The assassination of Imad Mughniyyeh, the Lebanese Hizbullah’s most senior military commander, who died on February 12 in a bombing in Damascus, is probably the most serious blow that Israel has so far managed to deal the Islamic resistance movement. It might well be more severe than the assassination in February 1992 of Sayyid ‘Abbas al-Musawi, the movement’s former secretary-general, who was killed, along with his wife, son and four others, in an attack on his motorcade by Israeli helicopter-gunships in southern Lebanon. Israel’s success in assassinating Mughniyyeh is also an intelligence coup. This is not only because Mughniyyeh was a very secretive underground figure, who for decades had managed to elude the hunt by various regional and international intelligence services, but also that the assassination was carried out in the Syrian capital, where Syria’s government is known to keep a tight hold on security.
The severity of the blow was acutely felt during Mughniyyeh’s funeral and mourning services at the Sayyid al-Shuhada’ Hall in the Roweis neighbourhood of southern Beirut, where his coffin was draped by a yellow Hizbullah flag. Standing in line to shake hands with throngs of mourners expressing their condolences, the grim expressions on the faces of grieving Hizbullah leaders, some of whom visibly fought tears, reflected deep sadness and anger. Outside the hall, a sea of rain-soaked mourners braved icy rain to take part in the funeral.
Ayatullah Ali Khamene’i, supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, sent a message of condolence to Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. “Dear Brother, I congratulate and offer my condolences on this great martyrdom to you, his family, the Hizbullah youth and all Lebanese,” the message read. “It should make the Lebanese people proud to have given the world such great men in the fields of seeking freedom and fighting cruelty.” Among the speakers who eulogised Mughniyyeh was Manouchehr Muttaki, Iran’s foreign minister, who read out a statement from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic. “He is not the first martyr, nor will he be the last on this path,” Muttaki read from the written statement. “There will be hundreds and millions more.” The letter added that the Israelis’ “smile will not last long and they will fall to the hand of justice.”
Addressing the crowd by means of a giant television-screen, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah threatened to expand the confrontation with Israel in response to its move to take its battle with Hizbullah beyond Lebanon’s borders. “You have killed Hajj Imad outside the natural battlefield,” he said. “With this murder -- its timing, location, and methods -- O Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open.”
These words are not mere hot air. Unlike most other Middle Eastern leaders, who indulge in fiery rhetoric as a substitute for action, Nasrallah is known for acting on the words that he utters. His speech signaled a shift towards releasing Hizbullah from a cardinal rule that it has followed for many years: it restricted its military activities to the Lebanese and Palestinian territories. In the new situation, Hizbullah will consider it legitimate to strike at Israeli targets beyond this “natural battlefield”. It is expected that Hizbullah will do something immediately, followed by a spectacular attack in the medium term that will require more planning and effort. Ha’aretz newspaper reports that there are concerns among Israeli security sources that Hizbullah will aim for “high-value targets, such as embassies, a delegation travelling abroad or an aircraft” (February 15).
Nasrallah’s warning has made Israeli leaders nervous. Knowing that the question is not whether Hizbullah will respond, but rather the timing and location of its retaliation, the Israelis have stepped up security inside Israel and abroad. Orders have been issued to put Israel’s land, air and naval forces, particularly on the Lebanese-Palestinian border, on alert. Israelis abroad have been advised to be vigilant, avoid places known to be popular with Israeli tourists, reject any enticing or unexpected proposals, turn down any unexpected gifts or offers from suspect or unknown sources, and even avoid speaking Hebrew in public. Security has been tightened at Israeli diplomatic missions and foreign offices of institutions such as the Jewish Agency.
