How the spooks are adapting to the age of Twitter

By Shlomo Shpiro, February 18, 2010
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A still from Dubai surveillance cameras allegedly showing members of the team which killed Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his room at the Emirati city’s Al-Bustan Rotana Hotel

A still from Dubai surveillance cameras allegedly showing members of the team which killed Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his room at the Emirati city’s Al-Bustan Rotana Hotel

Media frenzy over the killing of Hamas activist Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai is reaching its peak. The story has all the right ingredients for a cloak-and-dagger classic: suave men with dark glasses slipping in and out of luxury hotels, an elusive redhead lingering in shadowy corridors, exotic robe-clad police officials proudly presenting the results of their investigations.

But the attention drawn to the series of short video clips, which by themselves show no actual crime being committed, eclipses a deeper discussion about the technological challenges posed to intelligence services in the global fight against terrorism.

The very mention of the magical word "Mossad" ensures instant front-page news, with little attention paid to other potential perpetrators or lessons learned from such an operation.

Intelligence services have engaged in assassinations ever since such services were formed. Governments use intelligence services to carry out such tasks because of their perceived secrecy, operational capabilities and weak public accountability. Modern technologies such as the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, the internet and Twitter present operations with special difficulties such as the need for better concealment of facial features.

However, all technologies are only as good as the humans who develop them, or those trying to circumvent them. Cameras may help catch people after the fact but are as yet of little value in the early prevention of crime, terrorism or, indeed, assassinations.

No matter how sophisticated biometrical databases and passports are made, they can be forged or manipulated if enough effort is made. Eastern Europe is awash with forged euro and dollar banknotes and altered passports.

Every week the UK Borders Agency arrests illegal immigrants in the UK carrying pristine-looking but altered EU identity documents. Identity theft has become the fastest growing crime in Europe. Those wishing to impersonate someone can usually find enough details on the web easily to create a solid but phony identity.

In the weeks and months ahead, investigations will move away from video clips to the potential motives of the attackers in Dubai and the role al-Mabhouh played in the shadowy cutthroat world of arms smuggling, which keeps the Hamas regime in Gaza armed to the teeth.

Many Hamas leaders may prefer the investigation to die down as it might reveal the full extent of their preparations for war with Israel.

The reluctance of Hamas to reveal the names of two Palestinians allegedly arrested in connection with the attack may hint at other directions, such as an arms or drugs deal gone sour.

The final word in the al-Mabhouh affair has still not been said. When you look at the videos from Dubai, don't you get a sneaky feeling those men are actually trying to get on camera?

Dr Shlomo Shpiro is Deputy Head of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Research Fellow at the BESA Centre for Strategic Studies

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010