Mossad's licence to kill
By Gordon Thomas
The killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh bears the hallmarks of the ruthless Israeli intelligence service. One of the leading chroniclers of the agency gives a unique insight into its methods.
The Mossad assassins could have felt only satisfaction when the news broke that they had succeeded in killing Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a top Hamas military commander, in Dubai last month.
The Israeli government's refusal to comment on the death has once more gained worldwide publicity for Mossad, its feared intelligence service. Its ruthless assassinations were made famous by the film Munich, which detailed Mossad's attacks on the terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Long ago, the agency had established that silence is the most effective way to spread terror among its Arab enemies.
In the past year, al-Mabhouh had moved to the top of Mossad's list of targets, each of which must be legally approved under guidelines laid down over half a century ago by Meir Amit, the most innovative and ruthless director-general of the service. Born in Tiberius, King Herod's favourite city, Amit had established the rules for assassination.
"There will be no killing of political leaders, however extreme they are. They must be dealt with politically. There will be no killing of a terrorist's family unless they are also directly implicated in terrorism. Each execution must be sanctioned by the incumbent prime minister. Any execution is therefore state-sponsored, the ultimate judicial sanction of the law. The executioner is no different from the state-appointed hangman or any other lawfully-appointed executioner."
I first met Amit in 2001 and through him, I talked to the spies of Mossad, the katsas, and finally, to the assassins, the kidon, who take their name from the Hebrew word for bayonet. They helped me write the only book approved by Mossad, Gideon's Spies. Amit said the book "tells like it was – and like it is".
Amit showed me a copy of those rules at our first meeting. After two years of training in the Mossad academy at Herzlia near Tel Aviv, each recruit to the kidon is given a copy.
The killing in Dubai is a classic example of how Mossad goes about its work. Al-Mabhouh's 11 assassins had been chosen from the 48 current kidon, six of whom are women.
It has yet to be established how al-Mabhouh was killed, but kidon's preference is strangling with wire, a well-placed car bomb, an electric shock or one of the poisons created by Mossad scientists at their headquarters in a Tel Aviv suburb.
The plan to assassinate Mahmoud al-Mabhouh had been finalised in a small conference room next to the office of Meir Dagan, who has run Mossad for the past eight years. The 10th director-general, Dagan has a reputation as a man who would not hesitate to walk into a nameless Arab alley with no more than a handgun in his pocket.
Only he knows how many times he has asked a prime minister for legal permission to kill a terrorist who could not be brought to trial in an Israeli court, along with the kidon to whom he shows the legally stamped document, the licence to kill.
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh's name had been on such a document, which would have been signed by Benyamin Netanyahu. That, like every aspect of a kidon operation, would be firmly denied by a government spokesman, were he to be asked. This has not stopped Dubai's police chief, Lt-General Tamin, from fulminating against the Israeli prime minister.
Two years ago this week, Dagan sent a team of kidon to Damascus to assassinate Imad Mughniyeh. His Mossad file included details of organising the kidnapping of Terry Waite and the bombing of the US Marine base near Beirut airport, killing 241 people. The United States had placed a £12.5 million bounty on his head. Dagan just wanted him dead.
Mossad psychiatrists, psychologists, behavioural scientists, psychoanalysts and profilers – collectively known as the "specialists" – were told to decide the best way to kill Mughniyeh.
They concluded that he would be among the guests of honour at the Iranian Cultural Centre celebrations in 2008 for the celebration of the Khomeini Revolution. The team rigged a car-bomb in the headrest of the Mitsubishi Pajero they discovered Mughniyeh had rented, to be detonated by a mobile phone. As Mughniyeh arrived outside the Culture Centre at precisely 7pm on February 12, the blast blew his head off.
At Mughniyeh's funeral in Beirut, his mother, Um-Imad, sat among a sea of black chadors, a sombre old woman, who wailed that her son had planned to visit her on the day after he died. She cried out she had no photograph to remember him by. Two days later she received a packet. Inside was his photograph. It had been posted in Haifa.
The list of kidon assassinations is long and stretches far beyond the Arab world. In their base deep in the Negev Desert – the sand broken only by a distant view of Israel's nuclear facility at Dimona – the kidon practise with a variety of handguns, learn how to conceal bombs, administer a lethal injection in a crowd and make a killing look accidental.
They review famous assassinations – the shooting of John F Kennedy, for example – and study the faces and habits of potential targets whose details are stored on their highly restricted computers. There, too, are thousands of constantly updated street plans downloaded from Google Earth.
