Security and Defense: Taking the battle overseas

After Bangkok terror arrests, some top IDF officers believe Israel should declare that a mass-casualty attack would be a casus belli.

Thailand Bangkok police 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Thailand Bangkok police 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On March 11, 1994, a car accident took place on the streets of Bangkok. A six-wheeled truck rammed into a motorcycle, knocking the driver to the ground.
The truck driver got out and took off on foot. Thinking it was just another random hit-and-run, Bangkok police towed the truck to a local lot where they opened it up and discovered a large water tank, packed with explosives and containing the body of a man who was later identified as the original truck driver.
A few weeks later, Thai security authorities arrested an Iranian national named Hossein Shahriarifar after he tried to cross into Thailand from Malaysia on a false passport – apparently one of many in his possession.
Two years later Shahriarifar was sentenced to death but in 1998, following pressure from Iran, Thailand set him free.
While the attack in Bangkok was foiled that day, the Jewish community in Argentina was not as lucky. Four months after the random car accident, an explosivesladen van blew up in front of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, destroying the building and killing 85 people.
The foiled attack in Bangkok and the successful one in Buenos Aires were carried out by Iran and Hezbollah shortly after Israel abducted Mustafa Dirani, a senior Shi’ite terrorist with close links to Iran and Hezbollah and the man who had captured and detained Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad.
This month, Israel was again lucky in Thailand when a Hezbollah plot to bomb the Israeli embassy in Bangkok was foiled with the arrest of Hezbollah terrorist Hussein Atris.
Another Hezbollah operative succeeded in fleeing the country.
Thai defense officials confirmed that the Mossad had warned Bangkok of Hezbollah plans to launch an attack already in mid-December but the suspects had then traveled to the south and left the country, likely through Malaysia. On January 8, the Mossad again contacted Thai officials and warned that the attack was in its final stages and would be launched between January 13 and 15.
A few days after his arrest at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bagkok, Atris led Thai investigators to a warehouse filled with more than 8,000 pounds of urea fertilizer and several gallons of liquid ammonium nitrate, which are known bomb-making materials.
The description of the Mossad’s involvement by Thai defense officials shows impressive intelligence capabilities and the likelihood of success in penetrating Hezbollah. At the same time though, the attack had been expected, although not necessarily in Thailand.
To be more accurate, Israel has been waiting for such an attack for four years, ever since a car bomb ripped through the night in Damascus on February 12, 2008, killing Hezbollah’s top military commander Imad Mughniyeh.
Several known plots by Hezbollah to avenge Mughniyeh’s death, which the group attributes to the Mossad, have been thwarted. These have included a plan to bomb the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan, a plan to shoot down an Israeli airliner over Turkey with shoulder-to-air missiles and a plan to attack Israeli tourists in the Sinai.
Now it was Thailand’s turn.
Ely Karmon, a terrorism expert from the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya who has carefully studied Hezbollah’s overseas activities, said that the group’s decision to again operate in Thailand after it was caught trying to perpetrate an attack there 18 years ago was a demonstration of plain old guts.
“Hezbollah looks to operate in countries where it believes that the police and security forces are not of a high level and are unaware of what is happening in the Middle East,” Karmon said. “This needs to serve as a lesson to all of these different countries.”
However valuable Mughniyeh was to Hezbollah – the IDF estimates that even four years later, he has yet to be completely replaced – the Israeli defense establishment believes that there are other motives behind Hezbollah’s desire to attack Israel somewhere overseas.
One of the motives is understood to be part of Iranian efforts to deter the West from launching a military strike against its nuclear facilities by showing the world that its proxy – Hezbollah – can strike anywhere it wants, even as far away as Thailand.
This is meant to show the United States, Israel and Europe that retaliation to a strike against Iran will be painful for everyone and will not simply be the launching of rockets and missiles by Hezbollah and Hamas into the Israeli home front.
In recent years, Hezbollah is believed to have significantly upgraded its overseas infrastructure, putting a particular emphasis on Africa, Europe and South America.
Hezbollah has an overseas division based in Beirut but it functions more like a sub-unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force, responsible for Iran’s support of terrorist groups around the world.
The head of the Hezbollah unit, which numbers a few dozen operatives, is a veteran member of the guerrilla organization named Talal Hamia, who is assisted by his bodyguard Ahmed Faid and by Hezbollah’s top bomb maker, Ali Najan al- Din Hamia was allegedly involved in the 1992 and 1994 bombings in Buenos Aires that targeted the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center.
Another member of the cell, Majd al-Zakur, referred to as “the forger,” is responsible for procuring and preparing fake passports, like the Swedish one that appears to have been used by Atris to enter Thailand and whose authenticity is now under scrutiny.
The question currently at the heart of a debate within the Israeli defense establishment is what the appropriate response should be to such an attack, if and when one takes place overseas. Hezbollah would likely prefer an overseas attack against an embassy, an El Al plane or a consulate rather than an attack along the northern border since this would allow it a level of deniability.
Nevertheless, there are some officials within the defense establishment and the IDF General Staff who believe that Israel needs to clarify already today that such an attack would be met by war, similar to the recent declarations of how Israel would respond to the abduction of a soldier.
These officials believe that making such a declaration now could potentially deter Hezbollah from launching such an attack.
Other officials believe that Israel should not go to war over any attack and that the country’s reaction would need to depend on the chosen target and of course the outcome, i.e. the number of casualties.
These officials warn that if Israel declares today that it will go to war and does not stand up to its word, then it will undermine its own deterrence and ultimately lead Hezbollah to believe that attacks overseas are legitimate.