Murky deeds, mealy mouths

Most countries carry out dirty but necessary ‘special operations’ like the Dubai killing


There are few worlds murkier than those of espionage, counter-espionage and "special operations". These are the worlds of bluff, counter-bluff, lies, deceit, forgery, treachery, blackmail, sedition and slaughter. Most countries support "special operations" units, and the exploits of some of these have become the stuff of legend.

In his book Spycatcher (1985), the late Peter Wright chronicled some of the deeds and misdeeds of the UK's security service, for which he worked. Among these were the production of forged documents, including foreign currency notes and passports (as well as routine burglaries and the covert planting of listening devices). The security service (MI5) operates alongside the secret intelligence service (MI6), and within Wright's memoirs was the revelation that MI6 had planned to assassinate Colonel Nasser at the time of the Suez crisis.

In April 1988, the TV documentary Death on the Rock told the story of the operation, the previous month, by the Special Air Service to eliminate (eradicate, kill, murder, call it what you like) three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar.

You may find the worlds in which such entities operate, repugnant, amoral, even immoral. And I do not propose to chronicle their exploits or sing their praises. But, in seeking to point the finger at the government of Israel for its alleged involvement in the killing, in Dubai last month, of the Hamas terrorist Mahmoud al-Mabhouh (why else summon Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor to the Foreign Office?) the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is engaging in hypocritical humbug. And I suspect that he knows it.

Few outside Hamas and its Iranian sponsors mourn Mabhouh’s demise

My knowledge of the killing of Mabhouh is probably no better than yours. Purely for the sake of argument, let us assume that the Israeli Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations - Mossad - was indeed responsible for Mabhouh's assassination. A British security expert to whom I have spoken certainly thinks so. Make no mistake, this was a carefully planned and well-executed assassination. None of the assassins has been caught; the target clearly suspected nothing until it was too late; there were no bombs or gunshots (my British security friend, looking at photographs of the deceased, agrees that Mabhouh was probably suffocated, a mode of execution requiring practically no equipment).

The project was carried out at short notice, since Mabhouh rarely left his Damascus hideout, and when he did he was almost invariably accompanied by bodyguards. But not, incredibly, on this occasion. Nor could his killing have been carried out without the assistance of "moles" within Hamas, who presumably reported his movements back to their Mossad paymasters. We know that several Arabs have been arrested in connection with his death, including some operatives linked to the security arm of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which raises the intriguing possibility of PA involvement in the operation: a straw in the wind, perhaps, presaging further PA-Israel joint operations against Hamas.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was a Jew-hating member of the senior military command of Hamas. In 1989, he carried out the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Sa'adon. More recently, he was centrally implicated in the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, including Iranian-manufactured, long-range rockets. Few, outside of Hamas and its Iranian sponsors, are mourning his demise - certainly not David Miliband.

Mr Miliband's agitation is said to arise from the fact that some of the assassins used forged passports in the names of Israelis who also enjoy UK citizenship. I agree that a liberty was taken. But such things are sometimes necessary in defence of the state. In any case, these passports were so obviously forgeries that the genuine passport-holders will have no difficulty in establishing their innocence.

Relations between London and Jerusalem are currently at a low ebb but Mr Miliband should take heart. He now has the excuse he and Gordon Brown have been looking for should they deem it prudent to postpone the amendment of legislation that permits the arrest in the UK of Israelis accused of "war crimes". Besides, in a few months' time, Mr Brown may no longer be Prime Minister and Mr Miliband may no longer be Foreign Secretary. The Dubai assassination will then fade into the history books.

Last updated: 3:51pm, May 21 2010

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