More on the Al-Mabhouh Assassination

Interesting essay by a former CIA field officer on the al-Mabhouh assassination:

The truth is that Mr. Mabhouh's assassination was conducted according to the book -- a military operation in which the environment is completely controlled by the assassins. At least 25 people are needed to carry off something like this. You need "eyes on" the target 24 hours a day to ensure that when the time comes he is alone. You need coverage of the police -- assassinations go very wrong when the police stumble into the middle of one. You need coverage of the hotel security staff, the maids, the outside of the hotel. You even need people in back-up accommodations in the event the team needs a place to hide.

I found this conclusion incredible:

I can only speculate about where exactly the hit went wrong. But I would guess the assassins failed to account for the marked advance in technology.

[...]

Not completely understanding advances in technology may be one explanation for the assassins nonchalantly exposing their faces to the closed-circuit TV cameras, one female assassin even smiling at one.... The other explanation -- the assassins didn't care whether their faces were identified -- doesn't seem plausible at all.

Does he really think that this professional a team simply didn't realize that there were security cameras in airports and hotels? I think that the "other explanation" is not only plausible, it's obvious.

The number of suspects is now at 27, by the way. And:

Also Monday, the sources said the UAE central bank is working with other nations to track funding and 14 credit cards -- issued mostly by a United States bank -- used by the suspects in different places, including the United States.

We'll see how well these people covered their tracks.

EDITED TO ADD (3/3): Speculation that it's Egypt or Jordan. I don't believe it.

EDITED TO ADD (3/5): More commentary on the tactics. Speculation that it was Mossad.

Posted on March 2, 2010 at 5:55 AM • 83 Comments

Comments

chrisMarch 2, 2010 6:20 AM

another possible interpretation is that the assassins wished to be captured on tape as a demonstration of the power of their regime.

uk visaMarch 2, 2010 6:26 AM

"If it had been a Russian hit, for instance, they would have used a pistol or a car bomb, indifferent to the chaos left behind."
Alexander Litvinenko's assassination suggests not.
It does seem strange that Mossad are seemingly happy to lose the use 25+ operatives - at least from international ops - for one hit.

LanguagePedantMarch 2, 2010 6:44 AM

"incredulous" : You used that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

_You_ were incredulous (not the conclusion).

winslow theraminMarch 2, 2010 6:56 AM

Two issues:

1. 'I think that the "other explanation" is not only plausible, it's [obvious].'

What about that link (from the word 'obvious') offers the "other explanation"? That link discusses the why cameras don't make us safer, but doesn't directly address why the operatives where nonchalant about them.


2. I don't think you use "incredulous" correctly here. Seems that you can be incredulous of a conclusion, but a conclusion can't itself be incredulous.

Clive RobinsonMarch 2, 2010 7:04 AM

One asspect people appear to be getting hung up on is the phone communications to another country.

It has been known for quite a long time that (since the 1960's) various agencies use remote stations that act as relays.

So if you where to hire a room and put in a modern PABX which takes inbound phone calls and re-routes them out on different numbers across another national border you start putting gaps into the chain.

It would not surprise me to find people these days putting four lines into a closet with a broadband connection and one of those little WiFi ADSL 802.11 boxes (say 200USD) and then bounce it across the Internet across a few more national boundries.

Appart from the delay the clarity can be "all that is digital" these days

And VoIP technology is not that "G-Wizz" any more so hiding it in another channel etc would not be beyond the average graduate these days.

WillMarch 2, 2010 7:18 AM

We don't know who they are, who they work for, or even ... what they look like.

We only know how they appeared during the operation; we don't know what they look like normally, how they were disguised etc.

We can speculate that they left DNA evidence behind, but if thats a real threat then they would mitigate it by leaving a lot of random other people's DNA behind too.

All in all, well-funded (state?) terrorism/assassination has all things in favour of the assassins, if they can pick the time and therefore the place.

A nonny bunnyMarch 2, 2010 7:20 AM

"Does he really think that this professional a team simply didn't realize that there were security cameras in airports and hotels?"

I think that, perhaps, he considered they might not have thought about how much better the quality and accessibility of that kind of information is now, compared to 10 years ago.
Just consider that they would not have been able to mock up and release this kind of video in such short order 10 years ago. It's not just that there are more cameras now, but it's easier to search through the footage and it is better quality.

Well, that's my $0.02, anyway, but you know what $0.02 buys you these days. :P

Clive RobinsonMarch 2, 2010 7:25 AM

@ Bruce,

"I think that the "other explanation" is not only plausible, it's [obvious]."

If you are arguing CCTV is ubiquitous and thus unavoidable and from that "why bother hiding".

I for one would not buy it (aproximatly 30 trained agents is a very high price to pay for the target).

I think at this point we need information from people that are domain experts in,

1, Facial Recognition Systems.

2, Plastic/cosmetic surgery.

It is plausable to argue without further evidence that the group had no qualms about being recorded on CCTV because they had reason to belive that it would be of no use after they had left the country...

And this is the case the reason for this is open but ranges from,

1, They all knew that it was their last job and would be well looked after on their return home (wherever it might be).

Through to,

2, Their faces had been changed using short term surgery (facial silicon falsies etc). That has significantly changed their base facial features.

The usuall argument against 2 is eye distance and having to put your whole head in a vice.

However this may not be the case. If for instance facial recognition relies not on actual absolute distance measurment but a ratio of measurments (which is actually what you would expect) then that opens the possability up.

NevadaMarch 2, 2010 8:10 AM

"Not completely understanding advances in technology may be one explanation for the assassins nonchalantly exposing their faces to the closed-circuit TV cameras, one female assassin even smiling at one...."

I don't know why people keep describing this shot (presumably the final frame of "Gail" in the Dubai video) like this with such certainty. It really isn't clear that she is looking directly at the camera. She might be; but there is also a maid's cart in the hallway (right-hand side of the screen) and she might be smiling in casual greeting to a hotel employee.

tsMarch 2, 2010 8:12 AM

"It is plausable to argue without further evidence that the group had no qualms about being recorded on CCTV because they had reason to belive that it would be of no use after they had left the country..."

