James Jesus Angleton, the legendary CIA counterintelligence chief, once discussed a series of suspicious deaths in Germany with me. "Any gang of thugs could murder someone," he said, "but it took an intelligence services to make a murder appear to be a suicide or natural death."
According to this precept, the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on the evening of Jan. 19, 2010 was almost certainly the work of an intelligence service. When Mabhouh's body was discovered the next day in his room in the five-star Al Bustan Rotana hotel, it appeared he'd died in bed of natural causes. There were no wounds, bruises or other signs of foul play.
Room 230 had no balcony or windows that could be opened, and the electronic door latch appeared to have been locked from the inside. If an ordinary tourist died under such non-suspicious circumstances, investigators would routinely assume he had died in his sleep from natural causes.
But Mabhouh was no ordinary tourist. He was a senior commander and a co-founder of Hamas's military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. His activities including the abduction of Israeli soldiers, and he was wanted in three countries: Israel, Egypt, where he had been imprisoned for almost a year, and Jordan.
Based in Damascus, Syria, Mabhouh was also a key intermediary in the covert arms traffic between Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the Syrian intelligence service, the Hamas government in Gaza, and other militants. He was ordinarily protected by a team of armed bodyguards. But they had not been allowed to accompany him to Dubai on Jan. 19 because there was no room on the flight, according to a Hamas spokesman in Damascus, Talal Nasser. So whether by design or accident, he was stripped of his protection, making his assassination easier to accomplish.
When the Dubai police, under pressure from Hamas, looked more closely into the crime scene, they found that the electronic lock on the door of his room had been reprogrammed to allow others entry. The electronic lock can be accessed directly at the hotel room door by a sophisticated hacker.
Then a Dubai forensic lab retesting his body fluids discovered traces of succinylcholine. This is a quick-acting, depolarizing, paralytic drug that, by rendering Mabhouh incapable of resisting, could account for the lack of bruise marks on the body.
In February, Dubai's chief coroner, Fawzi Benomran, reversed his verdict of a natural death. Instead, describing the death as "one of the most challenging cases" in the history of the emirate, he concluded it was a disguised homicide "meant to look like death from natural causes during sleep."
Meanwhile, Dubai investigators examined 645 hours of videos from surveillance cameras at the hotel and elsewhere. They saw that, after Mabhouh left his hotel room, four suspicious-looking individuals got out of the elevator on the second floor near his room. Several hours later, at 8:25 p.m., Mabhouh returned to his room (according to the electronic lock). Shortly afterwards, the four men were seen via the cameras leaving the floor.
The police theorized that these men had surreptitiously entered Mabhouh's room while he was out, incapacitated him with the paralytic drug on his return, induced a heart attack by suffocating him with a pillow, and reprogrammed the electric lock to make it appear it had been locked from the inside.
With the aid of facial recognition software, Dubai police then identified 26 suspects. All had been in Dubai at the time of Mabhouh's brief visit. All had entered Dubai using fake or fraudulently obtained passports from countries not requiring a Dubai visa, including Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and Australia.
All the passports turned out to be stolen identities with faked passport photos. The charge cards, airline tickets, and pre-paid phone cards these suspects used were also in the name of their stolen identities. The only real clue to their real identities was that eight of the identities had been stolen from people with dual Israeli citizenship. As Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, had previously used dual citizens' passports to fake identities, Dubai authorities concluded the suspects were from Mossad.
Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the head of the Dubai police force, stated on a government-owned Web site, that he "is 99 percent, if not 100 percent, that Mossad is standing behind the murder." While this authoritative finger-pointing was largely accepted as am "aha" moment by the media, Dubai is not exactly an uninterested party in the Mabhouh affair. It is, after all, the principal transshipment points for the lethal arms trade between Iran and Hamas-and Mabhouh had been one of the major players in this trade.
The much-publicized hotel surveillance videos, while highly diverting on YouTube, do not show any of the 26 suspects engaging in any illegal activities other than using false identities, a practice which is not unknown in Dubai (Mabhouh himself reportedly had five different passports). Even if all 26 identity thieves were intelligence operatives, as seems the case, it does not necessarily follow that they were all in Dubai on the same business, or even working for the same side.
Since Iran maintains its largest offshore financing facility in Dubai-which is used by the Revolutionary Guard, among others, to support its traffic in covert weapons- more than one intelligence service might be interested in Mabhouh's trip. Consider, for example, the peculiar fact that two of the 26 Dubai suspects exited by boat to Iran, according to Dubai authorities; this is not a likely escape route for Mossad agents.
Two other individuals whom the Dubai police had named as suspects worked for the Palestinian Authority, an arch enemy of Hamas. (They were arrested in Jordan and turned over to Dubai). Another person wanted by Dubai for questioning returned to Damascus just prior to the killing. And then there is the question of who in Syria played a role in stripping Mabhouh of his protection just hours before his flight to Dubai.
The key missing piece in the jigsaw remains Mabhouh's mission to Dubai-apparently important enough for him to travel there without his normal contingent of bodyguards.
Mabhouh arrived from the airport at his hotel shortly before 3 pm, and after changing his clothes left for an unknown destination. He was gone for several hours. But even with its state-of-the-art surveillance cameras in Dubai, and extensive interviews with all the taxi drivers at the hotel, authorities claim they cannot determine either his whereabouts during these hours or the identity of whom he met.
The world-wide focus on the spooks-whose false identities allowed many of them to vanish in the intelligence netherworld-has diverted attention from the potentially embarrassing mission that brought Mabhouh to the Dubai. The real intrigue here is not who killed a wanted terrorist, but what he was up to. Without this missing piece, any rush to judgment about who his killers were may be premature.