Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas weapons procurer who played a crucial role facilitating arms shipments from Iran to Gaza, was murdered in his Dubai hotel room on the night of January 19. Dubai police claim the assassination was a Mossad operation—the list of suspects now numbers 26—and basically all reporting agrees with that assessment. But there are also assorted oddities that suggest that the Mossad may not have done it, or at least not alone. The Palestinian Authority, several Arab governments, and maybe some elements within Hamas also wanted al-Mabhouh dead. The Mossad, per its usual practice, has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement.
For now, assume it was the Mossad—the rest of the world certainly does. Because the assassins used forgeries of other countries’ passports, those nations are ostensibly angry with Israel, and because the Mossad looks to have been unusually inept (among other things, the assassins were captured on Dubai’s extensive security-camera system), the intelligence agency’s reputation has ostensibly suffered. At the end of the day, though, the Mossad is way too useful to the West for serious diplomatic repercussions to follow (though some strains are possible). And—inept or not, harmed reputation or not, and Mossad or not—the mission was certainly accomplished: like Generalissimo Francisco Franco before him, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is still dead.
The reason, however, that this story has lept to the front pages of Israeli and British tabloids and received extensive media coverage around the world, including in the United States (and especially on The Scroll!), is the less geopolitically significant cloak-and-dagger element—less geopolitically significant, but totally awesome. Here’s a primer on that fun stuff.
HOW DID THEY DO IT?
At least one member of the assassination squad—which according to Judith Miller’s reporting for Tablet Magazine trailed al-Mabhouh’s movements on two previous visits to Dubai—was waiting for al-Mabhouh at the Dubai airport terminal when he flew in from Damascus (where he lived, along with much of Hamas’s senior leadership) on January 19. Security cameras captured two assassins, wearing fake beards and looking like typical European tourists, checking into his hotel immediately after he did, even riding up the elevator with him to watch him enter his room, Room 230. An hour later, the squad had ascertained that the room opposite his was unoccupied, booked it, and used it as their staging ground. That was Room 237—why, yes, that is also the room with the creepy old lady in The Shining.
At around 8 p.m. on January 19, someone tried to reprogam the lock to al-Mabhouh’s door. At 8:24, al-Mabhouh arrived at the hotel after spending several hours out and about. At 8:48, four assassins—big men—departed the hotel. Al-Mabhouh was discovered the next day at 1:30 p.m. Nothing indicated forced entry. And a “Do Not Disturb” sign hung on the door of Room 230.
How was al-Mabhouh killed? Reports had suggested a drug-induced heart attack, others electrocution followed by asphyxiation, and still others just asphyxiation. We could always be pretty sure that he did not succumb to cancer, as Hamas initially claimed on January 20, when his corpse was first discovered.
Only yesterday did Dubai police announce that al-Mabhouh was injected with a muscle relaxant and then suffocated.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PASSPORTS?
The 26 suspects used passports from Britain, Ireland, France, Australia, and Germany. (Those entering Dubai with Israeli passports are, presumably, automatically red-flagged; travelers from those countries are not.) Most if not all of these were forgeries, though at least the single German one appears to be real. Most carried the names of real, innocent Israeli residents, usually ones who were actually, say, dual British-Israeli citizens and carried British passports. (Some of the real-life people are pissed, but at least one is amused.) The pictures on the passports (which are now in the public record—see here) are not pictures of those named on the passports. Instead, they are doctored pictures that resemble the assassins who held them enough that they were able to get past customs, but not so much that we can easily identify them now. In other words: well done, whoever you are.
BUT MAYBE IT WASN’T THE MOSSAD?
The assassins’ fake passports implicated innocent Israelis—would the Mossad really want to do that? Two of the killers, both holding fake Australian passports, reportedly escaped to Iran afterward, which you would not think would be the most hospitable place for two Mossad assassins on the lam. (Yesterday, we learned that two others entered the United States soon after the killing. That sounds more like it.) And two former Fatah security personnel connected to powerful P.A. official Muhammed Dahlan, who has in the past worked with covert U.S. forces to try to topple Hamas’s Gaza leadership, have also been arrested in connection with the plot.
Then there’s al-Mabhouh. The guy spent two decades wanted by the Mossad for the 1989 killing of two Israeli soldiers. The Egyptian and Jordanian authorities, to say nothing of the Palestinian Authority (which considers Hamas an enemy almost as much as Israel does), had it in for him, too. (Hamas’s initial investigation concluded that al-Mabhouh was killed by an Arab government.) In other words, this is someone used to keeping an anonymous profile. He was given to traveling in disguise, complete with colored contact lenses; it’s even rumored that he had cosmetic surgery so as to permit anonymity.
Given all this, he was astonishingly careless. He told an aide (since arrested) and his family of his travel plans, in detail. He traveled under his own name, and without bodyguards—a rarity for him. Allegedly, the bodyguards couldn’t get plane tickets. (Raise your hand if you remember the part in The Godfather when Michael’s two bodyguards suddenly flee from the front of his house in Sicily, and that’s how Michael knows his car’s ignition has been wired.)
All of this points to the prospect that, whether institutional or individual, something or someone that was not the Mossad nonetheless colluded with the Mossad in the killing. That is, assuming it was the Mossad that killed him.
BUT IT WAS MOSSAD, RIGHT?
That’s the smart money. It’s not just the clean method of dispatching the target (say what you want about the assassins appearing on the Dubai cameras, that we didn’t know how al-Mabhouh was killed until yesterday says something about the professionalism of his killers); or the way al-Mabhouh’s death fits perfectly into the Mossad’s pattern of assassinating Israel’s enemies; or Judith Miller’s report that it was the Mossad, The Times of London’s report that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally approved the job, and the Dubai police chief’s assertion that he is “99 percent” sure it was Mossad, followed by his claim that he possesses DNA evidence of at least one assassin. It’s all of the above.
There are two major aspects of the job that were uncharacteristic of the Mossad: first, being exposed as they have been, and, second, sending 26 people to do the job instead of, like, three. The former fact can be explained simply by Dubai’s having an incredibly extensive security-camera system, so that not getting picked up on it would be extremely difficult; and in fact, the assassins gave every indication of knowing they were probably being taped. The large list of suspects could be explained, as Haaretz spy correspondent Yossi Melman suggested, as the Dubai police chief’s deliberately throwing out false or tenuous evidence. For example, the Mossad agents escaping to Iran: is this something that did not happen, but the Dubai police chief wants us to think happened? Or that Mossad wants us to think happened? Or maybe this was just a really complicated job, one that happened to require the skills of over two dozen operatives?
To believe that it was not the Mossad, you must believe that some country or entity other than Israel had: a motive to assassinate al-Mabhouh strong enough to trump fears of being implicated (while also knowing it was so valuable to the rest of the world that diplomatic consquences would be minimal); the information on which dual British-Israeli citizens carry British passports; the manpower and money to orchestrate an extensive, months-long, complex operation; and the training and expertise to stalk and stake out al-Mabhouh, kill him so that his death could not be confirmed for almost 24 hours and his murder could not be confirmed for over a week, and manage not to have a single agent, out of as many as 26, be apprehended. Could Egypt’s spies pull it off this well? Could the CIA, for that matter?