Thursday 18 February 2010

Murder in Dubai - the Plot Thickens

The fallout from the assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai continues to build. On Monday Dubai authorities released names and passport pictures of 11 suspects who they claim were involved in the hit on Mabhouh. Some of these names correspond in a way which is more than coincidental to those of recent immigrants to Israel. Today the Dubai police chief is on record as saying that he is 99% sure that Israel was behind the assassination. With each passing day, the Israeli Mossad is implicated more and more in the messy affair. Israel's Ambassador to the Court of St James', Ron Prossor, has been called in to the Foreign Office in London for a meeting that is expected not to be easy, and may have a negative effect on the good relations between London and Jerusalem. Similar meetings may also take place in other European capitals. It seems very difficult to make sense of all these events, and put them into some context. After having given the matter a great deal of thought, I believe that I have managed to internalise all that has taken place, and have reached some conclusions which I would like to share with you.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in his Dubai hotel on 19th January 2010. He was a leading Hamas operative who had lived in Damascus for the past 30 years. He was involved in the capture and murder of two Israeli soldiers in 1989. He was reputed to be heavily involved in the shipment of arms from Iran to Hamas in Gaza. As such, it was immediately assumed that the assassination was a Mossad hit. There were allegations that Mabhouh had enemies in the Arab world, particularly in Jordan and Egypt. This fact, however, did not reduce the suspicion that the hit was carried out by Mossad. Even though it cannot be proved inconclusively that Mossad did carry out the hit, I am personally of the view that that assassination probably was a Mossad operation.

Mossad is one of the only secret service organisations around the world upon which the very existence of a country depends. There are few countries whose future and safety is challenged openly in international forums, and against which wars and terror attacks are constantly launched. The State of Israel owes a great debt to the fantastic work that Mossad has done on its behalf in the past, and continues to do now. Whilst some of Mossad's activities, successful and unsuccessful, have leaked out into the press and come to the attention of the general public, most of Mossad's work is not known. It is my contention that, without Mossad and its successes in the past, Israel would not be on the world map today.

I assess the success or failure of a mission in two parts. The first part is actually carrying out the mission that has been set. The second part is getting away with it without causing a major diplomatic incident for Israel. An example of a mission which passed both tests was the recent assassination of Imad Mugniyah in Damascus. The car bomb was detonated at the right time and the target was hit. The squad managed to get away without being caught or identified. Although Mossad was roundly accused of the hit (in my opinion correctly), Mossad has denied any involvement and there is little or no evidence to prove or disprove the accusation. This appears to have been perfectly planned, and perfectly executed.

A mission which was exactly the opposite was the attempted assassination of current Hamas chief Khaled Mashal in 1997. Not only did the mission carried out in Jordan fail in its objective, the operatives were captured creating a major diplomatic incident with Jordan. It is also resulted in the firing of Danny Yatom as the head of the Mossad.

This brings me to the current story. It seems like we have mixed success here. The objective of the mission was achieved. What is sure is that Mahmoud al-Mabhouh will not be able to attack Israel any longer, nor be able to murder any further Israelis or Jews. The second part of the mission - getting away without being caught - has been less successful. This part of the mission appears to still have some course to run before we know its final outcome.

Much has been written and said about the level of CCTV coverage in Dubai, which seems to have been a significant cause of the downfall of the hit team. Video clips are even available on YouTube showing operatives entering a toilet in a Dubai hotel, and then leaving a few minutes later in disguise. It seems obvious to all armchair pundits that Mossad should have taken the CCTV coverage into consideration. Perhaps this is true, although it is always easier to be an expert in hindsight. There are even those who believe that the actions were so amateurish, that they were purposefully undertaken by Mossad to fool people into believing that a professional organisation like Mossad could never have done this. This contention seems a little far-fetched to me.

The names used by the hit team, and the process of issuing their passports has also come under close scrutiny. The Dubai authorities routinely take copies of the passports of all tourists entering the country. This has allowed them to quickly identify the suspects. It is surprising that the team chose to use names of citizens of Israel who are recent immigrants. Any country has an obligation to protect the safety and security of its citizens, and it would appear as if Israel has not fulfilled her obligation to these individuals. It would be interesting to understand the reasoning for adopting this approach - I would like to believe that there was a good reason for choosing this path.

The act of issuing European passports to the hit team always risks the possibility of harming good relations with some of Israel's friends. Equally, the relationship with Dubai will not have been enhanced by actions carried out on Dubai soil. Although Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Dubai, a huge amount of effort has recently been invested by the two countries to try to develop economic activities that were designed to be a precursor to gradually implementing full diplomatic relations. This effort will undoubtedly be set back by the recent events.

From all of the above, it is clear that things could have been done better. More careful planning and greater sensitivity to important details could have avoided a great deal of embarrassment and unpleasantness for individual citizens of Israel, and for Israel's international relations. Despite this, I am happy that Mossad carried out this mission. Israel will be a safer place this week in the knowledge that Mabhouh can no longer do any further damage. I also suspect that Mabhouh's friends and counterparts in Hamas are more wary about continuing to try to undermine Israel's security than they were prior to his assassination. This can be no bad thing.

If the hit was a Mossad hit, I hope that this experience does not put Mossad off from continuing to be daring in the future. If the choice is to assassinate Mabhouh and suffer from diplomatic fallout or not assassinate Mabhouh, I would choose the first option. Perhaps this was also Mossad's reasoning. Sometimes, the opportunity to carry out a mission presents itself only once, and needs to be carried out despite the obvious risks. The failure of the Mashal mission has cost Israel dearly in terms of the damage that Mashal has done to Israel since the failed attempt on his life. Israel cannot afford to miss these chances, even if there may be diplomatic price to pay afterwards.

So, when looking at the big picture, I fully support Mossad's hit on Mabhouh no matter what the consequences. Of the two parts of each mission, the most important is the first part - succeeding in carrying out the objective. In this respect, Mossad has done its job. Having already given their approval to carry out the mission, we will now see if the politicians and diplomats can help to squeeze out of the problems that this has created. They are part of this team, and I hope that they can succeed in doing their job to clean up the fallout. No matter who was responsible for assassinating Mabhouh, Israelis can definitely be sleeping better at night.

No comments: