Having spent decades perfecting the black arts of human intelligence and deploying state-of-the-art surveillance gadgetry, Mossad, Israel's espionage agency, has apparently decided that spying is for the birds.
That's the conclusion widely reached in Saudi Arabia following the recent capture of a large vulture carrying a GPS transmitter and a tag bearing the words "Tel Aviv University."
After being found in a rural area, the bird is now being held captive as a suspected Mossad spy.
Arabic-language websites and Internet forums are reportedly awash with assertions that the avian discovery is part of a Zionist plot, with more prosaic explanations that it may have been part of a long-term research project into bird migration patterns being roundly dismissed.
Far-fetched as the allegation may seem, it is not the first time in recent weeks that Israel has stood accused of using the animal kingdom as part of a diabolical scheme against its neighbors.
Last month, the governor of Sinai province in Egypt suggested that a shark that had killed and maimed tourists off the coast of the resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh had been released intentionally by Israeli agents with the aim of harming Egypt's tourist industry.
Indeed, in a region with a capacious appetite for conspiracy theories, the concept of the politically directed aquatic being is neither as wacky nor as rare as outsiders might think.
In October 2007, when 152 dolphins were washed up on Iran's southern coast, scientists at first suspected they had committed mass suicide. Then the blame shifted to fishermen, who were suspected of beating the dolphins after they had become entangled in their fishing nets.
But with the fishing industry under fire, the head of Iran's state-run fisheries body came up with a more sinister -- yet in the context of the Middle East's often paranoid mind-set, oddly reassuring -- rationalization. The dolphins, explained Sha'aban-Ali Nezami, had been brought to the United States to carry out electronic monitoring activities in the waters of the Persian Gulf and had died of electromagnetic waves.
"As these dolphins are not among the species normally found in the surrounding Persian Gulf and Oman Sea, probably the Americans -- for tracking purposes -- have brought them to carry out laboratory works in the Gulf region," Nezami told reporters. "This group of dolphins has not been able to tolerate the tests."
The theory was dismissed by environmental experts, who said examinations showed no sign of pollution or radiation poisoning. But in a political climate where juicy rumors can quickly assume the granitelike properties of hardened certainty, dry data-based findings lack the common currency value of titillating theories.
-- Robert Tait