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Dubai hit worthy of CIA Milan debacle

The 18 operatives believed to be involved in the murder of Hamas commander al-Mabhouh in Dubai seems a conservative number when one considers the operation.
Last modified: 20 Feb 2010 11:51
Photo from AFP

At least 18 operatives are now believed to be involved in Mahmoud al-Mabhouh's murder in Dubai on January 19. 

I will be very surprised if that figure does not go up even higher.

Those who believe in lone assassins need to put down their Carlos the Jackal books and instead consider the real world case of a 2003 CIA rendition operation in Milan that went awry.

Last November, in a highly publicised case, an Italian judge convicted 22 CIA operatives, a US Air Force Colonel, and two Italian accomplices for their role in the kidnapping of Muslim cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr.   

Mr Nasr was strolling to a mosque in Milan for noon time prayers when he was swept into US government custody. His abduction for over a year was owed to the CIA's extraordinary rendition programme, which existed prior to September 11 but had been more aggressively used by the Bush Administration. 

Mr Nasr had arose the suspicion of Italian authorities, who already were keeping him under watchful eye. But the US deemed that more immediate action was required, especially given Mr Nasr's preaching against US war efforts in Iraq and his alleged support for sending fighters there to confront the American occupation. 

Unfortunately for the American rendition operatives who were convicted in absentia--little surprise the CIA Chief of Base in Milan refused to appear in court--the US government's approach to the "Global War on Terror" fell out of favour with most Europeans, especially when revelations of torture were increasingly made public.

Mr Nasr's treatment was especially harsh. The CIA spirited Nasr from Milan to a US base in Northern Italy, then Germany, before he was put on a plane to Cairo and handed over to Egyptian Intelligence.

While in Egyptian jails Nasr was allegedly subjected to cruel forms of torture and violent abuse, including electrocution and rape. None of that provided the golden intelligence nugget the U.S. was after and even an Egyptian court ultimately ruled the man was not a threat.

Whoops. (For its part, the State Department announced it was "disappointed" by the conviction of the involved US government employees.)

Now consider for a moment the number of Americans involved in the Milan job:  22.  It took that many people to throw a single man into a van and drive him through a friendly country with warm diplomatic relations onto the premises of a US military base. 

That seemingly bloated figure also made vulnerable the team's trail during their visit, though what is described as carelessness may be explained by the degree to which the CIA may have believed their Italian counterparts were on board.

For Italian prosecutors, who ultimately deemed the whole thing illegal, those 22 had left behind a slew of evidence and pocket litter for Italian prosecutors to comb through, including unencrypted emails, credit card purchases, room service at five-star luxury hotels, plus local unsecured cell phone contact with each other. 

At least the Mossad or whoever carried out the al-Mabhouh hit had the good tradecraft to try and obscure their communications in Dubai, routing encrypted messages through a relay in Austria, though even that was discovered.

Keeping 24-hour "eyes" on a target is difficult work, especially if the goal is to do it undetected. Tracking teams must train with each other for months in advance on how to discreetly communicate with each other the movements of the individual being stalked, and to know when to "pass" off monitoring to other team mates if they've been "burned" or risk detection by going too close or simply milling around too long.  

On top of that you need enough team members to deploy on foot, sit ready in cars, as well as have some rest (yes, even trackers need to eventually sleep, eat, use the bathroom, etc). 

There are others also needed for command and control of the tracker team movements, usually at an operation centre close to the action. All of this must also be done without any one team member drawing the attention of the target or the local authorities.

If you ask me I'd say that 18 operatives for the al-Mabhouh murder was actually a minimalist number (and actually much higher), especially when one considers the risk this team faced for both tracking and murdering someone in a foreign country. And unlike the CIA team in Milan, there presumably was no diplomatic immunity trump card the Dubai team could play on or stall with in the event they were busted.

[PS Anyone else find curious the Israeli press reports of the alleged disappearance of dual British-Israeli citizen James Clark, who claimed the Dubai assassins stole his identity?]