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Mossad accused of complicity in assassination of top Hamas official in Dubai

Mossad is accused of complicity in assassination of top Hamas official in Dubai. Russia and Abkhazia sign deal to build joint military base. Cluster munitions treaty to enter force this year. US reinstates ties with Syria. US drone attack kills three in Pakistan. More journalists killed in 2009 than ever before. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
17 February 2010

Dubai has widened its search for the killers of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on Wednesday with officials confirming at least six of the Hamas commander's assassins remain unaccounted for. Yesterday, police in Dubai issued international arrest warrants for eleven suspects in the case. It is now believed the team behind the murder numbered at least seventeen.

Police in the United Arab Emirates described the killing as meticulously planned, with the hit squad arriving on different flights and checking into different hotels. Dhafi Khalfan, Dubai's police chief, has said that he has not ruled out ‘the involvement of Mossad [Israel's intelligence agency] or other parties in the assassination.’

CCTV footage released yesterday indicates that the eleven suspects closely followed al-Mabhouh's movements shortly before his death last month. Forensic tests suggest al-Mabhouh was suffocated in his hotel room near Dubai International airport. The murder was carried out in just ten minutes, after which the suspected assassins fled the scene of the crime. The hit squad are thought to have spent less than nineteen hours in Dubai.

Gordon Brown has called for a 'full investigation' into how fraudulent British passports were obtained by the suspects. Six Israel-based British citizens whose names appeared on the British passports used by the assassins have denied all knowledge and involvement. The forged passports have fueled already widespread speculation in the region that Mossad was behind the assassination. If confirmed, the allegations will trigger an Israeli diplomatic row with Britain and the three other European countries whose passports were used - Ireland, Germany and France.

Al-Mabhouh was one of the founders of the military wing of Hamas and was wanted by Israel for his role in the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989. Israel considered al-Mabhouh to be a key figure in the smuggling of weaponry from Iran to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In an interview with Al Jazeera ten months before his death, al-Mabhouh revealed that Israel had tried to assassinate him three times.

Hamas has already accused Israel of orchestrating the murder. On Wednesday, Israel's foreign minister Avigdor Lieverman said the use of identities of foreign-born Israelis by the assassins did not prove that Mossad assassinated al-Mabhouh, though he refused to deny Israeli involvement.

The openSecurity verdict: The use of disguises, fictitious names, arrival by the suspects from different directions and their subsequent dispersal certainly bear the trademarks of a professional intelligence organisation. Mossad, which in Hebrew stands for the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, has a history of involvement in scandals borne out of overseas espionage and covert operations.

The use of fraudulent foreign passports by the spy agency has in the past provoked diplomatic rows with a number of friendly countries. Analysts are suggesting that the use of British-Israeli identities could suggest that Mossad wanted to let the world know that it organised the murder, without making a public declaration, thereby sending a clear warning to Israel's enemies abroad. The cooperation of other countries cannot be ruled out at this stage. A further possibility is that another country masterminded the episode to make it seem as if Mossad was involved.

Al-Mabhouh’s murder certainly bears many hallmarks of a classic Israeli spy operation. The agency's modus operandi has in the past included overseas sting operations such as the plot to seize Mordechai Vanunu, the man who revealed Israel's nuclear secrets to the British press. Already, some former Mossad operatives have said the meticulous planning and speedy execution of the operation suggests that Mossad was involved. In 1997 for instance, the agency bungled an attempt to assassinate Khalid Meshaal, then head of Hamas’s political bureau in Amman, Jordan. That attempt saw Mossad agents pose as Canadian tourists and squirt a deadly toxin in Meshaal's ear. The plan however went awry and the agents, using fraudulent Canadan passports, eventually ran for safety to the local Israeli embassy. At the time, the operation had calamitous consequences for Israeli-Jordanian relations, and contravened an existing understanding between the two neighbours.

Gordon Thomas, who wrote a book on the Israeli intelligence agency, says the recent Dubai assassination bears resemblance to previous Mossad assassinations of Imad Mugniyah, the head of Hezbollah’s armed wing, in Damascus and Fathi Shkaki in Malta. Althought the Israelis have remained tight-lipped about the accusations leveled against them, there is certainly a history of the use of fraudulent identities, particularly the use of British passports, to carry out foreign operations. If the findings of an investigation now underway by the Serious Organised Cime Agency (SOCA), headed by the ex-Director-General of MI5 from 1996 to 2002, suggest the involvement of Mossad, there are likely to be consequences for British-Israeli diplomatic relations. A similar incident involving forged British passports used by Mossad in 1987 prompted British diplomatic outrage at the time.

With increased airport security across the world, there are likely to be questions about how the assassins managed to get in and out of Dubai on forged documents, which made use of existing passports issued by the British authorities. The questions of how the passports were acquired and how alternative photos were inserted into genuine passports without arousing suspicion loom large and have implications for people trafficking and international terrorism aside from espionage. Political parties in Britain have backed a full investigation, with Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, calling on the government to summon Israel's ambassador to the UK.

