ABU DHABI // The gang who killed the Hamas operative Mahmoud al Mabhouh in his Dubai hotel room last month will be brought to account, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, pledged yesterday. His statement on the assassination came as the ministry said it was "deeply concerned" that the passports of countries who have visa waiver privileges had been compromised by the killers.
All European Union ambassadors in the UAE were called in to the ministry yesterday and urged to strengthen procedures to prevent their travel documents from being misused. "The abuse of passports poses a global threat, affecting both countries' national security as well as the personal security of travellers," Sheikh Abdullah said. The issue of passport security may be discussed at a summit of EU foreign ministers today in Brussels, on the sidelines of which the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is expected to receive some heated questioning.
Dubai Police has said it was "99 to 100 per cent" certain that Mossad, the Israeli security service, was involved in the killing of al Mabhouh, a senior commander of Hamas. Any abuse of Irish, British, German and French passports by its agents has the potential to turn into a major diplomatic incident. "We fully intend that those responsible are brought to account for their actions. The UAE firmly believes that relations among nations should be conducted on the basis of respect for sovereignty, mutual trust and within the framework of international norms," Sheikh Abdullah said.
"Like all civilised nations, we abide by these principles and we will deal with this criminal act within the international framework expected of civilised nations." He said the assassination had violated the security of the country and the UAE would do everything possible to protect its reputation as a stable, safe nation. The ministry said it was co-operating with police and security services and all details of the ongoing investigation would be shared with its partners.
Sheikh Abdullah's meeting with the EU ambassadors was convened by Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Several of the passports used by the killers are believed to have been used to enter the UAE at least once before the murder. In an interview with the Arabic language newspaper Emarat al Youm, Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the chief of Dubai Police, said the last time any of the suspects were known to have entered the country was a year ago. Diplomatic sources in the UAE say the passports may have been used in November.
An official at Dubai International Airport said three of the suspects had entered the country before the murder, but would not provide further details. Analysts agreed that agents would have made at least one reconnaissance trip. "You just wouldn't send a huge team of 17 people to do something like this without very good planning," said Scott Stewart, the vice president of tactical intelligence at STRATFOR, a global intelligence company. "The [reconnaissance] would basically be a trial run."
Dr Mustafa Alani, the senior adviser on security and terrorism at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said he would be "very surprised" if at least two of the alleged hit team had not travelled to the country at least twice in advance. "It's basic, it's part of the ABC of an operation like this to send an advance team to assess the situation," he said. "They would come to observe and familiarise themselves with the environment."
It would have been the most senior members of the team that took part in the scouting trip, which Mr Alani said is known in intelligence circles as a "milk round". Though there is very little chance they would have known exactly where al Mabhouh was planning to stay, they may have surveyed the security at several hotels where he had stayed in the past, Mr Stewart said. "Most people are creatures of habit and they will establish certain patterns when they travel," he said.
"They probably knew that he liked to stay in one of two or three hotels and they would have looked for entry and exit points and primary spots for surveillance, what we call 'perches'." The reconnaissance trip would have been important to assess the level of scrutiny they were likely to receive at the airport. The six British passports allegedly used in the operation were reportedly the older style, before biometric passports were introduced in 2006.
According to the official at the Dubai airport, none of the suspects had their retinas scanned on their arrival, as they appeared to be from countries whose nationals are exempt from the procedure. "They'd want to see how easy it is to come and go, if they'd likely be questioned at the airport, where you could position people in hotels, the level of police presence so they can plan how to operate in the city," Dr Alani said.
firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Marten Youssef