Mahmoud al-Mabhouh hit: finger points to Mossad
Robert Fox on the parallels between this assassination and the 1997 attempt to kill Khaled Mashal
The so-called 'quiet' assassination of the Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his Dubai hotel room last month is having wider consequences than even the assassins and their directors might have realised.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a full investigation into how six fake British passports (above) were used by the killers, and how they stole the identities of six men with dual British-Israeli citizenship.
The method of operation, down to the fake passports and stolen identities, points to Mossad, the foreign intelligence organisation of the state of Israel. Such a high-level hit would have to be approved by the security council with the prime minister at its head. In his previous term of office the current man at the helm, Binyamin Netanyahu, approved of a Mossad assassination of the senior Hamas man in Jordan, Khaled Mashal, which in the event went disastrously wrong.
Two Mossad agents jumped Mashal as he went into his office in Amman on September 25, 1997; one squirted a deadly nerve toxin into his ear. The two were caught as they fled, and this led to a major diplomatic stand-off between Jordan and Israel. King Hussein demanded of Netanyahu that he hand over the antidote to the toxin. The Israeli PM refused, but changed his mind after the personal intervention of President Bill Clinton. As part of the deal the Israelis also were forced to release the spiritual founder of Hamas, the blind cleric Sheik Yassin.
It was an all-round disaster, but bears a curious resemblance to the Dubai operation. The 1997 Mossad hit team slipped into Jordan using fake Canadian identities and passports. They were equally careless about leaving clues. The team of 11 in the Dubai operation were careless about leaving fingerprints, and car hire contracts – and they didn't even bother with the hotel's CCTV system. It was if they set out to embarrass Israel's friends as much as strike one of its foes.
Israel's outspoken and maverick foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said that there is no proof that Mossad did the killing, though he didn't deny it outright, adding only that Israel had "a policy of ambiguity" on such intelligence matters.
However, few in the Israeli media are prepared to give Mossad the benefit of the doubt. The liberal newspaper Haaretz has called for the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, to be fired - describing him as "belligerent and heavy-handed". The paper predicts serious trouble with the UK, Ireland, Germany and France, whose citizens have had their identities stolen and traduced and their passports faked.
The six British men also had adopted Israeli citizenship, and several commentators have warned the Netanyahu government that it has an obligation to those citizens who have sworn their innocence, and credibly so, and whose lives as well as reputations are now in danger.
There are other aspects of the story that raise it from beyond the status of another Le Carre real-life spy drama. By carrying out the Dubai attack – a 'wet job' in special forces and intelligence jargon – in such a careless way, the agents will have caused serious damage to Israel's friends and several neutrals in the region.
Dubai, like neighbouring Qatar and Abu Dhabi, is a known meeting point of the Arab and Persian world. It is a main point of effort by the CIA and MI6 in the shadowy background to the continuing unrest in Iraq and the conflict spreading from Afghanistan. The assassination is already a propaganda gift to the jihadi media and chatrooms and websites.
It also raises yet again the whole issue of the targeted assassination policy favoured by the Israelis - of wiping out your perceived enemy whenever or wherever you can. This has become a part of Israeli security dogma. But killing the enemy means you have fewer interlocutors with whom to broker peace.
Contrast the Dubai killing with the capture in Karachi last week by the Pakistani ISI and the CIA of the Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. It gives Islamabad and Kabul somebody serious to talk to about a future settlement for Afghanistan and the Pashtuns.
In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the Mossad chiefs and their political boss might heed the words of Khaled Mashal after surviving the attempt on his life in 1997. "Israeli threats have one of two effects: some people are intimidated, but others become more defiant and determined. I am one of the latter."