Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Times: Netanyahu authorized Mabhouh's assassination; A report how it all took place

(Timesonline).IN early January two black Audi A6 limousines drove up to the main gate of a building on a small hill in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv: the headquarters of Mossad, the Israeli secret intelligence agency, known as the “midrasha”.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, stepped out of his car and was greeted by Meir Dagan, the 64-year-old head of the agency. Dagan, who has walked with a stick since he was injured in action as a young man, led Netanyahu and a general to a briefing room.

According to sources with knowledge of Mossad, inside the briefing room were some members of a hit squad. As the man who gives final authorisation for such operations, Netanyahu was briefed on plans to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a member of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza.

Mossad had received intelligence that Mabhouh was planning a trip to Dubai and they were preparing an operation to assassinate him there, off-guard in a luxury hotel. The team had already rehearsed, using a hotel in Tel Aviv as a training ground without alerting its owners.

The mission was not regarded as unduly complicated or risky, and Netanyahu gave his authorization, in effect signing Mabhouh’s death warrant.

Typically on such occasions, the prime minister intones: “The people of Israel trust you. Good luck.”

Days later on January 19, Emirates flight EK912 took off from the Syrian capital Damascus at 10.05am. On board, as Mossad had anticipated, was Mabhouh, who was also known by the nom de guerre of Abu al-Abd. The Israelis suspected he planned to travel from Dubai to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to arrange for an arms shipment to Gaza.

From a highway below a Mossad agent watched the departure of EK912. Knowing from an informant at the airport that Mabhouh, who was travelling under an assumed name, had boarded the flight, the agent sent a message — believed to be to a pre-paid Austrian mobile phone — to the team in Dubai. Their target was on his way.

A few hours later, as the world now knows, Mabhouh was murdered in his hotel room — and the Israeli spy agency nearly got clean away. For days the death appeared to be from natural causes.

When suspicions did arise, it was only because of Dubai’s extensive system of CCTV cameras that the work of the assassination team was revealed.

Preparations appear to have been in train for months. When Mabhouh landed in Dubai, Mossad agents were waiting for him. They had flown in from Paris, Frankfurt, Rome and Zurich in advance using their forged passports, some based on the details of British nationals living in Israel who were unaware their identities had been stolen. The agents had also obtained credit cards in the name of the identities they had stolen.

Yesterday Dhahi Khalfan, the Dubai police chief, said investigators had found that some of the passports had been used in Dubai before. About three months ago it appears Mossad agents using the stolen identities followed Mabhouh when he travelled to Dubai and then on to China. About two months ago they followed him on another visit to Dubai.

In January, after he had landed and collected his luggage Mabhouh headed for the exit and a taxi for the short ride to the nearby Al-Bustan Rutana hotel. A European-looking woman in her early thirties waiting outside saw him leave and sent a message to the head of the team.

Dubai is a hub of international commerce and intrigue. Scores of Iranian agents are active there and its hotels are often used as meeting places for spies and covert deals. The main concern of the Mossad squad was to corner Mabhouh, alone if possible.

They divided into several teams, some for surveillance of the target and others to keep a look-out, and one for the hit. Some changed their identities as they moved about the city, putting on wigs and switching clothes.

When Mabhouh checked in to the hotel, at least one Mossad agent stood close to him at the front desk trying to overhear his room number. Then two others, dressed in tennis clothes, followed him into the lift to confirm which room he was going to.

According to an Israeli report yesterday he specifically asked for a room with no balcony, presumably for security reasons. The Mossad team booked the room opposite.

Mabhouh left the hotel in early evening, tailed by two of the Mossad team. Hamas also knows where he went and whom he met, but is not saying.

The Dubai police have not released CCTV footage showing exactly what happened next in the hotel, but the available evidence and sources point to two possibilities.

One is that while Mabhouh was out, the hit team entered his room and lay in wait. To do this they would have needed a pass key or would have had to tamper with the lock. It is known that while Mabhouh was out someone had tried to reprogramme the electronic lock on the door to his room.

However, they may have failed to gain entry. If so, the second possibility is that one of the team lured Mabhouh into opening the door after he had returned to his room. Perhaps a woman agent, pictured in CCTV footage in the hotel wearing a black wig, knocked on the door posing as a member of the hotel staff, allowing the hit team to force their way in.

Exactly how Mabhouh was killed remains unclear. The Dubai police said he was suffocated; other sources say he was injected with a drug. But at first sight there was no evidence of foul play.

When the killers left they relocked the door and left a “Please do not disturb” sign on it. Within hours the Mossad agents were flying out of the emirate to different destinations, including Paris, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Nobody suspected anything was wrong until the following day when Mabhouh’s wife called Hamas officials to ask about her husband. He wasn’t answering his mobile phone, she told them. The hotel management was alerted and the room entered.

THERE were no signs of struggle or any violence to Mabhouh, who appeared to be asleep. When he couldn’t be woken, a doctor was summoned from a nearby hospital.