For those familiar with the stellar reputation of Israel’s clandestine services, the recent hit on a Hamas operative and arms dealer in Dubai seems oddly atypical. It was, to the outside observer, an embarrassingly sloppy effort: The agents who allegedly carried out the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his luxury hotel room made what appear to be a series of rookie mistakes, for instance allowing themselves to be caught on video surveillance cameras and using the stolen passports of Israeli citizens. Hardly the kind of work one would associate with the Israeli Mossad, whose efficiency in covert operations is the stuff of cloak-and-dagger legend.
Indeed, even Hamas is starting to have doubts. Having initially pointed the finger at Israel, Hamas now suspects that the security services of another Arab state – possibly Jordan or Egypt – could have been behind the assassination.
Hamas suspects the security forces of an Arab state were behind the assassination of a senior group operative in Dubai earlier this year, the Al-Quds Al-Araby daily reported on Tuesday.
Mahmoud Nasser, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, told the newspaper that slain commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was likely being tracked by agents from Jordan and Egypt prior to the January 19 killing.
Nasser said he had been given information regarding such efforts to kill Mabhouh, adding that the evidence indicated that the assassination was carried out earlier than the alleged agents had planned.
According to Nasser, Mabhouh was in possession of “dangerous” information seen as dangerous to particular Arab elements seeking to topple Islamist resistance.
That tracks with the reporting of the Washington Times’ Eli Lake, who noted last week that despite widespread assumptions about Israel’s role in the assassination
…some details have emerged that do not track with traditional Israeli intelligence tradecraft. The Dubai authorities this week said two of the operatives fled to Iran.
Michael Ross, a retired officer for the Mossad’s covert-operations division, said it would be a breach of Israeli protocol for an operative to flee to another target country like that after an operation.
He also said that it was unlikely that Israel would use 26 people for a job that would require far fewer people. “The Mossad believes if two people can do something instead of three people, then send two.”
I’m not sure the last point is a strong one. As former CIA field officer Robert Baer pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last weekend, 26 people is just about the right number for this kind of operation. The logic is that it takes a lot of people to provide the reconnaissance and observation required for the hit to succeed without alerting the authorities. Nevertheless, the abject failure of those involved in the assassination scheme to cover their tracks while bringing almost immediate scrutiny to bear on Israel may well be the strongest reason to question whether Israeli intelligence was in fact responsible. After all, Hamas has long been on the receiving end of Israel’s superlative ability to carry out clean and precise assassinations. If even they are having their doubts about Israel’s involvement, the emerging conventional wisdom about what really happened in Dubai may yet be proven wrong.