The targeted assassination Tuesday of Hezbollah’s top military officer believed responsible for a series of high-profile terrorist attacks that killed hundreds — including the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina and the 2006 kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers — is a “major setback” for that organization, according to an Israeli terrorism expert.
“It’s a major setback because he is an important military figure,” said Reuven Ehrlich, director of the Tel Aviv-based Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, referring to Imad Mughniyah.
The terrorism center’s Web site has nine separate references to Mughniyah, 45, who was killed by a bomb planted in his car while he was reportedly on his way to a meeting in Damascus.
Although Hezbollah issued a statement blaming Israel for the assassination, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denied it.
“Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident,” it said in a statement. “We have nothing further to add.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that whoever was responsible would never acknowledge it. But he said that if Israel played a role, “it shows a strengthening of the Mossad’s [Israel’s secret intelligence organization] operations.”
A prior attempt on Mugniyah’s life was made in Beirut in 1994, costing the life of his brother, Fuad.
During the 1990s and the early part of this decade, Steinberg noted, there was a perceived “weakening of Israel’s operational capabilities.” But he said this assassination and the reported Israeli attack on a nascent Syrian nuclear plant late last year sends a message that Israel’s strike capabilities have been restored.
Eldad Pardo, an expert on Hezbollah at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, said it also sends a message to Iran because Hezbollah is an organization intrinsically connected to that Islamic country.
“There is an image in some countries that Israel is about to collapse, which is foolish,” he said. “Israel is a young, vigorous state that is very strong but also wants peace. It’s hard to project this duality. Just because we want peace does not mean we are a kind of sissy.”
Efraim Inbar, a terrorist expert and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said that although Israeli operatives “don’t leave a signature, there are good chances it was an Israeli operation.” He said that although Mughniyah was also on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list — and there was a $25 million price on his head — “assassinations are not things the CIA has done in the recent past.”
“It shows to everybody that we can get information that can lead to the demise of our enemies,” Inbar said. “It enhances our deterrence and forces our enemies to spend more time on defense and checking their own organization to find leaks. It shows that Hezbollah is not safe, even in a country that is allied with it. And this serves as a signal to the Iranians who might hesitate now to travel to Damascus.”
A Hezbollah lawmaker, Ismail Sukeyir, was quoted as saying Wednesday that his organization’s leaders would meet in Beirut to discuss a response.
“Hezbollah has the right to retaliate anywhere in the world and in any way it sees fit,” he said.
Shlomo Gazit, a former head of Israeli military intelligence and a member of the advisory council of the Israel Policy Forum, said everyone should now brace “for some very painful reprisal attacks. I think everybody understands that and the authorities have already issued the necessary cautions all over the world.”
Steinberg said he would expect heightened security measures at all Israeli and Jewish institutions worldwide, “particularly in Latin America because Hezbollah has a large overseas operation in Latin America.”
Among the terrorist attacks for which Mughniyah was wanted were the bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in 1992 and 1994 respectively, according to Pardo.
“Rumors were that he was going to replace [Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan] Nasrallah” because of Hezbollah’s failure to defeat Israel in the summer of 2006, he said. “After decades of killing people behind the scenes, it was said that he wanted to go into a political career.”
The terrorist actions for which Mughniyah is held responsible read like a who’s who of infamous attacks that have spread death and carnage worldwide. Among the most notable was the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983 in which 63 were killed, the attack on the U.S. Marines that killed 241, the attack on an American housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the hijacking of a TWA airplane in 1985 and the murder of an American soldier in the U.S. Navy, Pardo said.
More recently, Mughniyah was sought for the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers while they patrolled the Lebanese border in October 2000, for an attack in 2002 on an Israeli patrol, and for the July 12, 2006 attack on an Israeli patrol along the Lebanese border that ended in the killing of eight soldiers and the kidnapping of two others.
Pardo said the fact that the assassination did not kill innocent people was also important because it “did not make [innocent] people angry.” And the attack itself demonstrated “some resolve.”
“The Syrians are assassinating people in Lebanon one after another,” he said. “It is important that the West project some resolve … that it is not sleeping. And it shows that there are a lot of collaborators inside Hezbollah; it creates uncertainty. And it is a signal to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and King Abdullah [of Jordan] that America is not going to disappear from the Middle East. … This shows that it is not over ‘till it’s over. And this is just as important with Iran and its nuclear project.”