Within Israel there is mounting speculation about Mossad involvement, with some calling on Mossad's director, Meir Dagan, to resign his post for 'belligerent, heavy-handed' tactics. If Mossad complicity is uncovered, Israel's obligation towards its own citizens will be called in to question, particularly as the identities of foreign-born Israelis were stolen for the assassination. Others within Israel have welcomed al-Mabhouh’s demise and remain defiant. Israel's science and technology minister, Daniel Herschkowitz, was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying, 'my impression is that the Mossad knows how to get the job done, and it is a known thing that anyone who lifts a hand against a Jew is putting his life on the line.' Currently, the UAE is holding two Palestinians accused of participating in al-Mabhouh's assassination. The complicity of Palestinians will likely stoke tensions in the Gaza Strip where executions of collaborators and informants are common-place.

Israeli involvement in al-Mabhouh’s death will have massive repercussions for peace efforts in the middle east more generally. Increasing mistrust between Israel and its Arab neighbours is likely to stall the Obama administration's middle east policy, which may hinge on a general peace in which the Arab states still officially in a state of war with Israel would sign peace treaties recognising Israel in return for guarentees on Palestinian statehood. For now at least, peace in the middle east appears as elusive as ever, given the furore expressed by Hamas over al-Mabhouh’s death.

Russia and Abkhazia sign deal to build joint military base

Abkhazia, the Georgian breakaway region, signed a deal on Wednesday with Russia paving the way for the construction of a Russian military base on its soil. The move will increase Abkhazia's dependence on Moscow and stoke tensions with Tbilisi. Officials have said the new base would accommodate up to 3,000 soldiers, including units from Russia's FSB security services. The deal was signed during Kremlin talks between President Dmitry Medvedev and his Abkhazian counterpart, Sergei Bagapsh, who arrived in Moscow on Tuesday on the first visit since his reelection as president of the tiny de facto state on the Black Sea. Medvedev and Bagapsh are also set to discuss further economic cooperation as well as cultural and humanitarian relations.

The European Union and NATO have repeatedly expressed concern that a Moscow-led military build-up in Abkhazia threatens Georgia's territorial integrity. Georgia has already decried the new plans for a land base as illegal.

Cluster munitions treaty to enter force this year

An international treaty banning cluster munitions will come into force in August this year after the number of countries to register their ratification reached thirty, according to the United Nations. The convention bans the production and use of cluster munitions and obliges states to compensate victims. Campaigners against their use say they have killed and maimed thousands of civilians, though countries that make use of them say they are a legitimate anti-personnel weapon. The treaty under review is only binding on countries that have signed and ratified it.

Since the convention was opened for signature in Oslo in 2008, 104 countries have signed but only 30 have ratified, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), which represents 200 groups of activists against cluster bombs. Some of the biggest stockpilers - including the US, Russia, China and Israel - are not among the signatories. Rights groups and the UN have welcomed the ratification as a 'major advance on the global disarmament agenda.'

US reinstates ties with Syria

A top US diplomat has met Syria's President Bashar Assad, as part of a US move to improve ties with Damascus. William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, is the highest ranking US official to visit Syria since January 2005. The visit forms part of the Obama administration's attempts to improve ties with Damascus after years of tense relations. Analysts say the visit is aimed at loosening Syria's ties with Iran while pushing for a middle east peace accord.

Yesterday, it was revealed that President Barack Obama will nominate a career diplomat to become the US's first ambassador to Damascus since 2005. The White House said it would send Robert Ford to the Senate for confirmation hearings. The restoration of diplomatic relations with Syria is part of a broader initiative by Washington to engage with the Arab and Muslim world in the aftermath of Obama's trip to Cairo, where he committed himself to changing the US's image in the middle east.

US drone attack kills three in Pakistan

A US drone aircraft fired a missile at targets in Pakistan's North Waziristan region on Wednesday, killing three suspected militants. The drone targeted a compound in the village of Tapi, 15km east of Miranshah, the main town in the region. It is the second attack on the village this week. There is no information yet on the identity of those killed. Today’s drone attack is, according to Reuters, the 14th such strike in Pakistan this year compared with 51 last year and 32 in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has confirmed that the Afghan Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has been captured. Reports emerging yesterday suggested that the commander had been arrested in a joint US-Pakistani raid on 8 February in Karachi. Mullah Baradar is the most senior Taliban leader captured to date, and his arrest marks not only a propaganda coup for NATO forces but also suggests a turning point in co-operation between the NATO allies and Pakistan.

More journalists killed in 2009 than ever before

Seventy journalists were killed in 2009 making it the most dangerous year for journalists since record keeping began thirty years ago, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). At least thirty of the reported deaths came in a single politically motivated massacre in the Philippines last November, where journalists were accompanying female relatives of a local clan member filing candidacy papers to run for governor on the southern island of Mindanao.

The CPJ's annual Attacks on the Press survey, released Tuesday in New York, reports that some 150 journalists are currently in jail, including 60 in Iran where the CPJ says the authorities have in effect criminalised journalism. The group said online journalists were particularly vulnerable to repression and made up more than half of the news workers in prison worldwide. The report expressed concern about China’s incarceration of journalists and its large and overt internet censorship apparatus, contributing to what it calls a ‘grim picture’ in 2010.

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