New Details of Elaborate Dubai Assassination Emerge

A chart released by the Dubai police shows the travel ports of entry and exit of suspects in the murder of Hamas officer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

The assassins who killed Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh at a five-star Dubai hotel in January made one mistake: their work was too perfect. The hit team took elaborate steps to make the Hamas military commander's cause of death appear natural. His body was found lying in bed unclothed, his pants folded neatly over a chair and a bottle of heart medicine on the nightstand beside him. There were no bruises on the corpse, and no sign of a struggle in the room. The door was even chain-locked from inside. But the scene was so immaculate that when Dubai police finally entered the room, after his wife complained she couldn't reach him on his cell phone, "they were struck by how neat everything was," in the words of a foreign law-enforcement official who is close to the investigation, and provided fresh details to NEWSWEEK on condition of anonymity. "It made them suspicious."

That was the opening of an international murder mystery that continues to unfold. The Israeli spy agency Mossad is widely assumed to be responsible for the killing. But the hit team's 26 suspected members have vanished. They probably hoped to avoid detection altogether. Still, now that the assassination is exposed, no one expects Israel to deny that its agents were behind it. On the contrary, operations like this have upsides when they become public. They cause paranoia among the victims' associates: Who helped the hit team? Who might be next? "It will make those people more distrustful of each other," says Martin van Creveld, the widely respected Israeli analyst of modern warfare. "They will assume that they have traitors in their midst." Such operations also boost morale in Israel, showing people that their security forces have a "long arm" and can strike at enemies when they least suspect it.

Mabhouh has few mourners in the West. A major figure in Hamas's efforts to smuggle weapons from Iran to Gaza, he arrived in Dubai under an assumed name. Still, Interpol is joining a global task force dedicated to the case--in part because suspects in the plot used false passports from half a dozen countries.

The United States hasn't shown much interest in joining the chase, even though there are some apparent connections. An Iowa financial firm had issued debit cards to some of the suspects, and two of them allegedly flew to the United States after the murder. Asked last week if the Justice Department was prepared to assist the Dubai police in the case, spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said it was department policy not to comment on such matters. Perhaps more telling, when Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren paid recent visits to the White House and the State Department, nobody raised the matter. "The subject was not brought up," said an Israeli official who asked not to be identified discussing diplomatic talks.

How did police in Dubai first find the assassins' trail? The story has more twists than have been publicly revealed--and shows the difficulty in pulling off such jobs with the emergence of today's sophisticated surveillance technology. When the inquiry began, the cops examined the hotel's security-camera recordings and found footage of Mabhouh entering his suite (room 230) on the evening of Jan. 19--and someone noticed that the shirt he had on in the video was nowhere to be found among the victim's effects. Police now theorize that the killers may have removed it because it was torn in a struggle.

Further inquiries revealed that another guest at the hotel, a French passport holder, had specifically requested the room across the hall, room 237. But that man flew out of Dubai just hours after renting the room. Instead, the videos showed, room 237 became the hub for a team of spotters who were trailing Mabhouh. Some wore disguises, including false beards and wigs (videos at another hotel showed two of them, a man and woman, ducking into bathrooms and reemerging with their new appearances).

When medical examiners inspected Mabhouh's corpse, they found an injection mark on his thigh. Toxicology tests showed that he had been dosed with succinylcholine, a paralyzing agent. The cops concluded that after sedating Mabhouh, the killers smothered him with a pillow. But by the time the results had come in, police say the suspects had fled to Switzerland, Germany, Hong Kong--and possibly Iran.

With Christopher Dickey in Paris