chief correspondent for the Australian Sydney Morning Herald newspaper and the author of Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas. The paperback edition is out here in the US this week. He joins us from Washington, DC.
Israel is under growing international pressure over the assassination of a top Hamas commander in Dubai last month. On Thursday, the international police agency Interpol placed eleven members of an alleged hit squad on its most wanted list. The team of eleven suspects included six holding fake British passports bearing the names of Israeli citizens and three holding Irish passports. At least seven of the names on the passports belong to Israeli residents whose identities had been stolen. [includes rush transcript]
Israel is under growing international pressure over the assassination of a top Hamas commander in Dubai last month. The commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was found dead in his hotel. On Thursday, the international police agency Interpol placed eleven members [of an alleged hit squad on its most wanted list. Interpol issued the so-called red notices — its highest level alert — at the request of Dubai authorities. In a televised interview,] Dubai Police Chief Dhahi Khalfan Tamim said he believed Israeli agents were involved in the killing.
DHAHI KHALFAN TAMIM: [translated] Now, when it is said that seven of the suspects, who are possibly holding British passports, went to Israel and they are now in Israel, I don’t think it was a peace group who carried out this operation. It was certainly done by a wing of the Israeli government, which operates assassination groups.
Dubai police have released closed-circuit television footage they claim show members of the alleged hit squad stalking the Hamas commander in his hotel before he was killed. On Thursday, Dubai’s police chief also called for the head of Israeli spy agency, the Mossad, to be arrested if responsibility was proven.
DHAHI KHALFAN TAMIM: [translated] The order to arrest them remains, wherever they go. And if the job is proven to be done by them — and this is likely now — I will be asking Interpol to issue an arrest warrant against the head of Mossad. And he wouldn’t be able to travel to any Arabic country.
On Wednesday, Israeli officials declined to confirm or deny involvement in the killing, citing a, quote, "policy of ambiguity."
The team of eleven suspects included six holding fake British passports bearing the names of Israeli citizens and three holding Irish passports. At least seven of the names on the passports belong to Israeli residents whose identities had been stolen.
Both Britain and Ireland say they’ve summoned the Israeli ambassadors in London and Dublin for questioning. This is the Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin.
MICHAEL MARTIN: Well, I’m very angry about it, and I’m very concerned. It’s a very, very serious issue. It puts the security of Irish citizens at risk. We do know that two of the three we’ve contacted are regular travelers, and indeed one would have been traveling this weekend. And that person could very well have been arrested because of the information that has emerged from Dubai in terms of that assassination and murder in Dubai.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would push for a government inquiry.
PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: I think this is a matter of investigation, and we’ve got to know the facts, we’ve got to know what happened, we’ve got to know what happened to British passports. It’s as simple as that. It’s an investigation that’s got to take place before any conclusions are drawn.
While the British government denies it had any prior knowledge of the fake British passports being used, shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was entirely possible the government had been alerted.
For more, we’re joined by Paul McGeough. He is the chief correspondent for the Australian Sydney Morning Herald newspaper and the author of Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas. The paperback edition is out in the United States this week. He’s joining us from Washington, DC.
Well, what do you understand happened in Dubai?
PAUL McGEOUGH: What happened was quite a sophisticated operation to kill a very important member of the Hamas hierarchy, which has all the hallmarks of the Mossad at work — the cleverness and, sadly for the Mossad, from time to time, the bungling.
Explain just how it all went down, for people who haven’t been following this on all the networks, especially with the closed-circuit television. Track what took place last month.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Well, the closed-circuit television is the key to understanding the story. And it’s quite remarkable that the Mossad seemed not to give the network of cameras around Dubai a second thought. But the team were filmed arriving individually at Dubai International Airport. The Hamas arms dealer was seen arriving. They followed him to his hotel. They’re observed going — the killers are observed going up and down in the lifts of the hotel, tracking his movements to his room as he’s escorted to his room, so they get the room number. At other times, some of the team were picked up going shopping in Dubai, then coming back to the hotel, occasionally popping into restrooms and emerging minutes later with a different wig or a different beard pasted to their chins. You know, it became slightly Monty Python-esque.
