Report details workings of alleged Mossad hit on Hamas member

Alleged Mossad operation unmasked by hotel video cameras, prepaid debit cards and use of private switchboard, report says.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
2 min read

Nearly a year ago, a senior member of Hamas died in a hotel in Dubai. Local police blamed Israel's elite intelligence agency, Mossad, and posted a 27-minute video showing activities of the victim and what are identified as Israeli operatives inside the hotel before and after the alleged assassination.

Now, a GQ feature unveils details about the operation, how the victim had survived a poisoning attempt two months earlier and how such an advanced group of spies were unmasked by simple hotel videocameras and other standard security measures.

Although Israeli officials have not confirmed or denied that Mossad carried out the mission, "no one seriously doubts that to be the case," the article says.

Not surprisingly, the early stages of the operation appear to have involved the use of the Internet. Israeli spies learned Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh would be arriving in Dubai on January 19, 2010, by monitoring his e-mail and online activities via a Trojan horse planted on his computer, according to the GQ article.

The spies--part of a secretive unit within the Mossad known as "Caesarea"--didn't know what hotel Al-Mabhouh would be staying at, so they staked out different hotels he was known to visit.

When he is spotted arriving at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, the operatives converged there and used various disguises to track his movements and get into his room. They must not have been too concerned about video surveillance cameras in the hotel as they were caught on camera talking to each other, standing in the lobby in tennis gear with rackets for hours, and exchanging room keys and suitcases. Dubai police studied hundreds of hours of closed-circuit security footage to reconstruct the activities of the operatives and Al-Mabhouh.

One operative is seen in the footage reprogramming the electronic lock to Al-Mabhouh's room so they can use an unregistered electronic key on the door without disabling Al-Mabhouh's key. It's unclear, though, how the operatives managed to leave the room with the door chained on the inside, according to the article.

The operatives were linked to each other by their comings and goings at the hotel on the video footage, guest registers during that and previous Al-Mabhouh visits, the use of pre-paid debit cards issued by a company whose chief executive is a veteran of an elite Israeli Defense Force commando unit, and the use of a private switchboard in Austria that connected the operatives' phone calls without them having to call each other directly, the report says. The operatives also used forged foreign identities.

"False identities and cover stories are no longer any match for well-placed security cameras, effective passport control, and computer software that can almost instantly track communications and financial transactions," the article says.