An Eye for an Eye The Anatomy of Mossad's Dubai Operation
Part 3: Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, Late Morning
Unlike other intelligence agencies, the Mossad cannot provide its agents with real passports corresponding to a false identity. The primary countries in which it operates have no diplomatic relations with Israel. Even the most harmless-seeming tourists would be detained upon arrival if they were traveling on an Israeli passport. Instead, the Mossad usually uses the passports of Israelis with dual citizenship or forged passports from other countries.
Peter Elvinger and the members of his team checked into various hotels. All of their passports, with the exception of the German passport, were forged. They were operating like avatars, using stolen identities. The real people whose names were being used would later testify that they had been completely unaware of the operation.
The first part of the operation had succeeded. The Caesarea commando unit had put itself into position, safely and unnoticed. Elvinger and his team members paid their hotel expenses in cash or with prepaid money cards issued by Payoneer, a US company. This would prove to be a mistake in the "Plasma Screen" operation.
Because the Payoneer cards used by most of the 27 members of the commando unit are relatively rare in Dubai, investigators later managed to narrow down their list of suspects relatively quickly. The CEO of Payoneer, Yuval Tal, is a former member of an elite unit in the Israeli army.
The Same Contact Numbers
The commando unit made a second mistake when its members used intermediaries in Austria to communicate with one another. Under the system an agent would call a number in Vienna to be connected to another agent's mobile phone.
Although this was done to conceal calls, the system had a drawback. As soon as investigators had obtained the call list of one suspect, they could easily determine who else was using the same contact numbers in Austria.
Both the use of the prepaid cards and the telephone server in Vienna were not mistakes that would jeopardize the entire operation. But they would make it more difficult for the team members to cover their tracks. Furthermore, the UAE is not one of the so-called "base countries," where Mossad agents in trouble can take refuge in an Israeli embassy or get help from the intelligence agencies of Israel's allies.
The Emirates are referred to as a "target country" in intelligence jargon. If an agent's cover is blown there, he or she could face torture or even the death penalty. Given the risk, why were the Caesarea team members so careless?
They underestimated Dubai, and they underestimated a man whose office is on the sixth floor of the headquarters of the Dubai Police, about three kilometers (1.9 miles) from room 230 at the Al Bustan.
Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim is not a man who cares much for diplomacy. He is a gruff cop with a biting sense of humor and possessing the kind of self-confidence government officials have who enjoy the full support of their superiors. Tamim has only one superior: the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
At 19, Tamim graduated from the Royal Police Academy in Amman, Jordan, the most respected police academy in the Arab world. Ten years later, in 1980, he was appointed police chief of Dubai. Since then, the emirate has boomed more than almost any other part of the world. Lieutenant General Tamim's job has been to ensure that Dubai's boom could move forward without significant crime problems.
Planes take off and land by the minute in front of the plate-glass window in Tamim's office. Dubai is in a central location, roughly equidistant from Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. There are more Iranians and Pakistanis living there than natives of Dubai; the city has attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants from some of the world's most explosive regions. People are constantly coming and going, large amounts of money are at stake, and the Islamic banking system is a nightmare for any police detective. Tamim knows that Dubai has everything it takes to become the region's crime hub -- and he has made it his mission to prevent that from happening.
He has purchased the best available hardware and software in the United States. Government funding for surveillance systems is unlimited in the UAE, and to make things even easier for the police, no one worries about data privacy.
Not Even a Proxy War
"We know," he says, "that many Israelis come here with non-Israeli passports, and we treat them the way we treat anyone else. We protect their lives just as we protect the lives of others, and we don't concern ourselves with their religion. But we also don't want Dubai to become a third-party country where Israelis kill Palestinians."
Tamim sees police work as a craft. Ideologues of all stripes -- whether they are Arab ideologues, Marxists or Islamists -- disgust him. "If I were a Palestinian," he says, "I wouldn't support Fatah or Hamas."
There is no topic Tamim finds more interesting than Israel. The country that dealt such a devastating blow to the Arabs in 1967. That year, Tamim's 16th, is a benchmark for him. "The Jews resemble us much more closely, in terms of religion, language and many other respects, than the Europeans or the Americans," he says.
He says he even understands that the Jews must defend themselves, says Tamim, pointing out that millions of them were murdered in Europe. "(Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel) Nasser said that he intended to drive them into the sea," he says. "Okay, then they had a right to fight back. But today? We don't want war."
Not even a proxy war, and certainly not one outside his office door.
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