Israeli officials declined to comment on the death in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, 50, Hamas' director of Iranian arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and kidnap artist. But their satisfied smiles turned the finger of suspicion toward the Israeli Mossad without answering the mysteries shrouding the incident.
Why were Hamas spokesmen uncertain about the date of his death, for one, hesitating between Jan. 19 and Jan. 20?
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources, there was a more than 24-hour time gap between the moment he entered his hotel room at the luxury Al Bustan Rotana on Jan. 19 and the discovery of his body the next day. This gap is accounted for by an increasing number of intelligence watchers in the West and the Middle East by the assumption that the hit squad grilled him for at least eight or nine hours – through Tuesday night up until early Wednesday – before administering the lethal injection for simulating death from a heart attack. Clearly, the information in Mabkhouh's head was at least as important to his killers as his demise.
As seen in many past incidents, just one or two gunmen with a bomb can get away with liquidating an individual in any Gulf of Middle East capital. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly has learned that the hit team which finished the Hamas operative consisted of at least seven people. All seven remained in Dubai until at least 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20. This is attested to by hotel security camera footage and the records at Dubai International Airport, where after that time they boarded separate flights to different European destinations.
His killers were after secret information too
Iranian, Syrian, Hizballah and Hamas clandestine agencies are extremely troubled by not knowing what secrets Mabkhouh may have spilled during the long hours of his interrogation. There were no signs of a struggle in his fancy hotel suite. They surmise that he may have been too surprised to put up a fight when he opened the door and found his assassins-to-be waiting in his hotel room. He may have realized that his arcane life was over and cooperated with his interrogators hoping to play for time, or else was injected by some sort of truth serum to make him talk. But for all they know, the secrets he gave away may put their networks and cells across the region in grave peril.
To this day, Iran, Syria and Hizballah still wonder how the agents of death reached their most accomplished master terrorist, abductor and tactician, Imad Moughniyeh, who was killed in Damascus on February 12, 2008 by a small explosive charge of 200 grams tucked into the head-rest of his car and remotely operated.
When two years later, on January 17 2010, a booby-trapped motorbike was triggered by a remote hand and killed nuclear physics professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi of Tehran University as he left home, their intelligence services could no longer doubt their enemies had reached deep into their capital cities.
But the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai was quite another affair.
The hand behind this hit was clearly after richer spoils than a death sentence and had upped its goal to the much harder task of turning its prey into a mine of clandestine information about its adversaries' most guarded operations.
A faceless one-man show
The undercover agencies of Syria, Iran, Hizballah and Hamas did not take this level of sophistication into account and have no immediate defense against it.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources find evidence for this reading of the incident in Mahmoud Mabhouh's deeply secretive character and life as the quintessential lone wolf. The missions he performed for Hamas in cooperation with Iran's intelligence services were one-man shows. Mabhouh made more than 1000 trips in the last 10 years from his base in Syria. He traveled alone without bodyguards and so attracted little attention. He made his own traveling arrangements in person, and no one in the Hamas top echelons knew when he was leaving or arriving at his base in Damascus.
Monday, Feb. 1, after his death, one of his closest friends, Mustafa Lidawi, former Hamas ambassador to Tehran and representative in Beirut, described to a select group of panic-stricken Hamas insiders how fanatical Mabhouh had been about his own security: After nightfall, he never picked up the satellite phone, which was his only means of communication; he never opened the door of his Damascus home or hotel-room when traveling aboard without a pistol or a submachine gun in his hand.
Pressed into the inquiry from the moment Mabhouh's body was discovered, Lidawi believes that when the dead man arrived at his hotel room in Dubai at nine pm Tuesday, one of two scenarios played out:
1. The assassins were already waiting inside to ambush him.
2. They stole into the room when he was taking a shower or in the lavatory.
Hamas in panic
Lidawi like the dead man is a one-man show, but in his case he has had the distinction of being the only high-ranking Hamas member since the organization's foundation in 1987 to openly criticize politburo chief Khaled Meshaal and the rest of the Damascus leadership. He has said they are all wide open to Israeli intelligence (and possibly additional foreign agencies as well) and therefore not to be trusted.
Now, Hamas officials in Gaza are hurling the same charge. They complain bitterly that they have been able to keep the hiding-place of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit they kidnapped safe for three and-a-half years, whereas the Damascus arm failed to protect the movements of Hamas' live wire in the link between Hamas and Iran.
Hamas' security chiefs are terrified since the Mabhouh killing. This was manifested by the advisory circulated among their leaders Tuesday, Feb. 2, naming 13 high-profile commanders as directly targeted by Israel for liquidation. (See HOT POINTS of February 2 for the full list).
No covert militant organization like Hamas would knowingly commit the grave indiscretion of exposing the identities of its most sensitive operatives unless it had gone off the rails.