Mossad is one of the world's smallest intelligence services. But it has a back-up system no other outfit can match. The system is known as sayanim, a derivative of the Hebrew word lesayeah, meaning to help.
There are tens of thousands of these "helpers". Each has been carefully recruited, sometimes by katsas, Mossad's field agents. Others have been asked to become helpers by other members of the secret group.
Created by Meir Amit, the role of the sayanim is a striking example of the cohesiveness of the world Jewish community. In practical terms, a sayan who runs a car rental agency will provide a kidon with a vehicle on a no-questions basis. An estate agent sayan will provide a building for surveillance. A bank manager sayan will provide funds at any time of day or night, and a sayan doctor provides medical assistance.
Any of these helpers could have been involved in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Mossad has recently expanded its network of sayanim into Arab countries.
A sayan doctor in the West Bank provided details of the homoeopathic concoction Yasser Arafat used to drink. When he died in 2004, his personal physician, Dr al-Kurdi, said "poisoning is a strong possibility in this case".There have been reports that more than a dozen terrorists have died from poisoning in the past five years,.
Within the global intelligence community, respect for Mossad grew following the kidon assassination of Dr Gerald Bull, the Canadian scientist who was probably the world's greatest expert on gun-barrel ballistics. Israel had made several attempts to buy his expertise. Each time, Bull had made clear his dislike for the Jewish state.
Instead he had offered his services to Saddam Hussein, to build a super-gun capable of launching shells containing nuclear, chemical or biological warheads directly from Iraq into Israel. Saddam had ordered three of the weapons at a cost of $20 million. Bull was retained as a consultant for a fee of $1 million.
On the afternoon of March 20, 1990, the sanction to kill Bull was given by the then prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Nahum Admoni, the head of Mossad, sent a three-man team to Brussels, where Bull lived in a luxury apartment block. Each kidon carried a handgun in a holster under his jacket.
When the 61-year-old Bull answered the doorbell of his home, he was shot five times in the head and the neck, each kidon firing their 7.65 pistol in turn, leaving Bull dead on his doorstep. An hour later they were out of the country on a flight to Tel Aviv.
Within hours, Mossad's own department of psychological warfare had arranged with sayanim in the European media to leak stories that Bull had been shot by Saddam's hit squad because he had planned to renege on their deal.
The same tactics had been placed on stand-by on October 24, 1995, for the assassination of Fathi Shkaki who, like Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, had reached the top of Mossad's target list as a result of his terrorist attacks.
Two kidon – code-named Gil and Ran – had left Tel Aviv on separate flights. Ran flew to Athens, Gil to Rome. At each airport they collected new British passports from a local sayan. The two men arrived in Malta on a late-afternoon flight and checked into the Diplomat Hotel overlooking Valetta harbour.
That evening, a sayan delivered a motorcycle to Ran. He told hotel staffs that he planned to use it to tour the island. At the same time, a freighter that had sailed the previous day from Haifa bound for Italy radioed to the Maltese harbour authorities that it had developed engine trouble. While it was fixed, it would drop anchor off the island. On board the boat was a small team of Mossad communications technicians. They established a link with a radio in Gil's suitcase.
Shkaki had arrived by ferry from Tripoli, Libya, where he had been discussing with Colonel Gadaffi what Mossad was convinced was a terrorist attack. The two kidon waited for him to stroll along the waterfront. Ran and Gil drove up on the motorcycle and Gil shot Fathi Shkaki six times in the head. It had become a kidon signature.
When the police came to search Shkaki's bedroom they found a "Do not disturb" sign on his door – a signature that was repeated in last month's Dubai killing.
Gordon Thomas is the author of 'Gideon's Spies'.
Source: © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2010
Dubai Hamas assassination: how it was planned
By Duncan Gardham
Dressed in tennis gear and carrying racquets and balls, the guests who wandered through the lobby of Dubai’s al-Bustan Rotana hotel on Jan 19 couldn’t have looked less threatening.
Suspects wanted in connection with the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, clockwise from top left: Michael Lawrence Barney, James Leonard Clarke, Stephen Daniel Hodes, Paul John Keeley, Melvyn Adam Mildiner Photo: AP
But within hours they and nine accomplices had carried out the ruthlessly efficient assassination of the Hamas military Commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who had just a few seconds’ warning of his fate as the killers overpowered him in his room.
The murder bears the hallmarks of a meticulously-planned operation by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, though Israel has so far refused to say whether it was involved.
What is beyond doubt, however, is that the alleged hit team, travelling on forged British, Irish, German and French passports, spent no more than 19 hours in the Gulf state, killing Mr Mabhouh just five hours after he had flown in from Syria.