But then it also becomes very chilling, because Mabhouh was in room 230, and the cameras on that level of the hotel pick up the killers going into the room, spending as long as forty-five minutes in the room. And you have to wonder why it took four would-be killers forty-five minutes to dispose of one person. And then they’re seen emerging from the room and waiting for the elevator, with two of them carrying a very — what looks like a very heavy hold-all bag.
All of this has, you know, come from mountains of CCTV footage, which the Dubai authorities, given our media age these days, very kindly edited down to a really crisp twenty-seven minutes, which is on YouTube and on every website and on every TV news bulletin around the world for the last three days.
Now, that forty-five-minute period that they were in the room, does that lead to possible suspicion that they attempted to torture him or extract information from him before they killed him?
PAUL McGEOUGH: There has been no clear explanation yet of the cause of death. But what has been offered, either by Dubai authorities, by Hamas and by a member of the dead man’s family, are the following: suffocation, electrocution or strangulation. It sounds — it’s plausible that several attempts were made to kill the man. It also seems plausible, given the time taken, that there was an attempt to extract information from him before he was eliminated.
The story being put out by the Israelis is that this man was in Dubai to close an arms deal on behalf of Hamas. It’s not inconceivable that they wanted to find out who he was going to meet and where they were going to meet to close the deal, before they did away with him.
Now, for all that whoever coordinated this put into it, they didn’t understand there’s CCTV, there’s closed-circuit television?
PAUL McGEOUGH: They seem not to have been aware, which is surprising, given the celebrity court case, a murder case in Dubai in 2008, where an Egyptian billionaire had his Lebanese lover knocked off in Dubai, and much was made in the local media and right across the region of how the Dubai police had used their multiple CCTV cameras to garner the evidence to crack that case.
And of course the other huge embarrassment in this is, again, as in the killing — the attempted assassination of Khalid Mishal in 1997, is the use of foreign passports by the killers, which causes huge embarrassment for the governments that have issued those passports. And in this case, we now have London, Dublin, Paris and Berlin all under pressure to explain publicly how their passports were used in such an operation.
Now, you’ve written an exciting account of what happened back in 1997 when the Mossad tried to kill Khalid Mishal. Could you talk about the similarities between the botched operation there and this one?
PAUL McGEOUGH: Well, the similarities are that the Mossad chose, and funnily enough, while Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister in an earlier incarnation — these sorts of missions require the prime minister’s sign-off — they chose a foreign setting. They chose Amman, the capital of Jordan, notwithstanding the fact that King Hussein of Jordan was Israel’s best friend in the Arab world and had gone out on a limb to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Again, it was a very clever plan. They proposed that they would inject a secret mysterious poison into Khalid Mishal’s ear as he walked down the street. He wasn’t expected to be aware that this had happened. The hope was that he would go home and lie down, feeling tired, and die. And when there was an autopsy, there would be no trace of this mysterious poison in his system.
In fact, what happened was, the brilliance of the plan ended up being its Achilles’ heel, because they left enough time for the poison to work so that Mishal would have departed the setting of the injection, so that his people would not link the accidental bumping of somebody up against him in the street with his subsequent death. But the time they left for the poison to work was the time in which Jordanian doctors were able to put in place the effort to save him.
And while that was going on, Mishal’s bodyguards captured two of the Mossad agents, thereby delivering to King Hussein bargaining chips. King Hussein was able to demand, in deliberate humiliation of Benjamin Netanyahu, the release of Hamas prisoners from Israeli prisons. And also he put the word on Bill Clinton, then US president, to force Netanyahu to hand over to the Jordanians the secret poison and an antidote.
What about what Israel is saying right now, this, quote, "policy of ambiguity," why they will not respond? And the international outcry, especially with Britain right now?