That makes sense: It hasn't been of use now, as far as I can tell.

What I find troubling is that 25 people, whose faces are all over the news, haven't been found yet. Did none of them have families, friends, neighbors that would recognize them and talk about it?

Trichinosis USAMarch 2, 2010 8:27 AM

If one aspect of the mission was to blame Mossad, that part seems to be eroding with the revelation of travel and financial activity within the US.

I'm more interested in the way they killed him, which hasn't been much talked about but seems to have involved the initial use of tasers. It was supposed to look like a natural death. It's been known for some time that handheld lasers can be used to induce aneurysms and embolisms, but this sounds like something different.

CraigMarch 2, 2010 8:33 AM

The country that carried out this assassination, will now be adapting their strategies after the release of the CCTV footage and trail of evidence left behind, and so will Hamas for that matter.

The examples cited of previous assassinations confirms that this will also not be the last, although this assassination is recorded in more detail than the public would normally have access to.

NolookNohearNoseeMarch 2, 2010 8:55 AM

The story by the former CIA field officer is part of the cover-up.

karrdeMarch 2, 2010 9:25 AM

Ya'know, when I think about those credit cards issued by American banks, I have this mental image of the time when I used to get a credit-card offer in the mail on an approximately-weekly basis.

Such mailings were regular during parts of 2006 and 2007, and came to a halt in the fourth quarter of 2008. (I had a relocation in 2006, and an upswing in credit-use...the trend may have existed for others at an earlier date.)

I would be very suprirsed if agencies like the Mossad didn't take advantage of that opportunity, though. Even if they already had a pipeline for credit cards, they could have augmented it during that time.

ytMarch 2, 2010 10:07 AM

What if they were counting on the ubiquity of cameras working in their favor? With so many cameras collecting so much footage, maybe they were counting on it being difficult to find the needle in the haystack of irrelevant data. It's the classic overcollection problem: yes, you have collected all this data, but it's worthless if you can't analyze it. Maybe that's what they were counting on.

CalvinMarch 2, 2010 10:32 AM

The thing that strikes me as very weird about this event is the amount of public disclosure. WHY are the investigation agencies releasing all this information? Either they know they are too incompetent to close the case without "crowd-sourcing" it OR we're being fed a torrent of bogus information for some other (political) purpose.

AlexMarch 2, 2010 10:54 AM

The thing that strikes me as very weird about this event is the amount of public disclosure.

Alternatively, we're being fed a torrent of genuine information for some political purpose. The UAE government would probably quite like it to be known that a) it's the Israelis, b) they are willing and able to investigate, c) because b), they aren't complicit.

Another point is that the Dubai police are efficient in terms of proper investigative policing, when they want to be.

ShaneMarch 2, 2010 11:30 AM

All the 'caught on tape' rhetoric is just a desperate attempt to downplay the blatantly obvious lack of concern over the cameras shown by the perpetrators, as well as the less-than-obvious usefulness (so far) of having all 27+ of them on camera committing the crime.

Both of these issues are pretty hot button at the moment. The assassination blows holes in the two primary arguments for ubiquitous CCTV:

1) Cameras deter crime because criminals don't want to be caught on tape.

2) Cameras help solve crimes after the fact.

Number two remains to be seen, but so far it looks like it hasn't made a bit of difference. Personally though, I certainly don't see it as being an instrumental factor in solving this case (or even prosecuting it for that matter).

RoyMarch 2, 2010 11:57 AM

The lesson? CCTV used for wholesale surveillance will be beaten cold by well-coordinated well-trained operatives. Every operative caught on tape was a false negative. There may be others never detected.

BF SkinnerMarch 2, 2010 12:02 PM

The CIA has a book? They'er that bad at assasination and they have a book?

AppSecMarch 2, 2010 12:02 PM

@Shane
1) Cameras deter crime because criminals don't want to be caught on tape.

2) Cameras help solve crimes after the fact.

Re #1: Nobody can answer that (stats can be manipulated any way you'd like -- because even if you say X number of crimes are still commited, I can come back with: Yes, but X+ Y would have happened if cameras weren't in place). I think of cameras just like a "club" -- easy to bypass, but enough of a deterent to stop at least a few attempts.

Re #2: Yet, ironically, here we are evaluating this attack because of the video.

fusionMarch 2, 2010 12:15 PM

The CCTV tapes appear to be a set of tapes of people doing what could easily be perfectly innocent activities. If it weren't for the ominous comments from Dubai, I doubt anyone watching these tapes would believe anything nefarious were happening.

Is there any evidence actually tying any of these people to the assassination beyond the say-so of Dubai security?

ShaneMarch 2, 2010 12:23 PM

@AppSec

I'm assuming you read the whole comment, hence you realize I'm not a supporter of 1 or 2.

For the record though, Re: "Yet, ironically, here we are evaluating this attack because of the video"...

I'm here/interested because it was a success in spite of the footage/evidence, not because of it.

FMarch 2, 2010 12:25 PM

Given the video analysis tools available "off the shelf"[take that to mean whatever you want], any estimates of the man-hours required to assemble the video show? Did the credit card trail or cell phone/text msg trail give time stamps for narrowing down searching the video?

ThomasMarch 2, 2010 12:26 PM

What I still don't understand is that they were careful not to call each other directly, but they were linked to each other anyway as they called some Australian number. Why would they care about local calls when they don't care about camera's and such?

Clive RobinsonMarch 2, 2010 12:32 PM

@ Calvin,

"Either they know they are too incompetent to close the case without "crowd-sourcing" it OR we're being fed a torrent of bogus information for some other (political) purpose."

I see no reason to think in any way at the moment that the police are in any way incompetent.

You have to consider that once the "perps" have left their juresdiction then they are reliant on the good will of other nations and organisations to come forward with information.

What you are saying is that if your house was broken into by persons unknown to you but you had their faces on CCTV footage you where being incompetent because you did not have information as to where to "go get 'em Dano"...

Although you possibly don't realise it the security of your property is dependent not just on your vigilance but on the security and vigilance of your neighbours near and far.

As for being feed information for a political purpose then yes we are, for gods sake it was a political murder plain and simple for reasons yet to be identified. Calling the murders by another name is just a pointless glorification excercise.

