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Archive for February, 2010

Feb 18 2010

The plot thickens

The Mossad or not the Mossad – that is the question on everyone’s lips here, following the identification by the police in Dubai of at least seven Israeli citizens who also hold European passports as suspects in the killing of a senior Hamas military commander.

7 of the suspected assassins (photo: Dubai police)

7 of the suspected assassins (photo: Dubai police)

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in his hotel room in the emirate exactly a month ago on 19 January, and his death could have gone almost unnoticed if not for the hotel’s closed-circuit cameras. Images of the 11-member hit squad, caught by those cameras, were beamed around the world three days ago, together with names and passport numbers of the alleged assassins. European governments were quick to announce that the passports were forgeries and that the Israelis who they really belong to had had their identities stolen and were not involved in any plot. All fingers are now pointing towards the all-mighty Hollywood-style Israeli espionage agency, Mossad.

As a matter of policy, Israel prefers to leave unanswered questions about its involvement in special covert operations. It never took responsibility for the attack on a nuclear site in Syria in 2007, nor for the death in a car bomb of senior Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyah in Damascus in 2008 – both of which are attributed to its security forces. In fact, officially Israel doesn’t even have a nuclear bomb.

Mabhouh’s being a target is not surprising. A founder of Hamas, he recently admitted to masterminding the killing of two Israeli soldiers in the 1980s. More importantly, according to intelligence reports, he was in charge of the smuggling of Iranian long-range rockets into Gaza, enabling Hamas to threaten the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Many believe that any confrontation between the international community and Iran would lead – or might even begin with – a barrage of missiles fired towards Israel from Gaza and the Lebanon. Mabhouh certainly seems to have had an important role in the Tehran-Hamas-Hezbollah triangle. Interestingly, on 16 January, the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, considered to be the government’s mouthpiece, hailed the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, as a “superman”, for his covert operations against what it said were Iranian attempts to destabilise the region.

But still, say some ex-Mossad officials, something just doesn’t add up. The fact that so many Israeli citizens were quickly connected to the operation, together with the embarrassment caused to friendly European governments by using fake passports, suggests recklessness on behalf of the Mossad, or even plain stupidity. Why would the Mossad use the names of Israeli citizens and incriminate itself so clearly?

Intelligence analysts say that this would be the first time the Mossad had used Israeli citizens’ identities in an operation. In fact, Israel’s most famous spy, Rafi Eitan, who was responsible for locating Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and bringing him to trial in Israel in the 1960s, yesterday told Israeli radio that “some foreign service wanted to taint Israel. It took the names of Israeli citizens, doctored the passports and thus tainted Israel.” Perhaps.

In the meantime, the political fallout is being felt especially hard in the UK, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for an investigation and the Israeli ambassador was asked to come in to “share information” about the fake passports.

Israeli and British intelligence services are known to cooperate closely, and political and diplomatic efforts are made to keep it just like that. After all, in the murky business of espionage, almost anything goes until you get caught – or for that matter, pictured.

(published originally in Monocle on February 18th 2010)

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