Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Assassination of Mahmoud Mabhouh and the Passport Controversy

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Update from AIJAC

February 26, 2010
Number 02/10 #08


With new allegations from Dubai that three stolen or forged Australian passports were employed in the assassination of Hamas military leader  Mahmoud Mabhouh on Jan. 20, the controversy over that assassination has certainly heated up. (Some Israeli reports on the Australian passport angle to this story are here and here.) This Update provides both background and analysis on the alleged assassination and the controversy over the alleged employment of passports from a number of different countries.

First up is noted Israeli blogger and journalist Shmuel Rosner, who summarises the Israeli cost benefit analysis associated with the attack, assuming Israel's Mossad was responsible (which is by no means established). He makes it clear that the assassination of Mabhouh will definitely be seen as a positive security achievement, and there will be few moral qualms about it in Israel, given who he was and the lack of an alternative. However, the passport abuse allegations and the unpleasant spotlight on Israel's action will give many people pause, especially in the context of the love-hate relationship Israelis tend to have with their intelligence services. In the end, he concludes it is impossible to come to a definite evaluation without more information, but to access all the details of his argument, CLICK HERE.

Next, noted American law professor Alan Dershowitz looks at the legal aspects of the assassination. He argues that legally, if it did so,  Israel was absolutely justified in killing Mabhouh as a combatant in war, the only question is the legality of doing so in Dubai, and Dubai authorities have a right to enforce Dubai law. However, morally, he argues, the assassination was the least bad alternative given who Mabhouh was and the fact that seeking his arrest and trial was impossible. For Dershowitz's complete discussion, CLICK HERE. Barry Rubin and Gerald Steinberg both second Dershowitz's point that for those who say the Cast Lead military response to Hamas violence was unacceptable, this was a case of Israel exercising its right to self-defence against a combatant with absolutely no collateral damage against civilians. Various additional legal views on the assassination are collected here

Finally, American columnist Claudia Rosett queries the role of Dubai in this whole affair, given that Dubai is generally known to be a hub for illegal arms deals, sanctions busting by Iran, and terrorist groups. She reviews considerable evidence of all these problems in a country sometimes known as the "wild east".  She asks that if the Dubai police were able to produce such copious video footage of the Mabhouh assassination, where is the footage of and efforts to suppress the extensive other illegal and nefarious activities occurring there?
For her perspective,
CLICK HERE. More on Dubai's role as a terrorism, arms smuggling and sanctions busting hub comes from Zvi Bar'el of Haaretz and Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • A story that Mahboub himself routinely used forged passports. According to British former Middle East correspondent Tom Gross (who also explores media misrepresentations) he had five in his possession when he was killed.
  • Gross earlier adduced why he believes Israel may have been "set up" in this case.
  • For those who did not see it on "Lateline" last night, noted Israeli security affairs journalist Yossi Melman said that while he believes that Israel probably killed Mabhouh, he did not believe many of the details being put out by Dubai authorities.
  • Stories (here and here) adducing evidence that Fatah members, and possibly a close Hamas associate of Mabhouh's were involved in the assassination.
  • Jerusalem Post and Haaretz editorials on the passports controversy.
  • British-Israeli academic Dr. Jonathan Spyer suggests the passport affair will not have significant long-term consequences on Israeli relations with other states. An unnamed Israeli official and an American former intelligence official suggest the same here.
  • Some differing Israeli views on the controversy here, here, here, and here.
  • Australian blogger Andrew Landeryou and British columnist Chris Roycroft-Davis offer opinion pieces highly supportive of Israeli's action. 

A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Dubai Assassination

We won't know if it was worth it until we have all the facts.

By Shmuel Rosner

Slate.com,  Monday, Feb. 22, 2010, at 2:56 PM ET

Salim Yamadayev was killed by a gold-colored Russian-made pistol. He was shot in the underground parking garage of a luxury apartment block in Dubai, not far from the sea. The efficient Dubai police found the weapon and the black gloves used by the assassins, and with this evidence in hand, they accused a deputy prime minister of Chechnya of the killing. Yamadayev was an opponent of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov—a Russian puppet—one of the last opposition leaders still alive. He was eliminated on March 28, 2009, less than a year ago.

The Chechen regime—which has denied responsibility for the assassination—must be happy with the outcome. The Russians seem quite pleased, too. The consequences for the assassins? None at all. For the Chechen government? None. For the deputy prime minister? None. For Dubai-Russian relations? None. So, from the assassins' point of view, was the job worth the risk? In this case, the answer seems quite clear. But that's an easy case. It's much more complicated to make such a calculation when neither the cost nor the benefit is known to the public.