As for the information being "bogus" how on earth do you come to that conclusion.

You have a murder committed (or are you claiming that is untrue?). You have a group of people who where caught on CCTV around the hotel room and they have fraudulent identification papers and credit cards etc etc (or are you claiming that is untrue?). It would be a reasonable step to associate the two sets of facts. The association may prove to be incorrect at some future time, but the odds of that are what? Compared to the odds of it being true and thus a correct call?

BF SkinnerMarch 2, 2010 12:38 PM

"If it had been a Russian hit, for instance, they would have used a pistol or a car bomb, indifferent to the chaos left behind."

Not to self - update the book - there are more than one "the book"
Second note rewatch S*P*Y*E*S

" search of all cellular phone calls made in and around the hotel where Mr. Mabhouh was assassinated would show who had called the same number"

Note to self - update the book before next hit - assign individual C&C numbers and autoforward

"can't put a large team on the ground in a modern country and not leave a digital footprint."

Note to self update Limited use policy - tell agents they can't use CIA provided cell phones for personal use.

"30 trained agents is a very high price to pay for the target)."
Note to self - design new agents for one time use. Maybe a nice container with a popup lid to make for easy dispensing. Floral scent? Pine?

ShaneMarch 2, 2010 12:43 PM

My gut is telling me to go ask Hollywood.

Surely they found the mastermind inside of ten minutes of it going public to buy the exclusive rights to the screenplay.

Clive RobinsonMarch 2, 2010 12:45 PM

@ Roy,

"succinylcholine"

I've been waiting for that to pop up again (it has been mentioned on this blog at some point in the past few years).

It was brought to a larger public audiance by Tom Clancy in one of his books about a two man hit team running around Europe and the Middle East "bumping off" Aribic terrorist handlers...

In the book they where tracking the Arabs by their digital footprint.

It's funny how art often holds up a mirror and thus provides a reflection of reality.

ShaneMarch 2, 2010 12:47 PM

@Clive

Re: succinylcholine

Also a favorite of profiled murders on Forensic Files, especially those committed by Health Care workers.

Clive RobinsonMarch 2, 2010 12:52 PM

@ Roy,

Speaking of other "elimination agents" injected into the victim.

There was once a TV drama where they injected liquid freon up the inside of somebodies nose, causing the brain to be crushed by the expanding gas. Apparently it would look like a stroke...

Oh and a simple one.

Go out and by a packet of "low salt" which contains a large quantity of Potassium clhoride. Disolve in water and inject into the blood supply. Bingo heart attack.

The interesting thing about this (appart from it's use as the leathal injection in some US States) is the body will naturaly produce a potasium wave as it dies...

John CampbellMarch 2, 2010 1:32 PM

@yt: "It's the classic overcollection problem: yes, you have collected all this data, but it's worthless if you can't analyze it. Maybe that's what they were counting on."

IMHO the planners knew that they couldn't be invisible so, perhaps taking something from an ancient Smithsonian Air&Space magazine, they jumped from stealth to "high observables" to swamp the data collected and likely used techniques tested under their own surveillance systems to render all of the collected material effectively useless in identifying the human beings involved (women were men, men were women... and use as many cultural prejudices to ensure searches are narrowed along other axes) so that matches can't happen... or will end up with an exceptionally high hit count since the people are "generic".

(Please note that I have met people who look more like me than I do... All right, so I'm exaggerating, there, but I *have* met people I who made me feel like one in an exceptionally long line of clones. I am reassured that none of those in the manufacturing line I came off of were involved in this little mission.)

Nick PMarch 2, 2010 1:49 PM

On succinylcholine (aka Anectine)

One of the favorite's in the operator's toolset. Most interesting use for plausibly deniable execution was Robert Ludlum's The Janson Directive. Attacker was tasked with assassinating NSA guy in Level 5 armored car and making it look accidental. He injected the driver with a handshake, drove the car off a cliff (it was raining), and put the driver back in driver seat. It looked like an accident and the driver was injected with enough to drown before recovering. The rear windows were cracked just enough to let the water in, turning the armored car into an armored coffin. Clever. They used to use it in lethal injections, but use something else now that last longer with fewer side effects.

On attackers exposure & the publicity

Well, it all does blow my mind. I'm with those that say 20+ agents is too high a price to pay. Even one timers. With good OPSEC and procedures, the surveillance agents can typically be reused in at least a few hits. This was pathetic. I'm inclined to believe all of their cover was busted by the time they got there and then they just became kites, which would be logical. The publicity is interesting as well, as most events are kept secretive. Of course, in Jews vs. Arabs conflicts, there is usually plenty of published information: names; pictures; forensic data. Attacks by Hamas and the invasion of Lebanon are examples. Maybe it is just habit?

@ Clive

Nice post in another thread on surveillance detection tactics. Of course, if my marks are reading that then you may have just blown my cover. Next thing you know, I'll be on the news and fleeing to non-extradition countries. Clive Robinson: inadvertently turning amateur readers into professional spies since 1957. Darn you, Clive!

Grande MochaMarch 2, 2010 2:20 PM

Bruce said, "Does he really think that this professional a team simply didn't realize that there were security cameras in airports and hotels? I think that the 'other explanation' is not only plausible, it's obvious."

I don't think that's what the author meant. The author isn't saying that the team was ignorant of the cameras, he's saying that they were ignorant of how easily all the different camera data could be culled by modern software. Even five years ago the images captured by all the cameras would be virtually useless because of the human time and effort required to go through all of the footage. Now, however, modern software with sophisticated facial identification software was able to piece together the relevant video frames in a couple days. That's the new advances he thinks the team missed.

DuffMarch 2, 2010 3:08 PM

I think you guys are all missing a huge detail that is hiding in plain sight -- this video is too good and was produced too quickly to be real.

Whomever did this wanted the world to know about it.

JonSMarch 2, 2010 3:16 PM

Not to pile on here, but ...

Bruce said, "Does he really think that this professional a team simply didn't realize that there were security cameras in airports and hotels? I think that the 'other explanation' is not only plausible, it's obvious."

