The January 19th assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh reads like a very professional operation:
Security footage of the killers’ movements during the afternoon, released by police in Dubai yesterday, underlines the professionalism of the operation. The group switched hotels several times and wore disguises including false beards and wigs, while surveillance teams rotated in pairs through the hotel lobby, never hanging around for too long and paying for everything in cash.
Folliard and another member of the party carrying an Irish passport in the name of Kevin Daveron were operating as spotters on the second floor of the hotel when the murder was committed. Both switched hotels that afternoon and dressed smartly to pose as hotel staff. The bald Daveron donned a dark wig and glasses, while Folliard appears to have removed a blonde wig to reveal dark hair.
Throughout the operation, none of the suspects made a direct call to any another. However, Dubai police traced a high volume of calls and text messages between three phones carried by the assassins and four numbers in Austria where a command centre had apparently been established.
To co-ordinate their movements on the ground, the team used discreet, sophisticated short-range communication devices as they tracked their victim.
The Dubai authorities claim there were two teams: one carried out surveillance of the target, while the other—which appears to be a group of younger men, at least as far as the camera shots show—carried out the killing.
Contrary to reports, the squad did not break into Mabhouh’s hotel room, nor did they knock on the door. They entered the room using copies of keys they had somehow acquired.
Read the whole thing — and watch (in three parts) this video compilation of all the CCTV cameras in the hotels and airprort. It’s impressive. And the professionalism leads pretty much everyone to suspect Mossad.
There are a few things I wonder about. The team didn’t know what hotel Mabhouh would be staying in, nor whether he would be alone or with others. The team also didn’t use any guns. How much of the operation was preplanned, and how much was created on the fly? Was that why there were so many people involved?
The team booked the hotel room directly across the hallway from Mabhouh. That seems like the part of the plan most likely to arouse suspicion. It’s unusual to reserve a particular room, and not unreasonable to think that the hotel desk staff might wonder who else is booked nearby.
How did they get into Mabhouh’s hotel room. The video shows evidence of them trying to reprogram the door. Given that they didn’t know the hotel until they got there, what kind of general hotel-key reprogramming devices do they have?
I wonder if any of those fake passports had RFID chips?
Dubai’s police chief said six of the suspects had British passports, three were Irish, one French and one German.
The passports are believed to be fakes.
And Mabhouh was discovered in his room, the door locked and barred from the inside. Is it really that easy to do that to a hotel room door?
Note: Please limit comments to the security considerations and lessons of the assassination, and steer clear of the politics.
EDITED TO ADD (2/19): Interesting analysis:
Investigators believe the assassins tried to reprogram the electronic lock on al-Mabhouh’s door to gain entry. Some news reports say the assassins entered the room while the victim was out and waited for him to return, while others say they were thwarted from entering the room when a hotel guest stepped off the elevator on al-Mabhouh’s floor. They then had to resort to tricking al-Mabhouh into opening his door to them after he returned.
He said the number of people involved in the operation indicates that it may have been put together in a rush.
“The less time you have to plan and carry out an operation, the more people you need to carry it out [on the ground],” he said. “The more time you have to plan . . . there’s a lot of things you eliminate.”
If you know that you can stop the elevator in the basement, for example, you don’t then need people guarding the elevator lobby on the victim’s floor to make sure no one steps off the elevator, he said.
He says it was likely that the Mossad’s second in command for operations was in the hotel or the area when the assassination took place and has gone unnoticed by the Dubai authorities.
Ostrovsky said although the operatives scattered to various parts of the world after the operation was completed, he believes they’re all back in Israel now. He says other countries are likely sifting through their airport surveillance tapes now to track the final destination of the team members.
He added that the Mossad was likely surprised by how the Dubai authorities pieced everything together so well and publicized the video and passport photos of the suspects.
Ostrovsky said that despite the Dubai operation’s success, it was amateurish at moments. He points to the bad disguises the suspects used — wigs, glasses and moustaches — and the fact that suspects seemed changed their disguises in the same place. He also points to two of the suspects who followed the victim to his hotel room while dressed in tennis outfits and didn’t seem to know what they were doing.
The two seemed to confer momentarily while the victim exited the elevator, as if deciding who would follow the victim to his room. A hotel employee accompanying the victim to his room even glanced back at the two, as if noticing their confusion.
“A lot of people in the field make those mistakes and they never come up because they’re never [caught on tape],” he said.