Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, center, says a prayer during the funeral ceremony of Fadi al-Batsh, the Palestinian Hamas engineer who was killed by unknown assailants in Kuala Lumpur, at Great Omari Mosque, at Jabalia Refugee Camp, before burying him at the Martyrs Cemetery in Gaza City on April 26. Al-Batsh was gunned down near his home in the Malaysian capital by two gunmen who fled the scene. Photo: Ismail Haniyeh's press office/ handout/ Anadolu Agency via AFP

Malaysian police are hot on the trail of two assassins – possibly agents from Israel’s Mossad – who gunned down Dr Fadi Mohammed Al Batsh, a Palestinian academic linked to the Hamas resistance movement, in Kuala Lumpur late last month.

Huzir Mohamed of the Criminal Investigation Department and a special team were dispatched to Bangkok to meet with Royal Thai Police officials this week.

The two gunmen are believed to be hiding in Thailand. They entered Malaysia in late January or early February using fake Serbian and Montenegro passports, according to a report by the Bernama news service.

With elections underway in Malaysia, the murder has been downplayed, but the investigation is in full-on mode.

Soldiers stand near the coffin of Fadi al-Batsh, the Palestinian Hamas-linked engineer who was killed in Kuala Lumpur during a ceremony at the Rafah Border Gate on April 26, 2018 in Gaza. Photo: Mustafa Hassona/ Anadolu Agency via AFP

“If Israel is behind it, that seems to be an extension of their policy regarding Iranian nuclear scientists,” said Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, associate professor at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government’s Biodefense Program in Virginia, via email. “In the past few years, several Iranian nuclear scientists were killed, and many suspected Israel of being behind those killings. The problem with assassination is that it is counterproductive: it can cause the scientists to work harder at reaching a working weapon.”

It is not the first high-profile Malaysian case to (apparently) involve North Korea recently. In February 2017, Malaysian police were on the hunt for four North Koreans after Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, died from an alleged nerve-agent attack at Kuala Lumpur airport.

This time it was two men on a motorcycle with a machine gun who carried out the successful attack. Malaysian police were on the scene eight minutes after the attack took place. The motorcycle was subsequently recovered, and police have diligently assembled additional information about where the assailants stayed, among other things.

Drone and rocket expert

Al Batsh, a lecturer in electrical engineering at the Universiti Kuala Lumpur-British Malaysian Institute, was allegedly serving as a technical advisor and drone expert for Hamas. His activities in Malaysia for Hamas may have become a matter of greater urgency for Israel following a recent seizure by the Egyptians of vital communications components bound for Gaza from North Korea. Batsh was allegedly involved in the coordination of that shipment.

People attend the funeral of Fadi al-Batsh at Great Omari Mosque in Jabalia Refugee Camp, before burying him at the Martyrs Cemetery in Gaza City on April 26. Al-Batsh’s body, accompanied by his widow and children, was received at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt by dozens of Palestinians and political leaders. Photo: Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told Israel’s Kan public radio on April 22 that Al Batsh “was not a saint,” and that he served as a rocket expert for Hamas as well – making the rockets more accurate.

North Korea has long served as a supplier of arms to Hamas, and its list of items has expanded to include drone technology, among other things. But Al Batsh’s role with Hamas could have been even more significant. How long he has served in this capacity, along with the extent of his contacts with the North Koreans, are unclear, but he apparently became instrumental in the establishment of a drone-related connection that included electronic control and flight equipment smuggled from North Korea at a time when Israel was becoming increasingly anxious about the ability of Hamas to use drones for a variety of purposes.

Despite a crackdown on North Korean activities in Malaysia by local authorities in the wake of the assassination of Kim in early 2017, a UN panel of experts pointed to North Korea’s continued and successful illicit sanctions-busting efforts in Kuala Lumpur in a report issued in December.

This UN report followed closely on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s decision to re-designate North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism last November. The United States initially placed North Korea on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1988, but a decade ago, President George W Bush reversed that decision during the Six-Party Talks which eventually failed due to North Korea’s refusal to accept verification protocols.

Bruce Klingner, a specialist in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Washington DC-based Heritage Foundation, was pleased with Trump’s decision.

“Numerous foreign entities are suspending economic deals, curtailing North Korean worker visas and ejecting North Korean diplomats. Designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism could induce additional business partners to sever their ties to the regime,” wrote Klingner in The National Interest at the time. “Some will argue that redesignating North Korea won’t solve the North Korean nuclear issue or could trigger a harsh regime response, such as more nuclear and missiles tests or military attack. But it is only a matter of time before Pyongyang conducts such tests to complete development of its programs and demonstrate its ability to threaten the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons.”

‘Probably supported Syria’s chemical weapons’

The issue of North Korea being re-designated by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism has not attracted great attention. Over the years, North Korea’s willingness to export their weapons of mass destruction components and expertise – nuclear, chemical and perhaps biological – to the Syrian regime for possible use against Israel has been well publicized. Thus far, Israel has not conducted a retaliatory strike. Some believe that a massive explosion in 2004 at a train station in North Korea that killed hundreds of people was a Mossad mission aimed at killing Syrian technicians on site, but this is not supported by the evidence, and no Israeli involvement has been acknowledged or verified.

“Considering that North Korea most probably supported Syria’s chemical weapons development, it would not be surprising to see the North Koreans continue on that trajectory. Negotiations with the North should include ways to monitor such cooperation. In the past, international inspections have been quite successful at disrupting illicit cooperation, so encouraging North Korea to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention could help limit illicit trade in the chemical field,” said Ouagrham-Gormley. “This could also provide a better understanding of their level of expertise in chemical and biological weapons and therefore their ability to help others.”

“North Korea survives thanks in part to its black market activities, so they are likely to continue as long as they are under sanctions,” she said.

Any adverse publicity somehow linking Malaysia to North Korea’s trade in weapons of any kind is no doubt frowned upon in Kuala Lumpur. And when the two leaders of the US and North Korea sit down for their long-awaited summit, the Al Batsh Affair will almost certainly not make the agenda. However, the facts of the affair will most likely need to be sifted through if North Korea is to be stripped – again – of its status of a state sponsor of terrorism.