Dubai assassination spotlights top cop skills in a modern-day Casablanca

Police Chief Dhahi Khalfan Tamim led the Dubai assassination investigation, using the latest tools and sleuthing skills to discover who killed Hamas official Mahmoud Abdul Raouf Mohammed.

Jumana El Heloueh/Reuters
A presenter points to footage during a news conference in Dubai showing two of 27 suspects involved in the Jan. 19 assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
Jumana El Heloueh/Reuters
As he worked to unravel the Dubai assassination plot, Chief of Police Dhahi Khalfan Tamim found that evidence indicated the work of Israeli agents.
Mohammed salem/Reuters
Dubai assassination: The father of killed Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh poses with a picture of his son outside his home in the Gaza Strip.

He had a few minutes to call his brother in Gaza before his flight took off from Damascus, Syria. A cousin got on the line, too, and shared gossip from the Jabalya refugee camp, say family members. He told them to jot down the name of his hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He would be there for only a few days, in case the family needed anything. If he continued on to China after, or Iran, he said, he would let them know.

Emirates Flight EK912 was packed. He traveled on a coach ticket he had bought online the day before, and without his usual two bodyguards, who were unable to book seats on the same flight. During the nearly three-hour flight, he was served lunch (chicken breast or lamb brochette, sir?) and jotted some notes in a spiral notebook.

Using a fake name and passport of Mahmoud Abdul Raouf Mohammed – he had five such aliases – the man landed at Terminal 3 of Dubai’s international airport at 3:15 p.m., sailed through immigration, wheeled his black carry-on over to a waiting Toyota Land Cruiser at the taxi rank, and hopped in for a quick, five-minute drive.

At 3:48 p.m. on Jan. 19, he walked into the lobby of the Al Bustan Rotana hotel. Less than five hours later, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, cofounder of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the paramilitary wing of Hamas – would be dead.

As the liaison between Hamas and Iran for weapons-smuggling operations into Gaza, Mr. Mabhouh had a lot of enemies: He was wanted in Israel for the 1989 kidnapping and killing of two soldiers; he was loathed by members of Hamas’s rival Palestinian faction, Fatah; and Jordanian intelligence was looking for him. Egypt, where he spent all of 2003 in jail, also wanted him. The man had survived several assassination attempts.

But while many might have wished him dead, Dubai police say the evidence points to Israel as being behind his murder.

A modern Casablanca

As details of this killing have been carefully assembled by the Dubai police force, the case has triggered global curiosity and incredulity. It has pulled the curtain back on what is widely assumed to be Israeli spycraft, leaving the heralded Mossad spies looking more like Maxwell Smart than sophisticated players in a John le Carré novel. Does it really take 27 agents in cheap wigs and fake beards to kill one Hamas smuggler?

The episode has also re-ignited debate over the morality of targeted assassinations. And it has revealed Dubai as a kind of modern Casablanca, a Middle Eastern crossroads of arms dealers, espionage, oil money, and a much underestimated Dubai police force.

Hotel check-in

Mabhouh asked for a suite with sealed windows and no balcony, and was given two white plastic card keys to Room 230, in the back wing of the Rotana hotel. “That will be all,” he said, dismissing the hotel staff member who had escorted him to his room.

He showered, changed, put some documents in the room safe, and exited the hotel – heading to the Dubai Mall to buy some sneakers. A weight lifter in his youth, he would be turning 50 in a few weeks, on Valentine’s Day. Did he also go over to Dubai’s Iranian consulate for a meeting? Unclear. Did he meet anyone? We may never know.

At 8:24 p.m., back at the Rotana, he walked slowly down the second-floor hallway toward his room, catching a quick look at himself in the full-length mirrors running along the walls. He slipped his electronic key in the slot, leaning in ever so slightly on the dark wooden door. Once, twice. On the third try it clicked open.

Standing by the window inside, he might have glanced out at the pool area and the road to the airport beyond and then drawn the burgundy striped curtain. There were no cameras in the room to reveal what happened next. Did he push the beige chair out of its place, against the door, as an added precaution?

But, clearly, he was not alone.

At 8:46, exactly 22 minutes after Mahbouh entered his room, four men left, affixing a “Do not disturb” sign on the doorknob. Half an hour later, Mahbouh’s wife in Damascus rang his cellphone. No one answered.

It wasn’t until a day later, at lunchtime, he was discovered by a cleaner, who called a member of hotel security when she couldn’t get in. The door was somehow latched from the inside. They found Mahbouh under the bedsheets wearing only a pair of black shorts. Forensic tests would show he was suffocated after first being injected in the leg with a muscle relaxant to immobilize him.

Hamas announced that day that their comrade had died of cancer in a hospital in the Emirates. But even at the time, few believed it.

Top cop drops bombshell

Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim was always someone bound for big things. He made police chief of Dubai after only a year as deputy. That was back in 1980, when he was not yet 30 years old. Since then, the pious father of five gained a reputation for meticulousness, hard work, and very close ties with the city rulers.

A man with a tetchy relationship with the media, he nonetheless won plaudits last year for solving the murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim (no relation), who was killed on the orders of an Egyptian tycoon. A retrial of the case was ordered by an Egyptian court on March 4. Notably, closed-circuit cameras were key to breaking that case. He also cracked the assassination of a Chechen warlord.

And now, he had every intention of doing it again.

