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Hamas slaying in Dubai ripples worldwide

If there's a signature moment in the plot to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, it's likely his short elevator ride from the hotel lobby to Room 230.

world Updated: Mar 08, 2010 16:35 IST

If there's a signature moment in the plot to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, it's likely his short elevator ride from the hotel lobby to Room 230.

The Hamas commander and a woman hotel clerk enter the elevator and, just before the doors close, two men slip in. They look like any tourist in Dubai for the Persian Gulf winter sunshine: baggy shorts, tennis rackets, sneakers and baseball caps. Al-Mabhouh - still wearing the winter jacket he traveled in from Damascus to Dubai - barely gives them a glance.

But Dubai police say he was rubbing shoulders with two members of a surveillance team that would trail him to identify his room in the Al-Bustan Rotana hotel. A few hours later, authorities say, assassins would break in, drug him with a syringe jab and then smother him with a pillow - a killing Dubai's police chief Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim calls "99 percent, if not 100 percent" carried out by Israel's Mossad secret service.

The tactics might look like old school: simple disguises such as wigs, months of scouting missions and a hotel pillow as the murder weapon. But they are thoroughly modern in one important sense. We're seeing it unfold: on media Web sites and social networks such as Facebook and YouTube - everything but the killing itself. Perhaps no other political assassination has ever been so quickly and thoroughly displayed before the public, a testimony to the pervasiveness of surveillance technology and our connected world. Key events surrounding the Jan. 19 killing were captured on hotel security cameras. The body was discovered the next day, but the news didn't become public until nine days later. Then Dubai authorities rushed to release evidence in order to embarrass Israel, which insists it doesn't know who was responsible but has welcomed the killing, claiming al-Mabhouh was a key link in smuggling weapons to Gaza and a possible middleman with Israel's archenemy, Iran. The accusations hinge on tangible clues: expertly faked passports, many of them linked to apparent identity theft in Israel; credit cards under aliases stretching from banks in Germany to a small town in Iowa; and the surveillance tapes, edited by Dubai police into a kind of 27-minute video indictment for the media. The swift exposure has put Israel on the defensive. It is being called to answer to its own citizens who had their identities stolen, as well as to allied governments whose passports were abused.

The affair has left a trail of mysteries across the Middle East. If Mossad was behind it, did it act alone? The slain man's aide has claimed Arab forces hostile to Hamas collaborated in the killing.

How badly damaged was the perpetrating agency by having its methods put on display for the world? There has been criticism even within Israel. "The last assassination of its kind," said a headline in the Israeli daily Haaretz, suggesting it had ended an era of covert operations.

Did the alleged hit squad members push their luck? Did they think the chances of being identified were just too remote? Was it deliberate misdirection, or a lightly veiled warning to other perceived enemies? Al-Mabhouh's aide, Mohammed Nassar told Hamas' Al Aqsa radio in Gaza that his boss was involved in supplying weapons for Hamas, fueling speculation in Israeli media that he was heading for talks on a new arms deal with Iran.

"There's a huge number of questions to be answered," said Mustafa Alani, head of security studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "But what is rather clear is that someone underestimated the Dubai police."

One of those questions is why it took 10 days for the slaying to be made public. Another is this: Al-Mabhouh, one of the founders of Hamas' armed wing, had survived at least three reported attempts on his life since 1991. So why did he travel alone to Dubai? Hamas has not offered any clear details. But if there was an Iranian connection, Dubai would be an obvious choice. It's an important transit point for legal goods to Iran and, some experts say, for military and nuclear-related shipments banned by UN sanctions. It supports Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and openly calls for Israel's destruction.

First Published: Mar 08, 2010 16:31 IST