This … is a strategic assassination, because of its potential repercussions beyond the removal of Hezbollah’s supreme planner and operative. Because the important question now is how the Teheran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis will respond in unison, and how each component will respond singly.
Zvi Bar’el, ‘Under their noses’, Haaretz (14/02/2008)
Last week’s top story in Israel and around the world was the news that Hezbollah’s most senior military commander, Imad Mughniyah, had been killed by an explosive device which detonated as he entered a vehicle in the heart of Damascus. The affair had all the hallmarks of a secret service operation, and whilst officially it will remain a mystery, the shared perception amongst the relevant actors that it was an Israeli job has deeper implications than the truth about his assassins’ origins.[i] It is clear that Mughniyeh’s death temporarily disrupts Hezbollah’s current terror plans and operations, which is justification enough for his assassination. Yet due to the unique role he filled at the axle of dynamics between Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and Hamas, Mughniyeh’s loss has wider ramifications for the radical arc of Islamic terror perpetrated against Israel and the West. The broader strategic consequences of the short term tactical blow dealt to Hezbollah are our focus here.
Imad Mughniyeh: architect and perpetrator of global terror
Euphemistically dubbed Hezbollah’s “defence minister,”[ii] more flowerily as “the serpent’s head,”[iii] Imad Mughniyeh was one of the world’s most elusive and dangerous terrorists. For the past 15 years he lived in the shadows and was purported to have undergone plastic surgery to evade authorities. Considered the brains behind the phenomenon of suicide bombings, Mughniyeh is associated with some of the most grotesque terror attacks in history, including the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and US Marine and French peacekeeping barracks in Beirut, which killed over 350 people, and the 1994 and 1996 respective bombings of a Jewish cultural centre and Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, where more than 100 people died. He also participated in the 1985 hijacking of a US TWA airliner, and is believed to have masterminded the 2006 kidnapping of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, sparking the Second Lebanon War. Indeed during that conflict, Israelis referred to him as Hezbollah’s “chief of staff”.[iv]
Speculation has already followed as to how, when and where Israel’s enemies will retaliate. As ever in the case of such killings, the ensuing debate has centred on the question of the efficacy of such acts, because the extent to which they provide greater security is indeterminate at best. History shows that they do not deal a permanent blow to terror movements and can backfire in the long run.[v] Former Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi was assassinated in 1992 and replaced by Hassan Nasrallah,[vi] whose oratorical flair and political astuteness have assisted the expansion and radicalisation of his organisation in the last decade and a half. Yet intelligence officials say the relevance of Mughniyeh’s elimination for the global war on terror cannot be overstated, despite the quest for vengeance to which Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, Syria, and Iran have all subsequently committed.[vii]
Out of the Lebanese frying pan…
There are mixed views about the extent of Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon at present. The Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah triangle consciously strives to destabilise the moderate Sunni-led government.[viii] Since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was slain three years ago by a 1,000 kg TNT bomb which blast his motorcade as he passed a Beirut hotel (for which all fingers are pointed at Syria), Hezbollah has acquired the political autonomy of “a state within a state”.[ix] A potentially much more surgical device was deployed last week (the Sunday Times reported a booby-trapped headrest in Mughniyeh’s car).[x] Nonetheless, the assassination – in Damascus – curiously coincided with the anniversary of Hariri’s death. The estimated 10,000 followers at the funeral of Hezbollah’s most senior military commander were dwarfed by the one million plus activists of the anti-Syrian/anti-Hezbollah February 14th Movement commemorating the former Lebanese leader who was Mughniyeh’s antithesis: a Lebanese democrat committed to reversing deep ethnic divisions and promoting economic growth.[xi]
If a trace of irony cannot be found in this sequence of events, Nasrallah will certainly have been startled by the fact that on Friday, the day after Teheran’s ambassador to Syria, Ahmad Moussavi, threatened revenge by way of “an earthquake in the Zionist regime,” a natural quake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale struck the heart of Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon.[xii] Indeed, Nasrallah’s absence from Mughniyeh’s funeral conjures reminiscence of the deceased’s non-attendance at his brother’s 1994 interment for fear of being assassinated by Israel’s Mossad.[xiii] As such, he addressed the Beirut crowd by live video link, in which he declared that Mughniyeh’s “blood will lead to the elimination of Israel”.[xiv] Given the conspicuous non-appearance of Hezbollah’s entire command echelon or officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (based in Iran’s Beirut embassy), Israeli intelligence was concerned that, as Mughniyeh was being laid to rest, plans were already being initiated for a combined offensive in support of Nasrallah’s speech, though it is equally plausible that they too were feeling uneasy about appearing in public.[xv]
The juxtaposition of the two rallies, fears of spiralling unrest leading to all-out civil war and the tense political deadlock over presidential elections, point to the perennial, but intensifying, precariousness of Lebanese society at present.[xvi] Indeed internal Lebanese dynamics partly explain why the prospects of renewed Israel-Hezbollah fighting remain dubious, for the time being. Meanwhile, Israel took no chances, raising the level of IDF preparedness and deploying reinforcements to the north following Nasrallah’s threats.[xvii] Yet whilst Hezbollah is thought to have been rearmed at least to its pre-summer 2006 capacity, its Syrian and Iranian patrons have other factors to consider which are likely to impact upon how events might unfold in the coming weeks and months.[xviii]
Into the Syrian fire…
For its part, Syria reiterated its intention to strike at Israel for the territorial violations of which it is accused. Assuming that talk of potential Syrian complicity in Mughniyeh’s assassination is unfounded; his death on Syrian soil is both humiliating and worrying for President Bashar Assad.[xix] Syria perceives a score it has yet to settle with Israel following an air strike on a prospective nuclear facility last September, about which Israel too has remained unwaveringly tight-lipped. Mughniyeh’s very presence in Damascus, despite Syrian claims not to have been in contact with him, has generated speculation that the arch-terrorist was potentially coordinating a major attack in response to that operation, which may have been foiled through his elimination.[xx] Regardless of whether such a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario existed, he is now prevented from carrying out future attacks with which he doubtless would have been connected, on the basis that he was a man whose raison d’être was terror. It was in this context that the US State Department forthrightly declared the world to be “a better place without this man in it”.[xxi] Former Mossad chief MK Danny Yatom and many others in Israel’s political echelon concurred with this view.
Other reports indicated that Mughniyeh was in Damascus for talks with Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal, who lives not far from where the car exploded. The 2004 assassination in Damascus of senior Hamas commander Iz a din Sheikh Khalil notwithstanding, the Syrian capital was thought to more or less provide immunity to such figures – until last week.[xxii] The Hamas chief is now counted among those Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists worldwide who will be feeling more vulnerable as a result of the assassination.[xxiii] In that vein, the circumstances of Mughniyeh’s death adds to a flurry of what is being perceived as successful Israeli intelligence activity, and marks a step towards restoring Israel’s military status domestically, in Washington, and across the Middle East following the mistakes which thwarted decisive victory in the Second Lebanon War.[xxiv]
Syria, then, will still attempt to undermine Israel’s deterrence doctrine, but not before its own house is in order. Despite subsequent Syrian denials about acting jointly, it is believed that acting interior minister General Bassam Abdul Majid is being assisted by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) “Al Quds” military wing commander General Ghassem Soleimani, with whom Mughniyeh himself had strong ties; Deputy Commander of the IRGC Navy Admiral Mohammad Fadavi, who set up the near-clash between Iranian speedboats and US warships in the Strait of Hormuz in January; and former chief of the IRGC intelligence branch General Morteza Rezai in order to establish how a hit-team penetrated the heavy security surrounding Mughniyeh in one of the most densely policed cities in the world and then disappeared without a trace.[xxv]
Iran: stoker of the flames
As the powerhouse of terror, Iran’s Damascus embassy is believed to be the control hub from which the tentacles of Iranian sponsored terror spread to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei sent his condolences to the Mughniyeh funeral, and Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki was dispatched to attend and address the crowd. Mughniyeh’s loss was strongly felt in Teheran because he was the key point of liaison between Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, steering operational strategy for the Iranian-Hezbollah-Syrian troika.
While Hezbollah relies on Iran’s backing, the general view is that President Ahmedinejad is not inclined to pursue a conflict with Israel before securing his nuclear ambitions. Iranian collusion raises the general threat of ‘spectacular’ suicide bombings with which the defence establishment is continually challenged. Nasrallah’s claim that Israel had crossed the borders of the “natural battlefield” and talk of an “open war” naturally led most security analysts to suppose that ‘reprisals’ are likely to manifest against Israel’s “soft underbelly” – Jewish Diaspora communities and Israeli embassies, for instance.[xxvi] Just as Mughniyeh chose such targets in the past, he also attacked Western interests in his capacity as “special operations chief for Iranian antagonism towards the West”.[xxvii] From Hezbollah’s point of view, a series of these kinds of response would be a fitting tribute to their fallen hero and martyr.
The burning issue: ideologically motivated “revenge”
The emphasis on “resistance” in the face of “Zionist aggression” is the conventional prism through which rhetoric emanating from Hezbollah, Damascus and Teheran is reflected.[xxviii] This was no less so in the case of Imad Mughniyeh’s death (despite the lack of any evidence to implicate Israel and before even their own investigating team has completed its enquiry). However, the narrative of “vengeance” and “reprisals” is misleading if not properly contextualised, and ought to be adopted in the media with caution.
The reality is that Hezbollah and its Iranian masters would, and indeed do, exploit any opportunity to strike at Israel and Western interests, and undermine moderate Arab governments.[xxix] That is because Hezbollah, as defined by its covenant and the explicit statements and acts of its henchmen, adheres to the apocalyptical, pseudo-religious ideology which is rooted in Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime. Zooming in on the events surrounding Imad Mughniyeh’s death should sharpen our focus on the panoramic danger: the “unnatural alliance” of Shi’a, Sunni and Ba’athist secular Muslims in the anti-Israel, anti-Western, anti-liberal quartet of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.[xxx] Tactical decisions, including so-called “reprisals” which will inevitably follow Mughniyeh’s death, are guided by the unrelenting strategic objective of exporting and acting upon this worldview.
No serious observer would contend that Mughniyeh’s assassination spells the end of Hezbollah. Yet in contrast to countless other terrorists that have been eliminated, Mughniyeh was characterised by a rare combination of determination, ruthlessness and creativity which will not be easy to replace.[xxxi] Several names – Talal Hamiyah or Ibrahim Akil – have been mentioned in the press, though Hezbollah is reported to have appointed an alternative successor whose identity will not be disclosed.[xxxii] As one commentator put it, Mughniyeh “was to Israel what Osama Bin Laden is to the United States”.[xxxiii] His death is a severe blow to operations in the pipeline, but ultimately, Hezbollah is a resilient organisation and it will take more than the assassination of a senior leader, however iconic, to bring about its demise.
[i] ‘Not merely revenge’, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, 14 February 2008.
[ii] ‘Hezbollah terror chief was more wanted than Nasrallah’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 13 February 2008.
[iii] ‘Mastermind led terror attacks from Argentina to Mt. Dov’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 14 February 2008.
[iv] IBA News, 14 February 2008.
[v] ‘Liquidation sale’, Gideon Levy, Haaretz, 17 February 2008; ‘No cause for celebration’, Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz, 17 February 2008.
[vi] ‘Who will replace a uniquely effective murderer’, Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008.
[vii] IBA News, 14 February 2008.
[viii] ‘Back to Balancing in the Middle East: A New Strategy for Constructive Engagement’, Martin Indyk and Tamara Cofman Wittes, The Brookings Institution, December 2007. http://www.opportunity08.org/
[ix] ‘The Mideast Axis of Destabilization’, Ely Karmon, BESA Perspectives, 26 December 2007; ‘Hariri: Vision of prosperous Lebanon’, CNN, 14 February 2005. http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/02/14/beirut.hariri/index.html ; ‘Video appears to show Hariri convoy before blast’, Brent Sadler, CNN, 28 March 2005. http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/03/27/hariri.tape/
[x] ‘Israel kills terror chief with headrest bomb’, Uzi Mahnaimi, Hala Jaber and Jon Swain, The Sunday Times, 17 February 2008.
[xi] ‘Beirut memorials ‘compete’ for divided residents’, Yoav Stern, Haaretz, 14 February 2008; ‘How the ‘war next summer’ became the ‘open war’ without a battlefield’, Calev Ben David, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008.
