A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Dubai Assassination

We won’t know if it was worth it until we have all the facts.

Eleven suspects in the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh 

Salim Yamadayev was killed by a gold-colored Russian-made pistol. He was shot in the underground parking garage of a luxury apartment block in Dubai, not far from the sea. The efficient Dubai police found the weapon and the black gloves used by the assassins, and with this evidence in hand, they accused a deputy prime minister of Chechnya of the killing. Yamadayev was an opponent of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov —a Russian puppet—one of the last opposition leaders still alive. He was eliminated on March 28, 2009, less than a year ago.

The Chechen regime—which has denied responsibility for the assassination—must be happy with the outcome. The Russians seem quite pleased, too. The consequences for the assassins? None at all. For the Chechen government? None. For the deputy prime minister? None. For Dubai-Russian relations? None. So, from the assassins’ point of view, was the job worth the risk? In this case, the answer seems quite clear. But that’s an easy case. It’s much more complicated to make such a calculation when neither the cost nor the benefit is known to the public.

Nearly a year has passed since the Chechen assassination, and Dubai’s chief of police is now showing off his skills once again. A Palestinian terrorist, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh of Hamas, was murdered in Dubai at the end of January, and shortly afterward, the police were able to post photos and videos detailing the assassins’ movements in Dubai, to reveal the aliases on their passports, and to conclude “with 99 percent certainty” that this was the work of operatives from Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations—known as Mossad.

Mabhouh was no saint. More than 20 years ago he killed two abducted Israeli soldiers, and in more recent times he was a human link between Hamas and Iran, facilitating the shipment of weapons into the Gaza Strip and the shipment of Hamas militiamen to training camps organized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Few will shed tears over his untimely death, not Israelis, not Western intelligence-service heads, not all Palestinians, not even Dubai officials. So, whether Mabhouh “deserved” his untimely death is no tough moral question.

The question currently being considered around the world is whether Mabhouh’s death justifies the brouhaha and the possible damage to Israel’s reputation and operational abilities. And the story really is worthy of the extensive coverage. The mysterious, false-beard-wearing assassins; the forged passports; the resourceful police chief; the innocent Israelis discovering that their names had been used in a game of international intrigue.

Columnist Ronen Bergman described the atmosphere of amused curiosity prevalent in Israel: “Israelis woke up Wednesday morning to pictures of 11 individuals plastered on the front page of every newspaper. The familiar guessing game began immediately: Don’t I know him? Didn’t we serve in the same army unit? Isn’t that guy my geeky neighbor, the one who says he’s an accountant?” Bergman quotes an acquaintance who “swore she had dated one of the men”—a professional assassin! I have no such romantic connection to report, just the occasional co-worker testifying that he knows a member of the group. Or so his wife says.

But the gossipy nature of most accounts isn’t enough to quash the more serious questions. Israel—officially mum on the question of whether Mossad carried out the attack—finds itself in the spotlight: asked by Brits and Germans to explain how their passports came to be used; criticized by Jewish immigrants unhappy about having their identities stolen; vilified by experts who suspect that this operation was yet another bungled mission ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As a Ha’aretz colleague put it:

Israelis enjoy a love-hate relationship with … Mossad. When they succeed in another James Bond-style operation, we sing their praises as an example of all good things Israeli: innovation, daring, outsmarting the competition. But when they screw up, we are quick to identify all of our social maladies: arrogance, carelessness, disregarding the rules”.

The truth is, such love-hate relationships aren’t unique to Israelis or to intelligence agencies. This is another example of the familiar art of elevating and demoting maverick politicians, trendy artists, and the authors of brainy new ideas—the habit of journalism that is driven by a constant need for excitement. “Just as the previous mood of self-congratulation [about the success of the operation] was overheated and ill-advised, so too, now, is the opprobrium,” wrote a lonely voice of balanced reason.

Anyway, how can we seriously evaluate the costs and the benefits, the singularity of the achievement and the profundity of the scandal, without having all the necessary information about Mabhouh’s future plans available?

Will it now be more difficult for the Iranians to send weapons to Gaza? And if so, for how long? What will it cost to replace Mabhouh? Was he uniquely skilled in his field—an irreplaceable master terrorist? Or were the killers wasting costly bait on the equivalent of goldfish? Did the country that carried out the attack just lose half its force of professional assassins? Will Israel suffer diplomatically because of this operation—as some have warned—or is it just the passing scandal of the week that will go away quickly—as others have argued?

Will it now be more difficult to carry out such operations? Has a new era dawned on the ancient art of targeted killings—as some have claimed—because of the sophisticated biometric tools available to catch the perpetrators? Didn’t the people who planned the Dubai operation realize that times were changing? If you can’t answer most of these questions with at least some confidence, you can’t say whether the operation was worth it.

When benefits are vague, costs are hotly debated, and context is lacking from all accounts of the Dubai assassination, calculating whether it was worth it becomes more of a hunch than a thoughtful analysis.

Context is the most important component of every story: It would be one thing to learn that Mossad failed in one operation out of 200—and quite another to learn that it didn’t completely succeed in one operation out of three. It is hard to judge the demands for investigations and for the removal of high officials or acknowledgment of error when successes are kept under wraps and only mishaps are made known to the public—in short, when perspective is missing. But that is the very nature of covert activities. And whether or not we are in a new era of clandestine operations, that isn’t likely to change much.

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