Nearly a year has passed since the Chechen assassination, and Dubai's chief of police is now showing off his skills once again. A Palestinian terrorist, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh of Hamas, was murdered in Dubai at the end of January, and shortly afterward, the police were able to post photos and videos detailing the assassins' movements in Dubai, to reveal the aliases on their passports, and to conclude "with 99 percent certainty" that this was the work of operatives from Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations—known as Mossad.

Mabhouh was no saint. More than 20 years ago he killed two abducted Israeli soldiers, and in more recent times he was a human link between Hamas and Iran, facilitating the shipment of weapons into the Gaza Strip and the shipment of Hamas militiamen to training camps organized by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Few will shed tears over his untimely death, not Israelis, not Western intelligence-service heads, not all Palestinians, not even Dubai officials. So, whether Mabhouh "deserved" his untimely death is no tough moral question.

The question currently being considered around the world is whether Mabhouh's death justifies the brouhaha and the possible damage to Israel's reputation and operational abilities. And the story really is worthy of the extensive coverage. The mysterious, false-beard-wearing assassins; the forged passports; the resourceful police chief; the innocent Israelis discovering that their names had been used in a game of international intrigue.

Columnist Ronen Bergman described the atmosphere of amused curiosity prevalent in Israel: "Israelis woke up Wednesday morning to pictures of 11 individuals plastered on the front page of every newspaper. The familiar guessing game began immediately: Don't I know him? Didn't we serve in the same army unit? Isn't that guy my geeky neighbor, the one who says he's an accountant?" Bergman quotes an acquaintance who "swore she had dated one of the men"—a professional assassin! I have no such romantic connection to report, just the occasional co-worker testifying that he knows a member of the group. Or so his wife says.

But the gossipy nature of most accounts isn't enough to quash the more serious questions. Israel—officially mum on the question of whether Mossad carried out the attack—finds itself in the spotlight: asked by Brits and Germans to explain how their passports came to be used; criticized by Jewish immigrants unhappy about having their identities stolen; vilified by experts who suspect that this operation was yet another bungled mission ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As a Ha'aretz colleague put it:

Israelis enjoy a love-hate relationship with … Mossad. When they succeed in another James Bond-style operation, we sing their praises as an example of all good things Israeli: innovation, daring, outsmarting the competition. But when they screw up, we are quick to identify all of our social maladies: arrogance, carelessness, disregarding the rules".

The truth is, such love-hate relationships aren't unique to Israelis or to intelligence agencies. This is another example of the familiar art of elevating and demoting maverick politicians, trendy artists, and the authors of brainy new ideas—the habit of journalism that is driven by a constant need for excitement. "Just as the previous mood of self-congratulation [about the success of the operation] was overheated and ill-advised, so too, now, is the opprobrium," wrote a lonely voice of balanced reason.

Anyway, how can we seriously evaluate the costs and the benefits, the singularity of the achievement and the profundity of the scandal, without having all the necessary information about Mabhouh's future plans available?

Will it now be more difficult for the Iranians to send weapons to Gaza? And if so, for how long? What will it cost to replace Mabhouh? Was he uniquely skilled in his field—an irreplaceable master terrorist? Or were the killers wasting costly bait on the equivalent of goldfish? Did the country that carried out the attack just lose half its force of professional assassins? Will Israel suffer diplomatically because of this operation—as some have warned—or is it just the passing scandal of the week that will go away quickly—as others have argued?

Will it now be more difficult to carry out such operations? Has a new era dawned on the ancient art of targeted killings—as some have claimed—because of the sophisticated biometric tools available to catch the perpetrators? Didn't the people who planned the Dubai operation realize that times were changing? If you can't answer most of these questions with at least some confidence, you can't say whether the operation was worth it.

When benefits are vague, costs are hotly debated, and context is lacking from all accounts of the Dubai assassination, calculating whether it was worth it becomes more of a hunch than a thoughtful analysis.

Context is the most important component of every story: It would be one thing to learn that Mossad failed in one operation out of 200—and quite another to learn that it didn't completely succeed in one operation out of three. It is hard to judge the demands for investigations and for the removal of high officials or acknowledgment of error when successes are kept under wraps and only mishaps are made known to the public—in short, when perspective is missing. But that is the very nature of covert activities. And whether or not we are in a new era of clandestine operations, that isn't likely to change much.

Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist. He blogs daily at Rosner's Domain.


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If Israel Killed Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Did it Have the Right To?

Alan Dershowitz

Huffington Post,  February 18, 2010 04:18 PM

I don't know whether Israel did or did not assassinate the leader of the Hamas military wing, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. But assuming for argument's sake that the Mossad made the hit, did it have the right to engage in this "extrajudicial assassination?"