It could be simple arrogance. It wouldn't be the first time a national intelligence agency with an inflated sense of it's own abilities had grossly underestimated the abilities of target-nation police forces.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

Muhammad EL-HarmeelMarch 2, 2010 3:21 PM

Bruce,

He is called Al Mabhouh, and not Al Madhouh.

Please correct this.

RoyMarch 2, 2010 3:50 PM

@ fusion

A false negative is one that slips by undetected; a false positive is one that is mistakenly 'detected'.

jbMarch 2, 2010 3:53 PM

To the people confused about the lack of concern for anonymity:

Since it was likely that the agents would eventually be identified, no matter how well they disguised themselves, they didn't spend any energy on defending against that. Just as attackers who don't mind if they die render many defensive systems irrelevant, so do attackers who don't mind if they are observed.

Think of it as a 'career suicide' mission.

Anon.March 2, 2010 4:09 PM

I think all connection with the claims made about CCTV crime stats are erroneous. Assassination is not the same as "ordinary" murder, let alone the vandalism, theft, robbery, etc. the public at large is primarily concerned with or local police can reasonably expect to solve, deter, etc. CCTV systems don't claim to prevent or deter assassinations!

I *really* wonder why the CIA field officer can't find it plausible the operatives didn't care about being identified AFTER THEY GOT AWAY. Their mission was a success, although maybe not ideally. But any photo record was unlikely to be an issue until after the deed was done - if then.

They could go to another country tomorrow and do the same thing. Even if they think they might be recognized, maybe this time they'll make some attempt to obscure or conceal their appearances. Or, maybe they get promotions and never leave their home country again - they do analysis, training, or whatever.

Anon #2March 2, 2010 4:32 PM

@Anon: Yeah, but the CCTV cameras don't exactly deter normal murders, either. You'll find citations in the essay if you read it again.

BadtuxMarch 2, 2010 5:51 PM

A correspondent who was once high up in the security services of a U.S. ally during the Cold War (now retired) says that the large number of people involved hints at a sloppy operation put together at the last minute. The deal is that the less time you have to plan, the less time you have to observe the target and identify the patterns of the hotel staff and so forth, the more people you need to have involved in order to handle any unexpected contingencies. He also expressed incredulity about the sloppiness of the operatives, and the rapidity with which the Dubai security services identified them. He says that the Dubai security services are good -- but they're not that good, and are obviously receiving help from purported allies of Israel who are upset that their passports were so blatantly flouted in this operation.

His conclusion, however, is far different from Bruce's. His conclusion is that this was an amateurish operation put together at the last minute, primarily by a field office in a sleepy backwater that had no experience in black ops, and has thunderous things to say about the competence (or lack thereof) of the person who put this operation together and what he would have done to this person (Novosibirsk station assignment during winter?) if employed by him back in his day. The number of operatives blown and the fact that they include apparently the entire Mossad field office in Dubai, leaving a major arms trade center now uncovered, in his opinion far outweigh the value of the target that was taken out.

His opinion rings true with me, but take it as you will. Opinions are like, well, you know ;).

DCMarch 2, 2010 7:17 PM

@duff
I'm with you. Too good, too fast, too pat.
Someone looking for an excuse to publish, ready and waiting with everything set up to go? Probably not hard at all to find a bunch of people visiting Dubai with fake this and that to use to make a point either -- whether involved in something the video is trying to prove or not.

Which is maybe why Bruce brought it up -- something smells here.

gopiMarch 2, 2010 9:07 PM

Who said they used software to identify faces?

Large teams of poorly paid third world guest workers would seem likely.

Clive RobinsonMarch 2, 2010 10:27 PM

Doug (DC),

"Too good, too fast, too pat."

Sounds like a knee jerk reaction which can be dangerous in an investigator of any kind.

"Someone looking for an excuse to publish, ready and waiting with everything set up to go?"

Err not likley, "an excuse to publish" is usually applied when someone has a boilerplate agenda and has already collected all "their argument" prior to an oportunistic event that triggers the oportunity to publish.

But essentialy you are arguing that the Police already had all of this evidence and the death was the excuse.

You appear to have cause and effect reasoning backwards.

Probably not hard at all to find a bunch of people visiting Dubai with fake this and that to use to make a point either -- whether involved in something the video is trying to prove or not."

The flaw in this argument is that they are doing it in the hotel in the passage outside the door the man was murdered/died.

So what are the odds of these persons being their and doing what they are doing and not being involved or related to the murder/death in the room of a high profile individual?

Let me put it this way of the arguments I can think of to support your argument most have the unfortunate property of "putting the cart before the horse" and even where not, the balance of probability is favoured in the opposit argument.

Your "burden" is to come up with a reasonable argument as to what members of this 25-35 man team where upto outside the deadman's door?

But importantly it has to be not just probable but more probable than the intent to commit murder of the individual concerned.

Unfortunatly your "excuse to publish" and "everything setup to go" arguments stop you saying that the team where "just there watching the man" and he's death was natural/accidental caused by others".

It is going to be difficult on the information so far supplied to argue that the team where there for other reasons, and it was just chance they decided to center their activities in the same hotel, in the same passage outside the dead mans door.

However please go ahead and argue the case it will prove interesting I'm sure and it will almost certainly throw up further points that need to be looked at.

Which is why "Devil's Advocate" argument is a usefull investigatory tool when their is a paucity of information. But to be credible it has to pass Occam's razor, otherwise it is "but a house of cards on shifting sands".

Clive RobinsonMarch 2, 2010 10:46 PM

Speaking of a "house of cards on shifting sands", is the issue of "burning the team".

What is so important about the dead man that it was a rational trade off to burn the team?

If not a trade off then why did it happen?

Arguing it was an oportunity that came by chance and it was a botched attempt still does not remove the first question of why was he so important...

And the only answer that so far makes sense (and it's a scary answer) is it was a "political" not "tactical" choice.

And as we know (from Watergate, bay of pigs, et al) when a senior political post holder issues a "hunting licence" it oft goes wrong and publicaly so.

