It is said that the perfect spy is someone who cannot attract a waiter’s attention in a restaurant. This seems to be true of the hit team which murdered the Hamas military leader, Mahmoud al Mabhouh, in Dubai last month. The individuals revealed by the Dubai police are no Sean Connerys or Mata Haris, rather the type of people you would not remember if you bumped into them on the street.
The unforgiving camera angles of closed circuit TV footage and the dorky disguises they used only accentuate their grim ordinariness. Surely the ranks of young men and women wanting to join the world’s security services, many of them addicts of the BBC’s Spooks and similar glossy intelligence dramas, will now fall off.
The painstaking work of the Dubai police has proved one thing. The all-seeing surveillance camera has killed off the notion that a forgettable face, a wig and a moustache are enough to make a good sleuth. To the surprise and embarrassment of the Israelis, the Dubai police have been able to combine their surveillance footage with visual intelligence from different hotels, the airport and passport control, as well as cell phone information, to put together a timeline of the operation and a compelling movie, complete with cast list, an Ocean’s 11 stripped of glamour.
As the Israeli investigative journalist and expert on the Mossad, Ronen Bergman, has concluded: “This is the end of an era, the end of the assassination that leaves no trace, where you could perform such an operation with no marks. In the modern age it leaves a lot of marks, whatever way you perform it.”
Apart from that, there is much that remains murky in the operation. Reaction in Israel, initially quietly jubilant, is now tempered with unease over the political and diplomatic fallout. The standard Israeli government response to any accusation of assassination on foreign territory, the challenge of “Prove it!”, is pitifully threadbare in this case. The fact that the passports of British citizens who live in Israel were cloned to provide false papers points the finger unerringly at Mossad and makes the organization look cavalier with the security of its own citizens.
According to security sources quoted by the BBC yesterday, the cloning of the passports was done to a very high degree of sophistication, beyond the capability of most intelligence services. This is further evidence of Israeli involvement, as Israel has a long record of faking British passports.
In the 1980s Israel promised to stop this practice after a courier taking a consignment of eight blank British passports to the Israeli embassy in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany, left them in a phone booth. The passports were picked up by the German police, and eventually traced to Israel.
The passport issue, as well as the revelation that the Israeli embassy in London was funding a Palestinian double agent who was hiding a big arms cache in the city of Hull, caused the British government to order a freeze in relations with Mossad and the expulsion of three operatives. The Mossad station in London was effectively closed down, but not for long. By 1998 there were five operatives back working in the London embassy, according to a standard history of the organization.
The summoning of the Israeli ambassador to London, Ron Prosor, to the foreign office yesterday to explain the use of fake British passports should be seen in this light. While politics demands that the Israelis be reprimanded when they are caught out, normal co-operation between western intelligence services and Mossad tends to be restored fairly quickly. The key fact is that the Israelis are never caught cloning American documents. That would get the organization into real trouble, whereas the wrath of European countries can be dismissed, or so it has proved in the past.
There are calls in the Israeli press for the current Mossad director general Meir Dagan to quit. But it seems unlikely he will go. He has a reputation for daring which pleases the Israeli public. He would have known that a murder in a five-star hotel would yield some embarrassing surveillance footage, but it was clearly considered a risk worth taking.
Israel wants the world to be repeatedly reminded that its arm is long. Mr. Dagan is generally credited with the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, the military commander of Hezbollah, in Damascus in 2008 – though there is always the possibility of several forces being involved together. With al Mabhouh, the aim would be to remove the stain of failure dating from the failed assassination by poisoning of the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman in 1997.
Vengeance and doing what makes the spooks feel good is not a policy, however. It is hard to think of any strategic gains that Israel has acquired from its long history of assassinations. When dealing with broad-based movements such as the Palestinians, no man is irreplaceable. Indeed, the dead man is replaced in time by someone usually more ruthless, and sometimes more competent.
In 1988 Israeli commandos killed Abu Jihad, the Fatah military commander, in front of his wife in Tunis. If such a respected figure as Abu Jihad had been alive, it would surely have been easier for Israel to make a historic accommodation with the Palestinians over the past 15 years.
The tactical lesson of the impossibility of carrying out a clean murder in a five-star hotel with security cameras in every corridor has been learnt. The real question is: what strategic goal does Israel achieve by carrying out assassinations? Certainly not its proclaimed goal of peace.
*Published in the UAE's THE NATIONAL on Feb. 19, 2010.