One should not speak ill of the dead, the Prophet Muhammad once intoned. But Mahmoud al-Zahar, 64, the leader of the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza Strip, is now forced to make a small exception. Sitting on the ground floor of his home in Gaza City's Tel al-Hawa neighborhood, he talks about his comrade Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was liquidated by a hit squad in a Dubai hotel on Jan. 20. How could al-Mabhouh have been so careless and booked his flights over the Internet, asks the co-founder of Hamas? "That was more than stupid."
Shortly after al-Mabhouh's death, when Hamas leaders began pointing the finger at Israel, many observers wrote it off as just another Middle East conspiracy theory. But following revelations by police in Dubai as well as their own investigations, governments in the West have little doubt that this was a Mossad hit.
Last week, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, told members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, that Mossad was apparently behind the Dubai operation.
This is also now an open secret in Israel, despite military censorship. A number of Israelis have identified acquaintances from the photos released of the 26 suspects who are thought to be involved in the operation. Karmel Shama, a member of parliament in the center-right Likud Party, even stood before the Knesset and praised the killing as a mitzvah, a religious commandment, adding that Mossad chief Meir Dagan had done "good work."
A Brazen Denial
But that didn't stop Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman from issuing a brazen denial during a conversation with his Irish counterpart at a meeting in Brussels last week, maintaining that it was all merely propaganda. "The Arabs have a tendency to blame Israel for anything that happens in the Middle East," he said.
In view of the results of the police investigation, however, statements by Israeli diplomats claiming that they had no explanation for the hit squad's use of foreign passports also show a good deal of chutzpah. In response to the affair, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has warned Israel that his country would regard any involvement in the forging or abuse of Australian passports for the killing of a Hamas militant as "not the act of a friend."
As details of the murder continue to emerge, it is becoming increasingly clear that the hit was planned well in advance -- and that by all appearances Germany played an important role in the logistics of the operation. In addition to looking into whether documents were fraudulently obtained, state prosecutors in Cologne have launched a murder investigation. Federal prosecutors have also initiated proceedings to determine whether a German citizen has been working for a foreign intelligence agency. The investigations are being coordinated by the Federal Prosecutor's Office in Karlsruhe.
The probe focuses primarily on a man named Michael Bodenheimer, supposedly born in Israel in 1967, who applied for a German passport last year -- and is allegedly one of the agents involved in the Dubai operation. Bodenheimer had a German law firm submit his application, which included his Israeli passport along with his parents' marriage certificate. Since his family had allegedly been persecuted by the Nazi regime, officials issued Bodenheimer a German passport on June 18, 2009.
Multiple Attempts in Dubai?
Mossad apparently used the document a couple of months before the Dubai operation. German investigations have revealed that back on Nov. 8, 2009, Bodenheimer flew from Frankfurt to Dubai, and then continued on to Hong Kong -- precisely the same route that he selected in January. Investigators presume that the trip in November was either a test run or a botched attempt to liquidate the Hamas operative. The fact that al-Mabhouh had earlier just barely survived an attempt to poison him in Dubai fits well with that theory.
Bodenheimer was in fact not traveling alone in November. According to the latest findings by police in Dubai, nine other suspected fellow agents also went to the emirate, and they traveled very similar routes to the ones that they used in January, when they finally struck.
One of the hubs used in November was also the international airport in Frankfurt. Two of the alleged agents flew from there on Emirates Flight EK 46 and landed shortly before midnight in Dubai.
German investigators are currently examining airline passenger lists, entry protocols and video surveillance tapes at Frankfurt Airport to determine what identities the agents used during their travels. After the assassination, Bodenheimer left Dubai together with five other members of the hit squad on Emirates flight EK 384 bound for Hong Kong, and then flew back to Frankfurt with one of the agents.
It's likely the Mossad calculated the risk that Dubai police might discover the passport fraud into its planning. As a precautionary measure, the Israeli agents lightly touched up the photos on their passports. This would allow them to pass unhindered through the controls, but also make them more difficult to identify later on. The team apparently felt so confident of their false identities that two of the spooks later even traveled from Dubai to Iran, a country that is normally off limits for Israelis.
An Affront to Germany
The Mossad operation is a particular affront to the Germans. Since last summer, current BND head Ernst Uhrlau has been acting at the behest of the Israeli government as a liaison between Jerusalem and Hamas. He sought the release of roughly a thousand Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis and, in return, Hamas was to set free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Palestinian militants in 2006.
The BND official was in Israel just a few days before Jan. 19 to discuss the next steps in the negotiations. By then the hit squad must have been already on its way to Dubai.
The BND negotiator also returned to the region following the murder in Dubai, but neither before nor after the assassination did his colleagues in Israeli intelligence brief him on their risky plot.
This marks the second time that the Germans have been snubbed. In late December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected at the last moment a detailed agreement that his negotiator Hagai Hadas had hammered out with Hamas via the German intelligence agency. BND head Uhrlau has admitted internally that he currently sees no chance of reaching an agreement in the Shalit case.
This sentiment was also echoed by Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. He said it's impossible to make an agreement with the infidels, and cited a line from the second Surah of the Koran: "Is it not so that every time they made a promise, some of them cast it aside?"
Zahar said it had been difficult to convince Khalid Mashaal, the exiled political leader of Hamas in Damascus, Syria, to approve the deal. Netanyahu's subsequent rejection seriously damaged his reputation within Hamas, says Zahar. "I have suffered a lot internally," he adds. "I am not ready to negotiate anymore."