February 17, 2010
Assassins had Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in sight as soon as he got to Dubai
Hugh Tomlinson, Dubai
Times on Line
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh took no notice of the two men who joined him in the lift of his hotel in Dubai during the short ride to the second floor on the afternoon of January 20.
One was short and portly with a moustache, the other tall. Dressed in sports gear and carrying tennis rackets, they looked like any other European tourists visiting the Gulf state for some winter sun.
He did not realise that the two men were part of an 11-strong team that had come to kill him. In just over five hours he would be dead.
Stepping out of the lift, al-Mabhouh was escorted to room 230 by a member of staff at the Al Bustan Rotana hotel, near Dubai airport. Unnoticed, the taller man followed him down the corridor, clocking his room number and that of the room opposite, 237. In the hours that followed, room 237 became the staging post for the audacious murder of the senior Hamas official.
Within an hour of al-Mabhouh checking in his killers had established that room 237 was unoccupied and moved in across the hall. By that evening seven of the team were gathered in the room, waiting for their opportunity.
The killers had lain in wait for al-Mabhouh, whom Hamas admits was involved in the killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989, since the previous night. Flying in from Paris, Frankfurt, Rome and Zurich, the team of ten men and one woman arrived within three hours of each other. The alleged mastermind of the operation, a Frenchman using the name Peter Elvinger, was the last to arrive at 2.30am on January 19. The team dispersed for the night to hotels near the airport and to the Al Bustan Rotana.
The following morning, several members of the team including Elvinger and the Irish woman, whose passport bore the name Gail Folliard, met at a shopping centre to discuss final preparations for the murder. Nothing was left to chance.
Security footage of the killers’ movements during the afternoon, released by police in Dubai yesterday, underlines the professionalism of the operation. The group switched hotels several times and wore disguises including false beards and wigs, while surveillance teams rotated in pairs through the hotel lobby, never hanging around for too long and paying for everything in cash.
Folliard and another member of the party carrying an Irish passport in the name of Kevin Daveron were operating as spotters on the second floor of the hotel when the murder was committed. Both switched hotels that afternoon and dressed smartly to pose as hotel staff. The bald Daveron donned a dark wig and glasses, while Folliard appears to have removed a blonde wig to reveal dark hair.
Throughout the operation, none of the suspects made a direct call to any another. However, Dubai police traced a high volume of calls and text messages between three phones carried by the assassins and four numbers in Austria where a command centre had apparently been established.
To co-ordinate their movements on the ground, the team used discreet, sophisticated short-range communication devices as they tracked their victim.
Al-Mabhouh touched down in Dubai at around 3pm from Damascus to arrange a shipment of weapons to Gaza. Hamas has not explained why one of its senior commanders, a marked man with several assassination attempts against him already, should have arrived alone without any security.
Clearly, though, his mission was compromised long before his arrival in Dubai. The assassination team were waiting for him at the terminal. CCTV footage shows al-Mabhouh passing within metres of one of his killers. As the Hamas commander approaches the taxi rank outside the terminal, a spotter from the team can be seen sidling into shot behind him, speaking on a mobile phone to confirm the Palestinian’s arrival.
Al-Mabhouh checked into the Al Bustan Rotana at 3.25pm with the surveillance team in close attendance. After they followed him to his room, a call was made and Elsinger booked room 237 from the business suite of another hotel. With the trap set, he then booked a flight to Munich via Qatar at 7.30pm that evening, an hour before the killing.
Security footage gives a macabre inevitability to the hours that followed. When al-Mabhouh made a short visit out of the hotel, apparently to meet a contact, the killers moved swiftly into place. Four burly men arrived at room 237.
Whether through good fortune or design, no security camera covered the door to al-Mabhouh’s room and there is no footage of how the team gained entry to the room. Hotel records show that at 8pm an attempt was made to re-programme the lock to his door and Daveron, waiting in the second floor lobby, is seen to distract a hotel guest who appears from the second floor lifts for a few vital seconds to give the killers time to gain access.
When al-Mabhouh returned to the hotel at 8.24pm his killers were in place. Police believe that he was asphyxiated. By 8.46pm, less than 20 minutes after their victim entered the hotel, the four killers are shown leaving the second floor, followed closely by their spotters in room 237. The surveillance team in the hotel lobby also disbands.
Less than two hours later Daveron and Folliard are shown boarding a flight to Paris. Others took flights to Hong Kong and South Africa before doubling back to Europe.
Al-Mabhouh’s body was not found until 1.30pm the following afternoon. His room showed no signs of forced entry. The cause of death was initially believed to be an increase of blood pressure in the brain.
The murder was only uncovered days later, when local security services were told who the victim was. Al-Mabhouh had also been travelling on a false passport.
As an international manhunt began for the 11 suspects yesterday, one particular anomaly in the case remained. Folliard is the only woman named so far, but footage of the final surveillance shows a second woman arriving at the hotel accompanied by a man in a Panama hat and a beard. It is not known whether this woman is one of two Palestinians arrested in Dubai last week in connection with the murder.
As the hunt for the killers begins in earnest and the finger is pointed at Mossad, room 230 remains empty. “Closed for emergency repairs”.