Mahmoud al-Mabhouh entered the lobby of the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel in Dubai just before 8.30 in the evening, one of many guests coming and going. Like them, he was captured by the closed-circuit camera over the entrance. He had black hair, a slightly receding hairline, and a thick black moustache.
He’d been in Dubai for less than six hours, but already he’d met with a banker who was helping him arrange various international financial transactions required to purchase special surveillance equipment for Hamas in Gaza. He’d also met with his regular contact from the al-Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who flew in to coordinate the delivery of two large shipments of weapons to the extremist Islamic organisation.
Al-Mabhouh did a lot of business in Dubai. When he flew into the small city-state on 19 January 2010, it was at least his fifth visit in a little less than a year. He travelled on a Palestinian passport which listed a fake name and a fake occupation. In reality, he was a top Hamas operative and had been for decades: 20 years earlier, he’d kidnapped and murdered two Israeli soldiers, and more recently, after his predecessor had been disposed of by the Mossad in Damascus, he’d been in charge of stocking Hamas armouries.
A step or two behind al-Mabhouh, there was a man with a cell phone, following him into the elevator. “Coming now,” the man said into his phone. Al-Mabhouh might have overheard, but he didn’t seem to notice.
Al-Mabhouh was by nature an extremely cautious man. He knew that the Israelis wanted to kill him. “You have to be alert,” he’d told Al Jazeera in an interview the previous spring. “And me, praise Allah, they call me ‘the fox’ because I can sense what is behind me, even what is behind that wall. Praise God, I have a highly developed sense of security. But we know what the price of our path is, and we have no problem with it. I hope that I get to die a martyr’s death.”
The elevator stopped at the second floor. Al-Mabhouh stepped off. The man with the phone stayed on, going to a higher floor. Definitely a tourist. Al-Mabhouh turned left and walked towards his room, 230. The hallway was empty. Out of habit, he quickly scanned the frame of his door and the lock mechanism, looking for nicks, scratches, any hint of tampering. There was nothing. He entered the room, closed the door behind him. He heard a noise and turned to see what it was.
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is seen on hotel CCTV being followed by agents dressed in tennis gear
In December 1949, Israel’s co-founder David Ben-Gurion created a new agency for intelligence operations outside the country’s borders: he later named it the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. More commonly, though, it was known simply as “the Institute” – the Mossad.
With the establishment of the Mossad, Israeli intelligence services coalesced into the three-pronged community that survives in more or less the same form today: Aman, the military intelligence arm that supplies information to the Israeli Defence Force; the Shin Bet, responsible for internal intelligence, counter-terror and counter-espionage; and the Mossad, which deals with covert activities beyond the country’s borders. It was a victory for those who saw the future of the Israeli state as more dependent upon a strong army and intelligence community than upon diplomacy.
Ben-Gurion kept all of the agencies under his control. It was an enormous concentration of covert, and political, power. Yet from the beginning, it was kept officially hidden from the Israeli public. Ben-Gurion forbade anyone from acknowledging, let alone revealing, that this sprawling web of official institutions even existed. In fact, mentioning the name Shin Bet or Mossad in public was prohibited until the 1960s. Because their existence could not be acknowledged, Ben-Gurion prevented the creation of a legal basis for those same agencies’ operations. No law laid out their goals, roles, missions, powers or budgets, or the relations between them.
In other words, Israeli intelligence from the outset occupied a shadow realm, one adjacent to, yet separate from, the country’s democratic institutions. A deep state.
In this shadow realm, “state security” was used to justify a large number of actions and operations that, in the visible world, would have been subject to criminal prosecution and long prison terms. The most notable example was targeted killing. In Israeli law, there is no death penalty, but Ben-Gurion circumvented this by giving himself the authority to order extra-judicial executions.
The justification was that anything other than complete secrecy could lead to situations that would threaten the very existence of Israel. Israel had inherited from the British Mandate a legal system that included state-of-emergency provisions to enforce order and suppress rebellions, which enabled, among other things, pre-publication censorship on all media in the country on issues declared to be related to state security. That state of emergency has not been rescinded as of the time of writing, and all media in Israel is subject to censorship.
The plan for the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh had been approved four days earlier, on 15 January, during a hastily arranged meeting in the large conference room near Mossad director Meir Dagan’s office. The most important person at the conference, after Dagan, was “Holiday”, the head of the branch of the organisation known as Caesarea. Holiday, who is bald and stocky, had taken it upon himself to command Operation Plasma Screen, the agency’s codename for al-Mabhouh.
