American Companies Issued Debit Cards to Alleged Dubai Assassins

Some of the alleged assassins of a Hamas leader in Dubai obtained debit cards through two U.S. financial companies—one of them headed by a former member of the Israeli special forces—according to a statement by one of the companies released Tuesday.

The company, MetaBank of Storm Lake, Iowa, confirmed that it had provided "prepaid" debit cards to a number of the suspects being sought by Dubai police for the alleged asphyxiation of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

But MetaBank said it had no direct contact with any of the alleged assassins who were using its debit cards. Instead, the firm said, the cards were issued through a New York contractor, Payoneer, which serves as "program manager" for its cards. As The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, Payoneer's chief executive, Yuval Tal, described himself as a former Israeli special-forces soldier during an appearance as a commentator on Fox News during the 2006 Lebanon war.

Repeated attempts by NEWSWEEK to contact Tal or a representative of the company this week were unanswered. The company has no listed phone number at its Park Avenue offices. A YouTube video of Tal mentioning his Israeli special-forces service was removed from the site "by the user" on Tuesday afternoon.

The statement by MetaBank shed some additional light on what is shaping up as a major international murder mystery with potentially volatile political repercussions. MetaBank said it had been "informed by authorities" that the suspects in the killing of al-Mabhouh had apparently used stolen identities, "including fake passports," to obtain employment from unnamed U.S. companies and to acquire debit cards issued by the bank.

The cards were described by a company spokeswoman as "prepaid debit cards" that are used by companies to pay their employees and compensate them for their travel expenses. Instead of issuing paychecks and expense reimbursements, the companies direct-deposit the funds or "reload" them into debit-card holders' accounts, where they can then be used by the employees.

The company said it had taken "standardized steps" to validate the cardholders' identities but no red flags had popped up. "The individuals named were not on the OFAC list"—a reference to the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, which maintains a list of individuals, such as terrorists or drug traffickers, whom U.S. companies are barred from having financial dealings with—"and no other readily apparent method existed for Meta to determine that identity theft had been perpetrated."

Lisa Binder, vice president of MetaBank, declined to disclose how many of the suspects were issued its debit cards, or their identities. But Dubai police have identified 26 suspects in the case, describing how they landed in Dubai before the murder with European or Australian passports and were captured on closed-circuit TV checking in to their hotels. However, many of the persons named on the passports appear to have been the victims of identity theft; all of them contacted so far have said they were never in Dubai and knew nothing about how their names came to be used.