[xii] ‘After enemies threaten Israel with “earthquake”, tremor terrifies Lebanese’, Israel Insider, 15 February 2008. http://web.israelinsider.com/Articles/Security/12635.htm
ind led terror attacks from Argentina to Mt. Dov’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 14 February 2008; ”Master terrorist’ killed by Damascus car bomb’, Laila Bassam and Nadim Ladki, The Age, 14 February 2008. http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/master-terrorist-killed-by-damascus-car-bomb/2008/02/13/1202760403789.html
[xiv] ‘Nasrallah: Now I’m really miffed; Israel girds for revenge attacks’, Israel Insider, 15 February 2008.
[xv] ‘Syria vows to strike back at Israel for Imad Mughniyeh’s killing in Damascus and “repeated encroachments”‘, DEBKAfile, 15 February 2008. http://www.debka.com/headline.php?hid=5033 ; ‘Nasrallah: If Israel wants open war, so be it’, DEBKAfile, 14 February 2008. http://www.debka.com/headline.php?hid=5031
[xvi] ‘Nasrallah: If Israel wants open war, so be it’, DEBKAfile, 14 February 2008. http://www.debka.com/headline.php?hid=5031; ‘The Presidential Crisis in Lebanon Demands Urgent Attention’, Paul Salem, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 16 November 2007.
[xvii] ‘Syria vows to strike back at Israel for Imad Mughniyeh’s killing in Damascus and “repeated encroachments”‘, DEBKAfile, 15 February 2008. http://www.debka.com/headline.php?hid=5033
[xviii] ‘How the ‘war next summer’ became the ‘open war’ without a battlefield’, Calev Ben David, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008.
[xix] ‘Under their noses’, Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz, 14 February 2008.
[xx] ‘Mughniyeh’s true legacy’, Caroline Glick, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008.
[xxi] ‘Iran: Mugniyah killing result of Israeli ‘state terrorism”, Roee Nahmias, Ynetnews, 13 February 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3506409,00.html
[xxii] ‘The next Mughniyah’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 17 February 2008.
[xxiii] ‘Jews worldwide urged to be on their guard as Nasrallah vows ‘open war’ to avenge Mughniyeh’, Yaakov Katz and Mark Wiess, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008.
[xxiv] ‘Not just ‘who’ but ‘where’, Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz, 14 February 2008.
[xxv] ‘Syria vows to strike back at Israel for Imad Mughniyeh’s killing in Damascus and “repeated encroachments”‘, DEBKAfile, 15 February 2008. http://www.debka.com/headline.php?hid=5033 ; ‘Mastermind led terror attacks from Argentina to Mt. Dov’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 14 February 2008; ‘Syria denies joint Iran investigation’, Yahoo News, 16 February 2008. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080216/ap_on_re_mi_ea/syria_iran_militant
[xxvi] ‘When and how will they respond’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 14 February 2008; ‘Jews worldwide urged to be on their guard as Nasrallah vows ‘open war’ to avenge Mughniyeh’, Yaakov Katz and Mark Wiess, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008.
[xxvii] David Horovitz, IBA News, 14 February 2008.
[xxviii] ‘Back to Balancing in the Middle East: A New Strategy for Constructive Engagement’, Martin Indyk and Tamara Cofman Wittes, The Brookings Institution, December 2007. http://www.opportunity08.org/
[xxix] ‘Mughniyeh’s true legacy’, Caroline Glick, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008; ‘Back to Balancing in the Middle East: A New Strategy for Constructive Engagement’, Martin Indyk and Tamara Cofman Wittes, The Brookings Institution, December 2007. http://www.opportunity08.org/
[xxx] ‘The Mideast Axis of Destabilization’, Ely Karmon, BESA Perspectives, 26 December 2007.
[xxxi] ‘Who will replace a uniquely effective murderer’, Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008.
[xxxii] ‘When and how will they respond’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 14 February 2008; ‘Who will replace a uniquely effective murderer’, Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post, 15 February 2008; ‘50,000 Hezbollah men said deployed along border with Israel’, Yoav Stern, Haaretz, 16 February 2008. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/954644.html ; ‘The next Mughniyah’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 17 February 2008.
[xxxiii] ‘Mastermind led terror attacks from Argentina to Mt. Dov’, Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 14 February 2008.