How spy technologies foil old-school political killings

Britain used closed-circuit TV images in its probe into the slow death of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko.
Britain used closed-circuit TV images in its probe into the slow death of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko. (Alistair Fuller/associated Press)
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By R. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010

The practice of secretly assassinating purported enemies of the state -- an age-old tool of foreign policy -- has run up against steadily improving international police collaboration and the global proliferation of surveillance technologies that make it harder for anyone anywhere to surreptitiously conduct a high-profile killing on foreign soil.

In Doha, London and now Dubai, political killers have been caught on film and tracked, provoking unexpected attention and controversy for the organizers. Because of new biometric technologies, the proliferation of cheap video, and sophisticated monitoring of customs points and airports, the skills of those who specialize in the creation of fictional identities have been tested, and sometimes defeated.

The apparent political killing of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh has ricocheted around the world in recent days after his alleged attackers were spotted by a camera above an elevator at the Dubai Al-Bustan Rotana hotel, in the United Arab Emirates. Four suspects, all obvious weight-lifters, were filmed exiting in pairs and heading for Mabhouh's room.

Shortly after the killing, they were again filmed, this time more nervously boarding the same elevator, wearing the same baseball caps. Then they were filmed again, leaving the airport on flights to Europe, Africa and Asia. On Thursday, Interpol issued warrants for 11 suspects after the Dubai police conducted a careful study of their videotaped movements at nearly a dozen locales. Their mug shots had already been flashed on television screens around the world.

Dubai's police chief -- as well as commentators in Israel -- have laid blame on Israel's Mossad spy agency. Israel has not addressed the issue of responsibility, in keeping with its policy of neither denying nor admitting involvement in assassination missions.

The episode, which has become the talk of intelligence specialists on at least three continents, recalled the extensive use of closed-circuit television images and lab work during the British government's probe into the agonizingly slow death of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

After Litvinenko fell suspiciously ill, British investigators used surveillance images from the ubiquitous cameras in central London to trace his movements, and then used specialized equipment to test his urine, only to discover that he had consumed a microscopic quantity of radioactive polonium-210 -- the vast majority of which comes from a government-controlled nuclear complex in central Russia.

The British government has unsuccessfully sought the extradition from Moscow of an alleged assailant, a former KGB agent who is now a member of the Russian parliament and who denies involvement.

Sophisticated monitoring also helped investigators in 2004 pinpoint responsibility for a car bomb that killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Chechen separatist living in Qatar. The assassins -- Anatoly Bilashkov and Vassily Pokchov, both Russian military officers -- were caught on an airport camera renting the van they used in the murder in Doha; the Qataris also listened to their cellphone calls at a villa that had just been rented by a Russian diplomat.

Both assassins were given life sentences, and a Qatari judge accused the "Russian leadership" of ordering Zelimkhan's killing. But a spokesman for SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency and one of the successor services of the KGB, indignantly told the ITAR-Tass news agency that it "has not taken part in such actions since 1959," when a Ukrainian nationalist was assassinated in Munich.

Although the Dubai police say those involved in Mabhouh's killing were careful to use encrypted communications and to avoid leaving traces of their real identities behind, the global use of advanced investigative technologies -- familiar to anyone who has seen a Jason Bourne movie or, indeed, watched "CSI" on television -- is enough to gravely complicate the creation of "covers" meant to allow assassins to slip unnoticed past national authorities, according to several former U.S. covert operations officers.

"It is getting harder and harder in a pervasive surveillance society," partly because of biometric technologies that include computer-driven matching and comparisons of facial structures, said one former official. But, he added, "for every technical barrier, there is going to be some technical solution. There might be a lag time" before new countermeasures are adopted, but even now "there are other ways to go about it . . . without sending in 11 to do a job like this."

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