The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Mon, 2010-Mar-01, 09:18

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Assassination In Dubai

My friend Bruce Schneier asked me to chime in on the question of the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas terrorist, in Dubai. I started writing this on that day; put it aside for long while; and while the information is just as relevant, I think that I'll just give up and post what I've written so far.

One of the most important things to do when you read a police report or press release is to keep an open mind, and this adage applies double in the politically-charged atmosphere of the Middle East. I have a long list of basic questions about the assassination; I'll post a few here as samples.

Was there an assassination?

The Dubai police claim that Mahmoud al-Mabhouh died of asphyxiation, and the coroner noted that this determination was the "hardest of his career" and took ten days to discover. Asphyxiation generally leaves quite noticeable forensic evidence, which make me wonder not only why it took so long to discover that this was an assassination and not natural causes, but also whether or not it was an assassination at all.

Some people may recall that when Yassir Arafat finally died, of a disease that seems to have been HIV/AIDS, a good portion of the Arab press claimed that the Israelis had poisoned him. The Dubai press doesn't seem to suffer from this sort of problem, but it's a question worth keep in mind.

I'll proceed through the rest of this post on the assumption that Mahmoud al-Mabhouh actually did die of asphyxiation by person or persons unknown. Furthermore, since Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was a terrorist, I will use the words "assassination" or "execution" to describe this presumed extra-legal death.

Did a Team Do This?

A quick glance at the video released by the Dubai police shows a group of travelers; I haven't made the time to look at the entire thing. Without the narrative the Dubai Media Office supplied ("teams," "sophisticated communication devices"),for the most part we have nothing but boring video of ordinary travelers, to the point that I don't have the patience to sit through all the video that's been released.

For the remainder of this essay I'll assume, arguendo, that the Dubai police have constructed but not released to the public more convincing evidence.

How Much Did This Cost?

The Dubai police orginally claimed that 17 persons participated in this operation and they keep adding more people to the roster of suspects every day. Round-trip airfares are about $600 per person between Austria and Dubai; figure that each person took another 2 round-trip tickets to cover their costs. The hotel costs are about $150 per night, per diem costs to maintain a cover as a tourist are perhaps up to $200 per day.

The "retail" cost of a blank, stolen British passport is about $3,500 (American passports are worth less, Canadian passports more).

Total out of pocket costs for the "observable" part of the operation are therefore in the range of $300,000. Of course the actual costs (especially if it was a government operation) were many times that amount, but the scope of the operation is well within the reach of anyone with a lot of money and a grudge.

What Kind of People Did This?

According to Dubai police, a team of seventeen thirty-odd people carried out the assassination. That's a lot of people, which tells us something about who they are: they are either government employees, a terrorist organization, or members of a religious group.

They are not mercenaries. Perhaps I'm naive, but I don't believe you can hire such large gangs of well-trained operatives; there simply isn't enough call for such work to keep a gang this size in business. (Of course you can hire gangs this size for small-scale warfare, but not for assassination.) Of course you can hire freelance mercenaries and assemble them into your own team, but that runs into issues of trust.

In an operation this size, any participant faces several security risks from the police. He may be caught, of course; one of his colleagues may be caught and induced to talk; the people running the operation may captured, sloppy, or otherwise compromised and again induced to talk. In turn, this implies that the operatives must have a high degree of trust in each other, which argues against a team this size as a group of mercenaries hired at random. Worse, random mercenaries or even members of a mercenary group will likely find themselves, one day after capture on a different operation, confronting a police officer and in a position to bargain for their freedom by discussing an old operation...

The size of this team argues that the team consisted of government agents, who have patriotic cohesion and the substantial resources of a government to help them; or they are terrorists, who share an ideology and have resources to enforce discipline and perhaps free captured operatives; or they are coreligionists who share a devotion to a cause and some sort of structure to intercede to support captured operatives.

Who Ordered This Operation?

At first the Dubai government refrained from speculating who commited this assassination, which made me respect their professionalism, but apparently that's gone by the wayside. Be that as it may, who would commit this assassination?

As a Middle East terrorist, al-Mabhouh had many enemies:

  • Israel. al-Mabhouh not only committed terrorist attacks in the past; he actively supported the Hamas terrorist organization's infrastructure in Gaza. I have to admit that his public profile does not seem to support a high-cost Israeli attack against al-Mabhouh now — why would the Israelis assassinate someone like al-Mabhouh now? If he is just a middleman for Iranian missle supplies to Gaza, that means he's just another middle manager who can be replaced.

    Aruging against the Israelis is that six of the forged passports used the names of Israeli citizens. There's no reason for Israel to do this, and implicating your own citizens (however briefly) smacks of desparation. Was the operation really so slapdash? Was the selection of Israeli citizens a message? See the next paragraph for further discussion.

    Some of the alleged assassins exited Dubai via Iran, but that does not indicate these were not Israelis. It just indicates that, if these were Israelis, they were confident of their ability to transit Iran on their passports.

  • Fatah. In case you've forgotten, Hamas and Fatah fought a pitched battle for control of Gaza, and Fatah lost. Fatah controls the West Bank, Hamaz controls Gaza, and the only thing preventing a full-scale civil war between the two is the physical separation proivded by Israel and Israeli interdiction of heavy weaponry. I also suspect that Fatah's long-term civic corruption has reached the level that interferes with their abiilty to mount attacks.

