One year ago, an elite Mossad hit squad traveled to Dubai to kill a high-ranking member of Hamas. They completed the mission, but their covers were blown, and Israel was humiliated by the twenty-seven-minute video of their movements that was posted online for all the world to see. Ronen Bergman reveals the intricate, chilling details of the mission and investigates how Israel’s vaunted spy agency did things so spectacularly wrong
At 6:45 a.m., the first members of an Israeli hit squad land at Dubai International Airport and fan out through the city to await further instructions. Over the next nineteen hours, the rest of the team—at least twenty-seven members—will arrive on flights from Zurich, Rome, Paris, and Frankfurt. They have come to kill a man named Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a Hamas leader whose code name within the Mossad—the Israeli intelligence agency—is Plasma Screen.
Most of the operatives here are members of a secretive unit within the Mossad known as Caesarea, a self-contained organization that is responsible for the agency’s most dangerous and critical missions: assassinations, sabotage, penetration of high-security installations. Caesarea’s “fighters,” as they are known, are the elite of the Mossad. They rarely interact with other operatives and stay away from Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv, instead undergoing intensive training at a separate facility to which no one else in the agency has access. They are forbidden from ever using their real names, even in private conversation, and—with the exception of their spouses—their families and closest friends are unaware of what they do. As one longtime Caesarea fighter recently told me, “If the Mossad is the temple of Israel’s intelligence community, then Caesarea is its holy of holies.”
In the course of reporting this story, GQ has learned that this is Caesarea’s second attempt to kill Al-Mabhouh. On a previous trip to Dubai two months earlier, in November 2009, the same team tried to poison him. It is not known precisely how the team administered the toxin in their first attempt, though the suspicion is that they either slipped it into a drink or smeared it on one of the fixtures in his hotel room. Al-Mabhouh fell mysteriously ill but eventually recovered, and was never aware he’d been poisoned by Israeli operatives. This time, nothing will be left to chance; it has been determined in advance that the team will leave Dubai only after they have confirmed with their own eyes that Plasma Screen is dead.*
Al-Mabhouh has been on the Mossad’s list of assassination targets (see box on page 40) since 1989, after he and an accomplice named Muhammad Nasser abducted and murdered two Israeli soldiers near the Negev Desert in southern Israel. In an interview he gave to the Al Jazeera network, Al-Mabhouh recalled one of those killings in detail. “We disguised ourselves as religious Jews with skullcaps on our heads like rabbis,” he said. He went on to describe picking up the soldier, Avi Sasportas, at a place called Hodayah Junction and offering him a ride. “I was driving, and the door behind me was neutralized. We took care of that beforehand. I told him in Hebrew, ‘Get in on the other side, the door’s broken.’ He walked around and sat in the back seat. I and Abu Sahib [Nasser] had a predetermined signal. We had fid that at the right moment I would make a sign with my hand, because I could see what was happening on the road in front and behind. And indeed, about three kilometers after the crossroads I signaled to Abu Sahib. Abu Sahib shot him with his Beretta pistol. I heard him breathe heavily and die. He took two bullets in the face and one in the chest and died from the first shot. Breathed out and that’s it, finished.” The only thing he regretted, Al-Mabhouh said, was that he was driving the car at the time, and so it was Nasser who got to shoot the soldier in the face.
In both killings, the two men desecrated the soldiers’ bodies and photographed each other stomping triumphantly on them before burying them in a ditch by the roadside. (The body of the second soldier wasn’t discovered until seven years later, with the aid of a hand-drawn map that Al-Mabhouh and Nasser had sketched from memory after the killing. In a deal mediated by the Palestinian Authority, Nasser eventually handed over the sketch to Israel, and in exchange he was removed from Israel’s most-wanted list.)
The need to eliminate Al-Mabhouh, however, has only intensified over time, not just out of a desire to avenge the deaths of the two soldiers but because of his longtime role in the militant activities of Hamas—financing and planning suicide bombings in Israel and the trafficking of huge amounts of rockets and sophisticated weaponry into Gaza, which have been used to devastating effect since the start of the second intifada in 2000. Support for Hamas’s terrorist activities has come largely from the extremist Quds Force (part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), with whom Al-Mabhouh has formed closer and closer ties over the years. In the mind of Mossad chief Meir Dagan, liquidating Al-Mabhouh is worth the risk of sending such a large team on a mission into a hostile country, though the wisdom of this choice will be severely questioned in the aftermath of the job.
