Analysis: Duet in Damascus - is it d?ja vu?

Ex-Mossad man Mishka Ben-David wrote the book on Mughniyeh's killing... six years ago.

mishka ben david 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mishka ben david 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Gathering intelligence in Shiite neighborhoods is complex, of course, the nature of the neighborhood almost didn't allow them to walk around on foot and look at things, neither were they able to drive around in a rented car. One of the buildings in the street matched the description given to them in an intelligence briefing by a local agent. After several turns in the area at different hours of the day, a car that was also seen at his office was noticed parked outside the building on the residential street. The next day, when they waited for him to leave the neighborhood in the early morning hours, they identified the man himself and his car. Now was the time to move. He finished assembling the bomb quickly and lifted it carefully - nobody enjoys walking around with a kilo of explosives in his hands. He quickly moved towards the car and crawled underneath it, took out the tools from his pocket, and placed the bomb under the chassis." (Duet in Beirut, Mishka Ben-David, 2002) No need to wait for the book on Imad Mughniyeh's demise in Damascus. It may already have been written. Duet in Beirut by former Mossad operative Mishka Ben-David is a work of fiction, but owes its wealth of detail to the author's intelligence experience. Published in Hebrew six years ago, it describes a Mossad hit team traveling to Beirut, stalking the head of Hizbullah's foreign terror department and assassinating him in a car bombing. Perhaps unfortunately for Mughniyeh, it was not translated into Arabic; had he read it, he might have taken greater precautions. Ben-David said Wednesday that he had modeled his terror overlord, "Abu Khaled," on two men: Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mashaal, and Mughniyeh, long Hizbullah's chief of foreign terror operations. While Ben-David is careful to say that Israel may not have been behind Mughniyeh's killing, he does detail several examples of how the planned killing of the fictional Abu Khaled might mirror the death of Mughniyeh. The book details an operation spanning months of careful intelligence-gathering by Mossad operatives in the Shi'ite neighborhoods of Beirut under extremely difficult conditions, while always being careful to avoid Hizbullah counterintelligence. Similarly, he says, the people who killed Mughniyeh must have been watching him for months and acted when their operational window opened. Just as in Duet in Beirut, they must have kept not only Mughniyeh under constant surveillance, but also the vehicles in which he traveled, and especially the one in which he was finally killed. This in itself must have been extremely tricky, as Mughniyeh was a master at moving underground. Robert Baer, who hunted Mughniyeh for years as a CIA officer, described Mughniyeh in comments to Time magazine as "the most dangerous terrorist we've ever faced. He is probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we've ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else. He enters by one door, exits by another, changes his cars daily, never makes appointments on a telephone, never is predictable." One of his greatest achievements was that until he was killed, many people had not even heard of him. Mughniyeh lived in Beirut and traveled to an upscale Damascus neighborhood for meetings. He made this trip regularly. This must have added an extra layer of complication to the surveillance and operational plan, as the target had crossed a border - but also an opportunity. The fact that Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus seriously embarrasses Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Ben-David says that had he written a story on the assassination of Mughniyeh, he would have had him killed in Beirut, where he lived, and where it would have been easier to keep him under surveillance, even though he lived a highly secretive life. Nevertheless, the real-life operation succeeded, and Mughniyeh is dead. In keeping with the theme of popular culture, and in contrast to Ben-David's book, Steven Spielberg's film Munich features a Mossad hit team hopping around European capitals, hunting down and killing Palestinian Black September members responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The hit team, dressed in fashionable European clothes, sit in fancy cafés sipping espressos while planning their next moves against the terrorists. To fit in with the European crowd, the Mossad hand-picks team members who look European and speak the languages. When the Israeli team kills a Russian KGB agent protecting one of their targets in a shootout in Athens, the Mossad team itself becomes the hunted, and three of its members are killed - one of them by a beautiful Dutch assassin. The drama takes place within the romanticized atmosphere of Cold War Europe, with spies and assassins dressed to kill in the latest fashions, trapping their prey in the most exclusive hotel bars. This stands in stark contrast to the reality of spies and hit squads operating in the much-less-glamorous - but no less lethal - theater of the Middle