February 25, 2010 | Forbes
Video Killer Thriller In Dubai
Rarely has Big Brother been so generous with his video clips. Last week Dubai authorities released surveillance camera footage of 11 suspects wanted for the assassination of a top Hamas terrorist, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, found dead in his room on Jan. 20 in a Dubai luxury hotel. Spliced together and embellished by the Dubai police with helpful captions and red circles to highlight the suspects, it's an enthralling show. If a picture is worth a thousand words, video is the lingua franca of the modern world. At speed, around the globe, this footage has fueled interest in the case and stoked speculation about whodunnit.
Not that the Dubai authorities have been coy about their suspicions, with guesses pointing to Israel's secret service, the Mossad. Israeli officials have followed their policy of neither confirming nor denying. Conspiracy theories abound. The story is still playing out under a global spotlight, with the Dubai police enlisting the help of Interpol and naming another 15 suspects on Wednesday this week.
Whatever the mysteries, this much is clear: Dubai's security apparatus has just given an impressive display of its surveillance abilities. Closed circuit cameras followed members of the alleged hit team arriving and departing the airport, and tracked them at a shopping mall and at various hotels, including al- Mahbouh's. Dubai authorities were able to supplement that information by tracing cell phone calls that some of the suspects made to Austria, and are probing credit cards they used. The Dubai Police, on their English language Web site, boast of their own efficiency, saying they were able to put together the movements of these suspects “after identifying them, in a record time that did not go beyond 24 hours.”
Elsewhere on their site, the Dubai Police describe themselves as “the most forward-thinking and progressive Arab police force today!” They have 15,000 personnel, and employ electronic finger printing, satellite technology and–obviously–quick access to lots of surveillance cameras.
All of which points toward a big question. If Dubai surveillance is this adept, where's the rest of the Dubai video collection?
One might reasonably suppose there are some fascinating scenes squirreled away. The assassination of al-Mabhouh is hardly the only case in which international killers have prowled the streets, malls and hotels of Dubai. Liveliest sheikhdom of the United Arab Emirates and busiest entrepot in the Gulf, Dubai has had a reputation for years as a frontier of the Wild East. That has its upside. Dubai is host to plenty of legitimate enterprise. But it also has its uses as a way station, meeting place and financial center for tyrannical regimes and terrorists.
The U.S. 9/11 commission noted that for al-Qaida terrorists in 2001, “Dubai, a modern city with easy access to a major airport, travel agencies, hotels and Western commercial establishments, was an ideal transit point.” More than half the September 11 hijackers passed through Dubai en route to attack the U.S., two of those hijackers came from the U.A.E., and the 9/11 Commission reported that roughly half the $250,000 the hijackers spent preparing for the attacks was wired to them via Dubai banks. Following the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, documentation emerged–in U.S. federal courts,, as well as in both Congressional and United Nations investigations– suggesting that Saddam's regime had used Dubai as a hub for sanctions-busting front companies, kickback collection and, according to the U.S. Treasury, efforts to buy surface-to-air missiles.
Today, Dubai is Iran's top trading partner, doing billions worth of business every year. Dubai was described in a recent paper by Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution as playing “a critical role as Iran's offshore banker and exporter.”
So what else lies in the surveillance archives of the Dubai security services? If Dubai's authorities can piece together within 24 hours the trail of the alleged killers of one top terrorist, might we reasonably suppose they could also exhume quite a collection of clips providing more context? Could they perhaps give the global public a much better window on the deadly nature of the business pursued in airports, malls and hotel rooms by such killers as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or by Iran's pet terrorist organizations, Hezbollah and al-Mabhouh's outfit–Hamas?
For starters, where's the full surveillance footage of al-Mabhouh himself? He was a killer from way back; a founding member of Hamas's violent Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, who bragged about his role in the 1989 kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers. The Wall Street Journal, among others, reports that al-Mabhouh at the time of his death “was a key link in smuggling operations ferrying Iranian weapons to Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.” He reportedly arrived in Dubai last month from Damascus, which serves as a haven of hospitality for Hamas' top terrorists. Dubai authorities say he was traveling on a false passport, but apparently they have been able to piece together enough of his trail to inform the press that just before he was murdered, he “met with members of his group and bought a pair of shoes.”
Please, tell us more–or better yet, show us any accompanying video clips. In whose blood was al-Mabhouh planning to dip those new shoes? Who, exactly, did he meet in Dubai? What for? Did he do any banking in Dubai? How often had he visited before? In recent years have Dubai authorities perchance stored away enough video of al Mabhouh and his terrorist comrades for a full-length feature film? Queried about these matters, the U.A.E. embassy in Washington referred me to the Dubai Police, who did not respond to phone calls or emailed questions.
Clearly this is a complex scene. The U.A.E. tries to walk a line between dealing with Iran and its affiliates and cooperating with the U.S. On its Washington embassy Web site, the U.A.E. states that its support for the U.S. includes the hosting of more than 2,000 U.S. military personnel and the contribution of 250 special forces soldiers to the coalition in Afghanistan. Last August Dubai blew the whistle on a shipment of North Korean arms that made a stopover in their waters, en route to Iran. And U.S. authorities in recent times have credited the U.A.E. with starting to crack down on terrorist finance networks.
Nonetheless, Dubai's authorities are putting on a curious display of priorities, appearing far more incensed over the murder of one Hamas terrorist than over the use of their turf for terrorists such as al-Mabhouh to plot and facilitate the murders–albeit elsewhere–of many others. If this is all about enforcing civilized norms, Dubai's authorities are clearly in a position to help, if they so choose. May we see the rest of the video collection?
Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.