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 authorisation, 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.
As the Airbus A330 rose into the wintry sky and headed south, Mabhouh, an athletic 49-year-old, could see the minarets of the ancient city — his home since he had been deported from Gaza by Israel more than 20 years before.
He had made the trip to Dubai several times before on Hamas business and had little reason to think that in less than 12 hours he would be dead.
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.
The cameras recorded the hit-team’s movements, from the moment its members landed in Dubai to the moment they left. Last week their photographs were released by the Dubai police and splashed across the world’s newspapers and television screens.
Mossad is now deeply embarrassed. Its use of the identities of British, French, German and Irish nationals as cover for agents to carry out the hit has angered western governments. In the ensuing diplomatic fall-out, sources close to Mossad said yesterday that it had suspended similar operations in the Middle East, mainly because of fear that heightened security would put its agents at greater risk. Dagan’s job is also on the line.
Howver. few believe that Mossad will give up the secret war it has long waged against Israel’s enemies.
Mossad has had a reputation for ruthlessness since it hunted down the Black September terrorists who massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Time and again its vengeful arm has reached out across the Arab world and into Europe, too, smiting enemies.
Under Dagan’s leadership, such operations have increased. Dagan differs markedly from his predecessor, the London-born Ephraim Halevy, a nephew of the late writer and philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
Halevy was dubbed the “cocktail man” for his long chats with foreign diplomats. He shrank from brutal covert operations. Eventually the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, removed him and appointed Dagan in his place.
The new chief soon began to restore Mossad’s reputation for lethal operations. The tone of his directorship is set by a photograph on the wall of his modest office in the Tel Aviv headquarters. It shows an old Jew standing on the edge of a trench. An SS officer is aiming his rifle at the old man’s head.
“This old Jew was my grandfather,” Dagan tells visitors. The picture reflects in a nutshell his philosophy of Jewish self-defence for survival. “We should be strong, use our brain, and defend ourselves so that the Holocaust will never be repeated,” he once said.
One hit he masterminded was in Damascus two years ago against Imad Mughniyeh, a founder of Hezbollah and one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. Mughniyeh was decapitated when the headrest of his car seat exploded — close to the headquarters of Syrian intelligence.
Six months later, Mossad, in co-operation with special forces, struck again at the heart of the Syrian establishment. General Mohammed Suleiman, Syria’s liaison to North Korea’s nuclear programme, was relaxing in the back garden of his villa on the Mediterranean shore.
His bodyguards were monitoring the front of the villa. Out to sea a yacht sailed slowly by. No noise was heard, but suddenly the general fell, a bullet through his head.
One of Dagan’s most recent concerns has been the rise of the Iranian threat to Israel, both directly and through its links with Hamas. It is in that context that the operation to eliminate Mabhouh should be understood.
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.
In the room some medicine for high-blood pressure was found — planted by Mossad, say Israeli sources — and the doctor decided that the Palestinian had died of natural causes, possibly from a heart attack. In Gaza and Damascus 40 days of mourning began.
Mossad appeared to have got away with it, though some in Hamas had their suspicions that Mabhouh had been poisoned. They well-remembered a previous Mossad plot in 1997 in which an Israeli agent blew poison into the ear of one of its leaders on a visit to Jordan — an operation authorised by Netanyahu during a previous term as prime minister. The Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal, survived only because two agents were caught — and Jordan demanded that an antidote be handed over.
Some Palestinians also suspect that Yasser Arafat, the long-standing leader who died in 2004, was poisoned, though there has never been any evidence to prove it.
When results of Mabhouh’s post-mortem came through, they were still inconclusive. Yesterday one source claimed that burns from a stun gun were found on his body and that there were traces of a nosebleed, possibly from being smothered. However, no firm evidence of exactly how Mabhouh died, either from natural causes or foul play, emerged.
The uncertainty alone was enough for Hamas to declare that Israel had killed their man. The police investigated, CCTV images were gathered and and the affair began to unravel.
One well-informed Israeli source said: “The operative teams were very much aware of the CCTV in Dubai, but they have been astonished at the ability of the Dubai police to reconstruct and assemble all the images into one account.”
For Israel, the fallout has been considerable and the reverberations continue. The real owners of the stolen or forged passports, several of them Britons living in Israel, have complained that they were innocent victims of a murder plot.
The Mossad agents who used their names have been put on Interpol’s wanted list, and the real individuals are worried that they will now always be associated with the murder of a Hamas official.
Dubai can no longer avoid being embroiled in the Arab- Israeli conflict. It is calling for an international arrest warrant to be issued against Dagan and says it will release more information confirming that this was a Mossad killing.
In Britain there were initial suspicions that the government had been tipped off about the operation, or had even quietly condoned it. William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, demanded to know when the Foreign Office had first found out that British passport holders were involved in the affair.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office insisted there was no mystery or cover-up. “Suggestions that the government had prior warning or was in some way complicit in this affair are baseless,” he said.
“The Dubai authorities told us of the role of British passports on February 15 and we were able to tell them the passports in question were fraudulent the very next day.” This account was backed up by a statement from Dubai’s police chief.
However, the broader question of Britain’s response to Israel’s activities remains unresolved.
Gordon Brown has announced an investigation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency into the identity theft, and David Miliband, the foreign secretary, is expected to address the House of Commons on the issue tomorrow.
Israel is a key ally for Britain in the Middle East and an even closer ally of the Americans. Brown and Miliband will hope that the affair will fade away, though the pro-Arab lobby will try to ensure the matter is not easily buried.
Hugo Swire, MP and chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, said: “These allegations against the Israeli government need to be answered. This is not something that can just be swept under the carpet. You cannot conduct foreign policy at this extremely sensitive time by this sort of illegal behaviour.”
In Israel the reaction is mixed. Few shed tears over the death of one of Hamas’s top men, but there is dismay that Mossad may have damaged the country’s reputation abroad. Though in time the furore will no doubt blow over, critics of Dagan have renewed their demands for him to go.
The mastermind of Mossad may yet find himself a casualty of his own secret war.