Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Espionage and assassinations in the internet age

Political assassinations and kidnappings are the stuff of the Cold War. Cities like Istanbul, Sofia, and Vienna were hotbeds of intrigue and espionage during an era of US-Soviet rivalry. Mysterious agents of all hues roamed murky streets exchanging packages and killing political dissidents with virtual diplomatic immunity.
The Cold War has ended but political assassinations have made a comeback. Pilotless drones regularly kill Taliban leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas and recently Israeli agents brazenly killed a Hamas operative in Dubai.
The pros and cons of targeted killings are a subject of heated debate. The answer often depends on which side is doing the killing and whether the assassins can be held accountable for their actions, internally or externally.
Drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas are no longer debated, either within the US or among Pakistani policymakers. They are an accepted reality within a depressing war.
The Israeli operation is different. Dubai is not South Waziristan. There is no tacit agreement between the Israeli and United Arab Emirates (UAE) governments' to permit politically expedient violations of domestic law.
Dubai's response to the criminal act of murder, allegedly by Israeli Mossad personnel, has been mature and exemplary. Dubai has played by the book.
After collecting sufficient evidence to prosecute the perpetrators, Dubai embarked on a publicity blitz, complete with video footage of the suspects. Simultaneously, the UAE foreign ministry initiated contact with all affected European governments (the Israelis allegedly travelled on fake EU passports).
In a final coup de grace, the eleven suspected killers have all found their names and photographs on an Interpol Red Notice. A Red Notice does not mean the suspects are guilty but the notice commits all countries to assist in the arrest and extradition of the suspects. In practicality, it should prohibit the suspects from travelling outside Israel except to nations who may 'turn the other cheek' for 'friendly' assassins.
The seal of Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (Mossad). "Where no stratagem is, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is salvation." (Proverbs 11:14)

The Israeli security establishment is well connected within the global security grid. It is unlikely any of the eleven suspects will find themselves before a Dubai court in the near future. However, it is also unlikely that Israel, or any other country, will attempt similar high profile 'incidents' in the UAE in the near future.
In a small but symbolic way, the Arabs have finally succeeded in catching the Israelis with their hands in the cookie jar. As a result, the Israelis have got some egg on their face.
How far Dubai takes its moral advantage is a tricky political question. Pushing too hard exposes the continued trade ties between Dubai and Iran, a fact the federal authorities in Abu Dhabi will certainly want to avoid. Apparently, the Hamas agent was in transit in Dubai on his way to Iran for a weapons deal. It may also draw the UAE authorities into the messy politics of the Arab-Israeli dispute, something which the country has deftly avoided so far.
Israel will not want to brood on the incident either. Its operatives have been exposed. It has abused the open environment of a pro-Western, moderate Arab state and embarrassed several EU nations.

In the age of Google and the closed circuit television camera, espionage tactics perfected during the Cold War are no longer applicable. Spies and hired killers may find refuge in darkened side alleys but not in luxury hotels. Perhaps Mossad has not downloaded the latest issue of the 'Spies Incorporated' e-zine titled 'Assassination for Dummies?'

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