East. Ben-David says intelligence work of this nature is much more difficult in an Arab state than it is in Europe. In Europe, it is easy for agents to fit in, because there are so many different nationalities walking around. "In Arab states, if you look out of place, everybody looks at you - you stand out if you don't look like an Arab, and it is much more dangerous," says Ben-David. This is not to say that whoever killed Mughniyeh looked like an Arab - just that "they were more careful," he says. In Munich, the Mossad team works without the cooperation of the security services of the nations in which they find themselves hunting targets. The team even gets its information on the targets from a private "black-market" information dealer, who says, "We don't work with governments." Much has changed since the Munich operation in the early '70s, and Israel enjoys tight intelligence cooperation from many countries across the globe. Should Israeli intelligence officials need to work in a foreign country, it is likely that in many cases, they would be working with the full knowledge and cooperation of the host nation. This is not always the case, however - and certainly not so in an Arab country like Syria, where counterintelligence is extremely tight. Every entrance and exit from Syria, like in other Arab countries, is very tightly monitored by the security services. The people who carried out Mughniyeh's killing would have had to have easier access - or the killing might have been carried out by locals as a contract kill. Intelligence work of the sort seen Tuesday night in Damascus is much harder to do in the Arab world than perhaps anywhere else. Lt.-Col. (res.) Moshe Marzuk, a former head of the Lebanon and Palestinian desk in IDF Military Intelligence and a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya, says intelligence work on the scale necessary to carry out the Mughniyeh killing must have taken a huge amount of work and planning, and that any one of several parties with an interest in working in Syria may have been involved. Marzuk believes the timing of the assassination was not coincidental, as February 14 is the third anniversary of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination, and Mughniyeh's killing may have been linked to the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon. Similarly the governments of Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Israel all have open accounts with Mughniyeh and the Syrian regime that was protecting him. Mughniyeh was the coordinator between Iran and Shi'ite militias in Iraq that target American forces and the Iraqi government. Several Syrian plots have been uncovered in Jordan and Israel over the years. "It works both ways - the Syrians have cells everywhere, so there are cells working against Syria inside Syria," Marzuk says. Increasingly, the Mossad is operating on its home court. Could Israel have carried out the assassination of Mughniyeh alone? It is possible, but it could have had help from neighboring countries' intelligence agencies. In September 2004, Hamas hinted that Jordan had been involved in the assassination of Izz al-Din al-Sheikh Khalil in Damascus's al-Zahra district. Hamas, which accused Israel of being behind the killing, said it was clear that an Arab country had played a role, and several Hamas officials in Beirut and the Gaza Strip said Jordan may have been involved. Ben-David, however, thinks it highly unlikely that an Arab intelligence agency would cooperate with the Mossad in an operation to kill other Arabs. "Lebanese intelligence may have wanted to kill Mughniyeh because they thought that with him in the picture, they could never gain full control of Lebanon. But there is no way the Arabs are going to help the Jews kill other Arabs, just like we don't help the Arabs kill other Jews," he says. What is certain, though, is that whoever killed Mughniyeh managed to penetrate not only Hizbullah's innermost circles, but likely also Syrian intelligence. "Hizbullah was always very difficult to infiltrate, and this is a major failure on their part," Marzuk says, adding that Hizbullah is now "penetrable and vulnerable." If Israel was behind the killing, it shows a very high operational capability by the Mossad. Whoever was behind Mughniyeh's killing infiltrated Hizbullah, had agents gather detailed information on the target's movements, and was able to report that information and send fighters to plant the explosives that blew up Mughniyeh's car. Hizbullah will now attempt to purge itself of the suspected agents in its midst. It will arrest people, kill people, and suspect everyone. They will also replace Mughniyeh. The decision to kill Mughniyeh must have been weighed against its costs, which could include a renewed Hizbullah bombardment of Israel and the negation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the Second Lebanon War. Regardless of whether or not Israel was behind his killing, Hizbullah will blame Israel. What is ironic is that Mughniyeh's killing in an Arab capital may lead Hizbullah to strike at Israeli and Jewish targets around the world, which it has done before, and which could see Israeli and Arab hit squads chasing each other around European capitals once again. This post appears on Amir's personal blog Forecast Highs