- Israel has not confirmed—nor has it denied—that this mission was carried out by the Mossad, though no one seriously doubts that to be the case. The sequence of events described here is based largely on the exhaustive investigation conducted by the Dubai chief of police, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim. In-depth interviews were conducted with former and current members of the Mossad and with high-ranking intelligence experts in Israel and Europe. The Mossad, in response to the long list of questions submitted formally by GQ, stated that it does not comment on its activities or those attributed to it.
In 1997 the Mossad tried to assassinate Khaled Mashal, the political leader of Hamas, by spraying a chemical agent on his ear as he walked down a street in Amman, Jordan. The mission failed—and the two Mossad members were captured—when Mashal turned in the street to greet his daughter at the moment the assassins sprayed the poison. In order to win the release of their operatives, Israel handed over the antidote to the poison and also freed from prison the spiritual leader and founder of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin. In a humiliating blow to the agency, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to admit that the Mossad plot had been a terrible failure. For the next several years, morale within the agency plummeted, and its reputation for daring and success was tarnished.
Then, in 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tapped Dagan, a former military commander with a reputation for ruthless, brutal efficiency, to restore the spy agency to its former glory and preside over, as he put it, “a Mossad with a knife between its teeth.” “Dagan’s unique expertise,” Sharon said in closed meetings, “is the separation of an Arab from his head.” Dagan immediately announced that the Mossad would devote most of its resources to what he considered the two key threats to Israel’s survival: the Iranian nuclear program and terrorism from the Iranian-supported groups Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The number and frequency of covert operations increased dramatically. There were several acts of sabotage of the Iranian nuclear program: two mysterious crashes of Iranian aircraft associated with the program, fires breaking out at two important laboratories, damage inflicted upon Iranian nuclear centrifuges, and the disappearance of two Iranian scientists and the killing of a third. There was also a mysterious explosion at a Syrian plant where Scud missiles were being fitted with chemical warheads, and the Mossad is credited with the discovery of a nuclear reactor in Syria, built with North Korean assistance, whose existence the Syrian authorities had managed to conceal for over five years. (The Syrian nuclear facility was subsequently destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in September 2007 after the United States proved reluctant to do so.)
The number of complex targeted assassinations carried out by the Mossad also increased under Dagan. The most high-profile of these was the elimination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military chief. Among other terrorist acts, Mughniyeh was responsible for the bombing of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and a Jewish cultural center in 1994. In February 2008 his head was blown off by an explosive device that had been planted in the driver’s-side headrest of his rental car. Dagan’s Mossad is also believed to be responsible for the death of General Mohammed Suleiman, a close aide of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, who headed that country’s nuclear program and handled military cooperation with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Suleiman was killed in the Syrian city of Tartus in August 2008 by a sniper’s bullet that hit him as he stood on his balcony after his daily swim. (According to other reports, he was shot by the sniper as he swam in the sea with his bodyguards.)
Because of these successes, Dagan’s tenure as director of the Mossad was repeatedly extended, most recently by Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2009, and today he is one of the longest-serving directors in Israel’s history. Notorious for his aggressive, verbally abusive style of leadership, he is an ideologically rigid man who, according to several people inside the organization, shows the door to anyone who dares to voice an opinion different from his. As one Mossad veteran told me, “It is extremely difficult to get your opinion heard in his presence, unless it supports his. He is unable to accept criticism or even another opinion. It’s almost as if he treats his opposition like an enemy.” Dagan is also reported to have stated on several occasions that he does not believe there is anyone within the Mossad today who is worthy to replace him.
Several Mossad operatives who have attended meetings in Dagan’s office describe a ritual that he goes through when preparing a team for a dangerous mission. During the meeting, Dagan points to a large photograph hanging on his office wall of a bearded Jew wrapped in a prayer shawl, kneeling on the ground with his arms in the air. The man’s fists are clenched, and his piercing eyes look straight ahead. Next to him stand two German SS officers, one holding a club and the other a pistol. “This man,” Dagan says, “was my grandfather, Dov Ehrlich.” He then explains that shortly after the photo was taken, on October 5, 1942, his grandfather was murdered by the Nazis along with his family and thousands of other Jews in the small Polish town of Lukow.
“Look at this photograph,” Dagan tells the Caesarea fighters. “This is what must guide us and lead us to act on behalf of the State of Israel. I look at the picture and vow that I will do everything I can to ensure that something like this will never happen again.”
