The killers of Mahmoud al-Mabhou weren’t very bright. There were at least 11 assassins of the top Hamas commander; 10 men and one woman. We know that because their faces have been plastered across the Internet, courtesy of closed-circuit TV imagery released by the Dubai police.
Many experts believe that the Israeli Mossad killed al-Mahbou, whose involvement in attacks on Israeli targets – not to mention arranging arms deals between Hamas and Iran – would definitely have earned him top honors on Jerusalem’s hit list (see British journalist Gordon Thomas’s fascinating look at the process by which the Israeli government authorizes assassinations). One reason why fingers point at Mossad is the alleged professionalism and sophistication of the operation. Hotel and airport cameras show the killers stalking their target from the moment his plane his landed until he arrived at his hotel (where two of the assassins – dressed in tennis clothes – joined al-Mabhou on an elevator as they followed him to his room). They constantly donned different wigs and beards, and carefully routed their communications through Austria rather than rely on the local phone system.
Notice I say “alleged professionalism” of the killers, because leaving behind enough clues for the Dubai authorities to put out Interpol warrants doesn’t seem like the handiwork of pros. Political assassinations are often done in a spectacular manner to send a message (nothing says “I hate you” more than a car bomb). But competent assassins try to quietly slip in and out; their work is the message, not themselves. Mossad may or may have carried out the operation; Al-Mahbou was an arms dealer with a lot of enemies, including various Arab states and other Palestinians. But whoever was behind the killing almost certainly didn’t bank on the faces of the hit team appearing on post office bulletin boards.
Regardless who authorized it, al-Mahbou’s demise raises a question: Will state-sponsored political assassinations become a thing of the past? Novels and TV shows like “24” make these kinds of operations look easy. So does the American government. If the target is some Taliban leader in a remote Pakistani village, the U.S. sends in a missile-armed Predator or a commando team. No fuss, no furor, because it happens in places that don’t even have electricity.
But what if your target is in Paris or Tokyo? The world is becoming more restricted. Border controls are tighter, passports have computer chips, governments scrutinize passenger lists. There are cameras on traffic lights, ATMs and public parks, to the point where many of us in the developed world are being recorded all the time without even knowing it. Which means that it will become very hard for an assassin to avoid leaving some kind of trail, especially if it’s an 11-strong hit team as in the Dubai killing.
This won’t stop political assassinations. There will always be someone with a score to settle and the ruthlessness to do it. But it does suggest that government-sponsored assassinations will become more rare for fear of exposure. The shadow war will come out of the shadows.