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Dubai assassins used email trojan to track Hamas victim

Mossad kill squad tried poison before hotel lock-hack

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The successful operation to kill a Hamas commander in Dubai in January 2010 followed a botched attempt by the same Israeli hit squad to kill the same target two months previously, according to reports.

Assassins tried to poison Mahmud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in November 2009, but even though the unknown poison was administered it proved only debilitating and not fatal. al-Mabhouh recovered from what he thought was an illness only to be killed two months later, according to a new investigation by investigative journalist Ronen Bergman published in GQ magazine.

The basic scenario behind the successful hit is well known, but Bergman fleshes out a number of details and adds information about an earlier failed attempt on the Hamas commander's life.

Suspected members of the hit squad, numbering more than 27, gained entry to the UAE in January 2010 using forged passports. A dozen of these passports were older UK passports without biometric chips, which were standard issue before 2006. Other suspected hit squad members used Irish, French, German or Australian travel documents.

The team knew of al-Mabhouh’s movement partly because they had bugged his computer with a Trojan horse that allowed them to monitor his email. Although they knew he was travelling to Dubai they did not know which hotel he was staying at, necessitating the use of a team to trail him to the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel. Other hit squad members staked out hotels al-Mabhouh had used in previous trips to the UAE.

While al-Mabhouh met with Iranian armed forces representatives to discuss the shipments of weapons to Hamas, members of the hit squad reprogrammed the lock of his door allowing them to enter his room and lie in wait. Crucially, this was carried out so that al-Mabhouh’s electronic key continued to work.

Once he returned al-Mabhouh was killed by suffocation, following the injection of a muscle relaxant.

However, the assassins made a number of mistakes that blew their cover and left them unable to carry out further missions. For example, two agents were caught on surveillance camera entering and leaving a toilet in order to apply disguises.

In general, the assassins chronically underestimated the competency of Dubai police or the extent to which their movements were monitored by surveillance camera, a factor that allowed Dubai police to quickly identify the suspects and issue their photographs. Dubai police were also able to cross-reference a list of people who had arrived and left the country around the time of the murder, cross-referencing this with entries around the times of al-Mabhouh’s previous visits, to draw up a shortlist of suspects.

A video of the alleged assassins, as captured on surveillance tapes can be found via Wired here.

Police discovered that members of the hit squad were communicating via a private switchboard in Austria. Call records from this line of inquiry as well, as the use of pre-paid debit cards from US-based company Payoneer, allowed UAE police to firmly identify suspects and issue stop and detain notices via Interpol.

Passport pictures from the suspects were subsequently published in newspapers around the world as well as kept on international police databases, a factor that means members of the team are unlikely to be able to participate in any assassinations in future.

The misuse of Western passports by the hit squad sparked a huge diplomatic row in the UK and elsewhere. One Israeli diplomat was expelled from London. The British government also sought assurances from Israel that its identity documents would not be abused again.

Wired reports that Meir Dagan, the intelligence officer who revived the use by Israel of hit squads, was sacked as head of Mossad in the wake of the operation. ®

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