PAUL McGEOUGH: What you have to do is go back to January 20, the day this killing took place, and in the days afterwards. What you had was the typical Israeli response to a typical Israeli espionage success. It is neither confirmed nor denied, but authoritative commentators and spokespeople in the Israeli establishment are wheeled out to say not that the Mossad did it, but “Wasn’t it a good job? Wasn’t it clever? Did you notice how brilliant it was? And the world is a better place, because the victim of the attack is gone.”
Now, that little process took place in January before this thing started to backfire. And now that it is backfiring, what you have is, “Oh, we have a policy of ambiguity.” Now, the fact that they’re offering a policy of ambiguity in the face of such an embarrassment is almost as good as confirmation, you would think. And also a line used by the Israeli foreign minister, when he was asked about it, rather than deny it outright, what he said was, “There is no evidence that it was the Mossad.” That also is almost as good as confirmation. And if you hold the involvement of the Mossad up against the other conspiracy theories floating around, I would put Mossad in the slot as number one.
And what about the British government’s response to the use of its passports in this way, in a clear assassination in another country?
PAUL McGEOUGH: This is a very serious issue. I mean, passports are sacrosanct documents issued by governments to protect their citizens while traveling and to facilitate their travel. A lot of British people, a lot of Irish people, a lot of Europeans travel regularly in the Middle East on business or as tourists. And the notion that you could become a suspected killer, merely because you’re carrying the passport of your own government, is quite frightening.
A Canadian diplomat who I interviewed at the time of the attempt on Khalid Mishal’s life, when the Israelis used Canadian passports, the way he put it to me was, “Look, this is so bad, it is so dangerous, because what can happen is a Canadian passport issued in the name of Fred Nerk is used in an operation like this in Jordan, and any Fred Nerk living in the city of Winnipeg could open his door to a knock and there be a gunman there who wants to kill him.” So, it is a serious business.
And this was Israeli — and the names used were Israeli citizens who had their identity stolen.
PAUL McGEOUGH: Yes. Yes, the way it was explained to me when I was researching Kill Khalid was that often what happens is, the Israeli authorities borrow passports momentarily, as people go through immigration, entering or leaving Israel, and skim the details of them. But another thing that happens is, given the number of Jews from other parts of the world, other countries, who migrate to Israel, they have dual citizenship, they have American passports, they have Canadian, British passports, whatever. Now, one of the things that happens is, quite a few of those people are given, if you like, an informal test of their loyalty to the state of Israel and in the form of a request for their passport to be borrowed for a time.
There was an amazing case, again in the aftermath of the Mishal incident, where a Canadian came forward to the Canadian authorities and confessed that in 1996 he had actually let the Israeli authorities borrow his passport. In the aftermath of the Mishal incident, the Israelis apologized profusely to Canada and promised that they would not use Canadian passports again. But weeks later, this same Canadian had a knock on his door from what he described as a front for the Mossad. He was asked, could they borrow his new passport, and could they also fly his daughter to Ottawa to apply for a new passport and then fly her back to Israel, and could they borrow that passport, too.
The quote in the Jerusalem Post of Melvyn Mildiner, who had moved to Israel nine years ago, he said, “I have no idea how to clear my name.” His was one of the names used. He said, “Interpol has a warrant out for my arrest. I don’t know how I will travel. I went to bed with pneumonia [and] woke up a murderer.” A last question, very quickly, Paul McGeough, how does this fit into Israel-Palestinian politics, and the significance of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh?
PAUL McGEOUGH: Well, perhaps more significant than the significance of the dead man is two living Palestinians who were arrested in Jordan and handed over by the Jordanians to the Dubai authorities. The only two alleged perpetrators of this murder that the Dubai authorities hold are two Palestinians who, it seems, according to reports coming out of Gaza, previously worked for the Mahmoud Abbas. That’s the Fatah Palestinian Authority-controlled security services who are so anti-Hamas. It means that within the politics of the Palestinian community, you have the makings of a very serious and very nasty charge of collaboration on the part of Mahmoud Abbas, or those around him, in terms of the extent to which they might have been helping the Israelis to eliminate a Hamas cadre.
Paul McGeough, we want to thank you very much for being with us, chief correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, speaking to us from Washington, DC. His book is called Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas.