x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

For those who mean us harm, there is no place left to hide

The images of the al Mabhouh assassination at a Dubai hotel broadcast on news shows not only kept viewers in suspense, but provided a look into the security methods of the digital age.

By the evening of Tuesday, February 16, the extraordinary video footage of the first 11 suspects wanted by Dubai Police for the killing of Mahmoud al Mabhouh, the Hamas commander, was being broadcast on news channel all over the world.

The images of the suspected assassins, disguised as tennis players, following their unwitting target into the lift of al Bustan Rotana hotel, or smiling at security cameras, have been watched by millions of people. The diplomatic fallout is intensifying as Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad, is believed to be behind the killing, and the international manhunt is on. But none of it would have been possible without one man - Mohammed Haroun, a Palestinian businessman who holds German citizenship and advised the hotel on the installation of its closed-circuit television camera network four years ago.

He is basking in the quiet satisfaction of a job well done. "You see? The Mossad killed one Palestinian and a second Palestinian found out who killed the other Palestinian," he said, chuckling. "I was shocked when I heard the news, but I have done a good job," added Mr Haroun, who was forced to flee Lod with his parents and siblings in 1948 when Israel was created. "It is funny because the suspects thought if they wear a cap, they can hide. But I know where and which degree to put the cameras. It was a lot of work but I never thought someone would come to the hotel to kill somebody."

Surveillance technology has changed enormously since Mr Haroun started his company, Security Advice Services, more than 25 years ago in Germany. Arab countries are now spending billions of dollars on setting up sophisticated surveillance networks. The plodding era of grainy black-and-white photos and typed dossiers on yellowing paper kept in the basement of a government ministry is gone. "The security industry is growing and the time of the cheap camera is over," said Mr Haroun. "The number of people in Europe thinking that this area here is the third world is high, but no. What the UAE government gives for security, there are few countries in the world that give this money. Not everyone who is coming from the airport in a tie and shirt and nice suit is a gentleman. Perhaps he is a big mafia guy or a drug dealer."

Across the Middle East, are investing US$10 billion (Dh38bn) to secure their borders, according to Frost & Sullivan, a business research and consulting company. The technology is developing at a rapid pace. There are products to keep tabs on individuals: biometric identity cards and fingerprinting, electronic surveillance equipment and closed-circuit television cameras. Other types of technology monitor border security, such as radar, cargo and airport scanning equipment fitted with X-rays, metal detectors and unmanned drone aircraft which survey the ground from thousands of metres in the air.

Then there is the equipment designed to stop terrorists from attacking buildings, such as concrete blast barriers and electrified fences. Many of these technologies were pioneered in Europe and America, where there is now a debate about how they might infringe on civil liberties. In the Middle East there is no debate about what happens to the billions of bits of information that are collected. Many states in the region use the same kind of technology to prevent aggression from other states as they do to monitor their own citizens. The Iraqi government for example, which faces threats from insurgents at home and abroad, is expected to spend $11 billion on defence by 2014.

Indeed spending on defence in the Middle East is expected to exceed $100 billion by 2014, led by Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Emirates. "It's about more than preventing attacks. They have a more long-term goal of portraying themselves as powers equal to others in the region," said Balaji Srimoolanathan, the supervisor of the Frost & Sullivan report. "They want to portray themselves as big defence players due to regional tension."

Many details of security projects are kept away from the public because of the secretive nature of Arab governments. "There is a lot that you don't notice, it's done on purpose," said Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near Eastern and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. "For example, the analogy I always use is when you go to California there are oil wells disguised as palm trees to be more pleasant to look at. Or they're painted, or behind a painted fence. It's not deception, it's about making things more pleasant to the eye."

However, some safety measures are too big to keep under wraps. Saudi Arabia is putting up a 9,000km fence along its borders with Yemen, which has been fighting al Qa'eda militants and an insurgency with al Houthi rebels on its northern border with the kingdom. The US, in an attempt to help the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, last year gave the Yemeni government 30 portable biometric scanners that can capture and compare fingerprints of terrorism suspects.

The Americans are also helping to train Yemen's ill-equipped coastguard to protect its Red Sea shores from pirates and jihadists. The catalyst for the stringent security measures was the September 11 attacks, a shock that led practically every country to reconsider its security arrangements. One of the critical and immediate changes was that the relationship between the western intelligence services and allies in the Arab world became closer, said Margaret Gilmore, a British security analyst specialising in terrorism and homeland security.

"Agencies in Britain and America had underestimated the al Qa'eda threat, and everything changed as a result. We immediately saw relationships starting to be forged." She added: "There is no doubt, in particular in the Middle East, that when the police were investigating this Hamas death, and when they found some suspicious looking people through the CCTV, and started looking at the way they came in and the passports, it would have been very easy for them to get British experts to come and look at those passports."

Egypt, which fought a vicious battle in the 1990s with violent Islamists who wanted to overthrow the government, has tightened control of its airports and the Suez Canal. Egypt and Jordan's intelligence services share the same fearsome reputation, but even after September 11, they had notable failures. One of the most devastating attacks on Arab soil happened in November 2005 with the triple bombing of hotels in Amman, Jordan, which killed 57 people and which were carried out by al Qa'eda.

One of the blasts hit the Radisson hotel during a wedding party attended by 250 guests. The husband and wife suicide bombing team managed to enter the banquet room without arousing any suspicion. That would be nearly impossible today. Metal detectors and X-ray machines manned by several guards have been installed in nearly every shopping mall and hotel in Jordan since then. An army checkpoint, with armoured tanks and soldiers scrutinising travellers and their passports, is now stationed near the entrance of Queen Alia International Airport.

But most of the changes have taken place behind the scenes. Financing violent networks has become difficult. After September 11, most Arab states signed on to the United Nation's International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, which requires the freezing and seizing of assets used by violent groups. But the hawala networks, the informal method of transferring money through an honour system, is more difficult to regulate because it involves no paperwork.

"You can't shut down the whole system. You have to aim for the key guys, but even that is extraordinarily difficult," said Nicholas Bortman, an associate partner with GPW, a London-based corporate investigations firm. The new frontier is biometrics, the science of taking an imprint of an iris, finger, or DNA sample, each unique to every human being. The UAE announced in 2008 that new national identity cards would soon carry biometric information, such as iris scans.

America is taking it one step further. Anyone arriving with a foreign passport issued after October 26, 2006, is required to have such a biometric chip, which means every country will now have to invest in gathering data from its citizens. If al Mabhouh's murderers are caught, biometric technology, which can also take a unique scan of the face, could play a key role, particularly if the UAE has shared its network with other countries.

"The important point here is they've been able to track down these passports which are fake ... but the one thing that's not fake is the pictures," said Mr Karasik. "These are going to be used in a biometric sense to track these people down. If they move to another country where the system is intact, they'll most likely get caught, even if they're lying low." From Mr Haroun's point of view, technology is only as good as the people who use it.

When he installed the al Bustan Rotana's surveillance system, he made sure to inspect each camera and consider what angle each one captured. "I try to put myself in two persons. This one person is the bad Haroun and this other person is the good Haroun. The bad Haroun tries to attack this project and the other Haroun must protect this project. It is as if there are two persons in one. It is old fashioned, but it works."

* With additional reporting by Brad Reagan