Analysis: Hizbullah seeks spectacular attack to avenge Mughniyeh's death

Forty-day mourning period for terrorist kingpin ends Saturday.

Imad Mughniyeh good 248 (photo credit: AP)
Imad Mughniyeh good 248
(photo credit: AP)
This Saturday will mark 40 days since Imad Mughniyeh's assassination on February 12 by a car bomb in Damascus. Hizbullah's TV and Web sites have derided Israel's worries ahead of a possible major terrorist attack which "keep Israeli political, military, and security officials up nights." Israel has enhanced security at its embassies and put its military on heightened alert. In light of their past behavior, Hizbullah and Iranian threats must be taken very seriously. They have three main options: an attack on northern Israel from South Lebanon, a major terrorist attack inside Israel or a major act of terror against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad. Hizbullah has rearmed itself with a huge amount of long-range missiles and still has a large clandestine infrastructure in southern Lebanon. Yet the presence of the UNIFIL forces on the ground, the sharp criticism of the organization in the United Nations' latest report on Resolution 1701 and the unsolved Lebanese internal situation could endanger the group's long-range political goals and standing. Moreover, Iran is probably not interested in a new conflagration at a time when its nuclear project has a good chance of surviving the latest international sanctions. In case of an attack against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad, based on the example of the two attacks in Buenos Aires, it would be clear to everybody that this is a Hizbullah or Iran/Hizbullah operation and the political price could be very high. The easiest way for retaliation would be a "mega-attack" inside Israel or the assassination of a high-level personality by a Palestinian proxy. Not only would it be more difficult to accuse Hizbullah of such an attack, but this could have a very negative impact on the negotiating process with the Palestinian Authority and would possibly provoke a major IDF operation in Gaza if it appeared that the attack was prepared there. The last attack against the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva could be an example, if it is not already the beginning of the retaliation. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking in Beirut at a ceremony in February to mark "Resistance Week," said that Hizbullah is today in "the stage of martyr Imad Mughniyeh's blood." This phase "focuses on developing the resistance on the operational level and opening new horizons. The escalation of operations has transformed the resistance's strategy from a traditional guerrilla war into a new unprecedented fighting school; somewhere between guerrilla war and traditional armies' operations." Will Hizbullah act with Iran to retaliate for Mughniyeh's assassination? Heading a high-level Iranian delegation, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki attended Mughniyeh's funeral in Beirut "to commemorate the great hero" and expressed condolences "on behalf of the Iranian government and people." Mughniyeh is being projected as an Iranian hero. According to Abu Wafa, a former leader in the Revolutionary Guards, on his first trip to Iran in the early 1980s Mughniyeh proved his military capabilities and excelled in his training. After three months of basic training, he traveled to the Iranian front and took part in several daring operations behind Iraqi lines. Islamist bloggers in Iran have also praised Mughniyeh and published some very rare photos of him. Blogger Mersad described him as "a super Mujaheed of the Islamic world…one of Ayatollah Khomeini's children." Iranian leaders made harsh statements against Israel, stronger even than Hizbullah's. Iranian Ambassador to Syria Ahmad Moussavi warned that the death of Mughniyeh "will lead to an earthquake in the Zionist regime." The head of the Revolutionary Guards, Muhammad Ali Jafari, predicted that Israel would be destroyed by Hizbullah in the "near future." Although Iranian officials have refrained from openly accusing Arab states of being involved in Mughniyeh's assassination, they have publicly expressed belief that the region is on the brink of conflict. Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, a co-founder of Hizbullah and current secretary general of the International Committee for Supporting the Palestinian People, claimed Mughniyeh's assassination was a "prelude" to "very dangerous and major events in the next few months" and that the US, Israel, and Arab states seek "to direct Lebanese issues toward a civil war." Syria is itching to respond. Sadr-al-Din al-Bayanuni, controller general of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, noted that all the world's channels covered the incident in real time except Syrian television. Former Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam, relating to Syrian television's failure to report Mughniyeh's assassination, said Syrian leaders were very embarrassed because Mughniyeh appeared in their country and they were telling the entire international community that they did not have information about him. Beirut's Al-Akhbar evaluates that the Syrian leadership is heading toward retaliation against all the Israeli aggressions that have taken place against it (the retaliatory air raid against the PFLP Ayn al-Sahib training camp in October 2003; the flights over the Syrian presidential palace in Latakia in June 2006 aimed at pressuring the Syrian leadership; and the September 2007 air raid against what Israel designated as a 'nuclear facility' in Dayr al-Zawr) and at a timing of its choosing, "even if this response leads to the outbreak of a Syrian-Israeli war." Interestingly, the Beirut pro-Syrian Al-Diyar evaluated that there are two conflicting options: either a Iranian-Syrian political and security escalation allowing Hizbullah to execute a qualitative operation regardless of the nature of the subsequent Israel response, or taking advantage of the assassination for a more major political breakthrough leading to "a major deal that might expedite solutions in more than one direction." Ely Karmon is Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.