8 years, 10 months ago
At this point it is not news that someone has assassinated the chief military commander of Hezbollah, Imad Mughniyeh.
Mughniyeh was killed late Tuesday night after a bomb, planted inside the seat of his car, exploded in Damascus’s upscale Kafar Soussa neighborhood. Security forces quickly sealed off the area and removed the destroyed car, which had its driver’s seat and the rear seat blown away by the blast.
Considered Hizbullah’s operations chief, Mughniyeh co-founded the group in 1982 together with Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and was a member of its ruling Shura Council. He was in charge of all overseas operations, and as the chief operations officer, coordinated Hizbullah relations with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Not only was he a very bad actor, he was perhaps the smartest terrorist in the Middle East, and getting inside his daily habits is an incredible feat.
As Robert Baer, who hunted Mugniyeh for years as a CIA officer, describes Mughniyeh, ““He is the most dangerous terrorist we’ve ever faced. He is probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we’ve ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else. He enters by one door, exits by another, changes his cars daily, never makes appointments on a telephone, never is predictable. He only uses people that are related to him that he can trust. He doesn’t just recruit people. He is the master terrorist, the grail that we have been after since 1983.”
Haaretz is carrying a short list of his accomplishments (also here), one of which is masterminding the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983. Mughniyeh was a major player in the world of terror, and was probably more important than Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. The U.S. is welcoming the news of his demise. Israel is denying any involvement in the assassination, and perhaps the most interesting assessment of who might have done this is given to us by Michael Ledeen.
There will be a lot of speculation about his killers. Hezbollah has already accused the Israelis, which is what you’d expect them to say. But there are many others who hated Mughniyah, ranging from various Lebanese and Saudi groups who held him responsible for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, to anti-Iranian and anti-Syrian groups, especially some of the Kurds, to our very own spooks and soldiers, who have long yearned for revenge against the man who organized the brutal murder of Robert Stethem, the suicide bombings against the U.S. Marines in Beirut, similar acts against U.S. diplomats and spooks at our Embassies in the same city, and of course Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the dreadful death-by-torture of our top spy in Beirut in the mid-1980s.
I doubt we did it. Indeed, I rather suspect that CIA was bound and determined NOT to go after Mughniyah, even though there was a bounty on his head. I know of several instances in which CIA vetoed proposals from well-placed people who claimed to be able to kill or capture Mughniyah, and I have spoken to government officials in Washington who were astonished at the Agency’s lack of vigor. Nonetheless, I have no doubt we will hear from several “experts” that it was a CIA operation.
Israel is more likely, and has a proven ability to operate in Damascus, although Olmert has denied any Israeli involvement. On the other hand, it may have been a joint operation involving a European intelligence service (the French, who were big supporters of Hariri, come to mind) and a local group, perhaps Lebanese Druse, perhaps Syrian and/or Iranian Kurds.
There are a number of possibilities, but I agree with Ledeen – the U.S. didn’t do it. President Gerald R. Ford signed Executive Order 11905 on February 18, 1976, which in part states that “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Whether this was wise is beside the point. This, in addition to two administrations under President Clinton, stripped the CIA of its human intelligence and also its capability to effect change within the international intelligence community.
In a national atmosphere in which CIA employees are at risk of prosecution for waterboarding – something that wasn’t illegal when it was done, is not illegal now, and only recently received a vote from the Senate – to believe that a CIA employee would either be involved in such a plan or even hire operatives who would be involved in such a plan, is not credible. This is especially true given that, like the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, there are CIA employees who are actively working for the loss of the global war on terror and would willingly turn over fellow employees if it was found out that an executive order had been violated.
Still, I will observe that this order hamstrings the CIA. It was succinctly stated by one Israeli commando officer that in order to fight people like this the U.S. needs to “adopt Israel’s assassination policy.” I am in agreement, and have called for the assassination of both Hassan Nasrallah and Moqtada al Sadr. Too much can be made of individuals and personalities. As I have pointed out before, the focus on high value targets can take the focus off of the necessity for kinetic operations against the enemy holistically. Yet replacing this individual will be difficult for Iran, and the world is a far better place because he is dead.