After Baghdadi, a look at effectiveness of Israel's assassination policy

Is Israel’s policy still relevant? And should the Jewish state step up its own targeted campaign against the heads of organizations that threaten its existence?

An Israeli Apache helicopter during routine training (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
An Israeli Apache helicopter during routine training
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
On February 16, 1992, the IDF carried out its first targeted killing. The target: Abbas al-Musawi, leader of Hezbollah.

Initially, the mission was meant to be a “snatch and grab” operation. Israeli commandos from Sayeret Matkal – the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit – had practiced crossing covertly into Lebanon, getting close enough to the devout Shi’ite follower of Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and bringing him back to Israel. The selected time and location: a rally in the southern Lebanese village of Jibchit, not far from the border with Israel.

Israel’s plan to abduct Musawi was ambitious, but deemed critical. Ron Arad, the Air Force navigator, had fallen into captivity six years earlier and was being passed from one Iranian militia to another. Israel was getting no closer to locating him or securing his release. Grabbing Musawi was supposed to give Jerusalem an unprecedented bargaining chip.

On the day of the rally, Ehud Barak, the IDF chief of staff at the time, opened a war room in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. Barak and his intelligence officers quickly realized that an abduction would be impossible. Drones hovering over Jibchit showed that Musawi was heavily guarded and surrounded by massive crowds. There was no real way to get close enough to him.

Barak decided to change the operation. It was no longer going to be an abduction but an assassination. Israel was going to blow up his car. Two Apache attack helicopters were scrambled and, once airborne, stayed close to the border waiting for further instructions. The pilots were told they might have to launch missiles at a convoy. Who was in it, they were not told.

In the meantime, Barak went to speak with Moshe Arens, the defense minister. Israel, he said, wouldn’t have another chance to take out Musawi, a known terrorist. It was a one-time opportunity. Arens initially hesitated but after a bit more convincing, he gave his approval. Just after 4 p.m., a Hellfire missile ripped into Musawi’s Mercedes sedan, killing him, his wife and his six-year-old son.

Most of the reactions were positive. Senior IDF officers reportedly broke open a bottle of champagne that evening and Arens released a statement that the assassination sent a message to all terrorists: “We will settle accounts with anyone who opens an account with us.”

It was a bit premature. That day, close to 50 Katyusha rockets were fired into Kiryat Shemona and nearby Israeli towns. In the following days, dozens of additional rockets pounded the Upper Galilee. One of the rockets struck a home in the small community of Gornot Hagalil, killing five-year-old Avia Elizade. It was Hezbollah’s first large-scale barrage against Israel.

Then, a month later, a 1985 F-100 Ford pickup truck pulled up outside the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, just near the front door. The car was packed with approximately 340 kg. of TNT. When it exploded, half of the building collapsed. 29 people were killed and dozens more injured. If anyone in Israel still thought that Musawi’s death had weakened Hezbollah, after Buenos Aires they knew they were dead wrong.


DESPITE THE violent retaliation, there was justification in Musawi’s assassination, and it met Israel’s criteria for who, among its enemies, was considered a legitimate target. After the Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972, the Mossad embarked on an operation to settle the score with its Arab perpetrators and masterminds. It wasn’t about what they would do in the future, but about what they had done in the past – and ensuring that they would pay a price.

But those operations were complicated and dangerous; carrying them out was not easy. As a result, Israeli policy shifted and the political echelon decided that it would only approve the assassination of terrorists for what they might do in the future. The doctrine shifted from one of revenge to one of preemption.

On that point, Musawi fit the bill. But what Israel didn’t consider before firing the Hellfire missile at his Mercedes was the question of who would replace him. Israeli intelligence officers thought all the potential successors were the same. They were wrong.

Just days after Musawi’s death, Hezbollah announced that a young 31-year-old sheikh by the name of Hassan Sayyed Nasrallah was going to replace the group’s slain leader. Nasrallah came from Hezbollah’s radical flank and took the terrorist group in a new direction, bolstering its ties with Iran and moving to an open and more aggressive and direct confrontation with Israel.

