Is the UAE Banning BlackBerrys Because of Israel?

Seven months after it happened, the mysterious assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai is still causing fallout in the Middle East.

David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images

The government of the United Arab Emirates recently announced that it's going to restrict BlackBerry use. Now why would it want to do a thing like that? It would seem like a bad PR move from a country that prides itself on being the most plugged-in place in the Middle East. But that was before the little matter of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

Mabhouh was the high-ranking Hamas military commander who, at age 48, died suddenly in his room at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai on Jan. 19. You always have to wonder when people who have been accused of terrorist activities die premature deaths -- and the UAE authorities soon started doing exactly that. Ten days after Mabhouh's death, officials from the UAE's secret police, the General Department of State Security, announced that the Hamas official had died as the result of a carefully engineered assassination. But they didn't stop there. They proceeded to show anyone who cared to watch a detailed video chronicle of the hit team's movements, all of it culled from closed-circuit surveillance cameras positioned around the emirate.

The government of the United Arab Emirates recently announced that it’s going to restrict BlackBerry use. Now why would it want to do a thing like that? It would seem like a bad PR move from a country that prides itself on being the most plugged-in place in the Middle East. But that was before the little matter of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

Mabhouh was the high-ranking Hamas military commander who, at age 48, died suddenly in his room at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai on Jan. 19. You always have to wonder when people who have been accused of terrorist activities die premature deaths — and the UAE authorities soon started doing exactly that. Ten days after Mabhouh’s death, officials from the UAE’s secret police, the General Department of State Security, announced that the Hamas official had died as the result of a carefully engineered assassination. But they didn’t stop there. They proceeded to show anyone who cared to watch a detailed video chronicle of the hit team’s movements, all of it culled from closed-circuit surveillance cameras positioned around the emirate.

The murky business of state-sponsored "targeted killing" will never be the same again. It has been nearly seven months since Mabhouh died, but the repercussions from his death keep on rippling outward: political, diplomatic, military, even technological. For one thing, assassins don’t like publicity, and having the faces of the hit squad splashed across the world’s websites and TV screens is presumably not something the planners of the Mabhouh assassination had in mind. The whole case has even led some to speculate that closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras (and the face-recognition software that the Dubai security services may have used along with them) will make such covert operations a thing of the past.

Those predictions may be premature. What’s clear, though, is that the case has produced myriad complications for Israel’s public image in the world — and has also further dented the mystique that once surrounded its vaunted security services. Israel, predictably, became the prime suspect as soon as Mabhouh’s death was ruled foul play. Mabhouh, a seasoned Hamas operative, had admitted to the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers; according to media reports, his job in recent years involved managing Hamas weapons procurements (in part from the Iranians). It’s easy to imagine that the Israelis might have wanted him dead.

To be sure, on one level the hit was a highly professional affair that bore all the hallmarks of a well-planned Mossad operation. Mabhouh’s killers managed to get into his room without attracting attention and may have been waiting for him when he arrived. They subdued him with an injection of succinylcholine, a fast-acting muscle relaxant, then finished him off by suffocating him. The idea was to make it look like a natural death — which seems to have worked at first, gaining the team members enough time to make their escape. There’s even been some speculation that the team was actually planning to kidnap Mabhouh — who inexplicably arrived in Dubai without his usual complement of bodyguards — so that he could be exchanged for one of the Israeli soldiers still held captive by Hamas, and that the killing was actually a matter of a mistaken dosage.

Based on the killers’ otherwise adept handling of the operation, however, it’s hard to believe they would have made such a blunder. During their stay in the emirate, members of the team used encrypted mobile phones to stay in touch with each other; Dubai forensics experts later traced some of the calls to a number in Austria that may have figured as the operation’s command center. The Dubai CCTV chronicle traces the remarkably fluid choreography of multiple surveillance teams: one pair of chubby operatives carries tennis rackets as they chat in a hotel corridor, monitoring movements in Mabhouh’s corridor. The cameras caught other operatives donning disguises in hotel bathrooms in an effort to throw off possible countersurveillance. Within hours of the killing they had scattered to far-flung destinations including Hong Kong, Paris, and South Africa. Peter Elvinger, the French-passport holder who booked a hotel room across the hall from Mabhouh’s, left the country before the hit even took place. Israel, needless to say, denied involvement.

Despite this outward appearance of seamless organization, though, loose ends soon began to make a connection with Israel seem more likely. Reports connected some of the credit cards used by members of the team with a company linked to the Israeli military. Even worse, it soon emerged that seven of the assassins had used passports held by current Israeli dual citizens, who soon found themselves indignantly fending off accusations of involvement. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz even called upon the head of the Mossad, Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan, to resign for abusing the rights of unknowing Israelis. For the time being he remains in office — perhaps because leaving his post would amount to an admission of the Mossad’s responsibility for the assassination.

The international ramifications have proved even more unpleasant. It’s a funny thing, but countries generally don’t like to see their own citizens’ identities misused by foreign intelligence agencies. Governments in Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, and Australia announced investigations and registered protests with the Israeli government. Israeli diplomats soon found themselves fending off diplomatic brush fires all around. Then-British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the theft of British identities an "outrage." In July, Ireland announced that it would not participate in European Union data-sharing with the Israelis, citing concerns about the security of its citizens’ personal information. None of this is particularly helpful to the Israelis at a time when their international standing — dragged down by the killings of protesters aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla earlier this year — has reached an all-time low.

Then there’s the peculiar tale of Uri Brodsky, an Israeli citizen who was arrested in the airport in Warsaw on June 4. The Polish authorities were acting on an EU arrest warrant issued by the Germans, who believe that Brodsky somehow obtained one of the German passports used in Mabhouh’s killing. A Polish court recently determined that Brodsky would be extradited in mid-August. German authorities — especially sensitive where Israel is concerned — have hinted that he might get off with a fine. That probably won’t make Israel look any better in the eyes of the public, though.

And if that wasn’t enough, now there’s an American plot twist. A few days ago the Wall Street Journal revealed that U.S. investigators had been quietly looking into the possibility that the Israeli operatives might have used prepaid cash cards to handle some of their expenses. Some U.S. companies use the cards to process salaries and other payments and are unlikely to be thrilled by the idea that another country has been exploiting them for purposes of skulduggery. Needless to say, this revelation, too, couldn’t come at a worse time — just as U.
S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were trying to patch up their differences and get on with business.

You can bet that the people at Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, never expected their product to get caught up in a spy-novel scenario in the Middle East. But that’s exactly what has happened. The source of the threatened UAE ban is the high degree of encryption that BlackBerry handsets offer to their users, making their calls virtually impervious to surveillance. Small wonder, given the fallout from the Mabhouh killing, that authorities in the UAE have definitely decided that they would like to be able to listen in. They may well get their chance — especially if, as some experts insist, it turns out to be true that RIM has given other governments the keys to crack the code.

It should be noted that the UAE’s concerns about the BlackBerry predate the killing — and both legitimate worries about preventing terrorism and more dubious ones about eavesdropping on UAE citizens seem to have played a part. Still, there’s no question that the January scandal has given new impetus to the government’s pressure on RIM. (The latest: The Canadian company says that it’s now negotiating toward a solution with the UAE government.) One thing is for sure, though: The people who killed Mahmoud al-Mabhouh probably won’t be showing their faces around Dubai again anytime soon.

Twitter: @ccaryl

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