Hamas assassination: Are Dubai police getting investigation right?

The Hamas assassination in Dubai and accusations from police there that a vast and coordinated team of hit men was involved has been embarrassing for a country that relies on a safe atmosphere to lure tourists and businessmen. But analysts say Dubai is getting some things right.

Dubai Police/Reuters
Hamas assassination: The travel ports of entry and exit of suspects is seen in this handout picture released by Dubai police Wednesday.

Letting a 26-member hit squad swoop into town, kill a man, and escape the next day might have left Dubai’s security forces feeling like they’d been caught sleeping on the job.

The second largest member of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has, however, earned praise from some security analysts for the amount of surveillance they have in place and for their ongoing investigation into the Jan. 20 murder of senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

As host to visitors and residents from scores of nationalities, Dubai has also gotten credit for balancing the need for tight security with relative openness.

Playing host to Mr. Mabhouh’s assassination “doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on Dubai security. This is not a case they are usually confronted on,” says Christian Koch, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Dubai.

“I think they basically do a good job of keeping security in the country,” he continues. “But they try to keep it very moderate in the sense of it not being intrusive.”

The widespread use of videocameras has become apparent as Dubai police piece together an increasingly detailed picture of the suspects accused of killing Mr. Mabhouh. They have released travel information about when and how they entered and left the United Arab Emirates, and on what forged passports: 12 British, 6 Irish, 4 French, 3 Australian, and 1 German. Through CCTV footage they have documented snippets of their stay, particularly in connection with Mabhouh – cameras at the Bustan Hotel where he stayed showed suspects following him into the elevator, then getting off with him on his floor.

In addition to sifting through hours of footage, the authorities have also publicized head shots and some credit card records of suspects identified.

Look alert

Part of their motive behind releasing so much information from their investigation is to avoid any hint of negligence, says Olivia Allison, an analyst at Stirling Assynt, an intelligence consultancy in Britain.

Dubai typically plays nice with people from a host of ideological backgrounds. Hamas men like Mahbouh frequently travel through here, but so do officials from their intense Palestinian rival, Fatah. The UAE sits squarely under an American security umbrella but also keeps up a busy trade with Iran. Dissidents, exiled leaders, and other politically controversial figures also call Dubai home.

“They usually try to release as much info as possible to clear their name,” Ms. Allison says. “Otherwise they might blamed for turning a blind eye.”

After another sensational assassination last March, of Chechen military commander Sulim Yamadayev, the authorities also responded forcefully, Allison says. Because Mr. Yamadayev was shot dead in a parking garage, they did not have as much video footage. But they released “tons and tons of information” gathered from that investigation.

In the case of Mabhouh, with many times more information available, she says, “I think it is impressive that they’ve identified which people they’re talking about at this point because obviously they have a lot of people coming in and out on European, Australian, American [passports].”

Assassinations not unique to Dubai

Security experts also say that while Dubai has been placed in the spotlight by Mabhouh’s murder, such plots can take place in any number of cities around the world. The UAE does not require visas for European and Australian passport holders, but other countries also grant such nationals automatic entry. Even restricted travelers like Mabhouh could have visited many other places.

Shocking assassinations have occurred in places as different as London – where Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006 – and Damascus, Syria, where Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a bomb in 2008.


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