Not all extrajudicial killings are unlawful. Every soldier who kills an enemy combatant engages in an extrajudicial killing, as does every policeman who shoots a fleeing felon. There are several complex legal questions involved in assessing these situations.

First, was the person who was killed a combatant, in relation to those killed him? If Israel killed Mabhouh, there can be absolutely no doubt that he was a combatant. He was actively participating in an ongoing war by Hamas against Israeli civilians. Indeed, it is likely that he was killed while on a military mission to Iran in order to secure unlawful, anti-personnel rockets that target Israeli civilians. Both the United States and Great Britain routinely killed such combatants during the Second World War, whether they were in uniform or not. Moreover, Hamas combatants deliberately remove their uniforms while engaged in combat.

So if the Israeli Air Force had killed Mabhouh while he was in Gaza, there would be absolutely no doubt that their action would be lawful. It does not violate international law to kill a combatant, regardless of where the combatant is found, whether he is awake or asleep and whether or not he is engaged in active combat at the moment of his demise.

But Mabhouh was not killed in Gaza. He was killed in Dubai. It is against the law of Dubai for an Israeli agent to kill a combatant against Israel while he is in Dubai. So the people who engaged in the killing presumptively violated the domestic law of Dubai, unless there is a defense to such a killing based on international principles regarding enemy combatants. It is unlikely that any defense would be available to an Israeli or someone working on behalf of Israel, since Dubai does not recognize Israel's right to kill enemy combatants on its territory.

If it could be proved that Israel was responsible for the hit--an extremely unlikely situation--then only Dubai could lawfully bring Israelis to trial. They would not be properly subjected to prosecution before an international tribunal. But what if a suspect was arrested in England, the United States or some other western country and Dubai sought his extradition? That would pose an interesting legal, diplomatic, political and moral dilemma. Traditional extradition treaties do not explicitly cover situations of this kind. This was not an ordinary murder. It was carried out as a matter of state policy as part of an ongoing war. A western democracy would certainly have the right and the power to refuse to extradite. But they might decide, for political or diplomatic reasons, to turn the person over to Dubai.

Turning now to the moral considerations, which might influence a decision whether to extradite, the situation is even murkier. The Goldstone report suggests that Israel cannot lawfully fight Hamas rockets by wholesale air attacks. Richard Goldstone, in his interviews, has suggested that Israel should protect itself from these unlawful attacks by more proportionate retail measures, such as commando raids and targeted killing of terrorists engaged in the firing of rockets. Well, there could be no better example of a proportionate, retail and focused attack on a combatant who was deeply involved in the rocket attacks on Israel, than the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Not only was Mabhouh the commander in charge of Hamas' unlawful military actions at the time of his death, he was also personally responsible for the kidnapping and coldblooded murder of two Israeli soldiers several years earlier.

Obviously it would have been better if he could have been captured and subjected to judicial justice. But it was impossible to capture him, especially when he was in Dubai. If Israel was responsible for the killing, it had only two options: to let him go on his way and continue to endanger Israeli civilian lives by transferring unlawful anti-personnel weapons from Iran to Gaza, or to kill him. There was no third alternative. Given those two options, killing seems like the least tragic choice available.

I leave to others, more expert in these matters, whether if Israel ordered the killing, it was strategically the right thing, or whether they carried it off in an intelligent manner. But as to the legal and moral right to end the threat posed by this mass murderer, the least bad alternative would seem to be his extrajudicial killing.

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Video Killer Thriller In Dubai

Claudia Rosett

Forbes,  02.25.10, 12:01 AM ET

Rarely has Big Brother been so generous with his video clips. Last week Dubai authorities released surveillance camera footage of 11 suspects wanted for the assassination of a top Hamas terrorist, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, found dead in his room on Jan. 20 in a Dubai luxury hotel. Spliced together and embellished by the Dubai police with helpful captions and red circles to highlight the suspects, it's an enthralling show. If a picture is worth a thousand words, video is the lingua franca of the modern world. At speed, around the globe, this footage has fueled interest in the case and stoked speculation about whodunnit.

Not that the Dubai authorities have been coy about their suspicions, with guesses pointing to Israel's secret service, the Mossad. Israeli officials have followed their policy of neither confirming nor denying. Conspiracy theories abound. The story is still playing out under a global spotlight, with the Dubai police enlisting the help of Interpol and naming another 15 suspects on Wednesday this week.

