DUBAI, UAE — Traveling in twos and threes, arriving on flights from different cities in Europe, they converged on Dubai hours ahead of their quarry.
The different pieces of the assassination squad fit together with the precision of a Swiss watch. They carried out their mission with chilling efficiency.
On Jan. 20, senior Hamas operative Mahmoud Al Mabhouh was found dead in a Dubai hotel room. The world would not learn of his demise until nine days later.
Israel's Mossad remains the prime suspect in what can only be described as a highly choreographed professional killing.
With the help of security cameras Dubai police have captured the elaborate orchestration of an 11-member hit squad as it arrives in Dubai, stalks its prey and carries out the execution with cold-blooded efficiency before scattering to the four corners of the earth.
On Wednesday, the police added 15 more names to the hit squad. Like the previous cast of killers — 10 men and a woman traveling on false British, Irish, French and German passports — the additions to the list are suspected of using bogus passports and stolen identities.
The use of the stolen identities has touched off a testy diplomatic row. Britain, France and Ireland summoned their respective Israeli ambassadors for an explanation. The European Union also issued a sharply worded condemnation of the incident.
Israel, following a longstanding policy, declined to comment on what it describes as “targeted killings.”
But earlier this week, a former Israeli foreign minister defended the assassination:
"The fact that a terrorist was killed, and it doesn't matter if it was in Dubai or Gaza, is good news to those fighting terrorism," said Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition Kadima party.
The 15 names added to the list on Wednesday were traveling on British, French, Irish and Australian passports. If the established pattern holds, the fake passports of this group will have been issued in the names of real persons, usually immigrants to Israel with dual citizenship.
Dubai police said the second group was mainly an advance team that coordinated logistics for the complex operation. According to the police, some members of this team may have first travelled to Dubai as early as last March. They also may have been aided by two Palestinian collaborators who lived in Dubai and have been taken into custody.
The police also revealed Wednesday that the assassination squad used credit cards obtained in the U.S.
The team that carried out the actual killing came into Dubai a few hours ahead of their target. After arriving, they checked into hotels scattered across the city.
Toting tennis rackets or dressed in business suits, they blended in easily with other Western visitors. They killed some time at a shopping mall. They used wigs and other disguises to change their appearance. And according to police, they communicated with each other in code through a command center in Austria.
When Mabhouh checked into room 230 of the deluxe Al Bustan Rotana Hotel near the airport, one of the team members managed to check into room 237 — and all of the parts of the plan began to click into place.
When Mabhouh went into the city center to buy a pair of shoes, he was followed. When he returned to his room, he was murdered.
The security cameras do not show how his killers gained entrance to Mabhouh's room, but it shows them afterward, calmly leaving the scene of the murder, checking out of the hotel and boarding flights to Asia, Africa and Europe. The entire operation took less than 24 hours.
As a senior member of Hamas, Mabhouh usually traveled under an assumed name and with a detail of bodyguards. On this trip he traveled under his own name and without bodyguards.
Mabhouh has been described as one of the architects of the pipeline that smuggles Iranian weapons into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. There has been speculation that Mabhouh was in Dubai, where many Iranian banks do business, to close an arms deal. He was also scheduled to travel to China.
Hamas has 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 not be a surprise for 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.
Mabhouh had lived in exile in Damascus for years. His family says he has been the target of several Israeli assassination attempts.