Which brings up the question of colateral damage outside of just the team being burned...

can you hear the hiss?March 3, 2010 1:54 AM

I wonder if it's just a bunch of corrupt inhuman monsters at the top, presiding in secrecy across all nations and playing a big game with all the wars and blackbox evil, it just keeps going round and round while we are divided even more and hollywood glorifies violent trash like the blah blah aces 2 movie it's disgusting

i'll leave this ferris wheel one day and serve in God's Kingdom where Truth prevails, better to be a doorman in the house of God than be in the tent of the wicked!!!!

John LiMarch 3, 2010 3:08 AM

Another explanation is that the team of assassins simply underestimated the ability of Dubai police to piece together an investigation like this. After all the Dubai authorities prior to this incident weren't exactly known for their capabilities.

GreenSquirrelMarch 3, 2010 3:34 AM

@AppSec

Re: Cameras
"Re #2: Yet, ironically, here we are evaluating this attack because of the video."

Fair comment, although so far (to an outsider at least) they seem to have added very little to the more "old fashioned" policing. It has yet to allow the suspects to actually be identified.

It seems to me that the main thing CCTV allows is the ability for police forces to "PR" their investigations and show the public images. This may be a good thing, but personally I remain unsold.

@All

Re numbers and compromises

I am (sort of) glad to see someone else coming out in support of the operations team not being "overlarge" but jealous at how succinctly he put it.

However, I dont agree with Bruce's assertion that the team didnt care about being compromised. People make mistakes. Intelligence is sometimes wrong. Assessments are never perfect.

In UK Skill at Arms lessons there is a training video about "The Unthinking Moment" which addresses the problem when very professional people have a momentary brain fart with terrible consequences. It happens all the time - explosives experts can set charges a million times, then once get it wrong. Weapons instructors have Negligent Discharges. The list is endless. There is no reason to think that at some stage someone made a mistake which allowed this to happen.

To me, that is a lot more likely that a deliberate or uncaring attitude.

Caveat: They may not have cared simply because even now, with all this footage, the operators havent been identified and its not even all that likely they will be constrained from operating elsewhere in the future.

(I still go with the mistakes idea for now though)

GreenSquirrelMarch 3, 2010 3:41 AM

@Duff

"this video is too good and was produced too quickly to be real"

@DC

"I'm with you. Too good, too fast, too pat."

Erm. no.

In 1996 after the IRA bombing in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, it would have been possible to piece things together to this level of detail within about 8 hours of the explosion.

Producing high quality production material is trivial. The hard part is getting the data.

Police states, by their very nature, are likely to be good at getting the data....

I suspect the greatest mistake the operational team made was underestimating the Dubai Police to the same extent as lots of western commentators.

GreenSquirrelMarch 3, 2010 3:42 AM

@John Li

I couldn't agree with you more. Even now people are using the supposed "incompetence" of the Dubai Police to spin conspiracy theory ideas.

The simplest argument would be that they are simply a well resourced, modern, police force.

MichaelMarch 3, 2010 4:07 AM

It was a sloppy job and embarrassed israeli government. Widespread publicity will make it harder to use foreign passport in future missions. Ethnic pride is preventing some people from admitting it.

John SmithMarch 3, 2010 5:33 AM

Let’s not forget that the crime initially went undetected. Mabhouh was found dead the next day under no suspicious circumstances. The assassination team was long gone and should never have been detected. I think it has been clearly established that they could not avoid the CCTV cameras. But did they look like their true selves when filmed? Do even their passport photos truly resemble their real selves? I don’t think they underestimated the CCTV system of Dubai, but possibly the tenacity and willingness of the police to lead such a thorough international investigation.

Some had been to Dubai on the same passports previously. I suppose that would add to credibility for return access, but again, one wonders if they were there last time following Mabhouh or establishing a legend for another operation.

One of the video clips mentioned (I think Gail) leaving the hotel with three plastic bags that she allegedly delivered to vehicle based teams in the car parks. Clearly there is a lot more footage and “evidence” that has not been released.

The member of the alleged assassination team that had a plaster cast on his left hand walking in and out of the hotel…propos to detract from his facial features?

Where did Mabhouh go when he left the hotel? Who did he meet? Were there any other deaths during that period? Did he have any data with him that has disappeared?

No one really knows the specifics of how he was killed other than it appeared natural. It is unlikely he would have stayed still whilst being injected. Maybe the reports of electronic stunning are correct. If the team had the room opposite was there any need to wait in his room, or just to exit their room opposite as he was entering his? Would love to see the full footage from the camera in that corridor.

How did the Dubai Police know who Mabhouh was and who to contact?

I do find it odd that they released so many passport pictures without first knowing who they might be burning in the process. Surely they could not have been positive that all the passports they showed were linked to the assassination. And I can’t see how the low quality facial images from their CCTV footage can be likened with certainty to the passport photos. There must be so much more going on behind the scenes between various intelligence agencies although I am fairly certain that most don’t want to be involved. I wonder whether all the destination airports pulled their footage and have compiled similarly incriminating evidence. Even if they have it won’t be for public consumption. Haven’t heard Dubai Police Chief ranting to them to release their “evidence”.

I do find it amusing, absurd and more than a little irritating that the Police chief (whilst jumping up and down) repeatedly states that the perpetrators are back in Israel and will be arrested if they leave. Based on what evidence are they Israeli or in Israel, and who is going to be arrested when he doesn’t know who they are? They probably live all over the world anyway…

What has happened to the two Palestinian (Fatah) intelligence officers and the Syrian (Hamas) guy who were all arrested and/or helping with enquiries? If I was one of the countries whose passports have been used I wouldn’t be going anywhere or doing anything without knowing all the facts.

You have to wonder what the agenda is here. These guys seemingly are career operatives. Intelligence agencies routinely use fake passports. I don’t understand what the big deal is.

Clive RobinsonMarch 3, 2010 7:02 AM

@ BadTux,

"... says that the large number of people involved hints at a sloppy operation put together at the last minute."

I would definatly have to disagree with that.

To start off with you need 24H/day coverage of the person.

Contary to what most people think you are only "sharp" for less than 6Hours a day.

Which kind of implies atleast 4 teams of people around the clock.

