It’s so easy in the movies. Our Spy Hero (in a tuxedo if Our Hero’s a he, a spandex catsuit if a she) slips into a posh hotel, creeps stealthily to the penthouse suite, dispatches the arch-villain’s lieutenant with a couple of silenced gunshots or a few boots to the head, then fades into the night.
In real life? Not so much. Consider Mossad’s 2010 assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai.
Mabhouh was a long-time Palestinian militant who by 2010 was the Hamas chief of logistics and weapons supplies, including procuring from Iran the rockets that Hamas fired from Gaza into southern Israel. Needless to say, both Mossad (Israeli external security) and Aman (military intelligence) placed him near the top of their to-do lists.
Surveillance revealed that Mabhouh held frequent business meetings in Dubai. Mossad decided it would be easier to kill him there than in his home base of Damascus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the operation and a Kidon (Mossad special operations) team was assembled. When Mabhouh flew to Dubai on January 19, 2010, the Israelis were ready.
So far, so normal. Israel is no stranger to long-distance assassination. Mossad has been tied to the deaths of many terrorists, Palestinian and Lebanese political and military leaders, Egyptian and Iranian nuclear scientists, and others it considers to be enemies.
Mabhouh’s tradecraft stank. He booked his trip on the Internet and talked about it on the phone, both of which Aman’s eavesdropping Unit 8200 probably monitored. His bodyguards wouldn’t reach Dubai until January 20. He reserved a suite at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel instead of staying in a safe house.
He was dead the next morning. The initial verdict: heart failure. While the Emiratis were originally content to leave it at that, Mabhouh’s family was not. They sent blood and tissue samples to a lab in France, which found the powerful muscle relaxant succinylcholine—a.k.a. scoline, a Mossad favorite—in Mabhouh’s blood. Someone had paralyzed him with scoline and suffocated him with a pillow.
Had this been 1972 or even 1992, the whole episode would’ve quietly disappeared. However, the world had changed by 2010. CCTV now blankets public and many private areas; passports have biometrics and tracking chips; cash is no longer an option for car rentals or hotels. Once engaged, the Dubai Police used their wealth of surveillance equipment—some of it purchased from Israel—to turn suave James Bond into the bumbling Johnny English.
On February 16, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, chief of the Dubai Police, announced that eleven foreign agents had been involved in the Mabhouh assassination—and proceeded to put the ultimate reality-show CCTV video on YouTube. The 27-minute compilation shows ten men and one woman passing through the Dubai airport, following Mabhouh, eavesdropping as he registered at the front desk, wandering the hallways, and using the elevators and restrooms. They changed clothes and wigs, added and removed facial hair, and wore various kinds of eyeglasses. Some even looked straight into the cameras.
According to the subsequent INTERPOL Red Notice—an international “wanted” poster—the eleven people included six British citizens, three Irish, one German, and one Frenchman. At least four of the people in the passport photos wore the same eyeglasses.
General Khalfan was just getting started. On February 24, he released fifteen more passport photos belonging to members of what he claimed was the logistical team supporting the operation. This group used six British, three Irish, three French, and three Australian passports.
Various Israeli officials claimed there was no evidence Israel was involved, even though fifteen of the twenty-six suspects shared names with dual-nationality Israeli civilians (including seven of the eleven hitters).
Mossad regularly asks its citizens—especially émigrés—if it can borrow their passports “for the state.” The agency isn’t shy about using other nations’ passports, either. In 1987, a Mossad operative supposedly abandoned a stack of British passports in a phone booth in Bonn. The hit team involved in a bungled 1997 assassination in Amman, Jordan, used Canadian passports; in 2004, the Kiwis busted a Mossad scheme to obtain a genuine New Zealand passport. After these and several other incidents, Mossad always pledged to never again use foreign passports.
Hamas vowed swift vengeance against the killers. The reaction from Britain, Ireland, and Australia was, well, less than pleased. Britain and Ireland declared the passports fake and called the respective Israeli ambassadors on the carpet. Australia said the use of its passports for this sort of thing was “not…the act of a friend” and tossed the Israeli ambassador on the barbie. German and French response was more muted, possibly because of the deep, long-term cooperation between their security agencies and Mossad.
The people whose names were “borrowed” were also peeved. Melvyn Mildener, an Englishman who had emigrated to Israel in 2001, was in bed with pneumonia when he learned he was a wanted murderer. “I have no idea how to clear my name,” he said. The mother of Joshua Bruce, an Aussie studying in Jerusalem, said, “I am fearful, but hopefully everyone will see that it is fraud.” Several wondered if they’d be able to travel again; others worried about retaliation. The assassins used credit cards issued to the assumed names by Western banks, though it’s unknown whether bill collectors ever went after these identity-theft victims.
The affair eventually died as dead as Mabhouh despite the high-level furor. Ireland and Australia each expelled an Israeli official. Poland arrested a man who was supposedly involved in the “misuse” of the German passport. None of the Mossad team members have been outed, far less arrested, although their Red Notices are still active. As far as we know, all the identity-theft victims are still alive.
Still, the episode demonstrates how hard it is to stay covert in a world saturated with electronic scanners, surveillance cameras and retina scans. Keep that in mind next time you slip on your tuxedo (or catsuit) and set out to kill your arch-nemesis. And remember to smile for the cameras.
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His 2012 debut international thriller Doha 12 was inspired by the Mabhouh affair. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks and marine archaeology.