The Hamas operative had long been on the Israelis’ kill list. A year earlier, the situation on the Gaza Strip border had deteriorated so badly that on 27 December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a large-scale attack. Hamas was able to fire a great deal of ordnance from the Gaza Strip, thanks to al-Mabhouh’s weapons acquisition and transportation network, and the assistance it received from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Dubai was the most convenient place to kill al-Mabhouh. The other areas where he spent time – Tehran, Damascus, Sudan, and China – had efficient secret services and posed far more problems for a hit team.
Not everyone thought that al-Mabhouh was important enough to justify the effort and risk. Some even told Dagan that he did not meet the basic conditions required for “negative treatment” – assassination. Everybody in the Mossad agreed that al-Mabhouh deserved to die, but in order to carry out an operation in a target country, he also had to be a serious danger to Israel, one whose elimination would have a profoundly disruptive effect on the enemy’s equilibrium.
In truth, al-Mabhouh did not fit either criterion. But after a run of success, Dagan and other Mossad officials were so full of self-confidence that they went forward anyway. He was now the head of a completely different Mossad from the one he had inherited seven years earlier. No longer a timid institution unnerved by its own failed and sloppy operations, Dagan’s Mossad had infiltrated Hezbollah and discovered the secret North Korean nuclear reactor being built in Syria; disrupted the transfer of weapons and advanced technologies between members of the Radical Front (Syria, Iran and jihadist movements in the region); killed Radical Front activists; and even assassinated the Hezbollah military chief.
A team of Caesarea operatives had first trailed al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2009, not to kill him but to study his movements and, mostly, to be certain that he was their man. Four months later, in November, the Plasma Screen crew went to Dubai again, this time to eliminate him. They poisoned a drink that was brought to his hotel room, but either they got the dose wrong or he didn’t swallow enough: al-Mabhouh only fainted. When he came to, he cut short his visit and returned to Damascus, where a doctor attributed his fainting spell to mononucleosis. He accepted this diagnosis and didn’t suspect an attempt on his life.
This turn of events caused profound frustration within the Mossad. Holiday insisted that there would be no mistakes this time: the hit squad would not leave Dubai before they saw with their own eyes that al-Mabhouh was dead.
One objection arose at the 15 January meeting near Meir Dagan’s office. The documentation department would have trouble preparing credible new fake passports for the entire team. There were more than two dozen people going to Dubai, and some would be entering the same country with the same identities and cover stories for the third time in barely six months.
In the Mossad’s more timid days under Efraim Halevy, its chief from 1998-2002, the operation would have been cancelled for that reason alone. But Dagan and Holiday decided to take the risk. They would send the team in with the existing papers.
Meir Dagan, Mossad’s director from 2002-2011
The first three members of the Plasma Screen team landed in Dubai at 6.45 on the morning of 18 January. Over the next 19 hours, the rest of the team – at least 27 members altogether – arrived on flights from Zurich, Rome, Paris, and Frankfurt. Twelve of their passports were British, six Irish, four French, four Australian, and one German. All were genuine, but none actually belonged to the person using it. Some were taken from their owners, residents of Israel with dual citizenship, some were obtained under false identities, some were stolen, and others belonged to the deceased.
At 2.09am on 19 January, “Gail Folliard” and “Kevin Daveron” landed. They were to be the main pivots for the operation – controlling the forward command room, the communications personnel, the guards and the lookouts. They checked into separate rooms at the Jumeirah hotel. The reception clerk Sri Rahayu took their money and gave Folliard room number 1102 and Daveron 3308. Before going to sleep, Folliard ordered a light meal from room service. Daveron took a soft drink from his minibar.
“Peter Elvinger”, the commander of the mission, landed at the airport 21 minutes after Folliard and Daveron, carrying a French passport. After clearing passport control, Elvinger pulled a counter-surveillance manoeuvre (maslul in Hebrew), exiting through the terminal door, waiting three minutes, then turning around and going back inside for a predetermined meeting with another team member who had come to the airport earlier by car. By early afternoon, the entire team was waiting tensely for the arrival of al-Mabhouh. He was expected to fly in at three o’clock, but there were still some gaps in the intelligence. “It’s the kind of hit,” a veteran operative said, “where the target dictates how and when he is to be made dead.”
Al-Mabhouh arrived at 3.35pm. A team tailed him to the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel. The team members made extensive use of cell phones, but in order to avoid direct links between their numbers, they dialled a number in Austria, where a simple switchboard installed in advance put the call through, either to another phone in Dubai or to the command post in Israel.
The crew members already in the lobby of the Al Bustan Rotana were wearing tennis clothes and carrying rackets, though, curiously, without the usual accompanying covers. After al-Mabhouh got his room key, two of them entered the elevator with him. When he got out on the second floor, they followed at a discreet distance and noted that he was staying in room 230.
Once Elvinger knew al-Mabhouh’s room number, he made two phone calls. The first was to the Al Bustan Rotana, to book a room. He asked for 237, directly across the corridor from 230. Then he called an airline to reserve a seat on a flight to Munich via Qatar later that evening.
A little after 4pm, al-Mabhouh left the hotel. The team trailing him noticed he was taking precautionary measures, doing his own kind of maslul. He had good reason to do this: Almost all of his comrades in Hamas since the late 1980s had died unnatural deaths. But his moves were simple and unsophisticated, and the team had no trouble keeping eyes on him.
Kevin Daveron waited in the Al Bustan lobby for Elvinger, who arrived at 4.25pm. The security camera clearly captured his red- covered European Union passport.
Two hours later, four men came to the hotel, in two pairs. All wore baseball caps that hid their faces. They carried two large bags. Three of them were Caesarea “executioners”. The fourth was an expert at picking locks. They went directly to the elevators and to room 237.
At ten o’clock, the crew tailing al-Mabhouh reported that he was heading back to the hotel. Daveron and Folliard kept watch in the corridor while the lock picker began working the lock on the door to 230. The idea was to reprogram it so a Mossad master key would open the door without being logged, but at the same time not disrupt the normal functioning of the proper key. A tourist stepped off the elevator, but Daveron quickly engaged him in some innocent, distracting conversation. The tourist saw nothing, the lock was picked, and the team entered the room.
Then they waited.
Al-Mabhouh tried to escape back into the corridor. But two pairs of strong arms gripped him. A third man gagged him with one hand and, with the other, pressed to al-Mabhouh’s neck an instrument that uses ultrasound waves to inject medication without breaking the skin. The instrument was loaded with suxamethonium chloride, an anaesthetic known commercially as Scoline that is used in combination with other drugs in surgery. On its own, it induces paralysis and, because it causes the muscles used in breathing to stop working, asphyxiation.
The men maintained their grip until al-Mabhouh stopped struggling. As the paralysis spread through his body, they laid him on the floor. Al-Mabhouh was wide awake, thinking clearly, seeing and hearing everything. He just couldn’t move. Foam formed at the corners of his mouth. He gurgled.
The executioners checked his pulse in two places, as they had been instructed to do by a Mossad doctor, making sure that this time he was really dead. They removed his shoes, shirt, and trousers, placed them neatly in the closet, and put the body into the bed, under the covers.
The entire episode took 20 minutes. Using a technique developed by the Mossad for such occasions, the team closed the door in such a way that it seemed to have been locked from the inside, with the chain slid into place. They hung a “do not disturb” sign on the door handle, knocked twice on the door of 237 as a mission-accomplished signal, and then disappeared into the elevators. Within four hours, most of the team was out of Dubai, and none were left 24 hours later.
In Tel Aviv, a mood of self-satisfaction reigned, an atmosphere that was later described as “the euphoria of a historic success”. Everyone involved – Meir Dagan, Holiday, the hit team — believed another mission had been expertly accomplished. Dagan reported the kill to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “Al-Mabhouh,” he said, “won’t bother us any more.”
Hotel security found the body the next afternoon, after no one answered the maid’s repeated knocks throughout the day. There did not seem to be any cause for alarm, however. A middle-aged merchant dead in bed in a locked room with no signs of struggle or trauma was likely indicative of nothing more than a heart attack or maybe a stroke. Al-Mabhouh’s body was taken to the morgue, his death recorded and catalogued under the bogus name on his passport.
In Damascus, however, Hamas officials were beginning to wonder why the man they’d sent to broker several arms deals hadn’t reported back as scheduled. A day later, a local envoy asked around at police stations and morgues until he found al-Mabhouh’s unclaimed body in a refrigerated drawer.
A Hamas official contacted the Dubai police chief, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, and told him that the dead man with the Palestinian passport was, in fact, a top member of their organisation. He told Khalfan that the death almost certainly had not been from natural causes and that, more likely than not, the Mossad had been behind it.
Khalfan, 59 years old and highly decorated, had made it his personal mission to rid his country of criminals and foreign agents who used Dubai as a base for carrying out illegal activity. “Take yourselves,” he yelled into the phone, “and your bank accounts and your arms and your fucking counterfeit passports and get the hell out of my country!”
Still, he couldn’t have the Mossad wandering around killing people, either. Khalfan pulled the body out of the morgue for an autopsy. The results were not definitive, but Khalfan’s basic assumption was that the Hamas official had been right.
One disadvantage that Israeli operatives have, in comparison with their American or British counterparts, is that they have to use fake passports. A CIA squad can easily be outfitted with legitimate US state department passports, albeit under assumed names, and they essentially have an endless supply – one identity just buried under the next as needed. American and British passports are accepted everywhere in the world and rarely draw undue attention. Israeli passports are not. They are useless for getting into many Asian and African countries. The Mossad commonly forges copies from other, less suspicious countries. In the post-9/11 world, however, counterfeiting passports had become a more complicated business.
Documents that were sloppily made or had been used too often could endanger a mission and operatives’ lives. So when Mossad chief Meir Dagan bullied rushed passports and identities from reluctant technicians, that was bold leadership only until it went horribly wrong.
Dagan had allowed the Plasma Screen team to use the same identities four times in Dubai. It was not difficult for Khalfan to get a list of everyone who entered the UAE shortly before al-Mabhouh and then left soon after he died. Nor was it difficult to narrow the list down by looking at al-Mabhouh’s previous visits. That gave Khalfan names, which could then be cross-referenced with hotel registries.
Soon the police knew who came when, where they stayed, and what they looked like. From multiple CCTV cameras, Khalfan assembled a video narrative of the entire operation. It included bits of clumsy maslul for good measure. For instance, the camera above the door to one hotel’s bathroom showed Daveron entering bald and coming out with a full head of hair, without even noticing that he was on camera, although it was not hidden.
Khalfan then held a press conference and put the entire video on the internet for the world to see. He called on Dagan to “be a man” and own up to the hit. He demanded international arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Dagan, and Interpol actually did issue arrest warrants for all 27 members of the operation, though under their assumed names.
The countries whose passports Israel had used were furious. Many of them quietly co-operated with the Mossad, but not to the point of allowing their citizens, fictitious or not, to be dragged into assassination plots. Some governments ordered the Mossad representatives in their countries to leave immediately. All of them cut back on their collaboration with the Israeli agency.
It was a calamity born of hubris. “I love Israel and love the Israelis,” said a former German intelligence chief. “But your problem has always been that you disparage everyone – the Arabs, the Iranians, Hamas. You’re always the smartest and think that you can fool everyone all of the time.”
On one level, none of that mattered in Israel. Hundreds of Israelis with dual citizenship volunteered their passports for use in future operations. The organisation’s website was flooded with enquiries.
Things were different, however, inside the agency. The exposure and the negative attention the Mossad got were terribly damaging, and yet Khalfan never managed to prosecute any of the perpetrators. Whole sections of the Mossad’s operations were shut down, both because so many operatives had had their cover blown and because of the need to develop new procedures and methodologies. The Dubai operation was an embarrassment, or maybe just an excuse. In September 2010, Netanyahu told Dagan his appointment would not be renewed. Or maybe Dagan quit. “I decided by myself that it’s enough,” he said. “I want to do other things. And also, the truth is that I was sick of him.”
The Dubai fiasco is the exception. Throughout their successive histories, the Mossad and the other Israeli intelligence agencies – arguably the best in the world – provided Israel’s leaders sooner or later with operational responses to every focused problem they were asked to solve. But the intelligence community’s very success fostered the illusion among most of the nation’s leaders that covert operations could be a strategic and not just a tactical tool; that they could be used in place of real diplomacy to end the geographic, ethnic, religious and national disputes in which Israel is mired.
Because of the phenomenal successes of Israel’s covert operations, at this stage in its history the majority of its leaders have elevated and sanctified the tactical method of combating terror and existential threats at the expense of the true vision, statesmanship and genuine desire to reach a political solution that is necessary for peace to be attained.
Towards the end of his life, Meir Dagan (he died in March 2016) understood this. He came to the conclusion that only a political solution with the Palestinians – the two-state solution – could end the 150-year conflict. At a rally in central Tel Aviv before the March 2015 elections, calling for Netanyahu to be voted out, he addressed the prime minister: “How can you be responsible for our fate if you are so frightened of taking responsibility?” With the signs of his cancer evident, Dagan ended his speech with tears in his eyes: “This is the greatest leadership crisis in the history of the state. We deserve a leadership that will define a new order of priorities. A leadership that will serve the people and not itself.”
But the efforts of Meir Dagan were to no avail. He enjoyed adulation as the ultimate Israeli master spy; yet his speech, as well as the calls of other former heads of the intelligence and military establishments for a compromise agreement with the Palestinians and for other adjustments in Israel’s relations with the outside world, were ignored by the Netanyahu government.
This is an edited extract from “Rise And Kill First: the Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” (John Murray, out now) by Ronen Bergman
This article appears in the 15 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad