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02/23/2010 04:58 PM

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."

Identity Theft

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.

Is Mossad Taking Greater Risks?

Berlin is mainly interested in two questions. First, why did one of the presumed killers travel to Dubai with a German passport, issued in Cologne on June 18, 2009? Second, why was a senior Hamas official murdered at a time when the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, had been mediating a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas for months?

It is well known that, when Israel believes its security is threatened, it flaunts international law, ignores its allies and, as in the Dubai case, does not hesitate to offend moderate Arab countries. But there is something else that distinguishes the latest targeted killing from earlier cases. This time, the Mossad was apparently prepared to accept the possibility that the identities of its agents would be revealed. In fact, it was even willing to jeopardize the security of Israel's own citizens, whose very protection it cites as justification for its actions.

This amount of chutzpah raises important questions. Faced with the pressure of a growing conflict with Iran, is the Mossad taking even greater risks than before? Was the exposure of the agents merely a mistake, one that the Israelis were prepared to accept? Or could it be that the operation in Dubai wasn't the work of the Mossad but a false flag operation, as former Mossad agent Rafi Eitan, 83, one of the men who captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, speculates? According to Eitan, the only possible explanation for the fiasco is that "a foreign agency, an enemy of Israel, is trying to harm Israel."

But if Israel is behind the attack, as currently seems much more likely, and if the Mossad knowingly accepted the risks, the death of Mahmoud al-Mabhoud must have been very important to Jerusalem.

The Ideal Place to Commit a Crime

On Jan. 19, at 3:15 p.m., the Palestinian entered the United Arab Emirates through the Dubai airport. He arrived on board Emirates flight EK 912 from Damascus. He hadn't come to Dubai just to buy shoes.

Al-Mabhouh was one of the most wanted Hamas leaders. Israel added the 49-year-old's name to a death list in 1989, after al-Mabhouh, disguised as an Orthodox Jew, took part in the killing of two Israeli soldiers. He bragged about the killing in an interview with the Arab television network Al-Jazeera only 10 months ago. Al-Mabhouh was one of the founders of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, and he is believed to have played a central role in the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip.

On Jan. 19, 18 intelligence agents, disguised as tourists, also landed in Dubai. They too initially gave the appearance of having come to the emirate to visit its shopping malls.

The Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, which calls itself "one of the world's leading hotels," is particularly popular among transit passengers looking for a place to stay after arriving late at night. Travelers are constantly pulling their trolley cases across the polished marble floor in the lobby, where sounds are muffled by fountains and thick carpeting. The rooms on the third floor of the hotel are located along a narrow hallway with only one access point, making them easy to secure -- and an ideal place to commit a crime.

German Passport Was Real

On the same day as al-Mabhouh, two agents arrived in Dubai from Paris under the cover names Kevin Daveron and Gail Folliard, both carrying Irish passports. Daveron checked into the Emirates Towers hotel.

Peter Elvinger, who is believed to have been the head of the hit team, arrived in the early hours of Jan. 19. He was carrying a French passport, entered the country without any problems and took a room at another hotel. But while still at the airport, Elvinger met with a Palestinian living in Dubai, a former security officer with the Fatah movement, Hamas's enemy. The former Fatah officer was one of two Palestinians who would later be extradited from Jordan to Dubai, and he is now in pretrial detention. According to press reports, one of the two men admitted to having provided logistical support for the operation.

Four other teams of two agents apiece landed in Dubai, on flights from Rome and Frankfurt. It was an operation built on stolen and made-up identities. The individual perpetrators adopted the identities of other living individuals to commit the planned murder.

Those individuals include, at least, six uninvolved people with British and Israeli dual citizenship, who saw their pictures in the newspaper on the day after the Dubai film was released.

It does not appear to be the case, however, with a man who went by the name Michael Bodenheimer, born on July 15, 1967, who arrived in Dubai on the day of the assassination carrying a German passport. At first, German authorities assumed that the passport was a professional forgery. But further investigations revealed that the murder had apparently been planned much earlier than investigators initially believed.

A Serious Strain on German-Israeli Relations?

