Six years after senior Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq was released from an Iraqi prison for the murder of five American servicemen, he has resurfaced mere kilometers from Israel’s border on the Syrian Golan Heights as the mastermind of a new and dangerous Hezbollah terror network.
According to the IDF, Daqduq is the leader of Hezbollah’s clandestine “Golan Project” – a terrorist network which the IDF believes is aiming to build up its capabilities to one day launch serious attacks against Israel such as firing rockets and infiltrating into communities on the Israel Golan Heights.
The IDF claims that Hezbollah has established this network under the nose of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose troops, alongside Hezbollah operatives, reconquered the Syrian heights this summer, seven years after they lost it to rebel groups. Both UN peacekeepers and Russian military police have been deployed along the Golan Heights border.
Philip Smyth, the Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), told The Jerusalem Post that: “It’s a classic example of Hezbollah not only defying the Russians and defying Assad, but also using the worst of their worst to influence things in a region which is a key area that threatens the Israelis.
“It sends a very powerful message,” he said.
“When I say he’s the worst of the worst, he’s the best of the best for them. Having operated in Iraq and also [having been] a lead bodyguard for [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah means that he’s in a more elite section of what Hezbollah is doing.”
In his 50s, Daqduq joined Hezbollah in early 1983 and served in multiple leadership positions in the Lebanese terror group, including as the commander of a Hezbollah special forces unit as well as being Nasrallah’s bodyguard.
He was sent to Iraq in 2005 after Iran asked Hezbollah to form a group to train Iraqis to fight coalition forces in the country. He helped train and advise the terrorists in Jaysh al-Mahdi, now known as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Daqduq was behind bloody attacks against Western troops in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, including one attack that killed five US soldiers.
He was captured by the British SAS in Basra in March 2007 and spent five years in prison. He was released by the Iraqi government in 2012 despite strong protests from Washington. He was designated by the United States Treasury Department that year for his role in the attack.
“Daqduq has a well-deserved reputation of a villain in Iraq; there is a lot of American blood on his hands,” Dan Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel and visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies told the Post, adding that “for Americans, and particularly those involved in this episode, there’s no difference in the analysis about the sort of nefarious actor he is.
“The release of the intelligence by Israel could be a deterrent, but the establishment of a cell like that is fully consistent with Hezbollah’s goals and modus operandi. Given the opportunity, they will carry out an attack.”
According to the IDF, the Golan terrorist network is currently in its initial stages of establishment and recruitment and is not yet operational. But the military believes that Daqduq and his terror cell are aiming to build up its capabilities to one day launch serious attacks against Israel.
On Tuesday, the Mako news site quoted acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz as saying that a recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli would be “an appropriate and required response” to the allegations about Hezbollah’s activity on the Syrian Golan.
But according to Shapiro, the timing may not be totally linked to the possible upcoming recognition by Washington.
“It’s impossible to know, but if the threat is real and intelligence is now available and supports it, there is no reason not to publicize it,” he said.
“There was already strong American support, under both former US president Barack Obama and under the Trump administration, for Israel’s freedom of action to address threats in Syria, including those by Hezbollah,” Shapiro said, adding that, “the fact that the current mastermind of the efforts has significant American blood on his hands will only deepen this support.”
According to Shapiro, Washington “needs to intensify” its diplomacy with the Russians.
“Our main leverage in Syria would be through the Russians, not directly through Assad, and it’s appropriate for the US to talk to Russia to convey that Moscow should impose limits on Iran and their proxies in Syria which threaten Israel,” he said.
But according to Smyth, it’s unlikely that the Russians were unaware of Hezbollah’s project.
“This project is a top priority for Hezbollah and Iran. They’ve worked hard on building and recruiting locals in the area to maintain a presence in the area, even if they are told by Assad or Moscow that their presence isn’t desired,” he said, adding that: “It’s interesting that it coincides with Russia’s moves in Syria and also [with] claims that they’ve made to the Israelis and the Assad regime when it comes to where Hezbollah’s forces were allowed in southern Syria.
“Frankly, I don’t think the Russians didn’t know that this would be going on,” he continued, adding that the release of the Israeli intelligence on Hezbollah’s Golan Project “dovetails with Israel’s claims that Iranians are defying Russia’s wishes and that the Iranians aren’t really Assad’s allies, that they will continue to do their own thing. This is a further nail in the coffin, which is more public.”
Anna Borshchevskaya – a senior fellow at WINEP and fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy – told the Post that while Moscow wants to be seen as an arbiter, it “has no desire or ability to remove Iran from Syria,” since their entire strategy there is reliant on their partnership with Tehran.
“Hezbollah has learned from Russia; they’ve operated together in Syria. Moscow can, when convenient, turn a blind eye to whatever activities suit its purposes.”
In a meeting with journalists on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, senior Israeli intelligence officers in the Northern Command said it is prepared to see troops loyal to Assad on the other side of the border, but it will not allow Hezbollah or Iran in the area.
“We hold the Syrian regime as the sovereign of its territory and expect it to honor the terms of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement,” the military said on Tuesday, adding that “we expect it to prevent any hostile elements, including Hezbollah, from operating out of its territory. The IDF will not allow any attempt by Hezbollah to entrench itself near the border, and we will act with all our might to force this terrorist organization out of the Golan Heights and ensure the stability of the region.”
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