Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In Global Hunt for Hit Men, Tantalizing Trail Goes Cold

Via WSJ.com -

Soon after the January assassination of a top Palestinian official here, Dubai police stumbled onto what looked like a big break in the case.

They linked a white-haired man with glasses to several suspects caught on security cameras preparing for the murder. Most of the suspects in the case had carried forged passports, but this man had a real British one. It identified him as 62-year-old Christopher Lockwood.

A cellphone linked to him had recently been switched on in France. U.K. authorities found his London address. They also discovered that in 1994, he had changed his name from Yehuda Lustig. Mr. Lustig, they determined, was born in Scotland to a Jewish couple from what was then British-controlled Palestine.

The findings raised hopes of nabbing one of the orchestrators of the hit, possibly providing proof for accusations by Dubai police that Israel's intelligence agency Mossad was behind it.

But just as quickly, the trail went cold, a Wall Street Journal examination of the case shows.


It has been more than eight months since the murder of top Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, whose body was found in a Dubai hotel room Jan. 20. Quick work by Dubai police and a diplomatic furor over the use of dozens of forged passports in the case fed early optimism that at least some of the 30-plus suspects would be found. But a string of apparent dead ends has frustrated international investigators, lengthening the odds that anyone will be caught or that definitive proof of Mossad involvement will emerge.

And despite an initial burst of tough talk from various governments, some international investigators are concerned that politics may be hampering cooperation from some governments that support Israel.

Time isn't on the side of Dubai, one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. International investigators have been operating under the assumption that, if Israel is behind the crime, the suspects already may have made their way back to Israel, where they'll be safe from extradition.

"The longer these investigations go on, the more enthusiasms dwindle and the more time for a security service to cover tracks and bury things," says Nick Day, a former operative in the U.K.'s MI5 security service who isn't involved in the probe.

Israel isn't cooperating in the probe. It has said there's no evidence linking Mossad to the murder of Mr. Mabhouh, one of the founders of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that Washington, London and Israel designate as a terror organization. Spokesmen for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment for this article.

Early this year, Dubai's police chief said he was "99%" sure of Mossad involvement. Still, investigators on the case, including those in the U.A.E., say they are working with an open mind. Early on, Dubai detained two Palestinians, raising the possibility that the killing was orchestrated by Palestinian rivals to Mr. Mabhouh. Since then, several allies of Israel have publicly blamed the country for forging many of the passports used by suspects in the case. That has reinforced the widespread suspicion of Israeli involvement.

Dubai investigators remain hopeful, but are coming to terms with the possibility that the probe could drag on for years. "They realize this might be a long process," says one person familiar with the probe.

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