Death knell for targeted killings?
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh assassins took a calculated risk in hyper-technological Dubai. Indeed, the increasing use of sophisticated cameras and biometric identification devices may spell the end of old-fashioned hits by flesh-and-blood agents.
Despite regional hostility and suspicion, for over four decades agents from Israel?s intelligence community − special units and the Mossad − have had no trouble penetrating Arab capitals. There have been dozens of assassination missions, from the 1979 killing of Ali Hassan Salameh in Beirut to Imad Mughniyeh's assassination in 2008 (which Israel never claimed responsibility for) and other successful intelligence operations attributed to Israel.
There have also been a few failures, such as the botched hit on Hamas politburo head Khaled Meshal in Amman in 1997.
The most important lesson to be learned from the assassination in Dubai is that it was possibly one of the last operations of its kind. The use of sophisticated security cameras and the introduction of biometric measures of identification are changing the rules of the game in the world of spooks.
These advances are aimed at improving the security services ability to make life difficult for terrorists and criminals. However, paradoxically, it is the espionage agencies that will probably be affected more, as they will have trouble operating in the new technological reality. This will cause problems especially for the Mossad, which, according to the operations attributed to it, may well be the only organization in the world today in which assassination of terrorists is part of its DNA. Over the past decade the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has adopted Israeli methods of targeted killings; as used by the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza; in their own actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Iraq. However, whereas the Americans mainly employ unmanned aerial attack vehicles, the Israeli intelligence community supplements these means by also using the old classical tactics of deploying agents, who put themselves at personal risk of exposure and arrest.
Anyone who wants to plan such operations in the future will have to think very carefully about whether the risks and costs are worth the benefit of taking out any given terrorist. They will have to carefully weigh what theater of operation to choose. Will an area where the security services are not considered to be very punctilious, but which is heavily embedded with state-of-the-art technology; as in Dubai; be preferable to an place like Damascus, where technology lags, but secret agents have eyes everywhere and a light trigger finger?
Though most of the Mossad?s operations are of a classical intelligence nature, involving recruiting and handling agents, gathering intelligence and warning the political echelon about war, the rare assassinations it has been involved in have helped to build its reputation as a tough operator that pursues Israel's enemies to the death in every corner of the globe; from Thailand to Paris, and from Dubai to Warsaw. Perhaps the conclusion will be that only in the rarest cases, in which the target of assassination is really a linchpin and a nearly irreplaceable part of a terror group; someone like Hassan Nasrallah in Hezbollah; will a mission be worth the risk at nearly any price. But even this is not certain.
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh fit the definition used until now of a worthy target. He was not assassinated in revenge for his involvement in the killing of two IDF soldiers about 20 years ago. Rather, the hunters stalked him because of his key role in forging secret connections between Hamas and the Al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. They believed he had a major role in the coordination of arms shipments from Iran to Gaza via the shores of Sudan and Egypt, and on to Sinai. His assassination was aimed at thwarting Hamas activity in this area.
Does his killing strike a harsh blow to Hamas? Definitely. It will take time to find a suitable replacement for him. Just as importantly, in the wake of his assassination the Hamas leadership is in a tizzy and is being drawn into a vortex of suspicion.
No doubt the top Hamas operatives are thinking, if the enemy got to Mabhouh, then they can get to us; which is why they are hunkering down, like Nasrallah.
Will Hamas recover from the blow? Of course. Important as it may be, the operation can be counted as a tactical success, whose value is limited to a period of several months. However, neither the Mossad, Israel's intelligence community in all its other branches, nor the government has ever managed to formulate a clear notion as to the efficacy of the assassinations. They have failed to develop a clear and orderly doctrine concerning when to assassinate whom and where, and what the benefit of this is. No clear policy has been devised at all on these issues, and it seems that targeted killings are the outcome of the preference or daring of one Mossad chief or another, and the backing he gets from the incumbent prime minister.
The operation, which has been attributed to the Mossad although Jerusalem has neither claimed or denied responsibility for it, can be considered a success, especially with regard to the operational intelligence aspects. The information on the target's movements was precise. Contributing to this was his nonchalant, even amateurish conduct, as recorded by the security cameras. The success is also measured by the fact that over the course of 10 days, his commanders were fumbling around in the dark and did not know the cause of his death.
Furthermore, while the faces of 11 members of the hit teams recorded by the security cameras and their false identities on forged passports have been exposed, and another six might be exposed in the future; all of them successfully escaped Dubai unscathed.
Incidentally, it is quite possible the technology and software of the cameras used in Dubai was provided by Israeli companies doing business in the United Arab Emirates. The hit teams with their various tasks conducted themselves with operational professionalism and sangfroid. They were aware there were cameras, and what seemed like small hitches; the change of disguise picked up by a camera, and the exit by one of the members of the cell wearing a glove; were probably calculated risks taken by the agents.
It is also possible to assume that whoever forged the passports knows these Irish, British, French or German documents as thoroughly as the government printing offices in the given countries.
It is also not certain that the agents involved have been "burnt." Since their true identities are not known, and the photos publicized by the Dubai police may not really represent the way they look, one can assume they will be assigned for a while to desk jobs and will avoid traveling abroad. But if all goes well, in a few months they will probably engage once again in their expertise: intelligence operations in the field.
If no new dramatic evidence comes to light, Israel will most likely extricate itself from the affair by the skin of its teeth. Three dangers still lie ahead, however. One comes mainly from the British, who history shows will not remain silent until they get clear answers from Israel regarding the "identity theft" of British citizens living in Israel.
The second danger is that beneath the surface, relations are liable to be damaged with the Mossad's Western counterparts, who are not pleased when someone else is using its country's passports, genuine or faked. And the gravest danger of all is that someone in Israel's talkative society will identify one of the operatives as his neighbor or acquaintance from the past, and will not only hasten to tell his friends about it, but will also post it on the Internet.