In the early summer of 2009, a man named Michael Bodenheimer went to the local residents' registration office in Cologne, where he applied for a new passport and a new identification card. He claimed that he was a German citizen, unmarried, who had been born in Israel. He invoked Article 116 of the Germany constitution, which permits individuals persecuted by the Nazi regime, as well as family members who were expatriated, to regain German citizenship. He presented the Cologne authorities with the supposed marriage certificate of his parents and an Israeli passport, issued in Tel Aviv in November 2008.

Bodenheimer provided the authorities with an address in Cologne's Eigelstein district. However his name is not listed on the mailbox at the address, a modest beige-colored apartment building. The building is in an area near the train station and has a high turnover of tenants -- the perfect place for someone who doesn't want to be noticed.

Bodenheimer claimed that his Israeli residence was in Herzliya, a city north of Tel Aviv. But the trail ends there, in the city's business district. Although Michael Bodenheimer is listed as the name of a company in the lobby of a modern, four-story office building, a security guard says that the company moved out half a year ago. As coincidence would have it, the Mossad headquarters is only one kilometer away.

Bodenheimer received his German papers on June 18, and it seems very likely that the assassination was completed with the help of an official German government document. Bodenheimer was apparently in charge of communications for the hit team. The Cologne public prosecutor's office launched an investigation on Friday into alleged document falsification. Federal prosecutors are considering initiating an investigation into possible activities by intelligence agents. Because of such investigations, the affair could expand into a serious strain on German-Israeli relations.

'No Problem, Sir'

The hit teams spent the afternoon of Jan. 18 deliberately trying to create confusion. They went shopping in the malls, and checked in and out of various hotels. It was an elaborate, carefully orchestrated way of placing the agents in position. The operation was coordinated through Austria. None of the teams contacted each other by telephone, and all of the agents used numbers provided by Austrian mobile phone provider T-Mobile.

Al-Mabhouh, a stocky man with a moustache, arrived at the Bustan Hotel at 3:25 p.m. He had developed a habit of turning around every few steps. Nevertheless, he didn't seem to notice that two guests carrying tennis rackets and with towels thrown over their shoulders crowded into the elevator with him as he was about to take it to the third floor.

The pretend tennis players noted the number of al-Mabhouh's room, 230. One of them typed it into his mobile phone, as well as the number of the room across the hallway, 237, and sent a text message containing the two numbers.

Elvinger, the presumed head of the operation, called the Bustan 20 minutes later from the business center at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and asked whether room 237 was available. "No problem, sir," the reservation agent replied. Then Elvinger booked his return flight to Munich for that same evening.

Al-Mabhouh spent his last afternoon in one of the city's large shopping malls. He met a few people whose identity has yet to be determined. When he returned to his hotel at 8:24 p.m., he waved a greeting to a man in the lobby.

A Ticket to China

Why was al-Mabhouh in Dubai? "I don't know," Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the Dubai police chief, later told SPIEGEL. Was he on his way to Iran? "Absolutely not. Why would he do that? There are three direct flights from Damascus to Tehran every day." Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who lives in Damascus, always travels directly, Tamim said.

But if he wasn't headed for Iran, where was al-Mabhouh going? "As far as I know," said Tamim, "he had a ticket to China and, from there, to Sudan -- or perhaps the other way around. Maybe he stopped here to relax. Certainly not to be killed."

The Hamas leader was shadowed all afternoon by people wearing the uniform of the typical Dubai tourist: baseball cap, shopping bag and T-shirt.

One of the surveillance cameras filmed Gail Folliard disappearing into an underground garage carrying a large number of shopping bags, only to reemerge without the bags. This may have been the way the group divided up the electroshock devices and electronic door-opening equipment.

Elvinger picked up the keycard for room 237 shortly after Mabhouh had left the hotel. He gave the card to Daveron and then left for the airport. The logistics had been set up, and now the machine was in full swing, prepared for the murder of one of Israel's most bitter enemies.

