In the Middle East, assassination is a form of communication. The “hit team” killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai is the latest case– but will it be the last?
By Christopher Dickey
Let’s not, for a moment, talk about the pseudo-mystery surrounding the murder of Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabhou in a luxury hotel room in Dubai last January 20. The police chief there doesn’t have much doubt that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, carried out the attack. And, frankly, I don’t think Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu wants there to be much doubt, either. His government’s not confirming, but not denying, and it’s smiling.
The whole Israeli establishment clearly is happy this arms trafficker is dead. “The fact that a terrorist was killed -- and it doesn’t matter if it was in Dubai or Gaza -- is good news to those fighting terrorism,” said opposition leader Tzipi Livni. who served with an elite Mossad unit herself in the 1980s. (“To kill and assassinate, though it’s not strictly legal, if you do it for your country, it’s legitimate,” she once said, looking back.)
But getting rid of a bad guy is only one part of the murder game as it’s played in the Middle East. The other part is to make sure your enemies know it was you who did it, without their quite being able to prove it. They need to wonder if they’re next. They need to wonder who might finger them. “It will make those people more distrustful of each other,” says Martin van Creveld, the widely respected Israeli analyst of modern warfare. “They will assume that they have traitors in their midst.” In short, they become as nervous as Hamas and indeed Hizbullah leaders have been in the weeks since the Mabhou killing.
In Lebanon, Hizbullah took special note of the fact that two dozen or more alleged members of the hit team entered Dubai on what looked very much like American, British, European and Australian passports. Some Israeli journalists did the same thing in order to get close to Hizbullah during its war along the border in 2006. “We must tighten foreign passport control at the airport ,” declared Nawaf Moussawi, a Hizbullah member of parliament in Beirut. “Every Lebanese and Arab must deal with holders of foreign passports as foreign spies.”
“I’m sure the Israelis did not try very hard to hide their operations,” says Timur Goksel, formerly the United Nations’ man in south Lebanon, and now an analyst in Beirut. “Half their goal was deterrent. They want to show that they can catch these guys whenever they want. They’re not going to deny it completely. They want to give the impression that they can reach anyone, anywhere.”
Such murders and such messages go back at least to the cult of the assassins mythologized by terrified Crusaders almost a thousand years ago. Iran has worked hard to master the craft, and systematically murdered its opponents exiled in Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s. After Israel had carried out a long series of hits on Palestinian leaders and Hizbullah about the same time, an intelligence advisor to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told me the Israelis, the Arabs and Iranians all understood perfectly well – at least at his level – that they were playing by an eye-for-an-eye code as old as the Bible.
This morning I called up France’s famous counter-terror investigator and magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière to talk about all this. Now retired from the tribunal, he recently published a book with a title that would translate roughly as “What I Couldn’t Say Before.” In it, among many other cases, he talks about the murder of Palestinian Liberation Organization operative Atef Bseiso in Paris in 1992. Bseiso was unknown to the public but well known to many secret services, and often talked to them. Indeed, he’d been meeting with French intelligence officers the day he was killed.
As Bseiso got out of a car in front of the luxurious Méridien Montparnasse Hotel, two men in jogging suits opened fire on him from close range, shooting him first in the body, then finishing him off with a bullet to the head. In a nice little bit of tradecraft, their pistols were inside sacks that contained the cartridges as they were ejected rather than leaving them behind on the ground as evidence. At first the French accepted claims of responsibility that appeared to come from a rival Palestinian faction. But investigators eventually discovered a Mossad mole in PLO leader Yassir Arafat’s inner circle who had fingered Bseiso.
In Bruguière’s judgement there’s no question that Israelis were behind Bseiso’s killing, although he could never prove it in court. And there’s no question in his mind, either, that “this crime, committed in cold blood, was clearly a message addressed to the authorities of our country” that they should distance themselves from Palestinians like Bseiso.
When I asked Bruguière about the Dubai case and whether it was meant to send a similar message, however, he drew a distinction. Murders like Bseiso’s were like coded memos sent “between services,” he said, and “meant to remain in the milieu of those who understood them.” The Dubai hit, revealed step by step through the lenses of closed circuit television and covered in such exhaustive detail by the global press – and even on YouTube -- could be more publicity than the Israelis bargained for, he said. Yossi Melman, author of the classic study of the Mossad, “Every Spy A Prince” (Houghton Mifflin, 1990) wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz that this might be the last assassination of its kind. “The conclusion could be that the era of heroic operations in the style of James Bond movies is close to its end.”