Now to follow an individual who is even remotly aware without raising their suspicions takes quite a large team.

For instance if I get in a car driven by somebody else such as a taxi for instance I can position myself such that I can observe all the cars "following".

Now with a little practice you will find you can memorise vehicals just by a small part of their number plate and colour.

Because of this certain "field manuals" recommend a minimum of 5 cars that rotate from lead to tail around the vehical being followed.

Each vehical would require 2 occupants.

So you are looking at 10 people active and another 4 or 6 to "cover in" as required.

Now if the person being followed is on their game they two will have a couple of cars around them to watch for lead and tail cars and those comming forward or dropping back.

There is visual recognition software out there now used to get "road TAX avoiders" that will run on a laptop you simply point a camera at a number plate and it will pull up a data base record in just a secondor so, but will also add to the database etc.

Thus tailing a car with even 5 cars is going to be a bit of a dead duck within a couple of years at most.

Likewise on foot you would need several people (again between 10 and 20) to not just lead and tail but also to watch the watchers to see if they are being watched.

Oh by the way if you want to be difficult to follow a fold up push bike and a GPS can make a tracker teams life hell, especialy if it will do "off road" through parks down ally ways through buildings on and off public transport etc etc.

And if you are thinking "bug the bu***r" you can get EM Field detectors that fit in your pocket that cover all viable bands these days. Or you can build one yourself for less than 50USD of components that will interface to a PC sound card or USB interface.

It is one of the reasons police forces are looking at helicoptors with numberplate tracking from several thousand feet (although that has a major flaw for those that are cautious). Bruce blogged about one of the systems a UK police force was looking at some time ago, and a more recent "blimp" version (Kent Police).

"The deal is that the less time you have to plan, the less time you have to observe the target and identify the patterns of the hotel staff and so forth"

And an aware target knows this which is why they change hotel at irregular intervals. So your conntact is spinning a bit of a myth there about the implication of "planning time" (ie manpower goes down with longer observation time).

"the more people you need to have involved in order to handle any unexpected contingencies."

Yes the "unexpected" is what an aware target does and one of the first things they teach you if you may be a target for some reason. It's the "use a different route and time to work every day".

This target usually had body guards so I think he would be hopping around like a "tick in a griddle" if he had any sense.

"He also expressed incredulity about the sloppiness of the operatives, and the rapidity with which the Dubai security services identified them."

This just tells us all your contact is out of date. Dubai and Singapor are two of the most sophisticated whole sale survalence places in the world.

The only reason the UK does not hold the crown is the compleat lack of backend and integration systems. Which I can assure you are already under tender etc.

"He says that the Dubai security services are good -- but they're not that good,"

That is blowing in the wind to justify another argument

"and are obviously receiving help from purported allies of Israel who are upset that their passports were so blatantly flouted in this operation"

It has been known for well over 30 years that Mosad take the passports of people emigrating to Israel so they can be "reused" for state security (I've already highlighted it and how they will continue to get away with it so you can look it up)

"His conclusion, however, is far different from Bruce's."

First off I don't think Bruce has come to a conclusion yet he has however pointed to others conclusions.

From what you say about your contact,

"His conclusion is that this was an amateurish operation put together at the last minute, primarily by a field office in a sleepy backwater that had no experience in black ops"

Says more about him than you realise. Dubai is far from a sleepy backwater it has set it's self up to be the "pleasure capital" of the Gulf, it has been investing heavily in encoraging International business not just to the country but as a hub as well. They are accutly aware that their oil is going to run out and have had an infrestructure building program in place that untill very recently made China's efforts look a little like a part time effort.

It is also one of the reasons why Dubai also happens to be one of the places most known with illegal arms and other trading and has taken over from the likes of London etc. The Dubai police are kind of aware of this and have systems in place. A sleepy back water it is most definatly not as you would know if you had visited it in more recent times.

As for the operation being put together at the last minute, that might actually be so. It depends on your interpretation of why his body guards did not accompanie him, and why he felt it was so important he be in Dubai at that time without them.

As for,

"and has thunderous things to say about the competence (or lack thereof) of the person who put this operation together and what he would have done to this person (Novosibirsk station assignment during winter?)"

Oh dear, that old "put them and their future in cold storage" chestnut, it's got grey wiskers to rival Methusala.

With regards,

"The number of operatives blown and the fact that they include apparently the entire Mossad field office in Dubai"

Hmm I've not seen enough evidence to say that the last part of that statment is even remotly true. I suspect that this team was "parachuted in" at short notice to do the wet work, and the field office would have very deliberatly very little contact with them.


"leaving a major arms trade center now uncovered"

Agh huh, he's blown his own "sleepy backwater" argument himself.

"in his opinion far outweigh the value of the target that was taken out."

His view on this is probably irrelevant and is just blowing the wind.

As I have noted the target arived without body guard, something he has never done before.

Why?

What was so important that he had to be in Dubai at that time that he was not prepared to wait for a more favourable travel oportunity?

The lack of facts presented also makes an interesting point for speculation.

If you make the assumption that the target was known to the Dubai authorities then they may well have been specificaly watching him. They might also have knowledge of why he so urgantly needed to be there.

Likewise was this a short term Oportunistic Political "hit" or a long term survalence action that "had to go hot" to stop another action that hinged on the targets out of charecter behaviour to be in Dubai...

In either case the burning of around thirty field agents may have been deamed an acceptable risk.

The simple fact is we don't know and we are just shooting the breeze ourselves and thus building "card houses on shifting sands" unless we can get them through a sensibale deductive process to produce probable answers.

And I for one would argue we don't know enough to say currently.

GreenSquirrelMarch 3, 2010 7:37 AM

@Clive Robinson

"Dubai is far from a sleepy backwater it has set it's self up to be the "pleasure capital" of the Gulf, it has been investing heavily in encoraging International business not just to the country but as a hub as well. "

I totally agree. I worked a short security contract out there last year and it most certainly isnt a sleepy backwater.

GregWMarch 3, 2010 8:59 AM

@Anon.
"Even if they think they might be recognized, maybe this time they'll make some attempt to obscure or conceal their appearances."

