Avenging Mugniyah

While Lebanon is only ever a few wrong steps away from a war, the case of Imad Mugniyah deserves special consideration. Today is the anniversary of the death of Hezbollah's military and counter-intelligence chief in an assassination for which the Shia militant group blames Israel.

In the run-up to this date, there have been reports of attempted attacks on Israeli targets, Israel's counter-terrorism experts have put its citizens and army on high alert and analysts are unanimous that the question is not if Hezbollah will retaliate, but when. The consequences of such an attack would affect the whole of Lebanon; NOW was told repeatedly that there would be an Israeli military response to a strike.

Certain death

Imad Mugniyah died on February 12, 2008 when he got into a car in Damascus and a remotely-detonated bomb hidden in a headrest exploded. Party leader Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel, vowed revenge in a speech at the funeral and repeated the threats thereafter. Israeli security leaks this week strengthened the likelihood of Israeli responsibility, although the fact that both Hezbollah and Syria have failed to publish promised investigations could indicate involvement of non-Israeli actors, perhaps Palestinians, Syrians or others, whom it would be problematic for Hezbollah to blame.

As the anniversary of the attack approached, fears of a response were high. Israeli media reported at the end of January that "a massive terror attack" in Europe, linked to Hezbollah, was foiled by intelligence sharing. The Times of London reported that a plot to attack the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan was uncovered weeks after Mugniyah’s  death. A recently disbanded Egyptian Hezbollah cell was reportedly planning attacks. On February 1, the Israeli Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a warning that Hezbollah, "is apparently preparing to perpetrate a serious terrorist attack [murder or kidnapping] against an Israeli target." Israeli forces are on high alert along the Lebanese border.

Among analysts, there is a consensus that a reprisal will indeed happen. An Israeli security expert said, "the Israeli security community is convinced Hezbollah will retaliate, if only because we tend to relate to Nasrallah's threats as real and credible." Judith Harik, former professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said, "Hezbollah has always come through on its promises. It's quite well-known for not making promises it can't keep." Matthew Levitt, director of the Counterterrorism and Intelligence program at the Washington Institute called Hezbollah, "a very serious adversary," adding that, "if the leader says he's going to do something, he should be taken at his word."

What form would such an attack take? Although reports of foiled strikes have come from overseas, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of Hezbollah: Politics and Religion, said any attack would be, "something that would really hit at the core of Israel's pillars...It's more likely [to be in Israel]." She added that although Hezbollah would be retaliating to a military assassination, "no-one in Israel carries the same weight as Mugniyah did," and so they would be unlikely to kill an Israeli military figure. Matthew Levitt, however, pointed out that although Hezbollah would want more than, "an attack across the border or a "standard" suicide bombing," they would find it difficult to carry out such an attack in Israel, even through their links with Palestinian groups, because of massive Israeli security. Levitt gave more credence to the idea of a high-level military assassination, and noted that, "Hezbollah does have expatriate Lebanese Shia communities that support it....they do have foreign networks to call upon," mentioning Africa and Europe, and the network in Latin America backed by an increased Iranian presence there.

Why not now

Why has a year been allowed to pass with no retaliation? Is it because Hezbollah has waited until the anniversary of Mugniyah’s death? Israeli security concerns about the anniversary notwithstanding, Saad-Ghorayeb said that, "Hezbollah has never planned any of its operations on symbolic dates," and Timor Goksel, former senior adviser of UNIFIL pointed out that an attack on the anniversary would be too "easily understood," and would undermine, "plausible deniability."

There is also the possibility that Hezbollah has tried to act and been foiled. Details of attempted attacks are sketchy, but Levitt said that at least the attempt in Azerbaijan was "the real deal". An Israeli security official said, that, "I personally believe that if they could have, they already would have retaliated." Some say a spectacular attack requires long planning. "I would say," said Professor Harik, "that the time lapse has to do with the meticulous research and consideration as to the appropriate target and opportunity to fulfill that promise."

The Lebanese elections could be a consideration. Hezbollah has largely held on to its popularity since the July War of 2006, but an attack by the group could lead to another Israeli campaign against Lebanon, more ferocious than in 2006. Iran cannot now afford to pay to rebuild Lebanon as after 2006, and Hezbollah's heroic status as the army that took on Israel and saved South Lebanon would be severely tarnished before the elections in June.

And then what?

The situation in Iran, from where comes much of Hezbollah's funding and expertise, could also have caused a delay. During 30th anniversary celebrations of the Islamic Republic in Tehran this week, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared himself "ready for dialogue" with America. As both Levitt and Goksel pointed out, if an attack takes place which is easily attributable to Hezbollah, the sponsor could be held responsible for the actions of the proxy, which could scupper US-Iranian dialogue. Iran does not dictate what Hezbollah does, but it could influence it to hold off an attack.

Although Hezbollah would never admit to being deterred by the prospect of war with Israel, it has certainly been assured by Israel that any attack will be met with a colossal response. An Israeli security expert said, "If Hezbollah's attack causes serious Israeli or Jewish losses then yes, we will retaliate." Goksel said that, "Israel's retaliation depends on the scale of the attack but all the comments from Israel show that these people are perfectly capable of doing something that will hurt," noting that, "it will definitely be much more severe if [the attack] happens in Israel."

Israel has indicated how forceful its attacks will be in, for example, discussion of the, "Dahiyeh Strategy," whereby in any future conflict "what happened in the Dahiyeh quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on," according to Israeli Command Chief Gadi Eisenkot in October last year. Similarly, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week that in the event of an attack, "the Lebanese government bears overall responsibility and any attempt to attack Israel will be met with a response."

