Analysis: The man linking Iran, Syria and Hizbullah

It will be hard for Hizbullah to avenge the killing of the man who thought up its retaliatory policy.

Imad Mughniyeh 224 88 (photo credit: FBI Website)
Imad Mughniyeh 224 88
(photo credit: FBI Website)
It's hard to imagine a figure more dangerous, more sophisticated or more experienced than arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. Until his assassination on Wednesday, Mughniyeh served as the mastermind behind Hizbullah's operations, an elusive figure linked to almost every attack executed by the organization since its inception in the early 1980s. In fact, it is impossible to name even one large-scale attack executed by Hizbullah that Mughniyeh was not involved in - from airplane hijackings to embassy bombings to kidnappings and more. The senior Hizbullah leader was responsible for suicide attacks on the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, which lead to the strategic withdrawal of American and foreign forces out of Lebanon. He was also wanted in connection to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy and the 1994 attack on the AMIA building in Buenos Aires, attempted attacks in Asia and the Arab world and the kidnappings of dozens of Westerners in Lebanon throughout the 1980s. Mughniyeh's importance lies not only in his ability to execute extraordinary attacks against targets around the world - or even in his control of Hizbullah's operational branch in Lebanon - but more significantly in the close connections he established between Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. Mughniyeh positioned himself as the operational link between these actors. It is in this framework that Mughniyeh also served as al-Qaida's contact within Hizbullah throughout the 1990s. There is good reason the FBI set a $5 million price on his head, and that some in the American intelligence community have described Mughniyeh as an even more dangerous enemy than Osama bin Laden himself. Unlike bin Laden, however, Mughniyeh's influence was not derived from the image he created of himself, but by his actual deeds and capabilities as an initiator, planner, supervisor and executor of attacks on an international scale. In effect, these attacks tremendously strengthened Hizbullah's capabilities in a variety of spheres, creating the deterrence that the organization was seeking to achieve vis-à-vis foreign states and Israel. After the assassination of a terrorist leader - especially one as senior as Mughniyeh - the question arises: Will there be a boomerang effect? Will the organization seek retaliation? Hizbullah is known to employ a policy - developed by Mughniyeh himself - in which a significant attack against the organization and its leaders does not pass without harsh response. It is thus reasonable to assume that such retaliation will indeed follow Wednesday's assassination. The list of actors potentially responsible for Mughniyeh's assassination is long and goes well beyond Israel. Among the possible culprits: Lebanese Christians who hold Mughniyeh responsible for assassinations against their own leaders; competing factions within the Shi'ite community; and Syrian intelligence figures who, despite previous cooperation, may have been uncomfortable with Mughniyeh's close connections to Iran and his strength within Lebanon and the Mediterranean region. Yet there is actually little importance in identifying the perpetrators. Even if Israel is relieved of responsibility for the assassination, Hizbullah will react instinctively against Israel - placing blame on the country and even retaliating with attacks against Israeli targets and interests around the world. Hizbullah, under Mughniyeh's leadership, has already developed the infrastructure and contingency plans necessary to activate sleeper cells into launching attacks against Jewish and Western interests on short notice - a matter of days, weeks or months. They are additionally capable, of course, of launching Katyusha rocket attacks against Israel from Lebanon. Hizbullah retaliated against Israeli and Jewish targets in Argentina after the Israeli assassination of organization leader Abbas al-Musawi in 1992 and Israel Air Force bombings in 1993. While Mughniyeh's assassination may serve to intensify the group's motivation to fulfill their proven capabilities, the hand that controlled the organization's activities for so long, which previously would have been the hand of retaliation, has now been severed. Dr. Boaz Ganor is the Executive Director of the International Institute of Counter Terrorism (ICT) and the Deputy Dean of the Lauder School of Government at IDC Herzliya.