Targeted Killing in Dubai A Mossad Operation Gone Awry?
The assassination of Hamas functionary Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is widely believed to have been the work of the Mossad. But why would Israel's legendary intelligence service allow the identity of its agents to be compromised? The affair looks set to damage the Mossad's reputation -- and unleash more bloodshed. By SPIEGEL staff.
It could have been Dubai's unofficial entry in the Berlin International Film Festival: A 27-minute reality thriller, edited from footage shot with two dozen surveillance cameras, with constantly shifting settings, close-ups and freeze frames, with subtitles artfully entering the frame from the edge and colorful hand-drawn circles à la Jean-Luc Godard. It was also a film that was significantly more suspenseful than most of the other entries in this year's festival.
What Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the 58-year-old police chief of Dubai, showed the public on Monday of last week was a previously unknown insight into the practice of "targeted killing," the hit squad-style murder of a political and military enemy. In this case, it was the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the presumed chief weapons buyer for the radical Islamist group Hamas, in a Dubai luxury hotel by a team of professional killers.
It was undoubtedly a premiere. Never before has an intelligence operation been documented with such detail and so soon after the act. Documented, that is -- but not cleared up.
'The Trickiest Case of My Career'
On Jan. 20, at 1:30 p.m., hotel employees opened the door to room 230 in the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel. The guest, al-Mabhouh, had not responded to a number of telephone calls. He had been seen walking through the lobby on the previous evening, carrying a bag containing a pair of shoes he had just bought. The door to room 230 was locked from the inside.
The guest was found dead. According to the death certificate issued by a doctor at the Rashid Hospital, al-Mabhouh had died of a brain hemorrhage. But it would soon become clear that the doctor's conclusion was somewhat premature.
Al-Mabhouh was murdered. The coroner, Dr. Fawzi Bin Omran, the head of the forensics department of the Dubai police and a man with 27 years of experience, took nine days to prove that al-Mabhouh's death was a crime. "It was the trickiest case of my career," he says.
Now, four weeks after the killing, the case is becoming really tricky, particularly for the leadership of the country where it now seems highly likely the killers are from. It is an assumption based on circumstantial evidence, although that evidence is very strong. According to SPIEGEL's inquiries in Israel, the elite Kidon unit of Israel's Mossad foreign intelligence agency conducted the operation. Initial reactions in Israel also suggest that this is the case. While the government in Jerusalem, true to form, has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations, the Israeli press celebrated al-Mabhouh's killing. Haaretz called the operation "professional," while a former member of the legendary Mossad called it "super-super professional."
But now the costs of the consequences of the spectacular operation are becoming apparent, and its impact on domestic and foreign policy is becoming clear. The faces of the 11 killers (out of a total of 18 members of the hit team), which the Dubai police chief presented in his video, are now known to the public. And now the agents, 10 men and one woman, can "not even go shopping without being recognized," says Ronen Bergman, an expert on Israeli intelligence.
At least six of the agents misused the passports and identities of Israeli citizens, who were completely unaware of this abuse. They are shocked and are demanding an investigation. By Wednesday of last week, the celebratory mood in Israel had evaporated. The daily Haaretz even called for the resignation of Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
Because these victims of identity theft are all people with dual Israeli and European citizenship, the governments of Britain, Ireland, France and Germany have also been drawn into the affair. Based on their almost unanimous reactions, it seems clear that they hold Israel responsible for the operation carried out by the "Dubai 11." London summoned the Israeli ambassador to appear at the Foreign Office. Member of Parliament Menzies Campbell said that "the Israeli government has some explaining to do," while Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the Dubai killing an "outrage."
Ireland was next, followed by France and, on Thursday, Germany, where Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle used unusually frank language when he said: "In light of the information revealed to date, I believe that a thorough investigation into the circumstances of the death of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is urgently needed."
Germany avoided summoning the Israeli ambassador, but Westerwelle's Middle East envoy, Andreas Michaelis, demanded that Jerusalem's envoy provide him with all information that could help shed light on the circumstances of the killing.