Police Strive to Guard Dubai's Image after Killing
By Robert F. Worth, NYTimes, March 2, 2010
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The people who killed a Hamas operative in an airport hotel here in January seem to have thought they could pass it off as a natural death, or perhaps just another of this region’s macabre mysteries. They injected him with a muscle relaxant, suffocated him and then smoothed away any signs of struggle, reattaching the hotel door chain as they left the room, investigators say.
Instead, the Dubai police quickly unraveled the plot and identified 26 suspects, in a display of transparency that is almost unheard of in the Arab world. They released a 27-minute montage of video surveillance, exposing the techniques — including agents clumsily disguising themselves with wigs and fake beards — of what is now almost universally believed to be the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.
The fallout from the killing of the operative, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, has created a diplomatic mess for Israel and raised troubling questions about identity theft, the spread of surveillance, and the colliding definitions of terrorism and crime. But above all it has underscored this beleaguered city-state’s determination to protect its tourist-friendly image — and its powerhouse economy — from any further damage.
Dubai was hit hard by the global financial crisis, and it is keen not to let any more killers take advantage of its role as the region’s most open city. A troubling precedent came last year with the killing of a Chechen political figure. At each of the near-daily news conferences held in recent weeks by Dahi Khalfan al-Tamim, Dubai’s gruff, swaggering police chief, the subtext has been clear: do not settle your scores here.
“By being so transparent about it, Dubai is trying to send a very clear message of deterrence,” said Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University. “This is probably the most diverse and open community in the Arab world, and to see these things happening not once, but two or three times — at a certain point you have to say ‘We will not tolerate this.’ ”...
Although the killers succeeded in their mission, the botched getaway has stunned many across the Arab world, where the Mossad is widely credited with almost superhuman skill and secrecy. Some have suggested that the agents knew they were being filmed, but most analysts agree that they could not have expected that so much of the operation would be made public.
It was fairly straightforward police work: once they saw the injection mark in the thigh of Mr. Mabhouh, Dubai investigators had only to start collating hotel records and reviewing security video with the help of face-recognition software, according to people familiar with the investigation....
The Mossad has a record of taking startling risks. Beginning in the 1970s, the agency carried out assassinations in Beirut, Lebanon; Rome; Athens and many other cities. They made some terrible mistakes, including the killing of an Algerian-born waiter in Norway in 1973, whom they mistook for a Palestinian militant. But never has an alleged Mossad operation been exposed in such detail as the January killing.
It is impossible to say how successful Dubai’s deterrence efforts will be. Its police work has certainly created a headache for Israel. Most of the killers seem to have used passport information stolen from dual nationals living in Israel, and the relevant governments have made angry complaints and begun investigations. The Dubai police have released information about credit cards used by the killers that also suggests an Israeli military connection, and Mr. Tamim has said he is “99 percent, if not 100 percent sure” that the Mossad is behind the killing. Israel is maintaining its customary mask of silence about accusations related to its spy agency.
In Israel, some columnists have expressed concern about the operation’s apparent sloppiness. But for the most part it has been treated as a joke. During the Purim holiday, when Jews traditionally dress up in costume, many wore tennis outfits and wigs, mimicking the disguises of the assassins.
Even here, many people seem to feel that the diplomatic uproar will soon die down. Certainly, no one here seems too troubled by the Jan. 19 killing of Mr. Mabhouh, who had a role in the killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989 and the smuggling of arms to Gaza.