Tuesday, January 19, 2010. Before dawn
The mission will be run by operatives working under the assumed names Gail Folliard, Kevin Daveron, and Peter Elvinger, who arrive in Dubai in the very early hours of the nineteenth. They immediately go to separate hotels, where Folliard and Daveron pay for their rooms in cash, but most of the other team members are using a prepaid credit card called a Payoneer, a fact that will be significant to the investigation to come. Counting the unsuccessful attempt to poison Al-Mabhouh in November, this is the team’s fifth trip to Dubai in the past nine months. The purpose of the other trips was to do surveillance and to verify beyond any doubt that the man they intend to kill is indeed Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh. This is not a simple matter. Back in July 1973, a Caesarea hit team on a mission to liquidate the head of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September—the group responsible for the murders of eleven Israeli team members at the Munich Olympics—mistakenly killed a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway. The killers were caught and spent years in jail, and the Israeli government paid substantial damages to the victim’s family. The reputation of the Mossad—and of Israel—was badly harmed by the botched mission, and since then the agency has implemented complex mechanisms to ensure that they never make such a mistake again.
Israeli spies have been monitoring Al-Mabhouh’s e-mail and online activities through a Trojan horse planted on his computer (and possibly through a human source who has betrayed him, though Hamas rejects this theory), and they know he will be arriving in Dubai later today. At ten thirty, Elvinger strolls through a Dubai mall, where he is soon joined by five other team members. A little more than an hour later, their meeting breaks up and the group disperses. The only thing they can do until Al-Mabhouh’s arrival is review plans and contingencies and wait to see how their target’s movements unfold. As one veteran of Caesarea field operations told me, “In this type of assassination, when the target is not in his home base and is not following a daily routine, it is the target who dictates to the killers how and when he will be killed.”
As far as the Mossad is concerned, there are two types of countries in the world. There are “base countries” (essentially, the West), in which the Mossad, like most other intelligence agencies, is able to operate with relative ease. In these countries, operatives have access to multiple getaway routes in case of emergency (and there are Israeli embassies to escape to as a last resort); it is assumed that if a Mossad spy is caught in a base country, a discreet solution can likely be found with the assistance of the local intelligence services—an option referred to in the Mossad as the “soft cushion”). “Target countries,” however, are enemy states in which operating undercover is significantly more dangerous. There are no easy escape routes (and no friendly embassy to run to), and being caught in these countries will almost certainly result in physical torture and either a protracted jail term or, quite possibly, death. Given that Al-Mabhouh is based in Syria and that the countries he regularly visits are Iran, Sudan, and China, it makes sense that Dubai, while undeniably a target country, is the location of choice for such a mission.
Al-Mabhouh is expected to land in Dubai at 3 p.m. At 1:30, Kevin Daveron leaves his hotel and heads to the team’s designated meeting place—the lobby of a different hotel, where none of the team members is staying, that was selected in advance for its convenient location. On the way to the meeting, he walks through the lobby of a third hotel and enters the restroom. When he emerges, he is no longer bald but now has a full head of hair and is wearing glasses. The security camera outside the entrance to the men’s and women’s bathrooms was recording all of this in real time. Had an alert guard noticed what was going on, the mission might have ended quite differently, with the target alive and the team members imprisoned in a hostile country.
Gail Folliard also leaves her hotel and on her way to the meeting uses the same restroom entrance as Daveron, from which she too emerges in a wig. Oddly, Folliard and Daveron are the only ones at the meeting who have changed their appearances. Given that the operatives are under the constant gaze of security cameras throughout the city, the “new” Daveron and Folliard run the risk of being linked to the “old” Daveron and Folliard through the identity of the individuals they’ve met with and passed by throughout the day—the kind of mistake that is almost incomprehensible for an elite Mossad team to make.
By two thirty, there are surveillance teams located at the entrances to every hotel Al-Mabhouh has stayed at on past trips to Dubai. There is also a team posted at the airport, ready to follow him into the city.
Al-Mabhouh is also traveling under a false identity. His Palestinian passport (the Palestinian Authority issues travel documents that are not recognized for travel to most countries but are valid in Dubai) identifies him as Mahmoud Abdul Ra’ouf Mohammed and gives his occupation as a “merchant.”
