To its planners, the assassination of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud Mabhouh must have first seemed like the perfect spy operation.
They slipped into Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, on fraudulent travel papers. They quietly killed the militant leader long wanted by Israel, reportedly smothering him with a pillow, and discreetly left the country.
But now the entire episode appears to have gone terribly out of control, more Coen brothers than John le Carre, with police releasing images of the alleged operatives in shorts and baseball caps traipsing around the corridors of the hotel where Mabhouh stayed, fumbling with their bags and looking straight at surveillance cameras.
Interpol issued arrest warrants Thursday for 11 suspects in the attack, and Dubai’s chief of police bluntly accused Israel’s Mossad spy agency of being behind the assassination.
The incident is damaging already strained relations between the Jewish state and the Persian Gulf nations that Washington is pressing to recruit in its confrontation with Iran.
Israeli officials continued their policy of refusing to comment on whether the Mossad was behind the Jan. 19 assassination. But to Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad case officer, it seemed clear that it was.
“This assassination right now has caused more harm to the state of Israel than this guy could have done in a lifetime,” said Ostrovsky, author of “By Way of Deception,” a book critical of the Mossad.
“It’s their job to make themselves look good,” said Ostrovsky, who now serves as chief executive of Thebookpatch.com, a website based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But they still live in a 1983 movie. It’s a reflection of an entire intelligence society that is stuck in their days of glory.”
Dubai’s police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, offered no new evidence but told the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper the National that Mossad “is 99%, if not 100%, . . . behind the murder” of the 50-year-old Mabhouh.
In a statement posted on his department’s website, Tamim said that Dubai authorities had more evidence, “apart from the tapes and photos” already disclosed.
Interpol issued 11 “red notices” to its 188 member states for the arrest of the slaying suspects and also urged law enforcement authorities to try to clear the names of seven Israelis whose identities were allegedly stolen for the attack. “Interpol does not believe that we know the true identities of these wanted persons,” Ronald K. Noble, secretary general of Interpol, said in a statement.
The suspects traveled on fraudulent British, Irish, German and French passports. But at least seven of the suspects’ names match those of dual Israeli citizens, who allege that their identities were used to create phony travel papers with others’ photographs.
One of the Israelis said he was considering suing the government.
“What I’ve been going through since two days ago is a terrible nightmare,” repairman Paul John Keeley told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. “What have they done to me? How did they steal the private information from my passport just like that?”
Ostrovsky said using Western passports of dual Israeli citizens to create false covers was standard practice for the operations division of the Mossad.
“Most of the time they get permission,” he said, in a telephone interview. “I believe at some point, they stopped asking permission.”
Israel sought Mabhouh, a native of the Gaza Strip and co-founder of Hamas’ military wing, for the 1989 capture of two Israeli soldiers. Police say he was killed within hours of arriving in Dubai, without a security detail, from his home in Damascus, Syria.
Dubai authorities say that after killing Mabhouh in his room at the Bustan Rotana hotel in an operation in which they wore wigs and costumes, the killers quickly fled the country.
Initially, investigators were not inclined to suspect murder in Mabhouh’s death in a city that is relatively free of violent crime.
“It was meant to look like death from natural causes during sleep,” Dubai police coroner Fawzi Benomran told the local newspaper Xpress. However, he said, his team determined that the cause of death was “suffocation by smothering, most probably by occluding the external airways using a soft object, most probably a pillow.”
Dubai authorities quickly identified two Palestinians suspected of being part of the assassination team and had them arrested and delivered from Jordan. Palestinian sources in the West Bank identified the two men Thursday as Ahmad Hasanein and Anwar Shekhaibar, both members of the security forces of the U.S.-backed Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip. The sources said the men had not been officially active since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.
The Mossad answers directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also in office in 1997 when Israeli agents traveled to Jordan using fake Canadian passports and injected Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, then a rising star in the group, with a deadly toxin.
That operation backfired spectacularly after the agents were caught and Jordan forced Israel to deliver an antidote that saved Meshaal.
Ostrovsky speculated that those behind the Mabhouh assassination did not count on the Dubai police collating electronic immigration data and surveillance footage to quickly put together so thorough a narrative. But in many cases, the operatives stare right at the cameras, a sign of sloppy tradecraft and a hurried, poorly planned operation, he said.
“It’s a rush to action which is meant to show off the long arm of Israeli justice,” he said.
Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem and special correspondents Yasser Ahmad in Gaza City and Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.