After trawling through dozens of hours of CCTV footage, investigators have been able to piece together a minute-by-minute reconstruction of how the hit unfolded.
The 11-strong team arrived in Dubai in the early hours of Jan 19 on flights from France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, dressed as businessmen with trolley bags and laptops and blending in perfectly with other passengers.
As they checked into several different hotels, a young woman carrying a false Irish passport in the name of Gail Folliard, was filmed accepting the help of a porter to carry her bag.
A man using the name Kevin Daveron, and using another fake Irish passport checked into a different room in the same hotel ten minutes later, and at 2.29am a man using a French passport under the name Peter Elvinger arrived at the airport with a jumper slung casually over his shoulders.
“Elvinger”, who is now thought to be the leader of the squad, was met on his arrival by another member of the team, before the two left the airport in opposite directions.
After a few hours sleep the team began to assemble for instructions at a shopping centre, though at no point did any of them call each other – instead they used a series of telephone numbers in Austria, which was described by Dubai investigators as a “command centre” for the operation.
“Elvinger”, now dressed in a striped T-shirt, carrying a rucksack, and wearing a cap to disguise his features, arrived around 10.30am, followed by five other members of the team including the woman.
Two hours later the suspects left, one of them carrying shopping bags, and headed back to their hotels, where they began to check out at around 1.30pm.
“Daveron” went straight to another hotel, where he disappeared into the lavatories, emerging in a wig and glasses, and then on to a third hotel to meet up with the team again.
At 2pm, more than an hour before their target had even arrived in Dubai, the first of several surveillance teams arrived at the al-Bustan Rotana hotel dressed in their tennis gear.
Another team had been sent to an alternative hotel in case Mr Mabhouh checked in there but they left when they later received a call to say their intended victim had checked in at the al-Bustan.
Quite why Mr Mabhouh risked travelling to Dubai from Syria, his home of the past 20 years, remains a mystery, though there have been suggestions that he could have been lured there on the pretext of carrying out an arms deal for Hamas.
He arrived in Dubai using the name Mahmoud Abdul Ra’ouf Mohammed at 3.20pm and was immediately spotted at the airport by a member of another surveillance team who had been expectantly lying in wait.
As he arrived at the al-Bustan hotel, the “tennis players”, one of whom appeared to be wearing a false moustache and glasses, got into the lift with him and followed him to room 230.
They then passed on the details of the room number to “Elvinger”, possibly using a radio worn on the wrist, enabling “Elvinger” to check into room 237, across the corridor from Mr Mabhouh.
At 4pm a new surveillance team arrived at the hotel wearing track suits, T-shirts and caps and carrying shoulder bags, to help the tennis players keep an eye on their target.
Mr Mabhouh left the hotel at 4.23pm, followed closely by one of the surveillance team, just before “Elvinger” arrived to check into room 237 where he was joined by the woman and “Daveron”.
While the Hamas leader was out, the hit squad busily got to work trying to break into his room. Four burly men, with caps pulled down over their faces, arrived at 6.32pm, followed by another woman wearing a floppy hat, who has not been identified, and a man in a straw boater who took over surveillance from the tennis players.
The assassins tried to break into Mr Mabhouh’s room, and attempted to re-programme the door lock as the innocent-looking couple kept lookout in the hallway.
They were disturbed by a guest returning to her room and police believe they had to abandon their original plan – probably involving lying in wait for Mr Mabhouh inside his room – and decided instead to fool him into opening it when he returned.
When Mr Mabhouh arrived back at the hotel at 8.24pm, dressed in a checked shirt, jacket and jeans and carrying a white plastic bag, he had just minutes to live.
After he went back to his room, the female member of the hit team emerged from her room, grinning broadly, as the four burly members of the alleged assassination team went to work.
Footage of what happened next has not been released by police, but at some point during the 22 minutes which followed, Mr Mabhouh probably opened his door to his killers, who pinned him down and suffocated him.
They somehow managed to lock the door from the inside and put the latch and chain in place before they left.
Tellingly, when the four alleged assassins caught a lift back down to the lobby, one of them was wearing a bandage on his arm.
By 10.30pm the woman and “Daveron” were at Dubai airport to catch a flight to Paris, followed over the next 12 hours by the rest of the team, who flew to such scattered destinations as Frankfurt, Hong Kong and South Africa.
By the time Mr Mabhouh’s body was found at 1.30pm on Jan 20, when he failed to check out of his room, his killers were thousands of miles away.
The assassination was, as the Dubai authorities have been at pains to point out, “carried out by a professional team that is highly skilled in these kinds of operations”.
Source: © Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2010
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