An Eye for an Eye The Anatomy of Mossad's Dubai Operation
In the spring of 1989, a Palestinian terrorist murdered an Israeli soldier. Twenty years later in Dubai, the Israeli secret service agency Mossad avenged the killing. The operation succeeded, but nevertheless has become a fiasco. SPIEGEL has reconstructed the attack. By SPIEGEL Staff
He knew that he was a dead man. From the moment he shot the Israeli soldier sitting on the car seat behind him in the face, he knew that they would get him sooner or later.
For Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, it would take 20 years for that day to come. At about noon on Jan. 20, 2010, employees at the Al Bustan Rotana airport hotel in Dubai opened the door of room 230 to find the body of a man on the bed. According to the death certificate, the cause of death was "brain hemorrhage."
At the time, no one knew who exactly the dead man was. Mabhouh was considered to be the chief weapons negotiator for Hamas, the Palestinian organization's main contact to Tehran and the logistician behind rocket attacks on Israel coming from the Gaza Strip.
A man with a pedigree like that doesn't die of a brain hemorrhage. In fact, al-Mabhouh became a marked man long ago.
MONDAY, JAN. 18, 2010
More than 100,000 passengers arrive at Dubai International Airport every day. The emirate has become a popular vacation spot for those seeking a respite from winter in the northern hemisphere. The temperatures are summery, the hotels first-class and the shopping malls legendary. But the 27 passengers who arrived in the space of several hours on flights from various European cities had not come to Dubai to go shopping or for a winter break. Instead, they had a mission to fulfill.
Twelve of them had British passports, six had Irish passports, four each had French and Australian passports, and one had a German passport, issued to a Michael Bodenheimer by a registration office in Cologne.
Most of these 27 people were members of an elite unit of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, assigned to the riskiest missions, and to do work involving sabotage, espionage and assassinations. This elite unit is called "Caesarea," named after the ancient city in Palestine where a few leaders of the second Jewish insurrection against Rome were martyred.
The 27 people were waiting for another man, someone they knew was a dead man.
A few members of the Caesarea team had already been in Dubai earlier, in February, March and June of 2009, to observe "Plasma Screen," their code name for Mabhouh. They wanted to be sure that they were targeting the right man. During their previous visits, they also familiarized themselves with the door locks used in various hotels.
In July 1973, a Mossad commando unit had murdered a Moroccan waiter in the Norwegian city of Lillehammer, acting on the erroneous assumption that he was a terrorist with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Several agents were sent to prison, and Israel paid compensation to the man's surviving dependents. The agency's reputation suffered as a result of the incident, and Mossad leaders were determined not to allow anything like it to happen again.
Perhaps the choice of the code name for Mabhouh was likewise a mistake. After all, images of the "Plasma Screen" operation were soon flickering across thousands of flat-screen TVs around the world. At first, many questions remained unanswered and many details unresolved. One year later, after investigations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel, the United States and Europe, and after interviews were conducted with several participants, police officers and intelligence agencies, SPIEGEL is now able to reconstruct the key storylines that intersected in Dubai between Jan. 18 and 20, 2010.
One of these storylines is the German one. Michael Bodenheimer, who landed in Dubai at 12:14 a.m. on Jan. 19, had planned his arrival long before. The story of how he got his passport can be reconstructed with great precision. It's an important story, because it demonstrates that the Mossad was in fact behind what happened in the ensuing few hours.
On Sunday, March 29, 2009, two men arrived in Cologne on a Lufthansa flight from Tel Aviv. The men sought to avoid all contact with each other. They sat in different rows and waited in different lines at passport control. The men, according to their papers, were Alexander Varin and Michael Bodenheimer.
False Names, False Addresses
Varin and Bodenheimer had an appointment with a Cologne attorney the next morning. Varin, who referred to himself as a "crisis consultant," already knew the attorney, who had petitioned for German citizenship on behalf Michael's father, Hans Bodenheimer, allegedly a victim of the Nazi regime. Under the German constitution, those persecuted by the Nazis, as well as their children and grandchildren, can petition for repatriation.
The Israelis told the German attorney that Bodenheimer was born on July 14, 1967, in the Israeli village of Liman on the Lebanese border. The information was apparently false. No one in Liman knows a man named Bodenheimer. He also told the attorney that his last address prior to his move to Germany was in the Israeli city of Herzliya, in a four-story building at Yad Harutzim Street 7. There is an upscale kitchen design store on the ground floor of the building.
But the address also proved to be false. The name "Michael Budenheimer" appears among 19 names on a blue panel in the lobby. The name "Top Office" appears at the top of the panel.
According to its website, Top Office provides "virtual offices," among other services. "Have your company name displayed on the entrance sign," the site promises. When a SPIEGEL representative called Top Office, the woman answering the phone said her name was Iris, but she was unwilling to provide a surname. When the name Bodenheimer was mentioned, she ended the conversation. Two days later, the names "Michael Budenheimer" and "Top Office" had been removed from the panel in the lobby of the office building in Herzliya.
In Cologne, the German attorney filed the necessary documents in March 2009. When Bodenheimer and Varin returned three months later and checked into a Cologne hotel, the next mistake was made: Alexander Varin checked in under a different name, "Uri Brodsky." But he continued to use his old name, Alexander Varin, with the attorney. Confusing two different identities was an inexcusable mistake, and investigators with the German federal criminal police agency, the BKA, would quickly discover later that it was one and the same man using both names.
On June 17, 2009, Bodenheimer, in an effort to bolster his German identity, rented a small apartment at Eigelstein 85, in a rundown neighborhood near the main train station in Cologne. He told the landlord that he was a coach for a triathlon team, and he paid his rent in cash.
On June 18, 2009, Bodenheimer picked up his new German passport. He was now a citizen.
Seven months later, on Jan. 19, 2010, Bodenheimer was standing at the airport in Dubai. He and his fellow team members had been told a week earlier that their victim would arrive in Dubai the next day. Although they didn't know which hotel the man would check into, they did know that he would not be checking out again.
Everything was in place. All they had to do now was wait for their victim.