Modern day murder

The victim of a meticulously planned assassination involving up to 17 people, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was a marked man before he ever left Damascus, writes Catherine Shanahan.

ANYONE in search of a hotel in Dubai where privacy of guests is paramount will find what they are looking for at the five-star Al Bustan Rotana where rooms are sound-proofed and where travellers are assured their reservation is secure and all personal data encrypted.

This comes at the relatively inexpensive cost of €120 to €140 a night for a single room, good value in a good location, close to Dubai International Airport and the city’s commercial and business districts.

It was here that senior Hamas figure, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, checked in on January 19 last, after touching down in Dubai at around 3pm. He had travelled from Damascus, Syria.

Al-Mabhouh had scant opportunity to enjoy his five-star surrounds. He was dead by 9pm that evening, the target of a meticulously planned assassination.

Al-Mabhouh was born in Jabaliya, Gaza on February 14, 1960. Websites offer a variety of information about his youth including that he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s, and, in the 1980s was reported to have been involved in sabotaging coffee shops where gambling was taking place.

In 1986 the Israeli security forces arrested him for possession of an assault rifle and subsequent to his release, it is believed he joined Hamas.

On May 1989 a failed attempt was made to arrest him for his alleged involvement in the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers. He subsequently fled the Gaza Strip to evade arrest and he is thought to have become involved in weapons and explosives smuggling into Gaza. He had been arrested and released several times by Israel, but at the time of his death was wanted by the Israeli government and living in Syria. An Israeli security source has said Mabhouh played a key role in smuggling Iranian-funded arms to militants in the Gaza Strip. The purpose of his journey from Syria to Dubai was to arrange a shipment of weapons to Gaza.

Al-Mabhouh was a marked man before he ever left Damascus.

According to reports, he was being tracked prior to his 10.05am departure from Damascus to Dubai on Emirates Flight 912. There are conflicting claims as to whether he entered the country under his own identity or on a fake passport. It is unclear why al-Mabhouh did not have his usual entourage of bodyguards, but it has been suggested their arrival was delayed because the flight was full.

The assassination team were waiting for him at the terminal. He was tailed from the moment he entered the foyer at 3.17pm. In fact, he was so closely shadowed that, within seconds of passing immigration control, he was forced to manoeuvre his baggage trolley around one of his would-be assassins, a man in a white baseball cap and T-shirt talking casually on a mobile phone. CCTV footage shows that as the Hamas commander approached the taxi-rank outside the terminal, a spotter from the team sidled into shot behind him, speaking on a mobile phone to confirm the Palestinian’s arrival.

Newspaper accounts of the assassination plan claim that the killers had lain in wait for al-Mabhouh since the previous night. Flying in from Paris, Frankfurt, Rome and Zurich, the team of up to 17, including two women, arrived within three hours of each other. The alleged mastermind of the operation, a Frenchman using the name Peter Elvinger, was the last to arrive at 2.30am on January 19. The team dispersed for the night to hotels near the airport and to the Al Bustan Rotana.

Reports suggest that the following morning, several members of the team including Elvinger and a woman travelling on an Irish passport under the name Gail Folliard, met at a shopping centre to discuss final preparations for the murder.

Security footage released by Dubai police gives details of the assassins’ movements including various members switching hotels several times and switching outfits and donning disguises in the form of hats, glasses, wigs and false beards. They rotated in pairs at the lobby of the Al-Buston, as part of a surveillance operation. They were careful not to leave records of any financial transactions, paying for everything in cash.

Al-Mabhouh arrived by taxi at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel that afternoon. Footage from the reception desk shows him checking in at 3.25pm, as two individuals in tennis outfits – identified by Dubai police as “surveillance” operatives – stood nearby.

Al-Mabhouh took no notice of the two men who joined him in the lift during the short ride to the second-floor.

Video footage shows one was short and stout with a moustache, the other tall. Dressed in shorts and t-shirts and carrying tennis rackets, they did not fit the Hollywood profile of the slick, fit assassin.

Al-Mabhouh was escorted from the lift to room 230 by a member of staff where one of the two men noted his room number.

Half an hour later, Elvinger called Al-Bustan Rotana from the business suite of another hotel to book room 237 – opposite al-Mabhouh’s room. He then booked a flight to Munich via Qatar at 7.30pm that evening, an hour before the killing.

Newspaper reports say al-Mabhouh had asked for a room with no balcony and sealed windows, so no one could enter other than through the door. He showered, changed, left documents in the safe, and then exited the hotel between 4.30pm and 5pm, roughly an hour after checking in. What he did during the next three to four hours is unclear, with one report saying he went to Dubai’s Iranian consulate for a meeting, and another stating he met with “people from his own group”. At approximately 8.25pm, al-Mabhouh came back to the room, and subsequently failed to answer a call by his wife a half hour later.

During his absence, the killers had moved into place. It is believed at least four members of the assassination team entered al-Mabhouh’s room although the door was not covered by a security camera and there is no footage of how they gained entry. Hotel records show that at 8pm an attempt was made to re-programme the lock to his door and one of the assassins, waiting in the second-floor lobby, is seen to distract a hotel guest who appears from the second floor lifts for a few vital seconds to give the killers time to gain access.

