DUBAI, U.A.E. — In the Middle East, Dubai has replaced Beirut as the place where deals are done, secrets are sold and scores are settled.
The glitzy city on the Gulf has become a kind of Arabian Big Easy where a senior operative in a powerful political organization can be assassinated in a five-star hotel — and the crime will be hushed up for more than a week while the powers-that-be decide how the story will be spun.
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a military commander and arms smuggling specialist with Hamas, was found dead in his room at the swanky Al Bustan Rotana Hotel on Jan. 20. But word of al-Mabhouh’s demise was kept quiet for nine days, until a brief announcement on Friday from the U.A.E. government’s official press agency coincided with his funeral at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus.
According to the announcement, the assassination was carried out by an “experienced criminal gang, who had been tracking down the movements of the victim before entering the U.A.E.”
Al-Mabhouh arrived in Dubai from Syria on Jan. 19. His body was found in his hotel room less than 24 hours later. By that time, his killers, apparently travelling on European passports, had already fled the country.
“Despite quick skill exhibited by murderers ... they left behind evidence at the scene of [the] crime that would help in tracking them down,” said an unnamed security source quoted in the official statement.
A family member in Gaza told Al Jazeera television on Friday that al-Mabhouh received an electrical shock to the head and was then strangled.
As a senior member of Hamas, al-Mabhouh usually travels under an assumed name and with a detail of body guards. On this trip he traveled under his own name and without body guards, according to Hamas officials.
Dubai police say they now know the identity of the killers and, with the help of Interpol, will quickly bring them to justice.
Dubai, which would prefer to be famous as a playground for the rich, has lately become a center of international intrigue. Last year, a former Chechen general and opponent of the republic’s Moscow-backed regime was shot dead in the parking garage of the upscale residential compound where he lived. Two suspects, an Iranian and a Tajik national, are in custody.
The city’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell notion of banking regulation made it a money laundering haven that allegedly serviced the needs of Russian mobsters, Somali pirates and Al Qaeda terrorists. After 9/11, local authorities tightened financial reporting laws, but plenty of shady types still linger in the shadows.
Al-Mabhouh has been described as a key operative in the pipeline that smuggles weapons provided by Iran into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. It did not take long for speculation to surface that al-Mabhouh was in Dubai, where many Iranian banks do business, to close an arms deal.
Hamas quickly pointed the finger at Israel.
"We in Hamas hold the Zionist enemy responsible for the criminal assassination of our brother, and we pledge to God and to the blood of the martyrs and to our people to continue his path of jihad and martyrdom," said a statement on Hamas' website. The group vowed to "retaliate for this Zionist crime at the appropriate time and place."
Israel has a long memory and a long history of “targeted assassinations.” The Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, has an impressive record of infiltrating assassination teams into Arab capitals. It would hardly be surprising for al-Mabhouh to be on the agency’s hit list.
The 50-year-old Palestinian was one of the founders of Hamas’ Izz el-Deen al-Qassam brigade, and the Israelis hold him responsible for the 1989 abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers during the first intifada. In retaliation, Israeli authorities demolished the family’s home in Gaza.
Al-Mabhouh has lived in exile in Damascus for years. His family says he has been the target of several Israeli assassination attempts.
Israel had no immediate comment on the al-Mabhouh killing.