Hit Squad Completes Mission, But Video Goes Viral
NEAL CONAN, host:
A year ago, more than 25 elite Israeli agents trickled into the city-state of Dubai with fake passports, false names, a mysterious suitcase and a mission. Two days later, a senior Palestinian operative is found dead in his hotel room. The victim is Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The assassins would be identified from closed-circuit TV images, and Israeli would be embarrassed by the Mossad's amateurish mistakes.
Ronen Bergman is senior political and military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, and his play-by-play of the Mossad mission and how it went wrong appears in this month's GQ magazine.
Ronen Bergman joins us now on the phone from Jerusalem.
Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. RONEN BERGMAN (Senior Political and Military Analyst, Yedioth Ahronoth): Hi. Thank you for inviting me, Neal.
CONAN: And one of the things we learn in your story is that this was not the first time the Israeli assassination team had set out to do this man in.
Mr. BERGMAN: Yes. He was a target since 1989, when he abducted and murdered two Israeli soldiers. But the death warrant on his name -called a red page - was executed only in the late '20s, in 2009 and 2010, when he became a kingpin in the shipment of arms from Iran with the Revolutionary Guard to Hamas in Gaza.
They have followed him up when he came to Dubai a few times during 2009, and they had tried to kill him in the first time in November of 2009, two months before he was really killed. They had used some toxic - a highly-toxic agent. This was put on one of the furnitures in his room. He touched it. It liquidated into his blood, but apparently, it was not enough to kill him. He goes ill. He hospitalized himself in Damascus, you know, in a military hospital in Damascus. They could not identify what exactly was wrong with him, but miraculously, he recovered.
He did not realize that, in fact, this was an attempt on his life, and two months later, he came back to Dubai. The Mossad hit squad was behind him, and this time, they did not leave anything to luck. They were waiting for him in his room, and they wanted to make sure that in this time, they're not going to come back again. And this time, they are -he's going to be dead forever.
CONAN: And your article details all of the activities of this assassination squad because they were all tracked on closed-circuit television, which is widespread in Dubai, as it is in many other parts of the world. But this is a very, very modern city, and among the tip-offs was the fact that two men in tennis garb stood around in the lobby of a hotel for about four hours with tennis rackets.
Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah. Not just that there were standing there for many hours, but their tennis rackets were not covered. And everybody knows who - that the tennis player who cherished the quality of his racket wouldn't leave it just out in the open without a cover for so much time. And these people who didn't know very much - some of them too much athlete, were just standing there. And in retrospect, the chief of police of Dubai, Dhahi Khalfan, has said that among all the mistakes that Mossad hit squad has done, this is the exact mistake that attracted his attention. He said we were monitoring - we're going over these TV video surveillance records. We found this one, and this was the leading bit of information that led us to all the rest, and they cracked out on the team, and some of whom - most of what they have done in the few hours before and immediately after the assassination.
CONAN: And it's to say they managed to identify them but only after some time. All the members of the assassination team had long since left Dubai.
Mr. BERGMAN: Yes. The - from the point of view of the team, and also claims coming from Mossad, they said this was not a botched and a failed operation because the target is dead and the people who were part of the hit squad were all long time out of Dubai and came back to the country that sent them.
But the fact that they were exposed, the fact their pictures were -indeed, after the operation was already done but the picture that their pictures were published. The exposure of many of Mossad's modus operandi, as well as the use by Mossad of forged non-Israeli passports which caused diplomatic fury vis-a-vis Israel, all of that created massive damage to Mossad and to Mossad's prestige. They sent Israeli James Bond, at least in this specific operation, looked much more like Inspector Clouseau.
CONAN: There were also two aspects of the investigation in Dubai -conducted very well, you say, for the most part - but two gaps in what they had to say. The first, a four-hour gap when this Hamas operative went into a shopping center in Dubai, apparently for a couple of meetings.
Mr. BERGMAN: Yeah. The media coverage after the assassination took place and the press conferences by the chief of police of Dubai missed one important point and did it intentionally. And this is the identity of the target, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was a senior Hamas terrorist, a senior Hamas operative, who was part of the huge mechanism of army Hamas in raucous set of bombing Israeli cities and with ammunition and other sophisticated equipment by Iran. And in this four missing hours, the -al-Mabhouh, before being killed, met with few financiers who helped him in paying for the weaponry and also with his contacts first from the Revolutionary Guards.
Mr. BERGMAN: The police of Dubai...
CONAN: Iran - excuse me. Iran's Revolutionary Guard, it should be said, the people who were supplying the rockets.
Mr. BERGMAN: Of course. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards who came to Dubai to meet with him. And I think that the police of Dubai were very much embarrassed that this high-rank Hamas operative was present on their territory. He used forged passport and used Dubai as a mediating point in order to coordinate the logistics for the smuggling of arms from Iran to Port Sudan, from Port Sudan to Sinai Peninsula, and then from there, smuggled under the ground to the Gaza Strip.
CONAN: And there was also the fact that the Mossad agents would have wanted his death to appear from natural causes. Like the other time they poisoned him, the doctors could not find out what he was suffering from. Indeed, you suspect that very similar kinds of circumstances obtained, in this case, that had they just found the body without all of these other tip offs, they would not have been able to identify this as a murder.
Mr. BERGMAN: Because we have seen and we have obtained some other information and reports and records from the Dubai police showing conflicting evidence on the exact mechanism in which al-Mabhouh was murdered. That is the common belief that the still don't know exactly what is the chemical agent that was used, how exactly he died. It is clear that once the body was found and once the chief of police of Dubai identified the body because Hamas notified him, that this guy, using forged passport, is indeed a Hamas operative, a Hamas commander. He then understood, while watching the videos, that this guy was murdered. And then, he tried to fix the forensic reports, but still the forensics do not know what is the exact mechanism of death.
CONAN: And it is interesting. You mentioned, of course, the embarrassment to the Mossad agents in question, to Israel, which then had its diplomats brought in in many embassies around the world and dressed down for use of false passports. Particularly, Britain was especially angry because of an incident in the past that you also talked about. We don't need to go into that here. Have there been any repercussions in Israel from this debacle?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, I would say that there were some uproar inside the intelligence community against the chief of Mossad, who was forced to step down after the incident, a few months after or a year after. When Benjamin Netanyahu ended his term, the chief of Mossad made gone.
But I would say that the fact that these people were pictured, the fact that their photographs were published, caused a sort of a national pride that these people, the Israeli James Bond, the Israeli hit squad, they looked like the son of the - of our neighbors. They looked like the guy who served with us in the army. They looked like the nephew that we know from the streets in Israel.
The fact that these people looked so ordinary made in Israel - made a lot of people in Israel look - feel very proud. People - even volunteered to give their passports for Mossad operation onward. So it does not - it was accepted with a complex emotional reaction. And also with the sense that this guy, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was part of an ongoing attempt of Iran to arm Hamas in order to hit Israel, and therefore I would say was received - the operation against it was received with the general consensus of consent of supporting the order to kill him.
However, in the intelligence community, a lot of people are saying that the damage caused to Mossad proved that this was, A, a failure and, B, that the calculation of risk and the underestimation of the capabilities of the Dubai police was all done wrong. And no one should take this responsibility and take this risk in order to kill someone from Hamas.
CONAN: Ronen Bergman, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. BERGMAN: Thanks a lot. Thank you for inviting me.
CONAN: Ronen Bergman, senior political and military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. He joined us today via Skype from Jerusalem. You can find a link to his piece in this month's GQ magazine at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
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