Imad Mughniyeh’s Killing

16 February 2008

Imad Mughniyeh’s Killing: Wheels within Wheels

By Gwynne Dyer

Imad Mughniyeh didn’t have long to be surprised, for the bomb that exploded in the car parked next to his undoubtedly killed him in less than a second. He wouldn’t have been surprised anyway: as the special operations chief of Hezbollah’s secretive military wing, the Islamic Resistance, he would not have been expecting to die in bed. But he may have had just enough time to wonder who finally got him.

In the normal course of events, the assassination of a terrorist leader would be a one-day news event in the Middle East. (Mughniyeh organised the hijacking of an American airliner in 1985, and was suspected of involvement in the bombing of Israeli and Jewish targets in Argentina in the 1990s.) What made it a bit different was that Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus.

Normally, this kind of stuff — targeted assassinations, bombings both by suicide and by airplane, military raids, etc. — is confined to Israel and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, although it frequently reaches into Lebanon and much less often into Jordan. For it to happen in the Syrian capital, however, means that the rules have changed — or at least, that’s how some people will choose to interpret it.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, automatically blamed Israel for the blast that killed Mughniyeh, and told a huge crown of Lebanese Shias who attended his funeral in south Beirut that by attacking him in Damascus the Israelis had changed the rules. They had extended the conflict beyond the customary borders, and henceforward Hezbollah would do the same.

“Zionists, if you want this sort of open war, then let the whole world hear, so be it!” Nasrallah told the crowd, implying (without actually saying) that Israeli and perhaps even Jewish people and institutions worldwide would now be regarded by Hezbollah as legitimate targets. The Israel government, meanwhile, denies responsibility for Mughniyeh’s killing (though even in Israel not many people believe it).

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, swore to track the perpetrators down, pointing out that “The fighter Imad Mughniyeh was the target of lots of intelligence agencies.” He did rather telegraph the conclusions of his investigation, however, by asserting that Mughniyeh’s death had “assassinated all efforts for peace” between Syria and Israel.

Business as usual in the Middle East, then, including the usual rhetoric of conviction when admissions of ignorance would be more in order. For example, it is by no means certain that Israel organised Mughniyeh’s death. It could have been the United States.

Imad Mughniyeh has been on the US government’s list of “Most Wanted Terrorists” since it was first compiled, and has been accused of being the mastermind behind the suicide bombing that killed 241 US Marines in a barracks in Beirut in 1983 (though he would only have been 21 at the time). A September, 2006 article in the “New Yorker” alleged that US hit teams were actively trying to track him down.

So maybe it was the US, in which case Nasrallah was barking up the wrong tree — or maybe it really was the Israelis, in which case the question becomes: why now? Just because they finally got a fix on him? But Mughniyeh’s big successes were far behind him, in the 80s and early 90s, and the Israelis are too sophisticated to buy into the Hollywood notion of a terrorist “mastermind” who is so vital to the conduct of operations that his death would make a big difference.

Assuming that it was the Israelis, and assuming also that they are not stupid, why would they kill Mughniyeh in Damascus (which genuinely does transgress the unwritten Arab-Israeli rules about where this sort of killing is permissible)? Could it be that they were trying to push Hezbollah into the kind of response that Hassan Nasrallah actually gave?

Hezbollah has prospered mightily since its successful resistance to the Israeli army in southern Lebanon in 2006. Luring it into terrorist attacks on civilian Israeli and Jewish targets overseas could only serve to discredit it in the eyes of those in the West who might be tempted to talk to it, and even in the eyes of some Arabs. Are the Israeli intelligence services clever and subtle enough to think this thought? Is the Pope a Catholic?

And what about Nasrallah? Was he actually declaring a jihad against Jews all over the world? Well, no, actually. He seemed to be saying what the crowd at Imad Mughniyeh’s funeral obviously wanted to hear, but he left his real options entirely open. He, too, has been in this game long enough to understand that the goal of the other side is not so much to hurt you as to push you into mistakes that will damage your cause.

We shall have to wait and see, but I would be very surprised if Hezbollah now launched a terrorist campaign against Jewish targets outside the Middle East. This is a game in which people die from time to time, but it is fundamentally about influencing the popular perception of your cause at home and abroad.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“Normally…it”; and “Syria’s…Israel”)