On the Israeli's Hit List

It can take months, or even years, for a man like al-Mabhouh to be added to the Israelis' hit list. Former Mossad agent Aaron Klein describes the decision-making process in his book "Striking Back," about the killing of the masterminds of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics:

First of all, Mossad, acting as a kind of unofficial public prosecutor, gathers information about terrorists who are personally responsible for the deaths of Israeli Jews. If the head of the Mossad believes that there is sufficient evident to justify liquidation, he notifies the prime minister and an informal group, previously known as "Committee X" in intelligence jargon, meets. In addition to the prime minister and the Mossad chief, the group usually includes the defense and foreign ministers, occasionally the interior minister and the head of the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet, and often the prime minister's adviser on terrorism.

Each case is handled individually and apparently not all cases are simply waved through. In fact, decisions have to be unanimous. Someone who once took part in the procedure likens it to a trial, with the Mossad chief in the role of prosecutor and the others acting, if not as defense attorneys, at least as skeptics.

After the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, legendary Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir announced a guideline to the Israel parliament, the Knesset, that would shape the country's future approach. Wherever an attack was being prepared, wherever people were planning the murders of Jews and Israelis, she said, "that is precisely where we must strike." In other words: worldwide, including in Europe. And it was in Europe -- in Rome, Paris and Cyprus -- where many of the Munich attackers were later killed.

Some prime ministers are said to have been very quick to issue death sentences. Others, like Yitzhak Rabin, took their time.

Spectacular Successes and Mistakes

The Mossad thrived on its legend, as long as it was achieving spectacular successes, such as in 1956, when it smuggled a famous secret speech by Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev, in which he criticized the crimes of Josef Stalin, out of Russia; in 1966, when it kidnapped a MiG 21 fighter jet out of Iraq; or in 1981, when it did the reconnaissance work for Israel's bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

But the Mossad has also made some spectacular mistakes. As far back as the early 1950s, the service disgraced itself with the so-called Lavon Affair, a series of fire-bombings of cinemas and post offices in Egypt. The attacks were intended to destabilize the Egyptian regime, but the operation backfired completely. On July 21, 1973, agents killed a Moroccan waiter in front of his pregnant wife in Lillehammer, Norway. They had believed, erroneously, that he was Ali Hassan Salameh, one of the leaders of the Palestinian organization Black September.

Despite such failures, the Mossad was long able to preserve its standing as the best intelligence agency in the Middle East. The recklessness with which it apparently proceeded in Dubai could thoroughly damage this reputation, however.

The Woman in the Dark Wig

The actual killers entered the hotel at 6:34 p.m. They came in two teams, each consisting of two agents. All four agents were broad-shouldered men wearing baseball caps and backpacks, and carrying shopping bags. The two reconnaissance teams already in the Bustan were pulled out, to avoid raising suspicion, and replaced with two other teams, one disguised as a tourist couple wearing sun hats.

Gail Folliard and Kevin Daveron were supposed to secure the hallway. Both had changed into their disguises earlier, in different hotels in the vicinity. Both were wearing wigs, and Daveron was wearing a fake moustache and the uniform worn by Bustan Hotel employees. At 8 p.m., shortly before the killing, he was approached by a guest who couldn't find his room. Daveron managed to stall the man and warn another team, which was in the process of breaking open the door to Mabhouh's room.

All door locks in the Bustan are secured by a sophisticated card system that records all attempted openings. At exactly 8 p.m., the system recorded an attempted opening by an unknown card that was inserted into the lock of room 230.

At 8:24 p.m., Mabhouh returned to the hotel, entering it through the revolving door in the lobby. He was carrying a plastic bag containing his new shoes, and he took the elevator to the third floor. He failed to notice the man with the moustache, wearing a hotel uniform, or the woman in the dark wig, who had been pacing back and forth across the patterned brown carpet for the last half hour.

Intended to Look Like a Natural Death

No cameras recorded what happened in the next 19 minutes. According to the investigations conducted to date, an electroshock device was apparently used to stun Mabhouh when he entered his room. It is not known whether the four assassins were already waiting for him in the room or attacked from room 237, across the hallway.

It appears that the Hamas leader was then suffocated with a hotel pillow. The killing was supposed to look like a natural death.

By 8:46 p.m., two of the four agents were already standing at the elevator, waiting to take it back downstairs.

The adrenalin-fueled tension in the men is recognizable in the video images. Like boxers, they keep shifting their weight from one foot to the other. One of the two has even forgotten to remove his rubber glove.

