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A Slick Hit Job in Dubai

(AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
This story was written by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman.

The team of foreigners who assassinated a senior Palestinian Hamas man in Dubai in January surely knew there are cameras everywhere. The Dubai police chief says some of the dubious passports in this caper were used last year for reconnaissance visits, where Israeli intelligence officers would have noted the unblinking lenses. There is also no getting around the fact that in this day and age, authorities can check almost instantly with other governments on whether travel documents are genuine or bogus. The Mossad took a calculated risk.

The basic tactical goal of this kind of clandestine operation is to kill your target and get back to base without losing any of your own team members. The Dubai caper was a success but not perfect.

An unblemished operation also requires silence and invisibility with no trace of a crime and no evidence you were ever there. On that, the attackers – presumed to be Israelis – failed.

In counter-terrorism, Israeli style, it sometimes feels as if there is no choice but to combine high-tech with old-fashioned. Operatives have to get into foreign countries without revealing their names and nationality, so they need passports, credit cards and other documents to support credible cover stories. In the Dubai caper, that involved stealing or borrowing the identities of genuine Israelis who were entitled to passports from their families' original home countries.

The members of the hit team – at least a dozen men and two women – can be assumed to have been wearing disguises at every moment they were caught on camera. Antonio Mendez, former chief of disguises at the CIA, years ago revealed to CBS News that ultralight latex-type masks that fit completely over the face – and make you look like a completely different person – are real and not figments of the "Mission: Impossible" screenwriters' imaginations.

Still, these assignments are increasingly difficult. Some traditional forgery skills, such as meticulously gluing a new photograph into a passport, are rapidly becoming worthless. A growing number of nations adopt the latest passport format that includes a biometric chip that includes the holder's digital photo and soon may include entry and exit history, an "iris image" of the traveler's eye, and perhaps even the person's DNA code.

Ironically, while these steps were designed to foil terrorists and international criminals trying to travel under false identities, the security measures are also going to hamper counter-terrorism agents – the good guys who chase the bad guys.

What made Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas man visiting Dubai, worth all the trouble and risk? He was not assassinated in revenge for his involvement in the killing of two Israeli soldiers 22 years ago. Well-placed Israelis say the hunters stalked him because of his key role in forging secret connections between the Palestinian radicals who rule Gaza and the Al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. The Mossad believed that Mabhouh had a major role in arms shipments from Iran to Gaza, and rockets that get there have a high likelihood of being fired at Israeli civilians.

A more fundamental issue remains unresolved. The Mossad, other intelligence agencies in Israel, and the government have failed to develop a clear doctrine for when to assassinate, whom and where, and how to balance the benefits and risks.

Since 9/11, the CIA has adopted Israel's attitude – and even some methodology – in weighing extrajudicial killings. To the extent that intelligence chiefs pause to measure morality, they contend that ending the life of one enemy activist with little or no collateral damage is far better than waiting to encounter him on a battlefield or watch the lethal results of his terrorist plans.

The most common vehicle for targeted assassinations by the U.S. has been the drone aircraft. The Predator has excellent cameras aboard and can be directed to launch Hellfire missiles with devastating accuracy by operators at videogame-type consoles in comfortably air conditioned control rooms in the U.S.

If there were a Taliban leader, or perhaps a senior al Qaeda man, known to be in a luxury hotel in Dubai, would the CIA ever send in an assassination squad with guns, poisons, tasers, or some of the special weapons intelligence agencies constantly develop? Probably not. As far as we know, that's not the CIA's style. But the U.S. might persuade the local government to participate in a raid and arrest the enemy. That has occurred in Pakistan, most recently with the capture of top Taliban men.

Would Israel take all the risks again and do what the Mossad presumably did in Dubai? At least three mantras heard from Israeli intelligence veterans come to mind. First, if the target is important enough, then it is worth doing. Second, Israelis frequently say "there is no alternative." And third, Mossad chiefs have actually uttered these words: "Nothing is impossible."

This story was written by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman. Raviv is a Washington-based correspondent for CBS News and host of radio's Weekend Roundup. Melman is a correspondent specializing in intelligence and strategic issues for the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz. They are the authors of several books including the best seller, "Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community."

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