Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/03/23/hamas_hit_forged_passport_diplomatic_row/

Britain expels diplomat over faked passports in Hamas hit row

Spy games

By John Leyden

Posted in Government, 23rd March 2010 13:50 GMT

Britain plans to expel an Israeli diplomat over the use of counterfeit UK passports in the Dubai murder of a Hamas military commander, the BBC reports.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, founder of Hamas's military wing, was murdered in a Dubai hotel room on 19 January by members of a 27-strong hit squad who entered the Arab state using fake or fraudulently obtained passports. A dozen of the suspects used British passports, in many cases travelling using the identity of UK expats living in Israel who hold dual citizenship.

Dubai police released pictures of the suspects culled from CCTV footage last month. A number of Palestinians are also suspected of collaborating in the hit, which Dubai police blame on Israel.

Israeli authorities have neither confirmed nor denied their involvement in the hit, in continuation of a long standing policy. The circumstances and planning of the assassination - fake identities, disguises, lookouts, counterfeit credit cards etc - carry the hallmarks of a Mossad-executed operation.

Al-Mabhouh was travelling using a false passport and on a stopover in Dubai en route to China when he was killed by a combination of electrocution and strangulation in his room in a luxury Dubai hotel. The militant, who survived at least two failed assassination attempts beforehand, was suspected in the involvement of arms trafficking between Iran and militants in Gaza.

Stolen identities

Several of the people whose identities were stolen have come forward to express their shock over the affair, among them Melvyn Mildiner, an Israel-resident British IT worker. Other suspects travelled using counterfeit Irish, French, German and Australian travel documents.

European foreign ministers quickly banded together to condemn the misuse of Western passports. The Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) launched an investigation into the the misuse of British passports by the hit squad at the request of the Foreign Office last month.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband is due to make a statement to Parliament on Tuesday afternoon (1530 GMT) when he is expected to announce the progress of this inquiry and the expulsion of an Israeli mid-level diplomat. The expulsion is intended to send a message that Britain will not tolerate the misuse of its passports by foreign intelligence agencies, whether or not they work for friendly countries.

Miliband, who previously described the misuse of British passports as an "outrage", is expected to stop short of accusing Israel directly of al-Mabhouh's murder. However, he is expected to repeat demands for Israel to co-operate fully in SOCA's investigation of how the counterfeit passports were obtained.

Israel's ministry of foreign affairs declined to comment, but Sky News spoke to Knesset member Aryeh Eldad, who speculated that the move may lead to the tit-for-tat expulsion of a British diplomat from Israel, possibly a military attache.

Will biometric passports undo spies?

This misuse of Western passports by the hit squad suspects has raised questions about whether forged biometric passports, meant to prevent impersonation, were misused in the assassination. Both the Foreign Office and Australian authorities have said the suspect passports were forgeries of older passports without biometric chips.

What isn't clear is whether cloned or more simply forged passports were used by the Dubai hit squad. Retired UK Ambassador Charles Crawford explains the important distinction between faked or cloned UK Passports, and fraudulently obtained genuinely issued passports in a blog post here.

Spy Blog has an excellent essay on what the hit may be able to tell us about the effectiveness of biometrics in passports and other travel documents here. The upshot is that biometrics however good won't stop the trade in fraudulent passports - just make it much more difficult and expensive. Meanwhile, future Jason Bournes would (in theory) only be good for one-off missions.

Manhunt

In other developments, international police agency Interpol said it was joining a Dubai-based international task force investigating the murder of al-Mabhouh earlier this month.

A ‘thorough’ investigation by Dubai police had established ‘clear’ links through passport records and video surveillance of individuals and groups, as well as through DNA analysis, witness interviews and hotel, credit card, phone and transport records.

Dubai police have also agreed to enter into Interpol's international databases all relevant evidence related to the investigation, including DNA profiles recovered from the scene.

Interpol has issued 27 red (stop and detain) notices against suspects in the case at the request of Dubai police, who think two ‘teams’ of suspects plotted al-Mabhouh’s murder. A team of 17 laid the groundwork for the hit, carried out by a smaller team of 11, investigators reckon. ®