The obsessive concentration of the world press on the use of faked European passports in the killing of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai last month diverted attention from the operational aspects of this act. The lessons are now being studied by all intelligence services in the world.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/02/2010 (4663 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TEL AVIV — The obsessive concentration of the world press on the use of faked European passports in the killing of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai last month diverted attention from the operational aspects of this act. The lessons are now being studied by all intelligence services in the world.

The most important lesson is the penetration of Hamas, Syrian and Iranian security services. From information gathered from the media and other sources, it’s clear that the killers visited Dubai several times in the past and knew all the security arrangements in the country. They were aware, of course, of the videos and the sophisticated monitoring equipment in the airport and the various hotels. Hence, they took into consideration the possibility that their passport photos could be exposed.

But they trusted the skills of the professionals who specialize in creating fictional identities and different looks. The use of the false passports was dictated by the nature of the operation’s site. Dubai, a flourishing open city, has a border policy that granted the U.S., the European Union and other countries visa waivers and other facilities. Because of its location, Dubai is often used by foreign intelligence services as a “listening post” to Iran.

Like most of the Arab countries, Dubai doesn’t recognize Israel. However, like other countries in the Persian Gulf, Dubai is part of the western anti-terror coalition and as such allows low-level contacts with Israel. Israeli tourists carrying foreign passports and on their way to Asian destinations often stop at Dubai airport and frequent the magnificent duty-free stores that are considered among the cheapest in the world.

Now the target: Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, 50, is one of the founders of the Hamas military wing. He was arrested in the past by both Israel and Egypt for his terrorist activities in the Gaza Strip. After his release from an Israeli jail, he moved to Damascus, where he became the chief liaison with Iran. In this capacity, Mabhouh was involved in the shipment of one cargo that was unloaded in Sudan on its way by road to Egypt and Sinai.

The convoy of 17 trucks was destroyed in Sudan by the Israeli air force. Another interception was an arms-laden Iranian ship anchored in Dubai. Its arms containers were moved to another ship that sailed through the Suez Canal and was intercepted in the Mediterranean and its cargo was confiscated and unloaded in Cyprus.

This time, Mabhouh came to Dubai to organize another Iranian arms shipment to Gaza via Sudan. Mabhouh came to Dubai from Damascus carrying an Iraqi passport and with a false name. It was issued by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He was met at the airport by Hamas representative Nehrou Massoud and was spotted also by two former Hamas members in the Gaza Strip — Anouar Shheibar and Ahmad Hassanein. After the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in June 2007, the two moved to Dubai, where they are now employed by a local construction company.

Mabhouh made his own hotel reservation and asked for room 230 that has no balcony. Hotel Boustan al-Routana is located not far from the airport. After checking in, he took the elevator and was joined by four people, two wearing tennis outfits and carrying rackets, and two wearing baseball caps.

The head of the 11-member killing team, including one woman, carried a French passport and took a room adjacent to Mabhouh’s. The team consisted of six members carrying British passports, three Irish, one French and one German. They all came on Jan. 18, waiting for Mabhouh, who was expected on Jan. 19. They all had wigs, moustaches, beards and glasses.

After a short rest, Mabhouh left his hotel room for a meeting in central Dubai. He was followed by two members of the team. At the same time, four other members of the team, using a sophisticated electronic device, entered Mabhouh’s room and waited for his return. Mabhouh came back one hour later. When he entered his room, he was surprised by the four-member team that overpowered him instantly. He was dead within 10 minutes. With the aid of the same electronic device, they relocked the door from the interior and placed the Don’t Disturb sign on the door.

Together with the other members of the team, they hurried to the airport and were out of Dubai 19 hours after they came. The two former Hamas Palestinians, who are Dubai residents, left for Amman but were returned to Dubai by the Jordanian security services.

So how was Mabhouh’s death discovered so quickly? It was a pure accident. During the evening, Mabhouh’s wife in Damascus tried to reach him in vain. She wanted to talk to him before he continued his journey to Khartoum. Suspecting something bad had happened, she alerted Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al who, in turn, instructed Hamas representatives in Dubai to go to the hotel and check.

Together with the hotel’s manager and the security officer, they forced Mabhouh’s door. He was dead. A local autopsy detected signs of burns from a stun gun on his chest, under his ear and in his groin. Pathologists also discovered that his nose bled before he died. Blood was found also on the pillow that was apparently used to smother Mabhouh.

An objective analysis of the Dubai operation would lead to the conclusion that the benefits of Mabhouh’s killing outweigh the political cost. Despite the European demand for Israeli explanations, no one really believes that there will be any diplomatic consequences. All countries use fake passports in their anti-terror struggle and all will continue to use them in future.

There is also no operational damage. All 11 members of the team are safe and all will continue to be active, although with a slight change in their disguise.

Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent, based in Tel Aviv.

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