Dubai does have at least some DNA of some team members. While DNA isn't visible to most of us, it is a bit harder to obscure or conceal than one's appearances alone. Plastic surgery does not fully mitigate the blown covers.

RTMarch 3, 2010 10:26 AM

"He is called Al Mabhouh, and not Al Madhouh."

*was* called. Now he's called "Dead Terrorist".

dumboMarch 3, 2010 11:45 AM

1. Someone once said that the Greenpeace bombing was intentionally botched by French intelligence because the intelligence guys didn't agree with their political masters' orders to do it. Don't know if that holds water, but perhaps someone in the know could answer this question: Is it possible that whoever did this operation intentionally botched it because they didn't agree with the political decision behind it?

2. About the passports. In the end were they stolen and then the agents' pix were pasted in? (Not trivial.) Or were they forged using the identities of real people? Or a mixture of both methods? If they were forged, how is it that whoever forged them didn't get the format of the passport numbers right? Surely a pro would make sure the passport numbers were plausible. Also what do computer checks of passports come up with--wouldn't they find invalid passport numbers? Is that why there had to be the use of legitimate identities--so that the computers wouldn't start rejecting the passports? And is it that Dubai scans your passport photographically? All I'm aware in other countries is the computer reading your passport data and checking its database. It doesn't scan the id page, doesn't record the passport id photo. Now maybe Dubai does, but maybe someone could clarify this.

3. The latest story is that succinylcholine was used, followed by strangulation by pillow. Presumably that was supposed to make the death look natural. But there was also supposed to be tasering/electrocution leaving visible marks on a number of points on the body--behind the knees, behind the ears, elsewhere. Also, the actual murder was supposed to have taken about 10 minutes. What was going on? Succinylcholine is short acting, the patient is immobilized (can't talk to give the passwords out during rubber hose decryption protocol) although he is completely conscious and aware. Ten minutes is far too short for interrogation, perhaps a bit long for a straight hit (don't know).

Just questions to sort out my confusion.

AppSecMarch 3, 2010 12:02 PM

@Shane
I think I misunderstood your post then. I did read it and it came across that you think CCTV fails because of those reasons.

Or you are misunderstanding mine in saying that CCTV does work for those reasons, just not to eliminate all.

Or I'm still misunderstanding... oh well..

@GreenSquirrel
I'm of the belief that without the video from outside the room, the starting point of the investigation is left up in the air and take a significant longer time to piece any information together.

I don't see CCTV as the end all be all, but it can help in various areas.

SeanMarch 3, 2010 3:09 PM

"I can only speculate about where exactly the hit went wrong. But I would guess the assassins failed to account for the marked advance in technology."

No failure to take into account "advances in technology" on the part of the assassins at all. They obviously did their homework, assessed that there would be no reaction to anything captured on CCTV and planned accordingly. Thus, in full sight of the camera system, they performed their assassination and left without a single one of them being accosted.

It's a true security disaster on the part of the hotel and shows their reliance on unbacked technology to act as a placebo for the real thing.

CCTV doesn't arrest people, officers doing their job arrest people. CCTV doesn't prevent crime, officers and security detail doing their job prevents crime. CCTV doesn't prevent assassinations, fully trained and armed body guards paying attention prevent assassinations.

And it's up in the air that CCTV footage will do anything more than serve as an excellent example of a precision team working under full serveillance and being able to accomplish the job.

SeanMarch 3, 2010 3:12 PM

Put that "full surveillance" in quotes as the CCTV was only an isolated input that had no effective output that really did anything useful.

tauroidMarch 3, 2010 3:19 PM

has anyone considered that the 27+ individuals on camera might be patsies?

SyrMarch 4, 2010 3:58 AM

According to Dubai Police chief, there were many "selly mistakes":

"he perpetrators of the murder fell into errors of the naive and deny the methods used are outdated, striking example of this that the person posing as a tennis player, it was clear from the form that it is not sporty did not exercise at all tennis in his life and he spent hours in the the hotel lobby with this outfit that was supposed to go to play and stay in the hotel."

http://bit.ly/b0tH4a

John KelseyMarch 4, 2010 10:55 AM

It strikes me that one way to make such an operation extremely expensive, if you're a country that's not remotely willing to (say) go to war with Israel or otherwise try to retaliate directly over the hit on your territory, is to release essentially all your information about the agents who killed the guy. Pictures, passports, voices, fingerprints, everything. Instead of keeping this information tightly restricted so your counterespionage guys can try to make use of it, put it on the internet and all over every major newspaper.

The goal is to ensure that these guys are permanently radioactive, and can't ever again be sent overseas to do *anything* safely. ISTM that this is a pretty effective countermeasure. Dubai can't keep Israel from killing an occasional person on their territory, but can ensure that such operations are followed immediately by 15 or so field agents permanently retiring, as their faces have been in newspapers all over the world. A secondary benefit is that Dubai doesn't really need to care whether this was done by Mossad, the CIA, the Egyptians, the British, the Russians, etc. In any case, the incentives for future hits are set up in the right way.

RogerMarch 4, 2010 3:02 PM

@dumbo:
> Is it possible that whoever did [the Rainbow Warrior bombing] intentionally botched it because they didn't agree with the political decision behind it?

No. None of their errors make any sense within that scenario -- or indeed in any scenario apart from simple bungling. The operation was botched two ways:
a) instead of just sabotaging the ship, they drowned someone (the courts agreed that this was accidental). That increased sympathy for Greenpeace, intensified the police manhunt, and increased the severity of the charges against them.
b) and then they got caught.
Getting caught after committing manslaughter is not a very clever method of protest when instead they could have, say, discarded the bomb in deep water and told their bosses it misfired.

> About the passports. In the end were they stolen [...] Or were they forged using the identities of real people?

It seems pretty conclusive that they were forged, since they contain errors.

> [...] how is it that whoever forged them didn't get the format of the passport numbers right?

This is merely one of many errors made by the assassins. The most likely explanation is simply that the forger didn't have access to the correct number or number format, so he used some random, plausible looking number. Another plausible explanation is that forgers may routinely alter passport numbers to avoid the risk that the correct number will appear on a stolen passport watch-list.