At three twenty-five, two men standing in the lobby of the glitzy Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, dressed in tennis gear and holding rackets, report to the command team that their target has arrived and is checking in. The news of his arrival is conveyed to all the teams waiting at the other hotels, and they now return to the central meeting place. In the Al Bustan, Al-Mabhouh takes the elevator to his room, and the two Mossad operatives, tennis rackets still in hand, ride up in the same elevator. One of them follows Al-Mabhouh down the corridor at a discreet distance, in order to confirm his room number—230—and to get a sense of the layout of the hotel floor.
A little after four o’clock, the command team, with the exception of Elvinger, makes its way to the Al Bustan. Elvinger takes a car to another hotel and places two phone calls from its business center. The first is to the front desk of the Al Bustan, to book a room for the night. He requests room 237, which the surveillance team has reported is directly across the corridor from 230. His second call is to an airline to reserve a seat on an evening flight to Zurich via Qatar.
In the lobby of the Al Bustan, the surveillance team relays that the target is exiting the hotel and heading to a nearby mall, the same one in which Elvinger met the group of team members earlier. It is here that the recording of events from the Dubai police investigation becomes uncharacteristically vague. Until now, the authorities have established a clear, detailed timeline. By studying hundreds of hours of closed-circuit security footage, they have meticulously reconstructed the movements of the many characters involved in the unfolding drama. But when Al-Mabhouh arrives at the mall, the river of information suddenly goes dry. What did he do during the next four hours, which were to be the last of his life? Where did he go? With whom did he meet? The official report does not provide even a sketchy outline of the missing hours.
According to Israeli intelligence sources, Al-Mabhouh met with a banker who was assisting him with various international weapons transactions, and with his regular contact from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who flew in to coordinate the delivery of two large shipments of weapons to Hamas the following month. The Dubai police had good reason to gloss over this part of the narrative, if they were indeed aware of it. Providing details of Al-Mabhouh’s contacts would have been highly embarrassing to authorities eager to paint Dubai as a squeaky-clean international business center. It would also have served as a reminder that the victim of this cold-blooded Israeli ecution had a fair amount of blood on his hands, raising inconvenient questions about why Al-Mabhouh was there in the first place—questions that the media largely forgot to ask in the furor that erupted after his assassination.
At four twenty-seven, Peter Elvinger enters the lobby of the Al Bustan carrying a small suitcase. He walks over to where Kevin Daveron is sitting, places the suitcase beside him, and then heads to the reception desk, where he checks in and receives the key to the room that he booked by phone earlier that afternoon. He then walks back to Daveron, hands him the key to room 237, and exits the hotel without retrieving his suitcase. Elvinger’s role in the operation is now over. By seven thirty, he will be at the airport preparing to leave the country.
For the next several hours—until the operation is completed—Daveron and Folliard are in command. At four forty-five, Daveron crosses the lobby, taking the suitcase with him, and rides the elevator up to the second floor. A few minutes later, Folliard arrives at the Al Bustan and goes straight up to 237.
At five thirty-six, another operative arrives in the lobby wearing a baseball cap; minutes later, he emerges from the elevator on the second floor wearing a wig. He too goes to 237. At approximately six thirty, four more men enter the hotel and go up to the room in pairs. Two of the men are carrying bags, and all four wear baseball caps that partially conceal their faces. These are the men who will carry out the assassination.
Just before six forty-five, the surveillance team in the lobby of the Al Bustan is replaced. After sitting for four hours in the lobby, rackets in hand, the fake tennis players finally leave the scene. At 8 p.m., the seven-person group in 237 makes its move. Daveron and Folliard stand guard in the corridor while one of the other operatives reprograms the electronic lock on the door of 230. The intention is to rig the mechanism so that the hit men can enter the room using an unregistered electronic key while also being careful not to accidentally disable Al-Mabhouh’s own key.
There are some questions about timing that are worth pausing over here. Why did the assassins wait an hour and a half in 237 before breaking into Al-Mabhouh’s room? And why did they arrive at the hotel at six thirty, two hours after Al-Mabhouh left for the mall and Daveron got the key to room 237? The long delay suggests two things: first, that the team knew exactly what Al-Mabhouh’s schedule was and how long he would be away from the hotel. (Presumably they wanted to postpone entry into Al-Mabhouh’s room for as long as possible, so as not to run the risk of someone else, such as a maid, entering unexpectedly.) And second, it suggests considerable confidence in the ability of their operative to disable the electronic lock on Al-Mabhouh’s door. The speed with which he did this indicates that this part of the operation was extremely well rehearsed. And since the team did not know in advance which hotel Al-Mabhouh would be staying at, one has to assume that as part of his preparation for the mission, the lock picker practiced disabling every type of lock in use in all the major hotels in Dubai.
