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Feb. 17 2010 - 1:38 pm | 1,287 views | 1 recommendation | 2 comments

Dubai assassination 101: A short guide to Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

The assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai has fascinated espionage geeks, Middle East-watchers and bored desk jockeys everywhere. We’re not going to give out the tired ”it’s like something out of Graham Greene/John le Carre” line, but hell… it’s true.

Admit it, you probably watched the CCTV of the assassins (above) by now.

Unfortunately, most people only have a little bit of background on the story. Apart from the fake passport angle and the “OMG! It’s the Mossad!” angle, not much has been in the media. So we’ve decided to remedy that.

Falafel Mafia and True/Slant proudly present: Dubai Assassination 101.

So who was Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, anyway?
Al-Mabhouh was a senior military commander in Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization that controls the Gaza Strip. He was a prominent figure in the Qassam Brigades, which sent suicide bombers into Israel during the Second Intifada and launched missile attacks on Israel afterwards. In the late 1980s, during the First Intifada, Mabhouh personally engineered the capture and killing of two Israeli soldiers. During the past few years, Mabhouh has lived abroad in Syria, where he was close to the Syrian branch of Hamas and engineered weapons purchases for the Gaza Strip. He was the subject of an assassination attempt three months ago that left him in a coma for more than day.

How did al-Mabhouh die?

On the evening of January 19, seven unknown individuals killed al-Mabhouh in room 230 of the five-star Al Bustan Rotana hotel. Al-Mabhouh arrived in Dubai from Damascus at 3:15pm without any bodyguards; Al-Mabhouh usually travels with multiple bodyguards. According to an Israeli newspaper, his bodyguards were late because they were booked on another flight. To us, that excuse sounds a bit strange.

Security cameras caught al-Mabhouh entering the Rotana that afternoon and departing sometime between 4:30pm and 5pm; time-stamps from the CCTV have not been made publicly available. Al-Mabhouh returned to the Rotana at 8:25pm; in the preceding hours he was either in a meeting at the Iranian consulate (again, another Israeli source) or meeting “with a Palestinian group.”

A team of either 17 individuals, traveling seperately on faked passports, trailed Al-Mabhouh from the airport to the hotel, where they broke into his room while he was away and then departed. The 17 spooks were divided into a surveillance squad and an assassination squad, who somehow managed to acquire/forge keys to his room. The team of assassins were checked into the room directly across from 230. Shortly after returning, Al-Mabhouh was killed. Signs of strangulation and electrocution were found at the scene.

Did the Israelis want to kill al-Mabhouh? Who else was gunning for him?
The Israelis wanted to kill al-Mabhouh; so did lots of other people. Al-Mabhouh admitted he was involved in killing two Israeli soldiers in 1989 and was one of the primary individuals involved in smuggling weapons into Gaza. Al-Mabhouh had extensive connections in international arms trading, an industry noted for mysterious deaths. Hamas’ bitter rival for control of Palestine, Fatah, has connections with several Middle Eastern and European intelligence agencies. Several regional powers such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are actively hostile to Hamas; Iran has also had rifts with Hamas members in the past and a track record of foreign assassinations. Apart from the suspects who were caught on CCTV, Dubai police are also investigating two Palestinians for the killing.

So what’s up with the fake passports?
The United Arab Emirates maintains strict border controls and passports
are collected at all hotels. Following the killing, Dubai police released the names of 11 suspects, along with their passport pictures. The suspects were all travelling on fake British, Irish, French and German passports. The very public move, which also includes an Interpol watch, shows that Dubai opted not to pursue an investigation through the usual diplomatic channels. In the passport pictures, the female agent is wearing a wig and several of the males are wearing fake glasses. All the passports were used for prior travel to Europe and Asia, indicating that they were printed on extremely well-made forgeries or on “blanks” supplied/stolen from multiple intelligence sources.

The passport pictures of the Dubai suspects

The passport pictures of the Dubai suspects

Strangely, most of the “British” suspects appear to have stolen their names from British residents of Israel. If the Mossad claim is real, why did they use the names of Britons in Israel — including dual citizens — when they just as easily could have found the names of ordinary Britons through, well, Google?

Where did all the CCTV footage come from?
After London, Dubai is the most surveillance camera-saturated city in
the world. The autocratic Emirate made an active decision to use surveillance cameras to fight crime. More than 1500 cameras are deployed by the Dubai police throughout the city and many more private cameras exist throughout the city that the police have access to footage from. No mall, tourist hotel or government facility in the emirate lacks surveillance cameras. In Dubai, these surveillance cameras — while appalling civil libertarians — have led to the capture of the killer of Lebanese pop star Suzanne Tanim and the capture of jewel thieves. One crime that was caught on surveillance camera in Dubai was almost a predecessor of this year’s al-Mabhouh killing: The assassination of a former Chechen rebel leader by killers believed to be associated with Russian intelligence.

So was it really the Mossad?
It could be. The Israeli intelligence agency certainly has the motives and the means. The modus operandi also fits prior Mossad operations. However, certain facts don’t add up. Mossad agents have had a long presence in the United Arab Emirates, which Israel has long held discrete economic and trade relations with. Presumably, had the Mossad been responsible, agents who had staked out the hotel prior would have been aware of the locations of both public and hidden CCTV cameras. The agents caught on camera, while highly professional, engaged in some odd behavior. The donning of fake beards and glasses in view of security cameras is one. Using the names of Israeli citizens for fake passports is another — what security agency would implicate their own citizens? Additionally, there is always the possibility of a false flag operation — where a foreign intelligence agency killed al-Mabhouh for their own purposes, while making it look like a Mossad killing.

However, even if the Mossad didn’t assassinate al-Mabhouh, they have nothing to lose by taking an ambiguous stance towards it. The killing adds to the agency’s mystique (which has been tarnished after several public foul-ups) and Israel has little to lose — save relations to Dubai — by taking implied credit for a daring assassination, even if they weren’t responsible. Or maybe the killer was just an Israeli journalist.

This story is a complicated one and we’d love to answer reader questions on it — just leave yours in the comments and we’ll (hopefully) shed some light.


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    About Me

    A New York-based journalist and blogger who has spent extensive time in the Middle East and is currently working on an MA thesis in Middle Eastern Studies. My thesis focuses on the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations and their coverage in the international media.

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    Contributor Since: July 2009
    Location:New York NY