By 8.46pm, less than 20 minutes after their victim entered the hotel, four of the team are shown leaving the second floor, followed closely by their spotters in room 237. Gail Folliard and another member of the party carrying an Irish passport in the name of Kevin Daveron were operating as spotters on the second-floor of the hotel when the murder was committed. Both switched hotels that afternoon and dressed smartly to pose as hotel staff. The bald Daveron donned a dark wig and glasses, while Folliard appears to have removed a blonde wig to reveal dark hair. One of the final video clips showed Elvinger and Folliard casually leaving the hotel at 8:52pm. She was wearing a stripy sunhat, while his head was hidden beneath a white trilby.

Less than two hours later Daveron and Folliard were captured on CCTV boarding a flight to Paris. Others took flights to Hong Kong and South Africa before doubling back to Europe. The entire team was in and out of Dubai, job done, in the space of 19 hours.

Al-Mabhouh’s body was not found until 1.30pm the following afternoon. His room showed no signs of forced entry. Several causes of death have been put forward by various parties. Police have said that results from their preliminary forensic report found that he was first paralysed via electric shock and then suffocated, though their investigation and final report on the matter will not be ready for a month. The Khaleej Times quoted an unnamed senior police official as saying that four masked assailants had shocked al-Mabhouh’s legs before using a pillow to suffocate him. Another story reported by Uzi Mahnaimi stated that a hit team killed al-Mabhouh with a heart-attack inducing drug, then proceeded to take photographs of his documents before leaving. A medical team also stated that they found signs of strangulation.

Dubai authorities have stated that they were ruling the death a homicide and were working with the International Criminal Police Organisation to investigate the incident from what was first identified as an electrocution to the head with an electrical appliance just after arriving in Dubai.

Websites report that Hamas officials made diverse and conflicting statements regarding the circumstances of their leader’s death. On the day of the incident, Hamas announced that he had died of terminal cancer in a hospital in the United Arab Emirates.

On January 29, Hamas’ deputy politburo chief Moussa Abu Marzouk said: “Mossad agents [Israeli intelligence agents] are those who assassinated al-Mabhouh.”

On February 2, Hamas said that Palestinian Authority security forces might have been involved in the death.

Whoever the assassins were, their modus operandi has all the hallmarks of an extraordinary tale of modern-day espionage and all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster.

To co-ordinate their movements on the ground, the team used discreet, sophisticated short-range communication devices as they tracked their victim.

Dubai police did however trace a high volume of calls and text messages between three phones carried by the assassins and four numbers in Austria where a command centre had apparently been established. Police have also revised upwards from 11 to 17 the number of people they suspect of involvement in the attack.

Word of al-Mabhouh’s demise was kept quiet for nine days, until a brief announcement from the government’s official press agency coincided with his funeral at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus.

According to the announcement, the assassination was carried out by an “experienced criminal gang, who had been tracking down the movements of the victim before entering the UAE [United Arab Emirates]”.

The assassination took on huge international significance and fuelled major diplomatic disharmony when it emerged the hit squad had carried British, Irish, German and French passports. The British Foreign Office said the six British passports were fraudulent and the suspected assassins holding British passports were not Britons, but they had assumed the identities of real people. The use of three Irish passports differed in that the numbers were taken from actual passports but not the names. So far three names have emerged in connection with the use of Irish passports including Kevin Daveron, Evan Dennings, and Gail Folliard. The Department of Foreign Affairs has said the Irish passports used by the suspects were counterfeit and that it was “unable to identify any of those three individuals as being genuine Irish”. According to the department, Ireland has never issued passports in those names.

It emerged on Thursday that the number of Irish passport holders suspected of involvement in the attack had risen from three to five. While the department has made contact with three Irish citizens whose passport numbers were used – none of whom has ever visited the Middle East – it has yet to track down the remaining two.

In the meantime, Interpol has issued Red Notices for 11 of the individuals who have been charged by UAE/Dubai authorities with co-ordinating and committing the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

The red wanted-notices are not international arrest warrants, but allow details of fugitives to be released worldwide with the request that the wanted person be arrested and extradited.

In the past week, Dubai police claimed that investigations indicate the involvement of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.

The European governments whose citizens or passports have been caught up in the affair have demanded explanations from Israeli ambassadors to their countries. So far, no explanation has been forthcoming.

Separately, two Palestinians were arrested in Jordan and were handed over to Dubai, suspected of giving logistical assistance.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual at the Al-Bustan Rotana. A BBC report notes that visitors to the hotel ‘may not be able to tell that a high-profile assassination had taken place in room 230’ just over a month ago.

The hotel, according to Helena Al Sayed, Director of Marketing and Communication, is fully booked, and no planned events have been cancelled as a result of the murder.

As for how it is possible to book a certain room at the hotel, as suspect Peter Elvinger did when he booked room 237 opposite the victim’s room, Helena said the hotel, just like other hotels, tries to accommodate its guests’ requests.

Room 230 remains closed for emergency repairs but could become the setting for a macabre tourist attraction in years to come.

More in this section