At this delicate moment, as the team is beginning to break into Al-Mabhouh’s room, they are temporarily disturbed by a hotel guest who steps off the elevator on the second floor. The footage from the security cameras shows Daveron quickly moving toward him, blocking his line of sight and engaging him in idle conversation. When the guest finally walks off, it’s clear that the lock tampering has been successful. Daveron and Folliard return to 237, and the assassins enter 230 to wait for their target.
At eight twenty-four, Al-Mabhouh returns to the hotel and goes straight to his room, passing Daveron in the elevator bank and Folliard in the corridor. He has no reason to be suspicious—his key works as it should, and the door bears no visible sign of forced entry. Once he is inside, Daveron and Folliard stand guard.
Twenty minutes later, it is over. The assassins exit room 230, somehow managing to leave the room chained from the inside. The team meets briefly in 237, presumably to gather their things and report back to the command center outside Dubai; then they begin to exit. The assassins are the first to leave. Minutes later, Folliard follows arm in arm with another operative, and Daveron is the last to emerge from room 237. Within four hours, most of the team has left Dubai.
What occurred in room 230 during those twenty minutes? How did Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh die? It’s impossible to know for sure. As in the attempt on Al-Mabhouh’s life two months earlier, the Mossad wanted his death to appear to be due to natural causes. This was critical, as it would buy the Caesarea fighters precious time to leave the emirate before the alarm was sounded. A “noisy” kill would set off a wide-scale manhunt that would result in the temporary shutdown of Dubai International Airport (and of air traffic in and out of Dubai in general), trapping the Mossad operatives inside the country. With nowhere to hide and no way to escape, they would almost certainly have been apprehended. And once in the hands of the Dubai police, there would have been considerable pressure on the authorities to punish them to the full extent of the law, which in Dubai would have likely meant death sentences for at least some of those involved. There would have been little the Mossad or Israel could have done to save its operatives.
According to the official police report, the killers first injected Al-Mabhouh with a poison, then smothered him with a pillow. Saeed Hamiri, M.D., of the Dubai forensic lab, said the crime-scene investigators found a trickle of blood on Al-Mabhouh’s pillow, bruises on his nose, face, and neck, and an injection mark on his right hip. Along with signs of struggle in the room—a damaged headboard, for example—these details would seem to suggest that the target was smothered to death. But one has to wonder about the plausibility of these conclusions. (The Dubai chief of police did not respond to several requests from GQ for an interview.)
Given how vital it was to this mission that Al-Mabhouh’s death appear natural, it’s doubtful that the Caesarea fighters would have planned to smother him in his room. If indeed there was a struggle—and the chronology of events raises serious doubts about the details in the police report—the question is whether it occurred before the poison was administered or while it was taking effect. The drug purportedly used was succinylcholine, which, if administered in a large enough dose, leads to total muscular paralysis and, once the muscles necessary for breathing cease functioning, to asphyxia and death. According to toxicology experts I spoke with, however, the drug is also detectable in the body long after death, and it’s hard to believe that the Mossad operatives wouldn’t be aware of this. If they were and chose to use the drug anyway, it speaks perhaps to their assumptions about what type of investigation they expected would take place, or if one would take place at all.
There is good reason to believe, however, that to this day the Dubai police are not sure how Al-Mabhouh died. In terms of their forensic medical evidence, they may in fact be unable to prove he was murdered. Their investigation, after all, was triggered not by autopsy findings—which, according to sources connected to the Dubai police, were inconclusive—but by the evidence contained in CCTV footage.
When Al-Mabhouh’s body was discovered by a hotel maid, at around one thirty the following afternoon, roughly seventeen hours after he’d been killed, there was at first no reason to suspect foul play. Because he had been using a false passport, the police had no initial inkling of who he really was. It was only when Al-Mabhouh failed to contact his headquarters in Damascus that his Hamas colleagues began to suspect something was wrong and sent one of Al-Mabhouh’s men to the Dubai city morgue, where he was shocked to discover his commander’s body.
