Dubai launches global dragnet to nab assassins of Hamas figure

Eleven people are suspected to have been involved in the killing of Mahmoud Al Mabhouh, the Hamas commander who was assassinated in a Dubai hotel last month. These images appeared on the official Dubai police Web site.
Eleven people are suspected to have been involved in the killing of Mahmoud Al Mabhouh, the Hamas commander who was assassinated in a Dubai hotel last month. These images appeared on the official Dubai police Web site. Dubai Police

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Dubai police announced a global dragnet Tuesday for 11 European passport holders suspected of converging here last month, killing Hamas commander Mahmoud Mabhouh, and skipping the country within 19 hours.

While the high-profile assassination may have been dramatic, it was not the first in this busy hub of foreign visitors. The country has released CCTV footage of the alleged assassins' movements before Mabhouh's murder.

The United Arab Emirates city has made headlines three times in less than two years for shocking high-profile murders. To avoid such scandals, Dubai may have to recalibrate its characteristic openness, both to controversial figures like Mabhouh and to Western passport holders like the 10 men and one woman who allegedly killed him.

Ireland and the U.K. said Tuesday that the 9 passports that identified team members as coming from Ireland and the U.K. were fake. Melvyn Adam Mildner, a British man who lives in Israel and whose name was on one of the passports, told Reuters that he has never been to Dubai and was not involved in any way.

Dubai's "intelligence, surveillance (and) reconnaissance are first rate. But it's their visa regime that people can poke holes through if they want to," says Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Institute for Near Eastern and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. "There needs to be new metrics put in place to prevent this from happening."

Dubai has long played host to myriad nationalities and exiled politicians, dissidents, and other controversial individuals. "The policy is basically, leave your ideology at the door, including your weaponry," Karasik says. "Your political agenda is not welcome, but you're more than welcome to come and visit."

But as visitors have come, so have their enemies. Last March, former Chechen military commander Sulim Yamadayev was shot dead in a parking garage. In 2008, Lebanese pop star Suzanne Tamim was stabbed to death in her apartment. An Egyptian billionaire said to be her lover was later sentenced to death in Cairo for hiring someone to kill her.

Mabhouh - who was wanted by Israel for helping kidnap two Israeli soldiers and who was allegedly smuggling arms from Iran to Gaza - was found dead on Jan. 20, possibly by suffocation, according to forensic tests. Hamas has blamed Israel for the murder.

According to Dubai Police Chief Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the 11 suspects flew into Dubai at different times, six of them on British passports, three Irish, one French, and one German. They checked into different hotels, paying for all transactions in cash. They followed Mabhouh as soon as he left the airport - a few rode with him up his hotel elevator. They booked a room on the same floor. The woman sometimes wore a wig, hat, and sunglasses, while others donned baseball caps, tennis gear, or fake beards.

Four of the suspects broke into Mabhouh's room while he was out, Tamim said, and after Mabhouh returned they killed him within 10 minutes. Everyone then left the country, flying to Europe and to Asia.

Dubai has issued arrest warrants for the suspects. It has also taken two Palestinians into custody for alleged involvement.

At a press conference on Monday, Tamim did not blame Israel for the murder, though he noted that "Israel carries out a lot of assassinations in many countries, even in countries that it is allied to."

"The United Arab Emirates does not accept that its territory be used as an arena for settling scores, whatever their nature or cause or whatever the affiliation of those involved," he said in a statement.

The perpetrators will likely get caught, given the heavy surveillance blanketing the city, but such assassinations may continue unless Dubai takes greater precautions in who it allows into the country, says Karasik. That means screening more closely both potential targets of assassination and the citizens of European and other countries who are welcomed in at the airport.

Dubai is "very safe," he continues, noting that these incidents target individuals rather than random groups of people. "It's just that some people are using it as a killing ground."