Killer Surveillance

Surveillance is a critical tool for any adversary.  Yet, so often in security it is discounted.  Anyone from a pickpocket trailing their next victim, to a high level assassination team following their target, depends on surveillance as part of their operational planning and attack execution.

Let’s look at it from an adversarial angle, from the point of view of the offense. A prime example is the case of the assassination of senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh which took place in Dubai in 2010.  A decade later, no arrests have been made and Israel has denied involvement, yet many assumed that a Mossad assassination team had been dispatched.  Whoever they were, a team of 11 operatives were on the ground in Dubai for only nineteen hours for the very sophisticated operation.  

The mission required that they surveil their target from the moment he arrived in Dubai, move and coordinate amongst themselves with precision, and ultimately avoid detection by Emirati security personnel both governmental and private.  

Dubai is a wealthy city that employs sophisticated security technology and where CCTV abounds.  The attack team would face measures the moment they arrived in the country, beginning with passport scanners at the Dubai International Airport.  All of their movements and behavior in their time on the ground had to guard against being identified until the mission was accomplished and to allow for their safe getaway.  Because they did not know in which hotel Mabhouh would be staying, they needed to conduct surveillance on all likely hotels he was known to frequent.  The lengths the agents went to disguise their identifies and activities were extreme.  Some changed their appearance dramatically several times over the course of less than a day.  Communications were made via encrypted devices and routed through Austria.

For an adversary, the biggest challenge in conducting hostile surveillance is the unknown reaction of the security personnel and technology they are facing.

After the attack, when officials realized that Mabhouh had not died of natural causes, UAE law enforcement agencies scoured CCTV footage from the airport, the highways, hotels and adjacent streets which had captured images of the agents.  Officials using hundreds of hours of CCTV footage were able to piece together a timeline and gather a good deal of information about what had happened, after the fact.  

Some would say that the mission was a failure because the team members had been caught on camera, and their images traced to the (fake) passports they had each used to enter the country.  There were diplomatic repercussions.  Nonetheless, the team was able to complete the assassination and depart undetected.  To date, no single agent has been caught.  Their true identities remain a mystery to this day.

The importance of detecting surveillance activities – preferably before an attack takes place – was the impetus for the newest Chameleon online course: Surveillance Detection. While most security operations do not have to secure against a Mossad mission, understanding how and why adversaries conduct surveillance is really valuable.

Learn more here.

Recommended reading – detailed account from The Guardian article reported by Paul Lewis, Julian Borger and Rory McCarthy.

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