At Large

Dubai’s Eleven

Who assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh? Blaming Israel first won't cut it.

By 2.26.10

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Perhaps we've all been brainwashed by Hollywood's version of international assassination operations, but from the standpoint of logic alone one assumes that a professional service or individual does not take on the physical and political dangers of killing someone unless there is a clear benefit to the action. So what's the story behind the assassination in Dubai that occurred on January 19 and wasn't made public until last week?

Retribution for earlier crimes may be considered a benefit, but the crime itself would appear to require justification of broad, and usually, continuing effect. This is, of course, the so-called revenge motive. "An eye for an eye" is biblically sourced. The Israelis would seem to be well suited for such a justification. But then the action must have some relativity in terms of time and importance.

If all that is so, how does the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh fit in? We are told that he participated in or personally carried out the killing of two Israeli soldiers back in the late eighties. Rumors are circulating that he had been "involved" in recent times in the arms business for Hamas. There's no doubt he had risen to be a relatively important individual in that organization, but no particular focus had been placed on him that would signal a reason for murder at this time.

For the moment let's just accept the thesis that for one reason or another Mr. Mabhouh was worthy -- as films and television would say -- of getting whacked. We have been told that the Dubai police (actually British-trained Special Branch) have determined that an assassination team of eleven people was involved. Doesn't that seem like an exceptionally large group that would be needed to kill one man? Isn't one of the principles of a professional "hit" to keep the operation as simple as possible while using the fewest possible team members?

The point of the small, simple operation is that fewer things can go wrong and fewer people can make mistakes. Eleven operators in what once was called an "executive team" are possibly required if other activities are expected to be necessary. Such efforts as diversionary tactics, communications degradation, surveillance and other similar functions would certainly justify increased numbers of participants above the more normal 3-5 person team. Heavy surveillance, though, doesn't seem to have been necessary. Mr. M had been traveling to Dubai regularly from Damascus and apparently always stayed at the same hotel. Nor was a diversion or control of communication needed.

Operating in a modern environment such as Dubai might require establishing several alternate escape routes by air and sea, but this contingency structure requires additional time to establish rather than an enlarged team. The tactical plan for exfiltration appears to have depended most importantly on a delay in the eventual discovery of the dead Mr. Mabhouh. This delay in discovery would allow for evasion and escape through regular civilian transport. In passing it should be noted that the victim was found in a sealed room with the door electronically locked from the inside. Reportedly the target was killed in the evening of January 19 but not discovered until late the following morning.

At this point one must question the method of killing that was used. According to the Dubai police, the target was smothered with a pillow. Another account, this time by Hamas, stated that in addition to suffocation Mr. Mabhouh was electrocuted first. How these two instrumentations worked is not explained, but they were apparently effective -- if inexplicably exotic. Perhaps some form of locally assembled taser device was used to initially subdue the target, who was then suffocated with the pillow.

All of which brings up the question of why this target was selected in the first place. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh's brother has suggested that Mr. M had been the subject of a failed poisoning effort some years ago, but no evidence has been put forth. Hamas sources have indicated that two Palestinian double agents were involved in luring al-Mabhouh to Dubai. These men, according to Hamas, are both Fatah members. Fatah denies any involvement and says Mr. Mabhouh was done in by rival elements in Hamas itself.

Israel's external intelligence service, Mossad, is now the media's favorite sponsor of this operation. Naturally, Mossad says nothing one way or another. Why should it? The British, French, Irish and Germans are all going through the expected outrage against the possible Mossad use of those countries' passports in identity kits for the assassination team. The U.S. has " deplored" the affair in appropriate diplomatic style, while anti-Israeli and anti-Hamas elements internationally have had a propaganda field day.

It may seem naïve to question the circumstances and process of the killing of the not-well-known Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. He was, nonetheless, an important player in the dark and dangerous world of Israeli/Palestinian covert war. He may have been a professional Hamas killer himself. However, there is just something fishy about this whole story of eleven-plus operators needed to kill one man by suffocating him with a pillow in a hotel room. But maybe we're all too influenced by Jack Bauer.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.