After weeks of quiet investigation, Tamim called a press conference on Monday, Feb. 15. There, he dropped the bombshell. His detectives had identified 11 European-passport holders believed to be directly behind Mahbouh’s assassination. He had, he said, names, photos, and video footage of the assassins at work. The list included six people with British passports, three with Irish passports, and one each from France and Germany. And he released a narrated, 27-minute video of the suspected assassins’ activities in Dubai.

A week later, it became clear that Tamim was going to keep the pressure on Israel. He called another press conference to announce 15 more people suspected of involvement in Mabhouh’s killing (one more was identified March 1, bringing the total to 27). Three, he said, used Australian passports and the rest, English, Irish, and French ones.

In addition, there were two Palestinian suspects. They were already under arrest on charges of being accomplices to the murder – helping with renting cars and hotel rooms. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported that both men worked for a real estate firm belonging to Mohammed Dahlan, a senior official in Hamas’s rival movement, Fatah.

Throughout the operation, Tamim said, none of the suspects made a direct call to any other suspect. But his police had traced a high volume of calls and text messages between three phones carried by the assassins and four numbers in Austria. Also uncovered were 17 credit cards allegedly obtained from financial institutions in Germany, Britain, and the United States.

The story by now was getting so complicated that the police released a detailed flowchart on the suspects’ alleged movements, and released the numbers of the credit cards.

Stolen identities

The suspects, or rather some of the people with the names of the suspects, woke up the next morning with reporters camped out on their doorsteps, and Interpol started circulating “red notice” warrants worldwide with the request to arrest them.

At least 10 of the stolen identities came from Israelis with dual citizenship.

One of the men, named Roy Allan Cannon, moved to Israel in 1983 from Britain, and lives, together with his six children, in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood outside Tel Aviv. He is retired and has not left the country in more than six years.

Another, James Leonard Clarke, is also an immigrant from Britain. He married an Israeli woman, served in the Israeli army, and has never been to Dubai.

Nicole Sandra Mccabe, an Australian-Israeli, is reportedly nine months pregnant.

On the night of Jan. 19, these people and some 20 others named in the Mahbouh case were home. All say they had their passports with them. But passports with their names were in Dubai, and the photographs and the signatures had been changed.

'648 hours of video'

What were the people calling themselves Roy or James or Nicole doing that day and night, exactly? Much of this, says chief Tamim proudly, has been filmed on Dubai’s extensive network of CCTV cameras. Tamim boasted to reporters that the Dubai police had “648 hours of video” on the suspects. He added that their disguises – beards, floppy hats, sunglasses, wigs – were “naive” and “archaic.”

The police footage of the assassination starts at Dubai’s Terminal 3, where members of the alleged hit team were waiting for Mabhouh. Most had arrived before him, flying in from Paris; Frankfurt; Rome; and Zurich, Switzerland. Team members are never far away from their target, orbiting around him but never staying for too long.

Mabhouh took no notice of the two men who joined him in the elevator on his way up to his second-floor room that fateful day – but the CCTV camera did. One was short and portly with a moustache. Another, a tall man, kept looking at himself in the elevator’s full-length mirrors. Dressed in athletic wear and carrying tennis rackets, the two looked like any other European tourists visiting the Gulf state for some winter sun.

Stepping out of the elevator, Mabhouh was escorted to Room 230. Unnoticed, the taller man followed him down the hall, noting his room number and that of the room opposite, 237.

The information was then communicated to a man with a French passport, one “Peter Elvinger,” who booked Room 237 from another hotel. But another man, a bald man using the name of “Kevin Daveron” soon arrived at the Rotana front desk, checked into Room 237, and took the keys – only to hand them off to “Gail Folliard,” who was carrying an Irish passport and whose hair looks like a red wig in the footage. She goes to Room 237. Three other men soon join her. Soon, seven of the team were gathered in Room 237, waiting.

The next time Folliard is seen, it’s 8:30 p.m., and she is waiting outside Room 230 with the bald man. Right then, inside the room, Mabhouh was being killed.

A few hours later, Folliard checked out of the hotel – paying her bill in cash – and boarded a flight with the bald man – now wearing a wig – to Paris. Others filed out the next morning, getting on flights to Hong Kong and South Africa before doubling back to Europe.

Lingering questions

“I am 99 percent, if not 100 percent, sure [it was the Mossad],” said Tamim, when the case first opened. By March 3, any doubt had disappeared as the police chief called for the arrest of Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

An Arab nationalist who has long voiced opposition to the quiet tolerance of Israelis in the Emirates, Tamim made it clear that any travelers suspected of being Israeli will not be allowed in at all. “This is an insult to us, to Britain, to Australia, to Germany ... and it’s shameful,” he told reporters.

Many agreed.

The British, Irish, French, German, and Australian governments have called Israeli ambassadors in to demand explanations as to how and why passports of their nationals were abused. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stressed that he was “not satisfied” with the Israeli explanation

Israel has stuck to a narrow text. Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, said simply that he is “unable to shed any further light on the events in question.”

Perhaps only the Dubai police chief knows if more information about the case will become public. But there remain many questions about one of the most extraordinary assassinations seen in Dubai to date.

Will it ever be confirmed that this was an Israeli hit squad? If it was Israel, why did three of the team leave on a boat bound for Iran? Did Israelis consent to having their identities used, or were they stolen?

Did European allies know about these forged identities and look the other way? If Palestinian members of Fatah collaborated with Israel, will this widen the divide between Hamas and Fatah? And how long will it take Hamas to replace its key arms smuggler with Iran?

This article draws on information released by Dubai police, reporting by Danna Harman in London, Carol Huang in Dubai, and phone interviews with Israeli sources.

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