Even with pictures of 11 suspects beamed around the world, intelligence analysts said yesterday the chances of those who killed Mahmoud al Mabhouh being brought to justice are "zero to nil". Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who spent 29 years with the CIA and served on the US National Intelligence Council, said he had little doubt that Israel's foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, was behind the murder. He said he had spoken with officials in Israel who are "well-positioned" to know.
That does not mean they ever will face trial, Mr Riedel said. "There's zero to nil chance they'll be apprehended; they're all safely back in Israel by now. They would have flown out to Athens or Frankfurt or wherever, dropped their passports and got a connecting flight home with Israeli documents." Although there is no confirmation that Mossad was involved, Dubai Police have said the killing fits the agency's "method".
The Israeli government has not denied involvement. Video footage released by police on Monday shows 11 suspects, one of them a woman, dressed as tourists or businesspeople. The Mossad team that bungled the attempted assassination of the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1997, trying to kill him by spraying a nerve agent in his ear, also posed as tourists. In that operation, they used Canadian passports, leading to a major diplomatic incident in which Canada temporarily withdrew its ambassador to Israel.
Yossi Melman, a journalist with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz who has written two books on the inner workings of Israel's security agencies, agreed that the details that emerged on Monday further implicated Mossad. Mr Reidel said the group would have worked in teams of three or four, with one leader who would have been the only person to know all the operatives involved. That aligns with the Dubai Police assessment that there was one co-ordinator, a man police said used the name Peter Elvinger, who was travelling with a French passport and booked a room at Al Bustan Rotana hotel in the same corridor as al Mabhouh.
"He wouldn't be one of the killers, but he'd be there and make all the decisions on whether to go forward," Mr Riedel said. "It would be someone with a lot of experience in clandestine operations." Analysts cast doubt on police statements that the operatives travelled under their own identities. British and Irish embassy officials also said yesterday the passports from their nations used in the operation were fakes.
"These people are trained to change identities," said Dr Ahron Bregman, an expert in Middle East security at King's College in London. "It's very easy for the big organisations to get false passports and documentation to travel on." However, Mr Riedel said photographs of the operatives were likely to be genuine; although the intelligence agents assume new identities, they use real photographs to pass customs checks.
"This team is compromised, and they can't be used in this kind of operation anymore," he said. "This is a big problem with this kind of operation: these people have to be extremely highly trained but it's very possible that on an operation like this their identity will be compromised. Every police and intelligence service in the Middle East will now have their pictures, so they'll be assigned to a desk job for the rest of their careers."
Kidon, the unit of Mossad that carries out assassinations, was thought to have about 48 agents in 1998, six of whom were women, according to a security expert. Eleven agents represents a significant fraction of the unit potentially lost to future operations. Mr Riedel said that this is a risk that Israel would have been willing to take. "They would have known that this could well happen," he said.
"That's the price of the operation and Israel would have been willing to pay it to get a big fish." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org