Is planned political assassination a rational and desirable course for a nation to chart? That is the question. One of the answers from a practical point of view is that it’s desirable IF you don’t get caught murdering somebody for political purposes (for the benefit of the state sponsoring the assassination). If you are caught or are suspected based on some evidentiary circumstances, is it worth the risk to the sponsor nation?
Which brings us inevitably to Israel, which has participated in state-sponsored assassination since before it was founded in 1947 with the Partition of Palestine. The Irgun (Irgun Tsvai-Leumi) and Stern Gang historically and the MOSSAD in more recent times acted as the tip of the spear for Israeli assassinations. One difference between Israel and other nations is that the MOSSAD usually wants their enemies to know (Hamas as a recent example) who pulled the trigger. MOSSAD also has a habit of planning and green-lighting the target themselves without prime ministerial approval – the PM could loose heart and change his/her mind even after the order is granted… Israel is not out to win popularity contests, and much like the Russians, they look for success first. Israel has a better position in the West than the Russians do and a lot of what they have done has been ‘overlooked’ up to and including situations such as the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967.
Nearly the entire hit was recorded on closed-circuit TV cameras, from the time the team arrived at Dubai’s airport to the time the assassins entered Mr. Mabhouh’s room. The cameras even caught team members before and after they donned their disguises. The only thing the Dubai authorities have been unable to discover is the true names of the team. But having identified the assassins, or at least the borrowed identities they traveled on, Dubai felt confident enough to point a finger at Israel. (Oddly enough several of the identities were stolen from people living in Israel.)
Dubai had on its side motivation—Mr. Mabhouh had plotted the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers and reportedly played a role in the smuggling of Iranian arms into Gaza. And none of this is to mention that the Mabhouh assassination had all the hallmarks of an Israeli hit: a large team, composed of men and women, and an almost flawless execution. If it had been a Russian hit, for instance, they would have used a pistol or a car bomb, indifferent to the chaos left behind.
After Dubai released the tapes, the narrative quickly became that the assassination was an embarrassing blunder for Tel Aviv. Mossad failed spectacularly to assassinate a Hamas official in Amman in 1997— the poison that was used acted too slowly and the man survived—and it looks like the agency is not much better today. Why were so many people involved? (The latest report is that there were 26 members of the team.) Why were identities stolen from people living in Israel? Why didn’t they just kill Mr. Mabhouh in a dark alley, one assassin with a pistol with a silencer? Or why at least didn’t they all cover their faces with baseball caps so that the closed-circuit TV cameras did not have a clean view?
The truth is that Mr. Mabhouh’s assassination was conducted according to the book—a military operation in which the environment is completely controlled by the assassins. At least 25 people are needed to carry off something like this. You need “eyes on” the target 24 hours a day to ensure that when the time comes he is alone. You need coverage of the police—assassinations go very wrong when the police stumble into the middle of one. You need coverage of the hotel security staff, the maids, the outside of the hotel. You even need people in back-up accommodations in the event the team needs a place to hide.
I can only speculate about where exactly the hit went wrong. But I would guess the assassins failed to account for the marked advance in technology. Not only were there closed-circuit TV cameras in the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated and at the airport, but Dubai has at its fingertips the best security consultants in the world. The consultants merely had to run advanced software through all of Dubai’s digital data before, during and after the assassination to connect the assassins in time and place. For instance, a search of all cellular phone calls made in and around the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated would show who had called the same number—reportedly a command post in Vienna. It would only be a matter then of tracking when and where calls were made from these phones, tying them to hotels where the team was operating or staying.
Not completely understanding advances in technology may be one explanation for the assassins nonchalantly exposing their faces to the closed-circuit TV cameras, one female assassin even smiling at one. They mistook Dubai 2010 for Paris 1992, and never thought it would all be tied together in a neat bow. But there is no good explanation why Israel, if indeed it was behind the assassination, underestimated the technology. The other explanation—the assassins didn’t care whether their faces were identified—doesn’t seem plausible at all.