Analysis: Thwarting Hizbullah's 'terror spectacular'

The terror group is looking for a target of equal value to Mughniyeh.

mughniyeh poster 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
mughniyeh poster 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Experts believe Hizbullah is more interested in perpetrating a terror attack against Israeli and/or Jewish targets abroad than in kidnapping Israelis. Kidnapping people in a foreign country is the most complex of operations and one that does not yield the greatest results. Abducting even just a handful of foreign nationals, getting them on a plane and smuggling them out of a country is an extremely difficult and complex business. Even in remote and undeveloped locations, a missing foreign national won't go unnoticed for long, as evidenced in the latest case of the Ra'anana man kidnapped in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Getting hostages through airports and sea ports is also not easy, even under the most lackadaisical port conditions. Kidnapping or murdering a handful of Israelis overseas is not the kind of response Hizbullah envisions to the assassination of its operations chief Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus last February. One veteran observer of Hizbullah's activities abroad terms this type of operation "revenge of the poor." Instead, Hizbullah is trying to carry out a terror spectacular, along the lines of the bombings of Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s. However, according to Israeli counterterrorism officials, Hizbullah's anger over Mughniyeh's assassination is deep, and its revenge may come in stages. The terror group is looking for a target of equal value to Mughniyeh, but if that target doesn't present itself, Hizbullah will settle for others. While Israeli embassies and consulates are prime targets for the Islamist organization, and most of Israel's countermeasures are concentrated there, the threat of abductions poses a serious challenge to Israeli security services. One reason why news of the thwarting of two attempts by Hizbullah to kidnap Israelis abroad was released this week may be to deter Israeli business travelers who have not heeded the warnings of the security services, by telling them: The threat against you is real; two such plots were thwarted in the advanced stages of planning. Still, there are thousands upon thousands of Israelis currently traveling and doing business abroad, and every day thousands more come and go. There are whole communities of Israelis abroad in areas of risk. Intelligence on plans to harm traveling Israelis or members of local Jewish communities comes either through signals intelligence or human intelligence from agents who have infiltrated Hizbullah, or both. Most of these threats indicate plots against Israelis in countries with high concentrations of Muslims in Central Asia, East Asia and West Africa, although plots have also been uncovered in North America and elsewhere. Once the threat information is assessed by the security establishment a plan is put together to thwart the plot. In a country that has friendly relations with Israel and good cooperation between the intelligence services, the information will be passed on to the local agency. The local agency will then put a plan in motion to place the suspected terrorists under audiovisual surveillance. If and when the local agency feels it has enough material on the suspected terror cell to indicate it is planning an attack, arrests will be made and the cell broken up. In a country like this, it is unlikely that the Mossad will carry out the surveillance itself, although it may do some of the work and pass over incriminating information to the local agency. In a country that does not have friendly relations with Israel or a strong and cooperative intelligence service, the Mossad itself will have to act against the suspected terror cell. This will amount to standard intelligence work such as surveillance, bugging phones of cell members and acquaintances, photographing suspects, etc. Once enough material has been gathered the Mossad may decide to present its case to the local agency in a formal way, or informally in a way that incriminates the terror cell. A classic example of this would be incriminating videotaped, photographed or audio material finding its way anonymously to a local police station. The Mossad may also feel the need to carry out a "scaring off" type of operation that signals the terror cell that it has been uncovered, without physically moving against it (included in this is a leak to news outlets of plots thwarted elsewhere). Only in extreme cases will the Mossad itself act to physically disrupt the terror cell. When intelligence is obtained warning of a threat against specific individuals traveling to a specific location, those people are brought in by the Israeli authorities before their trip (or contacted by Israeli officials abroad) and provided that information. This kind of meeting suffices to deter most businesspeople from their trip for the time being in favor of other arrangements. Sometimes, however, travelers will thank the security services for the help, but continue with their business regardless, arguing that a cancellation or postponement of their trip would be too costly. Israeli businesspeople have a reputation for flocking to new, untapped markets, and the worry is that Hizbullah will tempt some of them into deals from which they can be trapped and kidnapped, along the lines of the Elhanan Tennenbaum model (the Israeli businessman was kidnapped by Hizbullah in 2001 after being lured into a drug deal). Some Jewish NGOs working overseas have also been brought in for consultations and given instructions on keeping their delegates safe. It is not clear to what extent the Foreign Ministry is instructing embassies and consulates abroad to brief Israeli businesspeople and delegations on the threat against them and advising how best to behave in the face of that threat. Quietly, Israeli officials are warning high-risk travelers and giving them tools to reduce the threat against them, but this message is not getting through to the vast majority of Israelis abroad. For instance, security experts recommend that Israeli businesspeople working abroad become more spontaneous in their behavior by not scheduling business meetings too far in advance, which makes it harder for terrorists to 'schedule' a kidnapping. Ideally, Israeli businesspeople should call their foreign counterparts a day or two before a meeting, and insist on making final arrangements several hours before the meeting, for a location of their choosing. Israelis and Jews on organized trips to high risk areas have also been told to try to stay in recognized (read expensive) hotels and use recognized transport to and from airports and hotels, and to change their hotels at regularly if possible, and avoid frequenting the same restaurants. For more of Amir Mizroch's articles, see his personal blog Forecast Highs.