However, as Saad-Ghorayeb said, "If Hezbollah retaliates, Hezbollah is fully aware that a war will ensue," but they will very likely retaliate anyway. Imad Mugniyah’s  death will be marked on Monday, along with other slain Hezbollah leaders whose faces line Lebanese roads accompanied by the slogan "Our martyrs are our great men." In life, he was one of the world's most wanted men. In death, Hezbollah's plots may avenge him, but they may also drag the whole of Lebanon into yet another bloody, expensive, unnecessary conflict.

  • Sami

    Mohammad, we know that you are anti HA, but you are not running for an MP are you?You ignore the question: name only one political personality that will run anywhere against HA in the Shiaa areas.Is that a simple question or is it too complicated for your intellects?The Challenge is still open.Rest assured All HA/Amal MP's will be elected by their follow Shiaa electorates, none will fail as in the last election, they will even add few Christian MP's like Sukkar,Michael Mousa etc.

    February 24, 2009

  • Miumiu

    Also ya Sami..how long has HA taken to be in this position..?..how long has HA GIVEN to get to this position?..and don't try to ignore the grip that HA have over the Shia..slowly, but surely, some are now stop supporting it..and please accept that being a non supporter of HA does not mean anti-shia as you always try to get across..I'm as much a shia as you are & proud of it but not as extreme as you are and not as narrow minded as HA trying to get us to be.

    February 23, 2009

  • Miumiu

    Sami, occupation can be in a different way not just physically and can be done by proxy as we have in Lebanon..our enemy is Israel and resistance must be by the national army not by a Militia, the old time gone and now we need to start to build a State & a strong Army, all Lebanese have paid in 1 way or another for the liberation of Lebanon, well before HA, so stop trying to ignore the rest..without the rest, HA wouldn't have lasted that long..no matter what you think..

    February 23, 2009

  • Sami

    Mohammad, if Sam can not name any why don't you?It is a challenge to you and to all readers here.Correction, Sabaa will be running in Baabda and may or may not get his vote, so now we are looking for one,only one, man that can be elected by Shiaa votes against the will of March 8th.Anyone?Mohammad, FYI , Lebanon and the South are my home, Iran does not occupied any part of it, Israel does, that's why my national duty is to fight it not Iran.What is your national duty besides personal insults?

    February 23, 2009

  • Miumiu

    Wow, Sami is the self-elected official spokes person of the Shia World Wide...The Shia World wide will be the main reason behind the demise of the ideology you follow ya Mr Sami...and the revenge you want should be contained within your home and not forced on Lebanon or any other peaceful part of this World...

    February 22, 2009

  • Sami

    Sam, which Shiaa turned against Hizballah?Name a few.But if you cannot then i will:1-Ahmad Al Asaad, he received 8000 votes in the last election.2-Haj Hassan, we do not hear anything from him anymore for some reason.3-Basim Sabaa, he will be voted by non Shiaa votes the next election if he runs.I cannot name one Shiaa who will run and be voted in by Shiaa voters if he does not belong to the coalition of March 8th.Please Sam, please name at least one.

    February 20, 2009

  • Sami

    The Shiaa, world wide, still morn Imam Hussein in spite of 1400 years has passed.Whoever thinks that Mughneyeh's assassination will be forgotten does not know the Shiaa and their reverence of their leaders.Syria and Iran are not players and are not of concern to the Shiaa of Lebanon in this matter.Syria can, and just may have peace with Israel but that will not stop the Shiaa from seeking liberation of their land,revenge to this assassination ,self protection from anyone inside or out and finally from total assimilation in the Lebanese society with whatever that intails as far as political partnership which was denied them for too long.

    February 19, 2009

  • Wisam

    He was killed in Syria. The mukhabarrat is everywhere in Syria. I can't imagine that they were not monitoring Mughniyeh. So, it seems a little early to be blaming Israel... It's certainly possible that it was Israel, but given the behavior of the Syrian regime and the level of the domestic control it seems very likely that the Syrian government was involved.

    February 15, 2009

  • Miumiu

    HA leaders are well aware that another destructive war similar to 06 will put them in a very questionable position within their supporters who are still recovering from the 06 'blessed mistake'...lets not forget, that a large numbers of Shiaa are now realising they are being used as a cover to implement external policies, they are an integrated part of the Lebanese State and not as HA (mainly) claim they are marginalised... The Shiaa have to start showing to HA their true desire to live in Peace in their own built homes not Halal/Qatari/Iranian/Saudi ..etc built ones.

    February 15, 2009

  • sam

    In some ways i am hoping HA does this huge mistake.. maybe then will we be able to get rid of the so called "resistance" .. even the Shia who some have already turned against HA will not stand by another distruction especially if Israel goes through with the "Dahiyeh Strategy" .. pity Lebanon would have to suffer to remove the full weight of this gang

    February 15, 2009

  • i

    . Israel kills one of their top terrorists, and all they can do is holler empty promises of terror. Note they never say they are going to do something comparable like kill one of Israel’s leaders: that would be too hard for the Persian lackeys. But look out day care centers, schools, and airports. Hezzie is coming. Except they haven’t been able too.

    February 14, 2009

  • essam

    what happen to the 'investigation' of his murder..?..the late Mugniyah have done 'some' good for Lebanon..BUT, if the revenge put the whole of Lebanon on a destruction path, then that will wipe out his 'achievement'.. and what right do Hizbo have to put Lebanon again on this sitiuation..?..Lebanon as a State can NEVER be equal to ANY man...

    February 13, 2009

  • william

    Good ridance... Adespicable terrorist that Lebanese should not have to pay a price for getting rid of him... He had caused mnay deaths and tragedies over the years and for what? What did he achieve? What did the terror gang that he was a part of accomplish? Nda... Nothing and absolutely nothing...Good ridance again and again...

    February 13, 2009