> Surely a pro would make sure the passport numbers were plausible.

They were plausible. At least on brief inspection.

> Also what do computer checks of passports come up with--wouldn't they find invalid passport numbers?

Passport numbers are usually just an index into a database. A foreign country would not be given direct access to another nation's passport database. So they can only tell anything about the number if the passport holder has visited the country before, or if the number has been published in some way (e.g. stolen passport watch-list.)

> Is that why there had to be the use of legitimate identities--so that the computers wouldn't start rejecting the passports?

One possible reason is that they had to match the fake credit cards, which probably had to link back to some kind of verifiable identity. However I am very much swinging to the view that they used passports of real persons living in Israel because Victor Ostrovsky described the Mossad using this technique 20 years ago. It seems to have done the trick, despite the obvious incongruities (i.e., that the technique was "blown" for Mossad decades ago, and that the whole point of using people living in your country was to obtain their consent so that there wouldn't be any clashes of two people travelling on the same passport at the same time.)

> And is it that Dubai scans your passport photographically?

Most if not all countries routinely photograph the data page of every arriving passport. They usually do it discreetly below the counter, using an inverted camera built into the top of the desk under a glass plate.

> The latest story is that succinylcholine was used,...

I have increasingly little faith in the rumours being spread^W^W^W statements being made by the Dubai authorities. As you have noted, they are both inconsistent and continuously changing. Real autopsy results don't change every two days.

In this case, they are simultaneously claiming that he was paralysed before being suffocated, and that he struggled violently whilst being suffocated ...

The early publication of the CCTV footage certainly made the Dubai police look efficient, but that has faded fast as they have gone on. A few days ago they were certain the suspects all used nothing but cash (even though, as I pointed out at the time, the CCTV footage shows a scene where a credit card must have been used.) Now, weeks later, they have a list of credit cards!!

Police Chief Tamim has gone from "99%" to "100%" confident that it was Mossad, even though no new evidence indicates that, and all the arrested suspects have turned out not to be Israelis but members of various Palestinian Arab factions.

And now, one of those suspects, instead of being interrogated or tried in Dubai, has, at Hamas' demand, been handed over to Hamas for summary execution.

chrisMarch 5, 2010 7:44 AM

*speculation* that it was mossad? surely you jest, it's been as plain as day from the moment the story broke that these were israeli state-sponsored assassins.

SungamMarch 5, 2010 7:49 AM

I just wanted to raise something mentioned in the CNN article linked (http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/meast/03/01/uae.murder.probe/index.html?hpt=T2)

It mentions that one of the suspects, Dennings, was traced by the Dubai Authorities to a flight to the US but that the US authorities had no record of anyone fitting that name or description entering the US.

The thing I was curious about is which database the US authorities checked against. Whether it was the list of booked passengers provided by airlines to the US authorities or the entry records of the US Immigration Service/Border Control.

I have never been asked for my incoming flight ticket when progressing through immigration. Only my passport got checked. If the procedures haven't changed it would be trivial to present a different passport to the one you boarded with to US Border officials.

That also presumes the system doesn't automatically checks the name on the passport against incoming passenger lists. There would be other ways to bypass that though.

Of course the guy might have just skipped the flight...

AnonMarch 5, 2010 11:16 AM

What's with thecoldspy link? A blog with three posts and (arguably) completely awful commentary on the assassination? The last thing that guy needs is encouragement.

samsonMarch 8, 2010 10:34 PM

@green @clive @coldspy

I've enjoyed all of your posts immensely. Thank you for the great reading, really.

Can any of you explain how the Dubai police knew who Mabhouh was so quickly after his death as he also reputedly was travelling on false identification? Presumably they didn't know in advance or they would have protected him.

Again, great posts and great reading. Many thanks.

thecoldspyMarch 9, 2010 1:16 AM

I think the police were called the next day from his wife saying he was not answering the phone. Thus the discovery of the body and the quick identification afterward. At least that has been my reading of it so far. Thank you Samson.

louieMarch 23, 2010 9:08 AM

i personally think it's strange the posting of security footage in youtube. that is *not* procedure a(at least not in such short time).
I'd rather see it as disinformation, to mislead people to see what actually happen, like in a "magic" trick.

Peter GerdesApril 15, 2010 7:07 AM

One issue I haven't seen mentioned yet is how the agent's personal preferences might have played a role.

Suppose I go off on a dangerous mission to perform a hit for my country that is likely to be viewed as illegal in many places around the world and subject me to possible legal or illegal retaliation in unfriendly countries if my role is every discovered. Even without CCTV cameras there is probably a fairly significant probability that at least one of the agents participating will eventually be recognized by some intelligence service investigating after the fact. So what would I expect by way of good treatment from my government after the fact? Quite possibly not to be used in the field anymore.

In other words maybe the country running the op knew it couldn't ask these agents to go out in the field again even if they took every precaution possible against identification since the constant risk and fear would be unpleasant to them and their family not to mention that if they were captured before the evidence burning them was released it could be a very bad situation for the targeting country.

We don't know enough about the costs and benefits to make any of the kinds of conclusions being stated as obvious in these comments. It's quite easy for some consideration you didn't think of to make reusing these agents undesirable regardless of precautions taken hence making them a waste of time.

---

Fuck, for all we know these are the intelligence service drop outs who were sent in to be burned and draw attention while the valuable agents slipped through without leaving a trace. Too little info.

SomeoneMay 4, 2010 7:00 PM


Too many amateurish posts and suggestions on this blog.... lol

1) Dubai's police is be far not the most sophisticated police in the world (to say the least) - one should check who is the company behind the CCTV technology used to piece all of the information together - you will be surprised by the answer - but at least it will address most, if not all of your questions.
2) No one of the suspected “killers/agents” got burnt out – fact is that no one out there (in the whole world) raised his finger to say he/she knows any of the agents. Can you imagine your picture been published all over the internet and media for a few days and no one out there recognises you from school, university, past job, etc? Especially in such a small country like Israel where almost everyone knows everyone else or his relatives/friends.
Whoever carried out this operation did it in a text book manner and style that would be taught all over the world by many intelligence agencies for many years to come.
Get life 

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