Me, I don’t think so. If the Dubai operation had come off as perfectly as planned the message that “you can check into a luxury hotel but you can’t hide” still probably would have been clear to Hamas leaders, and if not, subtle little hints could have come their way through the rumor mill of informants and collaborators. But the risk that the Dubai hit would make big headlines almost certainly was taken into account, too. Jonna Mendez, who spent more than a quarter century with the CIA’s clandestine services, told the Associated Press “you can be sure [the members of the assassination team] knew they were being surveilled. Likewise, they would assume that the documents they were using would be made available after the fact. What does this mean? It means it didn’t matter. The faces and the documents that were captured by the cameras will never be seen again.”
Mendez’s recommendation for tradecraft going forward: “Steal the identity, disguise the participants, be ready on the other side with another set of identities and documents, and embrace and conceal the protagonists on their return,” she said. “With that goal in mind this may, in fact, be the operation of the future.”
Whether you regard them as sordid murderers or secret heroes, after all, such assassins are likely to remain the Middle East’s great communicators.
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Newsweek December 1, 1986, UNITED STATES EDITION
Cutting Arafat's Sea Link
BYLINE: CHRISTOPHER DICKEY in Cyprus with MILAN J. KUBIC in Jerusalem and THEODORE STANGER in Rome
SECTION: INTERNATIONAL; Pg. 46 LENGTH: 977 words
HIGHLIGHT: A widening secret war
The bomb went off shortly after 2 a.m. as the rented car turned off Syngrou Avenue, a cruising strip for prostitutes and transvestites in Athens. It sprayed more than 100 ball bearings through the vehicles interior, piercing the driver's lungs and enveloping the car in flames. The corpse was so badly burned it took laboratory tests even to determine its gender. But the identity of the victim was well known to officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization: Brigadier Monzer Abu Ghazala, chief of the PLO seaborne commando operations that have threatened coastal Israel for years.
As far as the Athens police are concerned, the Oct. 21 death remains unsolved. Abu Ghazala may have been a victim of inter-Arab rivalry. He may have blown himself up by accident. As if by reflex, the PLO blamed the killing on Israel's secret service, the Mossad -- but in this case there is circumstantial evidence the Palestinians may be right.
In recent months Israel has waged a relentless war against Palestinian guerrillas, particularly those aligned with PLO leader Yasir Arafat. The war, overt and covert, has spread throughout the Mediterranean region. Only last week Israeli jets bombed and destroyed the PLO's main naval base just outside the Lebanese port of Sidon.
Israeli sources deny they've revived the "hit teams" that once hunted down suspected terrorists. The results, they say, are not worth the risk. It took more than six years for Israeli agents to hunt down the alleged mastermind of the 1972 massacre in Munich -- and then only after they killed an innocent Arab waiter in Norway in a case of mistaken identity. But the combination of severe retaliation and selective assassination has long been a cornerstone of Israeli counterterrorist policy. Hard-line Commerce Minister Ariel Sharon, though not responsible for counterterrorist action, reflected a widespread view when he declared, the day after Abu Ghazala's death. "We have to hit their leaders . . . anywhere in the world."
The Israeli war against seaborne guerrillas began in earnest in March 1978, when 13 PLO terrorists landed in boats south of Haifa, seized a civilian-filled bus and killed 35 Israelis, injuring 80 more. That incident led to a buildup of Israel's coastal defenses. But Palestinian guerrillas still had land access to Israel through Lebanon. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon -- and the subsequent expulsion from the area of Arafat's Al Fatah organization -- left the sea as the only route available to Arafat forces.
In the spring of 1985, as moderate Arab leaders were attempting to promote the joint peace initiative of Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein, Abu Ghazala's forces were preparing a dramatic naval attack on Israel, according to an indictment issued earlier this month by an Israeli military court. The indictment alleges that the commandos were to be lowered form a mother ship in rubber speedboats that would land at the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam. There they would seize vehicles and penetrate the Defense Ministry compound, taking hostages against the release of 150 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. But the Israeli Navy intervened, sinking Al Fatah's 1,000-ton ship Atavarious 100 miles out to sea in April 1986. Twenty of the alleged commandos went down with the ship; another eight were captured.
The following August the Israelis captured two more boats, this time headed from Cyprus to Sidon. Among those captured was Faisal Abu Shar, deputy commander of force 17, Arafat's elite security unit. Suspecting a major leak in security, Force 17 began searching for "spies" who may have been watching its operations out of the Cypriot port of Larnaca.
On Sept. 25 two Arabs and a Briton coldly murdered three Israelis they believed were spying from a yacht docked in the harbor. There is no evidence, however, that the Israelis were anything other than tourists, and the Israeli government used their killing as justification for its spectacular bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunisia six days later.