The hit squad left the Bustan in teams of two and took taxis to the airport. On the videos, Folliard is shown walking arm-in-arm with another agent, carrying a plastic bag in her left hand.

Daveron secured the retreat. He was the last to leave room 237, talking on his phone and pulling his trolley bag behind him.

Dubai Police Come Out Looking Good

Everything went according to plan. A short time later, Daveron and Folliard were sitting on a flight to Paris and two others were on a plane bound for South Africa, while Mabhouh was still lying undiscovered in room 230.

The commando operation took less than 24 hours. But after it ended, nothing went according to plan.

The agents knew that they had been filmed on surveillance cameras at the airport, at taxi stands, in hotel lobbies and in front of elevators. But they were apparently confident that no one in Dubai would be capable of analyzing, or would even take the trouble to analyze, countless hours of video footage. That was a mistake.

"The big surprise lies in the ability of the Dubai police," says Israeli intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, "to have put together all of this material to assemble a single picture. That's an extremely complicated undertaking." The Dubai police, says Bergmann's colleague Ben Kaspit of the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv, "emerges from this entire situation looking the best."

Those police efforts ended up being detrimental to the Israelis, despite being an initial source of amusement. "Do you recognize them?" Maariv asked its readers on the day after the Dubai police published the photos of the suspected assassins. Israel is a small country, with 7.5 million people living in an area smaller than the US state of West Virginia. In a spirit of amusement rather than concern, Israelis across the country began scrutinizing one another, checking out café patrons in Tel Aviv, neighbors in kibbutzim and parents in kindergartens.

Legal Identity Theft

When Or Kashti saw the photos, he could hardly believe his eyes. Kashti is the education editor at the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, and he is a dead ringer for the man with the cover name "Kevin Daveron." Kashti received the first call early in the morning. It was his mother, and she asked him carefully whether he had been abroad recently. Later, while he was standing in a supermarket between the tomato and eggplant shelves, an older woman slapped him on the back and said: "Congratulations, you guys really stuck it to that Arab."

But not everyone was so pleased -- particularly the six Israelis whose names and identities were actually used by the hit squad. "This is horrifying," says Stephen Daniel Hodes, who immigrated to Israel from Britain years ago. "I haven't left Israel in two years, and I've never been to Dubai." Paul John Keeley, who lives on the Nahsholim kibbutz south of Haifa, is also shocked. "Who do you call when someone has stolen your identity?"

It's a good question, one which has no answer. Even if the six Israelis could prove that the Mossad used their identities, a lawsuit would hardly succeed. Under Israeli law, document forgery is not illegal if it is authorized by the government.

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, this is already the second time a Mossad intelligence operation has gotten him into diplomatic hot water. During his first term, in 1997, he ordered the liquidation of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in the Jordanian capital Amman. When the agents sprayed a nerve toxin into Mashaal's ear as they walked past him in broad daylight, they were taken into custody by the Jordanians. To secure their release, Netanyahu had to hand over the antidote and release the co-founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.

Looking for New Recruits

In the al-Mabhouh case, the assassination was successful, but keeping it a secret wasn't. Jerusalem has remained officially silent on the Dubai police claims. This "policy of ambiguity," as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calls it, is meant to protect Israel's own agents, while simultaneously deterring terrorists and sending them the message that they will never be safe anywhere in the world.

But whether this policy of deterrence is working is doubtful. Even if Hamas's supply of weapons in the Gaza Strip is interrupted for some time as a result of the al-Mabhouh killing, others will sooner or later take his place. "It isn't clear that Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was worth the trouble," fears journalist Ben Kaspit.

Few Israelis question the idea that targeted killings are morally justified. "We forgot long ago that a state based on the rule of law doesn't use death squads," says left-leaning journalist Gideon Levy.

The Mossad, which is presumably no longer able to use 11 of its agents, is already searching for new recruits. There is a job application form on the agency's Web site (www.mossad.gov.il), under the keyword "career." The areas where potential intelligence agents are needed, according to the site, include computer technology, logistics and "special projects."

DIETER BEDNARZ, ERICH FOLLATH, CHRISTOPH SCHULT, ALEXANDER SMOLTCZYK, HOLGER STARK, BERNHARD ZAND

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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