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When Al-Mabhouh Met Mossad

Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

If you grew up reading histories of spy agencies, books on codes and the agents that break them, and the entire Sherlock Holmes collection before the age of 10 (guilty on all three counts), the video released by the Dubai police detailing the operation that culminated in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is a must-see. It's probably the best silent movie spy thriller since Fritz Lang's "Spione," or as Andrew Exum put it, "Like watching 'Munich.' But for real."

Three things jumped out at me. First, for a senior Hamas military commander, one of the most wanted men in Israel, and a guy who had been the target of "many failed attempts to assassinate him in the past," al-Mabhouh sure seemed to make for a soft target. Especially since, despite the elaborate logistical ruses employed by the Mossad team, there were any number of moments during the plan's execution that seemed sloppy enough to jeopardize the operation.

Second, Mossad got their man, but it came at a pretty heavy price. Not only does the video out the agents involved in the plot, it also exposes pretty valuable operational details that will undoubtedly prove useful to counterintelligence efforts across the region. The fact that the UAE's General Department of State Security was able to follow the closed circuit video trail so effectively and were willing to release it also seems like a shot over not only Mossad's bow, but that of other Middle East countries as well. After all, Mossad is the leading cause of sudden, unexplainable deaths in the region, but this is the first time we've actually seen some hard evidence like this to back up such a claim. (I'm a bit skeptical of the claim that the suspects had all been identified within 24 hours, though.)

Third, if the video is correct, when the hotel staff entered al-Mabhouh's room to find him dead, the door was "locked from the inside with the latch and chain in place." One word: Howdaydoodat?

One thing's certain: I'll never look at pushy, tennis racket-carrying tourists in the same way again.