Mughniyyeh was reportedly wanted in 42 countries. He was on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 25 Most Wanted “terror list” for his suspected role in a string of attacks against American, Israeli and Jewish targets in the 1980s and 1990s. The US accuses him of masterminding attacks that put an end to the American military intervention in Lebanon under the Reagan administration in the 1980s: such as the suicide bombing in April 1983 of the US embassy in Beirut, and the twin suicide truck-bomb attacks in October 1983 against the US Marine barracks on the outskirts of Beirut International Airport and the French paratroopers’ headquarters in Beirut. Other attacks blamed on Mughniyyeh include the hijacking in 1985 of a TWA airliner in which a US Navy diver was killed, the bombing in 1992 of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people, and the bombing in 1994 of the AMIA Jewish community centre, which killed 85 people. There have also been allegations that he was involved in the bombing in 1996 of Al-Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed seventeen Americans. Hizbullah denies involvement in many of these operations, particularly those outside Lebanon, and the accusations against Mughniyyeh can safely be dismissed as anti-Hizbullah propaganda.
Mughniyyeh had a life-long career as a selfless anti-Zionist fighter. Born in 1962 into a poor family from the southern Lebanese village of Tayr Dibba, near Tyre, Imad grew up in the Naba’ah neighbourhood of the predominantly Christian sector of northeastern Beirut. His childhood friends remember him as a sociable and athletic schoolboy. During the first phase of the Lebanese civil war, commonly known by the Lebanese as Harb al-Sanatayn (the Two-Year War), his family was among the thousands of displaced families who sought refuge in neighbourhoods inhabited predominantly by their co-religionists. The family moved to the al-Shiyyah neighbourhood in the predominantly Shi‘a southern suburb of Beirut.
The revolutionary appeal of the Palestinian resistance attracted the teenage Imad, who joined Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Movement in the mid-1970s and became active in its Student Battalion (al-Katibah al-Tullabiyyah). The Battalion was set up in 1975 by Fatah student activist Abd al-Qadir Ali Jaradat, also known by his nom de guerre Saad Jaradat, who was killed in 1976 while leading a company of fighters who were trying to break the siege by the Lebanese Phalange militia on the Tall al-Za’atar refugee-camp. Unlike other wings and divisions of Arafat’s Fatah, which often operated more like disorderly bands of ragtag militiamen than a disciplined fighting force, the Student Battalion, which was disbanded after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, was a highly disciplined and principled force that combined militant revolutionary asceticism and ebullience with the utopian desires of radical Lebanese and Palestinian students committed to the liberation of Palestine. It had a highly diverse membership, comprised of students subscribing to a wide variety of ideological positions spanning the political spectrum from the ultra-leftist Maoist fringe to shades of Islamic activism inspired by the late Imam Khomeini, such as the members of the Islamic Action Committees (Lijan al-‘Amal al-Islami), among others.
This diversity infused the Battalion with a high degree of soul-searching and intellectual liveliness. The mores of firm discipline, commitment to high ethical standards of personal conduct, and genuine dedication to the ideals and praxis of principled resistance led the Student Battalion in 1976 to refuse to take part in the massacres and looting of the Christian coastal towns of al-Damour, al-Sa’adiyyat and al-Jiyyeh, to the south of Beirut, which were partly organised by the Progressive Socialist Party, led at the time by Kamal Jumblatt, the father of Walid Jumblatt, the current Lebanese Druze leader. During the first Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1978, the Student Battalion maintained good order in battle, and its fighters distinguished themselves by their valour and heroism in fighting the invading troops. It was perhaps Imad’s high level of performance and fighting skills on the battlefield that enabled him to join Fatah’s elite Force 17 and later Arafat’s retinue of personal bodyguards.
During his membership of the Student Battalion, Imad gravitated towards the Shi‘a Islamic end of its ideological continuum. The Shi‘a Islamic activists in the ranks of the Battalion were mostly committed to the idea of an Islamic state and thus were not attracted to the confessional-nationalist aims of the Shi ‘a Movement of the Deprived (Harakat al-Mahrumin) and its armed wing, the Lebanese Resistance Regiments (Afwaj al-Muqawamah al-Lubnaniyyah or AMAL), founded by Sayyid Musa al-Sadr in the mid-1970s. The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978-9) tantalised not only the Islamic-oriented activists of the Battalion but also many of its left-wing cadres, who turned towards Islamic activism. After repeated assassination attempts by Iraqi intelligence agents on Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in the early 1980s, Imad helped to organise and then oversee the Ayatullah’s security detail.