Less noted at the time was the murder, in Limassol, Cyprus, of Moustafa Sabra, a 26-year old Syrian merchant seaman who, according to American intelligence sources, was also fingered as a spy for the Israelis.
By early this year, the naval war seemed to be widening. In January two Palestinian-owned hydrofoils mysteriously blew up and sank in a shipyard at Messina, Italy. The ships ostensibly were to ferry passengers between Cyprus and Juniye, Lebanon. But several published accounts indicate Israeli agents were behind the sinkings because they feared the large, speedy ships would be armed and used to transport Arafat's guerrillas to Lebanese refugee camps. According to Italian police sources, an unexploded charge found on one of the hydrofoils has been linked to bombs that killed two PLO officials in Rome in 1981 and 1982. Moreover, the bombs in those assassinations bore a strong resemblance to the type of bomb used in Athens last month.
Then, last July, four Palestinian and Lebanese commandos from a Syrian-backed faction in Lebanon landed on a beach just north of the Israeli border. All four guerrillas were killed in the ensuing fight, but two Israeli soldiers also died. Later that month Israel intercepted yet another Cypriot ship with an undisclosed number of Palestinians aboard. Despite its lack of success against Israeli targets, Arafat's motley navy may be vital to his efforts to re-establish himself and his supporters among Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon. If he succeeds, it could well negate Israel's states purpose in invading Lebanon in the first place. If he fails, some Mideast analysts suggest, his influence could be damaged beyond repair. Those stakes give the naval war a special intensity on both sides.
(c) Newsweek 1986
Newsweek April 25, 1988, UNITED STATES EDITION
The Death of a PLO Leader
BYLINE: CHRISTOPHER DICKEY in Cairo
SECTION: INTERNATIONAL; Pg. 32 LENGTH: 540 words
HIGHLIGHT: A murder in Tunis, a new round of bloody protests
His alias meant Father of Holy War, and that is what he became to the Palestinian uprising in the Israel-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Abu Jihad, whose real name was Khalil al Wazir, stood second only to Yasir Arafat in the military hierarchy of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the dark early hours of Saturday morning at his home in Tunis, a team of gunmen caught up with the 53-year-old guerrilla leader, riddling him with bullets from silenced submachine guns.
After dawn, as the news spread, the occupied territories erupted in the bloodiest violence since the beginning of the four-month-long uprising. Black flags of mourning went up over refugee camps; Palestinians chanted calls for revenge and poured into the streets. At least 14 were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers. Some Israeli officials denied they were involved in Wazir's murder; others refused to comment altogether on the killing. Israeli terrorism experts blamed internal struggles in the PLO leadership. But the killing fits a familiar pattern in the underground war between Palestinian and Israeli operatives.
In the 1970s the Israeli tracked down and killed some of the Black September terrorists who plotted the Munich Olympics massacre. In 1986 a senior PLO commander was blown up mysteriously in his car in Athens. And over the years PLO killers have murdered agents of Israel's Mossad, both real and imagined.
Since the violence in the occupied territories began, the stakes have escalated. Two months ago a car bomb in Limassol, Cyprus, killed three of Wazir's top aides. Two of them were responsible for coordinating PLO operations in the West Bank.
Whatever their motives, Wazir's murderers struck closer to the top of the PLO than any killers before them. In the 1960s, along with Arafat, Wazir was a founder of Fatah, the most powerful PLO faction. Although Arafat is the recognized leader of the organization, Wazir and intelligence chief Salah Khalaf shared in most major decisions.
When the Palestinian uprising began last December it took much of the PLO leadership by surprise, but Wazir moved quickly to involve himself with the action, helping to coordinate and sustain it. To build international sympathy for the uprising, he and other PLO leaders focused the violence on the territories, eschewed outside acts of terrorism and forbade the use of firearms in the street fighting. But the Limassol killings in February led to calls inside the organization for retaliation.
The Israelis "want to draw us into open war in Europe," a senior PLO official said at the time. Instead, Wazir sanctioned an operation near Israel's Dimona nuclear facility -- a bus hijacking that ended in a shoot-out and left six people, including three Israelis, dead. Several reports suggested the killing of Wazir might have been Israel's revenge for the Dimona attack. Whoever killed Abu Jihad, whether an Israel hit team or even other Palestinians, the focus of PLO anger -- the brunt of the violence that has already been provoked in the territories -- will have to be borne by Israel. Given a 30-year history of action, reaction and carnage, the one certainty is that Wazir's death portends more killing to come.
(c) Newsweek 1988