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.
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.