In the immediate aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Mughniyyeh joined groups of Shi‘a pro-Islamic Revolution activists who were coalescing under the guidance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards into what later became Hizbullah. He soon rose through its ranks and assumed higher-ranking command posts in the world’s most sophisticated guerrilla armies, operated by the infant movement. After the hijacking of the TWA flight in June 1985, the US accused Mughniyyeh and two of his colleagues, Hassan ‘Izz al-Din and Ali ‘Atwi, of masterminding and carrying out the hijacking, and the CIA made plans to abduct him in Beirut.
After that, Mughniyyeh dropped out of sight and his whereabouts, movements and activities became closely guarded secrets. During this long period of hiding, he is believed to have travelled to Sudan on one occasion, where US intelligence officials maintain that he met Osama bin Laden, who was then living in Khartoum. There were occasions in the 1990s when American operatives came close to seizing Mughniyyeh. One such opportunity arose in 1995, when US intelligence agents were tipped off that he was on board a plane that was scheduled to stop over in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis lost their nerve at the last minute and refused to let the plane land.
Mughniyyeh’s life as a shadowy figure in the underground world of clandestine and covert activities came to a violent end in the late evening of February 12, as he opened the door of his black Mitsubishi Pajero in the Kafar Susah suburb of Damascus. The force of the explosion flung his body into the lobby of a neighbouring apartment complex, severing his head and limbs. But Hizbullah has always been very difficult to infiltrate. An action on the scale of Mughniyyeh’s assassination must have taken a lot of painstaking intelligence work, methodical surveillance, thorough planning and careful operational coordination under unusually difficult conditions. His assassins are likely to have managed to infiltrate his security detail, track his movements, and penetrate Syrian intelligence.
It is quite possible that Mossad got help from a number of international and regional parties with an interest in eliminating Mughniyyeh. Several Western intelligence agencies might have been involved in the killing. Because of escalating regional tensions, also plausible is a scenario in which Saudi and Egyptian intelligence organisations and operatives joined forces with Mossad or the CIA (or both) to carry out operations to pressurise Syria, Iran and their allies. In fact, the Saudi intelligence services have the capacity, and previous experience, to penetrate the ranks of the Salafi underground support network in Syria that is involved in smuggling fighters into Iraq, and to use some of its elements to carry out such operations.
But a more likely neighbouring Arab suspect for providing Mossad with at least logistic support in carrying out this assassination is Jordanian intelligence, which is known to have been keeping close tabs on the movements of Hizbullah leaders. There have been widespread suspicions that Jordanian intelligence have cooperated with other similar acts. After the killing in May 2002 of his son Jihad in a powerful bomb planted in his car in Beirut, Ahmad Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- General Command, publicly accused Jordanian intelligence of doing Mossad’s bidding in Lebanon. He told Al-Jazeera TV that his group had arrested Jordanian intelligence agents in Beirut, and he accused Jordan’s intelligence services of “having become a tool in the hands of the Mossad and US intelligence.” Similarly, in September 2004, the Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine (Hamas) suggested thatJordan might have played a role in the assassination of ‘Izz al-Din al-Shaykh Khalil, which was carried out by Mossad in the al-Zahra neighbourhood of Damascus.
But adversity has always strengthened Hizbullah’s resolve, morale and determination. In his eulogy for Mughniyyeh, Hizbullah’s secretary-general pointed out that past Israeli assassinations of its leaders have only made it stronger. Brimming with his usual confidence, Nasrallah assured the mourners: “Hajj Imad’s blood will drive them [the Zionists] out of existence, Allah willing.” Much as Hizbullah has emerged stronger after every confrontation with Israel, the killing of Imad Mughniyyeh might well be the harbinger of a new order in the region.