- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2011

Documents made public recently show the United Arab Emirates sought U.S. government help in tracing prepaid credit cards used by those linked to the assassination of a Hamas arms dealer last year.

A Feb. 24 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi and disclosed by WikiLeaks stated that Anwar Gargash, a senior Foreign Ministry official, formally asked the U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Richard Olson, for U.S. assistance in tracking down the cards used by the assailants in the Jan. 20, 2010, killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai.

Al-Mabhouh, a senior operative in the Hamas terrorist group, was killed in a room at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel as part of an apparent intelligence operation widely thought to be the work of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.

The assailants were videotaped by hotel cameras and later traced to false passports.

On Feb. 23, Abdullah bin Zayed, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for assistance in the matter, according to the cable.

The Abu Dubai police investigation said several plotters in the killing used prepaid cards from the Iowa-based MetaBank. U.S. companies often use the cards to pay employees overseas by placing salary and other expenses into the accounts through direct deposit.

A statement from MetaBank provided to The Washington Times in March said the bank was investigating the allegations and the prospect of identity theft in this case.

“We have been informed by authorities that the suspects apparently used stolen identities, including fake passports, to obtain employment/compensation from U.S. companies and acquire bank cards issued by Meta and other banks,” said the March 2 statement. “Standardized steps were taken in accordance with applicable regulations and industry standards to validate cardholder identities prior to card issuance.”

The disclosures could expose a rift between the United States and one of its closest allies in the Persian Gulf. The United States has had close counterterrorism cooperation with the federal United Arab Emirates government in Abu Dhabi, but not as much cooperation with local authorities for the emirate of Dubai.

Dubai is the Switzerland of the Middle East, a neutral city where Western businesses and Iranian interests conduct banking. Any perception that the United States may have aided the Israelis in the killing of al-Mabhouh could dampen the willingness of the Dubai emirate to provide financial intelligence on Iran and al Qaeda.

The killing of al-Mabhouh created a diplomatic stir for Israel. Nine days afterward, the Dubai police chief publicly accused the Mossad of killing the Hamas operative and released video taken from the hotel where he was slain showing one person putting on a disguise after exiting al-Mabhouh’s hotel room.

Dubai authorities also released what they said were forged passports used in the operation, leading the United Kingdom and the European Union to launch formal reviews of the incident.

Hamas leaders have claimed credit for some of the bloodiest terrorism against Israeli civilians in the past 20 years, including a 1994 van bombing in Afula that killed nine people and wounded more than 50.

Another cable from the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi suggests that the United Arab Emirates considered saying nothing about the incident at the time. Officials from Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as other U.S. diplomatic cables have shown, have had a secret high-level relationship to consult on the threat from Iran. United Arab Emirates officials also have urged U.S. diplomats to take more muscular action against Iran, the primary state sponsor of Hamas.

The Dubai authorities ultimately concluded, however, that keeping silent would make it appear that they were complicit in the Mossad’s actions, according to Mr. Olson’s comments in the Jan. 31 cable.

“Saying nothing would have been perceived as protecting the Israelis, and in the end, the UAE chose to tell all. The statement was carefully drafted not to point any fingers, but the reference in the document … to a gang with Western passports will be read locally as referring to the Mossad,” Mr. Olson stated.

The Feb. 24 cable includes a letter of request from the General Directorate of State Security to the governor of the United Arab Emirates Central Bank, Sultan Al-Suwiadi.

That request asks that the Central Bank “obtain details of the above credit cards, in addition to details for purchases, accounts, and payments on those cards, as the users of those cards were involved in the murder of Mahmoud [al-Mabhouh]. Those cards were issued by [MetaBank] in the state of Iowa, USA.”

Mr. Olson in the Feb. 24 cable recommends “expeditious handling and reply” to the United Arab Emirates‘ request for assistance.

A former Mossad operations officer who goes by the pseudonym Michael Ross said the Mossad would never use an American bank for a sensitive operation without at least notifying the CIA.

“The fact that this team used cash cards from a bank in Iowa tells me that this was a joint operation, or the Dubai police are forging the evidence,” he said.

The statement from MetaBank said the individuals who used the prepaid cards did not appear on the Treasury’s list of people who are barred from doing business with U.S. companies.

“No other readily apparent method existed for Meta to determine that identity theft had been perpetrated on valid governments and their citizens,” the statement said.

The United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington declined to comment for this report.