Mystery Surrounding Dubai Assassination Deepens

How many Mossad agents does it take to knock off a Hamas commander?

02.26.10 9:06 PM ET

Israel's foreign espionage service, the Mossad, is credited with—or blamed for—assassinating a Palestinian Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, during his still-unexplained visit to Dubai last month. Police in Dubai have released security camera video and passport photographs of the presumed murder squad, but not all is as it seems. Something in this story stinks.

It’s hard to believe that Israeli spies, reputed to be the world's best, would ever have thought that they could get away with murder in an age of closed-circuit cameras and Internet links that make it easier than ever to check the authenticity of travel documents. They veiled themselves with wigs, baseball caps, eyeglasses, and the like; but still, a secret agent hates being caught on tape.

“If there is no water coming out of the tap, it means the Yids drank it all.”

There are powerful reasons to believe that it was indeed the Mossad that ended Mabhouh's life, but risking the lives of 26 highly trained operatives all at once strains the logic of the clandestine world.

We asked Israelis in a position to know almost everything about daring Mossad missions in the past if it stood to reason that all the photos released by Dubai—11 last week and 15 more on Wednesday—were really those of Israeli operatives. It seemed very strange to these insiders. Some guessed that some of the 26 had been in the United Arab Emirates in the past, perhaps on what police there are now calling "reconnaissance visits by the assassination squad" last year.

In an old-fashioned sense, the hit squad succeeded. The target was killed. The crime was not even discovered until the assassins had all left the country. If they were Mossad employees they can all be presumed to be lying low at home or at the spy agency's headquarters north of Tel Aviv. It is doubtful they will ever again use names such as David LaPierre, Evan Dennings, Joshua Bruce, Gail Folliard, and Nicole McCabe, all revealed by Dubai along with photos.

In addition to the seven women and 19 men already featured in the official story, Dubai police claim they know of four more members of the squad. That would make 30. Thirty Israeli intelligence officers, to kill one target? Some Israelis suspect Dubai's security services are adding details that do not quite add up, perhaps because they enjoy the global limelight, or maybe to send a message to spooks and assassins everywhere that Dubai wants to be an international crossroads for commerce and not for murder. Arab security agencies may be hoping to push the Mossad into a rash reaction that might reveal something.

The Israeli government's only comment, at first, was that that there is no evidence linking the Jewish state to the murder in Dubai. The feisty foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has now added that the situation reminds him of “an old song” he doubtless heard anti-Semites sing in his native Russia: “If there is no water coming out of the tap, it means the Yids drank it all.”

Israel's intelligence chiefs may still have confidence that the controversy will blow over. While the British, Irish, French, German, and Australian governments may be annoyed that their passports were abused—probably by Israelis posing as the genuine passport-holders—the political leaders in those countries have no reason to protect Hamas. Even Arab governments, such as those in Egypt and Jordan, would surely shed no tears at the passing of Mabhouh.

Israel blames him for the killings of two Israeli soldiers 22 years ago, and more importantly, believes Mabhouh was a key man in arranging Iranian rocket deliveries to Hamas. If launched from Gaza, increasingly sophisticated missiles would endanger Israeli civilians.

Mabhouh must have been working on something big if the Mossad reached all the way to Dubai to end his career. Israel also might have been creating some deterrence, sending a message to Hamas militants that they can be reached anywhere.

The United States has been doing the same, extrajudicially killing al Qaeda men when they are located. When those hits occur in Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries that do not want to be on the record helping America, the CIA and the rest of official Washington confirm nothing. A key difference is that America's targeted killings of terrorists are done by firing Hellfire rockets from Predator drones flying overhead. Israel has the nerve to puts its men and women at risk, close and personal, mostly for surgical accuracy but also minimizing collateral damage to innocents.

The Dubai killing may well be the last of its kind. With the rapid growth of surveillance systems, high-technology counterfeit detection, and now a ton of unwanted publicity, the Mossad will have to think twice and thrice before planning another assassination. Risking a lot of agents, all at once, seems unusually unwise and still defies credibility.

Other assassination missions, in countries as diverse as Jordan, Norway, and Lebanon, are believed to have involved no more than a dozen or so Israeli operatives. Thirty? The Mossad has its flaws, but it is not reckless. In the shadowy world of espionage and disinformation, do not believe everything authorities say.

Yossi Melman covers security and strategy issues for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent and Daily Beast contributor. They are authors of books including (the New York Times best seller) Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community.

Dan Raviv is host of a radio magazine, The CBS News Weekend Roundup, and author of a book on U.S.-Israel relations, Friends in Deed, and a bestseller on Israeli intelligence, Every Spy a Prince.