Amos Gilboa, a former head of Military Intelligence’s Research Division, studied the Musawi assassination and came back appalled. Israel, he discovered, had launched an amateurish operation with almost no consideration of the ramifications: first the plan to abduct him and then the plan to kill him without any real forethought.

“Everything was done at a tactical level and no questions were asked about what the consequences would be, who would succeed him and whether it was still worth it,” he told me this week. “It was all done like a platoon commander makes a decision to engage a terror cell.”

Had Israel properly considered the consequences, Gilboa is not sure that it would have gone ahead with killing Musawi.

“There is no doubt that with Musawi, Hezbollah still would have remained a threat to Israel,” Gilboa said. “But they had not fired rockets into the Galilee before then. Immediately after his death they did – and they continued.”

It is an important lesson, and one that Israel seems to have internalized. In the years since 1992, one of the first questions the intelligence community is asked when considering an assassination or targeted killing is who will be the successor. Will they be more radical or more moderate? Will the terrorist’s death lead to more violence or less? Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

The operation to kill Musawi is one of the great “what ifs” within the Israeli defense establishment. What would have happened had Israel not killed him? Would Hezbollah have evolved into the organization that it is today with over 130,000 missiles and rockets capable of hitting any place inside the State of Israel? Would it have blown up the embassy in Buenos Aires or the AMIA Jewish community center there two years later? We will never know. 

THIS IS all worth thinking about after Operation Kayla, Delta Force’s successful mission last weekend which ended with the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. The operation does not directly affect Israel and the threat of ISIS has for a long time been low on the list of threats Israel faces. Yes, there are still thousands of Jihadists in Syria and Iraq who followed Baghdadi and have no love for Israel. But they face far greater domestic challenges before considering launching an attack against the Jewish state.

His killing though does raise the question of whether Israel’s policy is still relevant – and if the Jewish state should possibly step up its own targeted campaign against the heads of organizations which openly threaten its continued existence.

Today, Israel’s potential hit list might include the following: Nasrallah; Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force; and possibly Baha Abu al-Ata, head of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, as well. All three are believed to have survived previous assassination attempts, all of them attributed to Israel.

In recent years, Israel is believed to have carried out a series of such operations. In 2008, it is alleged to have killed Hezbollah arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus and Syrian general Mohammed Suleiman in Tartus; in 2012, Ahmed Jabari in Gaza; in 2015, Samir Kuntar near Damascus; and in 2016, Jihad Mughniyeh – Imad’s son – in Quneitra. In almost all of these cases, Israel refrained from taking responsibility, but all five were people engaged in dangerous anti-Israel operations. Their elimination was key to undermining their activities.

Were these assassinations effective? It is difficult to tell. After Imad Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus, Hezbollah tried repeatedly to attack Israeli targets in Europe and Asia. All the attempts failed until 2012 when a Lebanese bomber blew up next to an Israeli tourist bus in Burgas killing five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver.

The targeted killing of Jabari, Hamas’s military commander, was the opening salvo in 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense. Since then, Hamas has grown in capabilities, obtaining and firing rockets with longer ranges and digging dozens of tunnels under the border into Israel. Two years after he was blown up in his Kia sedan, Israel was forced into Protective Edge, the 2014 Gaza war that lasted 50 days and ended without a clear victory.

This doesn’t mean that targeted killings are not needed. Had these five men not been killed, it is not as if they would have not tried to attack Israel. They would have – and many of them were involved in such attacks when they were eliminated.

Gilboa agrees, but wants Israel to stick to the criteria it has set for itself – a terrorist is targeted because of attacks he or she is planning, and that considerable thought should be given to the potential successor, and whether he or she is better or worse.

“I have no doubt that lessons have been learned from Musawi. But knowing people and the way they think, I also have no doubt that it can always happen again,” he said. “Decision makers can’t allow themselves to be blinded. They always have to think about the repercussions.”