It was at that point, approximately a week after his death, that the Hamas leadership in Damascus contacted Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, chief of the Dubai Police, and informed him that they believed Al-Mabhouh had been killed by the Mossad. According to European intelligence sources, Tamim’s initial reaction was to rage at them on the phone, verbally abusing senior Hamas officials for using Dubai as a battleground for espionage and terrorism. “Take yourselves and your bank accounts and your weapons and your forged fucking passports and get out of my country,” he reportedly shouted. Once he calmed down, though, a cursory review of the hotel-security footage from the cameras outside room 230 at the time of Al-Mabhouh’s death convinced Tamim that he needed to open an investigation immediately.
So it may well be that the authorities first arrived at the conclusion that Al-Mabhouh was assassinated and only then revisited and adjusted their pathology findings so as to avoid admitting to the world that, despite their massive investment in the state-of-the-art security systems that blanket the country, they were unable to say with any certainty how Al-Mabhouh had died. In a press conference held on February 15, Tamim announced that Al-Mabhouh had been killed by a hit squad and announced that their forensic tests indicated that he’d been suffocated. Lab tests, he said, were still under way. Nearly two weeks later, on February 28, he announced the discovery of the exact cause of death. That Al-Mabhouh’s body was reportedly sent back to Syria on January 28, however, and buried after a big funeral procession on January 29, calls into question these findings.
The rest of the investigation that Tamim conducted, however, was meticulous and efficient in a way that no one, least of all the Mossad, had expected. A source close to the investigation said that the moment Tamim concluded that Al-Mabhouh had not died of natural causes, he ordered his people to search Dubai’s extensive databases and identify everyone who had arrived in the emirate shortly before the killing and left soon after. This list was then cross-referenced against the names of visitors who had been in Dubai back in February, March, June, and November of 2009, all the times of Al-Mabhouh’s previous visits. The short list that emerged was then checked against hotel registers, and footage from hotel security cameras at the times these individuals checked in made it possible to put a face to each name. Tamim then compared these visual identifications to the footage from the Al Bustan Hotel at the time of Al-Mabhouh’s death, which gave him the names of the assassins. And searching databases of financial transactions gave him the identities of the rest of the team, all of which Dubai authorities posted online for the world to see.
Tamim also turned out to be extremely media-savvy. He presided over well-planned press conferences, carefully doling out information in a manner guaranteed to keep viewers—especially in the Arab world—coming back for more. He publicly called for the arrest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and of Meir Dagan, whom he challenged to “be a man” and take responsibility for the assassination. More realistically, perhaps, he called for international arrest warrants for all members of the hit squad, which caused considerable diplomatic embarrassment for Israel. When asked by an interviewer what the hit team’s biggest mistake was, Tamim answered that the presence of two men waiting for hours in the lobby in tennis gear with uncovered rackets was so bizarre that it instantly raised suspicion.
The laughable attempts of the Mossad operatives to disguise their appearance made for good television coverage, but the more fundamental errors committed by the team had less to do with cloak-and-dagger disguises than with a kind of arrogance that seems to have pervaded the planning and ecution of the mission.
Despite the fact that Dubai is a hostile environment—a distant Arab state with ties to Iran—many details of the mission suggest the Mossad treated it as if they were operating inside a base country. The use of Payoneer cards is one obvious example. For the most part, prepaid debit cards are only used domestically within the United States, and while Payoneer does issue debit cards that are valid internationally, these are relatively rare. That several of the team members were using the same type of unusual card issued by the same company—one whose CEO, Yuval Tal, is a veteran of an elite Israeli Defense Force commando unit—gave the Dubai police a common denominator to connect the various members of the team.
It has also become apparent that in order to avoid calling one another’s cell phones directly, the operatives used a dedicated private switchboard in Austria. Any operative trying to reach a colleague—whether in the hotel down the street or at the command post in Israel—dialed one of a handful of numbers in Austria, from which the call was then rerouted to its destination. But since dozens of calls were made to and from this short list of Austrian numbers over a period of less than two days, the moment that the cover of a single operative was blown and his cell phone records became available to the authorities, all others who called or received calls from the same numbers were at risk of being identified.
It gets worse. One of the most serious mistakes made by the planners of the operation—certainly the one that caused the greatest embarrassment to the Mossad and to Israel—involved the use of forged foreign identities.
When it comes to false identities and false passports, the Mossad has a unique problem, one that most Western intelligence services do not face. When the CIA or the British SIS (or MI6, as it is commonly known) send an operative into the field, they can usually provide him or her with a valid U.S. or U.K. passport issued in whatever false name and identity the individual will be using. But an Israeli spy cannot use an Israeli passport, since the most important targets for Israeli espionage are in countries that do not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. For this reason, the need for foreign documentation has always been an acute one in the Mossad, which has historically resolved this problem by forging what it needed. Naturally, this is done without the authorization of the countries involved.
