Hezbollah After Mughniyeh


NEW YORK (JTA) – For many of his victims around the world, the recent car-bomb assassination of Imad Fayez Mughniyeh – one of the world’s most wanted terrorists for two decades – has the ring of true justice. At least in the short term, the killing of Mughniyeh will have a deterrent effect and hamper Hezbollah’s capability to carry out a revenge attack.

It will not, however, preclude Hezbollah from planning a future strike over time – and, judging from past experience, the Lebanese-based terrorist organization will not only eye Israeli targets for retaliation, but Diaspora Jewish ones as well.

Mughniyeh, the second highest official in the Islamic extremist group and seen as a possible successor to Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, showed no boundaries of brutality or location. He was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and murder of one of its passengers, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem. The FBI posted a $25 million reward for Mughniyeh’s capture.

Earlier in his terrorist career, Mughniyeh joined Fatah’s Force 17, the personal security apparatus of Yasser Arafat. Mughniyeh was one of a number of young Shia Muslims recruited to Force 17 and initially trained by Fatah.

Mughniyeh went on to become a founding member of Hezbollah and was placed in charge of its Special Security Apparatus, also known as the Islamic Jihad Council, whose members were trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. He ultimately became chief of the security apparatus and headed Hezbollah’s foreign operations, overseeing terror activities worldwide. Both the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security facilitated Mughniyeh’s international operations.

The 1983 massive car bombings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed more than 300, and the kidnappings and murders of Westerners in Lebanon, including CIA station chief William Buckley and USMC Lt. Col. William Higgins, as well as members of the Lebanese Jewish community, all are accredited to Mughniyeh.

He gained international notoriety for his involvement, together with Iran, in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy, and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center, both in Buenos Aires. The official findings of the Argentinean investigation of the AMIA attack revealed that it was planned and executed by Iran and Hezbollah. As a result, Interpol, at the request of Argentina, issued an arrest warrant for Mughniyeh and five Iranian officials.

Serving as Hezbollah’s nexus to other terrorist organizations, Mughniyeh provided vital assistance and training for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, strengthening the ties of those terror organizations to both Hezbollah and Iran. He also maintained ties with Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri of al-Qaida by providing explosives training for al-Qaida operatives.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mughniyeh was believed to have been instrumental in having organized the escape of up to 50 senior members of al-Qaida’s leadership from Afghanistan to Lebanon and facilitated the escape of dozens of other al-Qaida operatives to Iran.

Over the last several years, Mughniyeh further expanded Hezbollah’s influence and was reported to be working with Iran to train Moktada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq.

Mughniyeh’s most recent activities included his key role in the construction of Hezbollah’s military infrastructure in southern Lebanon from 2000 to 2006. With Iran’s aid, he oversaw the efforts that transformed Hezbollah into an organization with military-level capabilities. Mughniyeh also is considered responsible for the kidnapping of Israeli reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and he directed Hezbollah fighting against Israeli forces during the 2006 Lebanon war.

What comes next in the post-Mughniyeh era of Hezbollah?

Nasrallah immediately blamed Israel for the Feb. 13 assassination in Damascus and declared that Hezbollah was prepared to immediately retaliate “anywhere” against Israeli targets worldwide.

The 1992 strike against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires took place several weeks after Israel’s assassination of then-Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi.

Following Mughniyeh’s death last week, Israel issued security alerts to its embassies and an advisory to Israeli citizens abroad to be alert for possible abduction attempts.

Following the example of the AMIA bombing, Hezbollah also includes Diaspora Jewish communities on its potential list of targets. The AMIA attack came two years after the embassy bombing in Argentina.

Mughniyeh clearly left his imprint not just on Hezbollah, but on other terrorist organizations.

Due to his contacts with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, those organizations may be called upon by Hezbollah to expand their own terrorist activities against Israel. Other organizations that received assistance from Hezbollah expressed solidarity with Hezbollah after Mughniyeh’s assassination and may decide to engage in their own violent actions or may be called upon by Hezbollah for assistance.

Clearly, Hezbollah will not let Mughniyeh’s assassination pass without attempting a display of its own capability for revenge. The question is not if, but where and when.

Yehudit Barsky is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Division on Middle East and International Terrorism.

Recommended from JTA