Murder in Dubai: The Mossad and Prisoner X

“No evidence was produced by the Dubai police that links Israel to the incident in Dubai,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman told an Australian radio station three years ago after the untimely death of a Hamas leader in a Dubai hotel room. This sort of pronouncement is known as a non-denial denial, an accomplishment government spokesmen everywhere have perfected. By “incident” the foreign ministry spokesman actually meant “murder”—Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a nasty piece of work, was first injected with a muscle relaxant and then smothered with a pillow by a group of foreigners wearing tennis whites, awkward-looking wigs, and fake beards. And by “links” the Israeli spokesman actually meant “Good luck trying to prove those guys in the beards worked for us.”

Here was the problem, however: 26 Israeli agents were caught on a security tape entering Mabhouh’s hotel, making recognition—despite the awkward wigs and beards—pretty feasible, and also quite a number of them were carrying counterfeit Australian passports. That year for Purim, a kind of Jewish Halloween, half of Israel dressed up in wigs, funny beards, and tennis outfits, and aside from the Mossad (which couldn’t have been really delighted that a fair number of its agents were burned on a tape the Dubai government released on the Web), most people generally treated the incident as a joke.

But the Australian government, as you might imagine, was not amused, especially after Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad agent, said fake Australian passports were in regular use by the Israeli intelligence agency because “it’s an easy cover to take, very few people know very much about Australia.” You can imagine the pain. Australia promptly expelled an Israeli diplomat (read: “spy under diplomatic cover”), and then things went quiet.

Or rather, nominally quiet. As it turned out, right after the Dubai murder, the deeply angered Australian government was for a brief time in regular contact with one of the Mossad agents involved in the Dubai killing, a dual national named either Ben Zygier or Ben Alon or Ben Allen or Ben Burrowes—take your pick, he used all those names in his line of work. Then the Mossad agent was arrested in Israel and packed off to Ayalon prison, where he got yet another name: “Prisoner X.”

Last week the world discovered that the onetime Mossad agent had allegedly committed suicide two years ago. In a suicide-proof Israeli jail cell. He managed this extraordinary feat by performing an amazingly acrobatic death, according to the Jerusalem Post: “tying a wet sheet to the bars of his prison window and using the other end as a noose.”

Well maybe the onetime agent did or maybe he didn’t devise his own death. Only one thing is sure: no one was supposed to know about it. No one was even supposed to know Prisoner X existed, or that he had worn an ill-fitting wig in Dubai or he had once been a double agent. And the Israeli government, meaning Benjamin Netanyahu, is begging his compatriots to continue down the blissful road of ignorance. Which must be pretty difficult now.

Here’s what the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which has taken the consistent lead in this investigation, reports on what led up to Zygier’s arrest: “Zygier … gave comprehensive detail [to Australian intelligence] about a number of Mossad operations, including plans for a top-secret mission in Italy that had been years in the making.” He was also involved, said the agent, in setting up a communications company in Europe that “exported electronic components to Arab countries and Iran.”

“Let the security service continue working quietly,” Netanyahu begged his countrymen over the weekend. But if there’s one thing you can say without reservation these days about Prisoner X, it’s this: the quiet is over. 

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