Whenever the Mossad is found out, as has happened from time to time, a major diplomatic scandal erupts. In the summer of 1986 an Israeli intelligence courier in West Germany left a bag containing forged British passports in a phone booth. The British government was outraged, and for a long time afterwards all ties between the British and Israeli intelligence services were cut. They were renewed only in the mid-1990s, after the Mossad and SIS signed a memorandum stating that neither would operate without consent on each other’s soil or work against each other’s interests. Historically speaking, though, the practice of forging passports was relatively simple, and usually went undiscovered. Rafi Eitan, now in his 80s, was at one time one of the Mossad’s master spies. He famously led the team that captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. “In the past it used to be so easy for us to assume new identities and to invent cover stories,” Eitan told me. “There was no Internet and there were no computers, and so no real possibility of checking who and what you were. We used to say that it was possible to forge a passport of a country that doesn’t exist!”
For this mission, all but one of the team members was traveling with a forged passport. The one passport that wasn’t forged belonged to “Michael Bodenheimer,” a member of the team and supposedly a German national. Once the Dubai authorities made public the names and nationalities under which the operatives had traveled, the German Federal Police opened an investigation into the provenance of Bodenheimer’s passport. What they soon found out (as was reported in the German magazine Der Spiegel) was that a valid German passport had been issued in June 2009 to a Mossad operative—using the name Michael Bodenheimer—who claimed German citizenship through his “father.” (The “father,” also an Israeli, had recently claimed that he was “Hans Bodenheimer,” born in Germany and a victim of the Holocaust, and he was granted immediate citizenship under a provision of the German constitution that allows for such cases. A real Holocaust survivor named Hans Bodenheimer did in fact exist, but it was not the man who applied for German citizenship.)
What the blown identities of the operatives illustrate more than anything is the now seemingly insurmountable problem posed by twenty-first-century counterespionage systems. False identities and cover stories are no longer any match for well-placed security cameras, effective passport control, and computer software that can almost instantly track communications and financial transactions.
Why did the Mossad permit things to go so wrong in Dubai? In a word, the answer is leadership. Because Dagan refashioned the Mossad in his own image, and because he drove out anyone who was willing to question his decisions, there was no one in the agency to tell him that the Dubai operation was badly conceived and badly planned. They simply did not believe that a minnow in the world of intelligence services such as Dubai would be any match for Israel’s Caesarea fighters. As one very senior German intelligence expert told me: “The Israelis’ problem has always been that they underestimate everyone—the Arabs, the Iranians, Hamas. They are always the smartest and think they can hoodwink everyone all the time. A little more respect for the other side—even if you think he is a dumb Arab or a German without imagination—and a little more modesty would have saved us all from this embarrassing entanglement.”
The Dubai fiasco caused a great deal of damage to Israel, to the Mossad, and to its relations with other Western intelligence organizations. It led to unprecedented revelations of Mossad personnel and methods, far more than any previous bungled operation. A number of states who believe that their passports were forged or otherwise misused by the agency have expelled Mossad representatives. The British response in particular was furious. And Israel’s long-standing security-and-intelligence cooperation with Germany has also been dealt a hugely damaging blow. In early June, the head of the Caesarea unit in the Mossad—who had been considered the leading contender to eventually replace Dagan—offered his resignation. As for Dagan’s future, before Dubai he had hoped that the liquidation of Al-Mabhouh would ensure yet another extension of his tenure as director of the agency. But that has not come to pass. At the time of this writing, it is assumed that he will not continue. And so the Mossad “with a knife between its teeth” likely is entering another period of confusion and self-doubt.
“There is no doubt Dagan received an organization on the verge of coma and brought it back to its feet,” one Mossad veteran of many years told me. “He increased its budget, won great successes, and most important, he rebuilt its pride. The problem is that multiplying its volume of activity many times over came with the price of compromising on security protocols. And along with success came hubris. Together, they brought the Dubai debacle. And now, in some areas, his successor will find a Mossad even worse off than Dagan found in 2002.”
Ronen Bergman is the senior political and military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth_ and the author of several books, including_ By Any Means Necessary_ and_ The Secret War with Iran_. He is currently writing a book about the history of the Mossad’s targeted killings._