The attempt to assassinate Khalid Mishal

Paul McGeough

The Canadians arrived on different flights from different cities. Young, fit, and well dressed, they looked the part - Westerners with deep pockets dropping in to see Jordan's jewels ... wondrous Nabatean ruins at Petra; stunning Roman relics at Jerash; and the desert wilds of Wadi Rum, where David Lean and Peter O'Toole created the cinema classic Lawrence of Arabia. If there was time, perhaps a beachside party at Aqaba on the Red Sea.

In September 1997, in the madness of the Middle East, Jordan was a pocket of relative peace. Usually a few tourists bobbed up among the suited foreign-business and white-robed-Arab traffic at Amman's Queen Alia Airport and the Canadians were quickly swallowed by the anonymous chaos of the arrivals hall.

Immigration officials perfunctorily stamped their passports; an hour later, all five were downtown, piling out of a couple of battered taxis in the paved forecourt of the Intercontinental Hotel. Checking in, they again presented Canadian papers and chatted easily with a desk clerk about which of the tourist attractions were within easy striking distance of Amman.

Only later, when all assembled in one of their rooms, did they abandon the pretense. These "Canadian tourists" were agents for Mossad, the fabled Israeli intelligence service. Their mission in this quiet, US-friendly Arab city - state-sanctioned assassination - in the name of Israel.

With the door chained from the inside, they dropped the phony accents and spoke in their own language. Unpacking their gear, they sat for one last time methodically rehearsing the deadly detail and schedule for the coming days. They ignored the minibar. But, instinctively cautious in a part of the world where selected guests were assigned rooms expensively rigged for others to eavesdrop, they turned up the volume on the TV.

"In this potent, altered form it would kill within forty-eight hours, leaving no trace for discovery on the autopsy table."

A glass-topped coffee table became a workbench on which they spread the essentials of death. A street map of Amman, with hand-drawn circles on a west-side business district. Photographs of their intended victim, who was a forty-something Arab male-lean, round faced, and bearded. Few in Jordan, or Israel, would have recognized him. Oddly, there was a small camera too.

A practiced nonchalance masked caution and anxiety in all five of them. One of the men - blond and bearded - handled the camera with a care and respect that went way beyond any ordinary tourist's concern for holiday snapshots. The camera, in fact, was the killers' "gun".

One of his colleagues produced a pouch, from which he extracted a small and seemingly innocuous bottle that had been brought into the country separately and delivered to them at the hotel by a secret courier. It contained a small quantity of a clear liquid - Mossad's "bullet".

This was a chemically modified version of fentanyl, a widely used painkiller. But in this potent, altered form it would kill within forty-eight hours, leaving no trace for discovery on the autopsy table. Their plan was murder - silent, unseen.

In the privacy of another room in the same hotel, a handsome brunette opened a small makeup bag to assure herself yet again that one bottle in particular had traveled well. She was the Mossad men's insurance policy.

Her inclusion in the plot was most unusual, but so lethal was the drug the agents would be using for the first time that Mossad's mission planners had demanded the presence of a doctor and an antidote in case one of the team accidentally exposed himself to the poison.

Their orders were to kill Khalid Mishal. The forty-one-year-old Palestinian activist had been overlooked by the legion of foreign intelligence agents operating in Amman. But at the Mossad bunker near Tel Aviv, Mishal was seen as the first of a dangerous new breed of fundamentalist leaders. He was hard-line, but he did not wear a scraggy beard or wrap himself in robes.

Mishal wore a suit and, as the man accused by Israel of orchestrating a new rash of suicide bombs, he was, by regional standards, coherent in his television appearances. From the Israeli perspective Khalid Mishal was too credible as an emerging leader of Hamas, persuasive even. He had to be taken out.

They struck on Thursday, September 25 1997. It was just after 10 a.m. and they botched everything. Had they been successful, Mishal would have gone home and died quietly; the agents would have been on their way home too, over the Allenby Bridge on the Jordan River and back in Jerusalem for a celebratory lunch.

Instead, two of the Israelis were soon languishing in dank cells under an Amman security complex and the others were hunkering at the Israeli Embassy - which, incredibly for a supposedly friendly foreign mission, was locked down by a menacing cordon of Jordanian troops.

King Hussein of Jordan could rise to the occasion in a crisis. Filled with rage, he fired a shot across the Israeli prime minister's bow, warning Benjamin Netanyahu that his Mossad men would hang if Mishal died.

More deliberately, Hussein then picked up a phone and placed a call. It was answered across the world, where a woman with a sweet voice answered: "Good morning. Welcome to the White House"...

[read more]