The strongly-presumed hand of Mossad, the Israeli external intelligence agency, in the successful neutralisation of a Damascus-based leader of the Hamas (Mahmoud al- Mabhouh ) while he was on a visit to Dubai in January last has come in the wake of other suspected covert actions of the Mossad in recent months, which were directed against Iranian nuclear scientists, who were reportedly playing a role in the development of the uranium enrichment technology.
While all these operations succeeded in eliminating the intended targets who posed a threat to Israel's national security, those directed against the Iranian scientists were copybook examples of covert actions whereas the one against the Hamas leader was not. The Mossad was able to maintain the total deniability of its strikes against the Iranian scientists. Till today, Iranian intelligence officials and police investigators have not been able to find out what happened. Apart from allegations, they have no evidence of the involvement of the Mossad, which has taken care not to leave any trace of its involvement.
In the case of the Dubai operation, the deniability has been weak and many tell-tale traces left behind by those who participated in the alleged elimination of the Hamas leader have enabled the Dubai Police to reconstruct in a fairly convincing manner what happened. The employment of an unusually large team of agents for carrying out the action and their inability to make the closed circuit TV in the hotel non-functional have enabled the Dubai police to make a break-through in the investigation.
The fact that the Mossad agents decided to go ahead with the operation despite their inability to make the CCTV non-functional strongly speaks of local collusion in the covert action. Since the CCTV was presumably functioning, those in the security control room of the hotel who would have been monitoring the CCTV, would have definitely noticed the Mossad agents forcing their way into the room of the Hamas leader. The fact that they did not raise an alarm for hours, which enabled the Mossad agents to flee Dubai without being intercepted, is an indicator of collusion in the hotel.
Even when they travel incognito, Hamas leaders are usually accompanied by at least one person from their security set-up who takes up a room opposite the room occupied by the leader so that they could keep a look-out for any attempt to break into the room of the leader. The fact that no one intervened as the Mossad agents forced their way into the room indicates that either there was collusion by Hamas elements too or the Mossad agents had neutralised the security detail of the Hamas leader before attacking him.
The entire story of the covert action will never come out. Particulars of any collusion will remain unknown for some time to come.
The Dubai operation of the Mossad was not copy-book perfect, but it was a successful operation in the sense that the agency eliminated a worrying threat to Israel's national security and to the lives of Israeli citizens and other Jewish persons. It was an attack carried out in exercise of the right of self-defence of the Israeli nation and people.
Laws of all countries--including India-- provide this right of self-defence and this rigt can be exercised by individuals as well as States.
Those opposed to covert actions might argue that despite the repeated resort to covert actions against identified enemies of the State of Israel and its people, Israel has not succeeded in eliminating terrorism and in countering effectively States like Iran which are determined to destroy Israel. Another way of looking at it is that but for such covert actions Israel and the Jewish people might have been forced to their knees by now by their enemies. It is such successful covert actions which have enabled the State of Israel to survive and even flourish.
The importance of selective covert actions to ensure the security of a State and its people has been recognised by many States--democratic and authoritarian. Some States--such as the US and Israel--admit that they have a covert action capability. Others don't, but they maintain the capability clandestinely. Pakistan is an example of a State in Asia which has over the years maintained an effective covert action capability for use against India. It has followed the model of other rogue States such as North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iraq of Saddam Hussain and Sudan in using terrorism as a way of waging a covert warfare.
Since 1997, India has been a pathetic victim of Pakistan's covert actions waged through different terrorist organisations. Pakistan has been using terrorism as a means of covert action against India since 1981.Between 1981 and 1997, India was retaliating in its own limited manner. The policy of covert retaliation was stopped in 1997 and has been totally discarded since then.
None of the Indian Prime Ministers in office since 1997 has had the political will to revert to a policy of at least limited retaliation against the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its terrorist surrogates. The result has been that our national security has been continuously endangered and our people have been dying in their hundreds. When Pakistan, through its intelligence agencies and terrorist surrogates, has been waging a relentless covert warfare against India, we cannot protect the State and the people merely by revamping our counter-terrorism architecture.
Unless we create a capability for retaliatory covert actions in a deniable manner and use that capability we will continue to bleed.
Between 1981 and 1997, the Prime Ministers in office followed a dual policy of "talk, talk, hit, hit" against Pakistan. They never fought shy of talking to Pakistani leaders and officials. At the same time, they never missed an opportunity to undermine the State of Pakistan covertly in retaliation against its covert actions against India.
Since 1997, our policy has been reduced to one of talk, talk and more talk with no retaliation even covertly. Our political leadership and large sections of our bureaucracy have no concept of the importance of covert action in an asymmetric proxy war. That is the tragedy of our country.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.