Whatever the mysteries, this much is clear: Dubai's security apparatus has just given an impressive display of its surveillance abilities. Closed circuit cameras followed members of the alleged hit team arriving and departing the airport, and tracked them at a shopping mall and at various hotels, including al- Mahbouh's. Dubai authorities were able to supplement that information by tracing cell phone calls that some of the suspects made to Austria, and are probing credit cards they used. The Dubai Police, on their English language Web site, boast of their own efficiency, saying they were able to put together the movements of these suspects "after identifying them, in a record time that did not go beyond 24 hours."

Elsewhere on their site, the Dubai Police describe themselves as "the most forward-thinking and progressive Arab police force today!" They have 15,000 personnel, and employ electronic finger printing, satellite technology and--obviously--quick access to lots of surveillance cameras.

All of which points toward a big question. If Dubai surveillance is this adept, where's the rest of the Dubai video collection?

One might reasonably suppose there are some fascinating scenes squirreled away. The assassination of al-Mabhouh is hardly the only case in which international killers have prowled the streets, malls and hotels of Dubai. Liveliest sheikhdom of the United Arab Emirates and busiest entrepot in the Gulf, Dubai has had a reputation for years as a frontier of the Wild East. That has its upside. Dubai is host to plenty of legitimate enterprise. But it also has its uses as a way station, meeting place and financial center for tyrannical regimes and terrorists.

The U.S. 9/11 commission noted that for al-Qaida terrorists in 2001, "Dubai, a modern city with easy access to a major airport, travel agencies, hotels and Western commercial establishments, was an ideal transit point." More than half the September 11 hijackers passed through Dubai en route to attack the U.S., two of those hijackers came from the U.A.E., and the 9/11 Commission reported that roughly half the $250,000 the hijackers spent preparing for the attacks was wired to them via Dubai banks. Following the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, documentation emerged--in U.S. federal courts,, as well as in both Congressional and United Nations investigations-- suggesting that Saddam's regime had used Dubai as a hub for sanctions-busting front companies, kickback collection and, according to the U.S. Treasury, efforts to buy surface-to-air missiles.

Today, Dubai is Iran's top trading partner, doing billions worth of business every year. Dubai was described in a recent paper by Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution as playing "a critical role as Iran's offshore banker and exporter."

So what else lies in the surveillance archives of the Dubai security services? If Dubai's authorities can piece together within 24 hours the trail of the alleged killers of one top terrorist, might we reasonably suppose they could also exhume quite a collection of clips providing more context? Could they perhaps give the global public a much better window on the deadly nature of the business pursued in airports, malls and hotel rooms by such killers as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or by Iran's pet terrorist organizations, Hezbollah and al-Mabhouh's outfit--Hamas?

For starters, where's the full surveillance footage of al-Mabhouh himself? He was a killer from way back; a founding member of Hamas's violent Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, who bragged about his role in the 1989 kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers. The Wall Street Journal, among others, reports that al-Mabhouh at the time of his death "was a key link in smuggling operations ferrying Iranian weapons to Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip." He reportedly arrived in Dubai last month from Damascus, which serves as a haven of hospitality for Hamas' top terrorists. Dubai authorities say he was traveling on a false passport, but apparently they have been able to piece together enough of his trail to inform the press that just before he was murdered, he "met with members of his group and bought a pair of shoes."

Please, tell us more--or better yet, show us any accompanying video clips. In whose blood was al-Mabhouh planning to dip those new shoes? Who, exactly, did he meet in Dubai? What for? Did he do any banking in Dubai? How often had he visited before? In recent years have Dubai authorities perchance stored away enough video of al Mabhouh and his terrorist comrades for a full-length feature film? Queried about these matters, the U.A.E. embassy in Washington referred me to the Dubai Police, who did not respond to phone calls or emailed questions.

Clearly this is a complex scene. The U.A.E. tries to walk a line between dealing with Iran and its affiliates and cooperating with the U.S. On its Washington embassy Web site, the U.A.E. states that its support for the U.S. includes the hosting of more than 2,000 U.S. military personnel and the contribution of 250 special forces soldiers to the coalition in Afghanistan. Last August Dubai blew the whistle on a shipment of North Korean arms that made a stopover in their waters, en route to Iran. And U.S. authorities in recent times have credited the U.A.E. with starting to crack down on terrorist finance networks.

Nonetheless, Dubai's authorities are putting on a curious display of priorities, appearing far more incensed over the murder of one Hamas terrorist than over the use of their turf for terrorists such as al-Mabhouh to plot and facilitate the murders--albeit elsewhere--of many others. If this is all about enforcing civilized norms, Dubai's authorities are clearly in a position to help, if they so choose. May we see the rest of the video collection?

Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.