The assassination of top Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai several weeks ago has attracted considerable attention in international affairs circles, with many foreign ministries and independent analysts accusing Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, of carrying out the target killing. The Economist published an article titled “Does Mossad really make Israel safer,” analyzing the strategic implications of such an aggressive operation while sympathetic commentators were quick to pat the Israelis on the back for a job well done. Some of these analyses dwelt on issues such as al-Mabhouh’s alleged connections with Iran and other relatively un-compelling reasons why Israeli officials may have ordered the hit. I think there is a very clear motivation for the operation that has been ignored by regional experts and diplomat savants alike: the Israelis simply wanted Mossad to be considered for the title of the “World’s Most Gangster Intelligence Agency, ” the unofficial designation given to the intelligence agency which is able to carry out the most callous, brazen violations of international law within a given time frame.
Though bulldozing homes, destroying large parts of southern Lebanon, and using White Phosphorus on U.N. personnel and Palestinian civilians certainly qualifies as gangster, Israel decided that an assassination carried out by its elite intelligence agents would be the logical next step in a series of “gangster-as-hell” moves. Upping the ante for Israel has been difficult given the country’s moderately gangster foreign policy, but the Israeli decision must have been based on the idea that any reduction in Mossad’s perceived gangsterness would pose a serious (existential?) threat to the small nation state. Several political scientists at John Hopkins’ School of International and Advanced Studies, a small group of academics who created the Aggregate Gangsterness Index (AGI) in order to quantify the gangsterness of governments, private individuals, and Russian businessmen, point to Israel’s troubling scores in the past few years as one possible explanation for its actions. Israel’s AGI score, they say, peaked immediately after the Gaza operation but has plummeted considerably in the two years after due to its relative inactivity. The Israeli score hovers above the world median due to its periodic military operations in the Territories and its “straight gangsta” blockade of the Gaza Strip. Besides falling AGI scores, there is yet another other reason for Mossad to fret about losing its position as the world’s most gangster intelligence agency: stiff competition from other intelligence agencies.
Mossad has always lived in the shadow of its American counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency. In order to challenge the sheer dominance of the CIA in the area of gangsterness, Mossad needed to plan a spectacular operation that did not involve the use of aerial drones or secret prisons (lest they look like CIA copycats). Also,rather than use the Russian method of poisoning dissidents and Ukrainian opposition leaders, Mossad decided to employ the good, old-fashioned, time-tested tactic of veteran gangsters: murder. Mossad’s attempt to cement its position at the top of the gangster hierarchy has been impressive but the agency still has much to learn from the Russians and Americans. For example, Mossad’s network of Palestinian and Lebanese (native) informants cannot match the CIA’s rolodex of nefarious, murderous regional power brokers in Afghanistan. Nor have Israelis shown the gall of the Russian and Uzbek government-connected gangsters who murder their own journalists with relative impunity. Al-Mabhous’ assassination was a valiant attempt but the Israelis have yet to foment revolutions (Central America) or overthrow democratically elected leaders (Iran). However, there is something admirable in the publicness of the act as well the brazen disregard of international norms displayed in the forging of foreign passports, elements of the assassination which suggest that perhaps Mossad may be able to contend with Saudi intelligence for the title of the “Most Gangster Middle Eastern Intelligence Agency.” This is surely a significant achievement that should be celebrated by Israelis from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. To Mossad, a Mazeltov is in order.