    Again, it isn't clear why Fatah would move at this time against al-Mabhouh.

    The use of Israeli identies in the forged passports argues in favor of a Fatah operation. Fatah and criminal gangs operate in Israel, carrying off anything isn't nailed down, including cars. I find it easy enough to believe that Fatah could "steal" identities of Israeli citizens.

  • Anti-Iranian Regimes and Groups. Hamas is Iran's proxy in Gaza, and Iran continues to pressure the Arab world to accept Iran's hegemony. Lebanon is of course the most extreme case, with Iranian troops supporting the Hezbollah terrorist organization. Any Middle East regime, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, has a vested interest in the destruction of Iran's proxies.
  • France has a continuing interest in Lebanon, and may have found a reason to assassinate a Hamas operative with ties to Iran, given Iran's malignant presence in Lebanon.
  • If al-Mabhouh was actively involved in some more high-profile but not publically known activity, related to (for example) smuggling weapons of mass destruction to use against European targets, any European country would be a possible sponsor. This might be far-fetched, given the wretched diplomacy of most European countries regarding Iran and Hamas, but I would not be surprised to see a competent French inteligence unit deciding that al-Mabhouh posed a threat to French interests.

The best bet is still the Israelis, who will be more than happy to quietly take credit for this operation.

And so on and so forth. The main point I'm trying to get across is simple: we don't know who did this. We don't know why. The Dubai police have a narrative, and the Israelis certainly have the motive, means, opportunity, and above all the resolution to see this sort of operation through. But so do others.

Sun, 2008-Nov-30, 18:57

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Casualty Ratios in the Mumbai Attacks

My friend and colleague Bruce Schneier asked me about the Mumbai attacks — in particular, the "low" number of casualties per terrorist. Based on current information, the ratio of fatal casualties per terrorist seems to be in the range of 10 to 30 per terrorist (at the high end, assuming 10 terrorists and 300 fatalities). Given that the siege lasted a long time, that the venues of the attacks were undefended, and that the victims were unarmed, wouldn't we expect more causalities? (See slide 15 in this presentation; a complex attack such as the Mumbai attack can have much higher fatalities per terrorist.)

The answer to this question is two-fold. First, the limits on the amounts of ammunition each terrorist carried. Second, the difficulties in actually inflicting fatal casualties.

First, let's ask how much ammunition each terrorist carried. Assuming that each terrorist carried eight hand grenades and a pistol, we can make the following approximate calculations:

Item Weight (grams)
Glock 17 Pistol 650
Two loaded pistol magazines 560
Eight hand grenades 2400
1 liter of water 1000
1 kg of food 1000
Cellphone, maps, cash, knife, etc. 500

Assuming that the terrorists each carried 22 kg — perhaps on the high side given the size of the bags the terrorists are shown wearing — then they could each carry an additional twenty-seven Kalashnikov (AK-47) magazines of 30 rounds each (576 grams each) for a total of 810 rounds of ammunition. While my numbers may be off, they do give us an idea of how many rounds each terrorist could expend: 810 from his assault rifle and 34 from his pistol.

It's hard to tell, but there doesn't seem to have been much in the way of pitched gun battles between the terrorists and the security forces; pitched battles could consume ammunition very rapidly while resulting in low casualties. Even so, one reason for the "low" casualty count is that the terrorists probably weren't carrying as much ammunition as one might expect — not thousands of rounds — and they probably reserved a good part of that ammunition for firefights with police and the military.

The next reason for the "low" fatality count is that in order to kill someone, you must arrange for your bullet to intersect with one of the victim's vital organs or to cause them to bleed to death. This isn't as easy as it may seem. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli Army determined that they expended 10,000 bullets per enemy fatality. As a result the Israeli Army changed their doctrine to require that all weapons be fired in single-shot mode and that all fire be aimed fire — no shooting from the hip.

The terrorists, however, did shoot from the hip. Furthermore, the hotels were not high-density kill zones: while many people may be present in a restaurant, the people are dispersed and fire towards one side of the room allows people at the other side time to move, evade, and escape; many did. After the initial attacks the terrorists did use their weapons as threats, which allowed the terrorists to force their victims to move into small hotel rooms with no exits — high-density kill zones. As for the railroad stations: again, despite firing into a potentially high-density kill zone, while a bullet may hit someone it does not necessarily create a fatal wound, and unaimed fire even at short ranges wastes ammunition. This, by the way, explains why the terrorists carried hand grenades; fragmentation grenades are very effective weapons which can kill any person standing within 4 to 10 meters and inflict casualties at much further distances.

Finally, a word about the response of the Indian forces to the attacks. Please remember that the terrorists hold a huge advantage: they want to inflict harm on innocent bystanders, and if the terrorists can arrange for civilian casualties to occur during a police or military rescue attempt, those casualties will create even further harm to the government — a win-win situation from the terrorists' perspective. The police and military face a tough problem: avoid casualties to their own forces; avoid casualties to innocent bystanders and hostages; neutralize the terrorists. These tasks have inherent contradictions, and a major incident such as this one strains the limit of the police and military to plan and execute a response.

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