Analyze This: Far more than the killing of one terrorist

Mughniyeh stood at the center of Iran's int'l terrorism efforts.

Mughniyeh 88 (photo credit: )
Mughniyeh 88
(photo credit: )
The killing of Imad Mughniyeh - whoever is responsible - represents a significant achievement for Israel and its allies, and a tremendous blow to its most sworn enemies, in particular Hizbullah and Iran's radical Islamist regime. Mughniyeh had invaluable knowledge and connections that enabled him to serve as the linchpin of a terrorist infrastructure stretching from Teheran to Damascus to Beirut, and from there outward across the entire globe. His sudden loss will undoubtedly set back for some time the operational capabilities not only of Hizbullah and the various terror groups with which he was linked, but the Iranian and Syrian intelligence agencies as well. Still, some degree of perspective is called for here. Mughniyeh was not a charismatic political figure, but a shadowy underground leader and organizer, and such figures are always replaceable in the dark world in which he operated. Though his death was obviously a major setback for Hizbullah, it will continue to carry on as before, as it did in the wake of Israel's targeted killing in 1992 of Hassan Nasrallah's predecessor, Abbas Musawi. Hizbullah's real strength derives not from individuals such as Musawi, Mughniyeh or even Nasrallah, but the generous backing its radical Shi'ite Lebanese leadership receives from Teheran. Yet the value in eliminating figures such as Mughniyeh often goes beyond simply subtracting the practical value they brought to their particular organizations. That wider benefit, though, doesn't come in the nature of deterrence; these are men willing to die every bit as much as they are willing to kill. The extra-added value is the potential strategic impact such strikes can have given certain circumstances surrounding their executions. Although the killing of one individual, or even several, may not deter terror groups from their goals, it may impact on their tactics, structure or the political context in which they operate, in a manner that has broader impact than the death of one terrorist mastermind. In the case of Mughniyeh, some factors regarding the timing and location of his assassination will certainly resonate beyond just the damage done this week to Hizbullah's hierarchy. Coming as it does just a few months after the Israeli Air Force strike on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility, this operation is a further embarrassment for Bashar Assad's regime, and a sign of its weakening position. It's the kind of blow Damascus can ill afford to take as it finds itself in an increasingly precarious place: on one hand still allied to the forces of radical Islam represented by Iran and Hizbullah; on the other now literally surrounded either by more moderate Muslim regimes allied to the West (Jordan, Turkey), or forces with which it is hostile (Israel, the Lebanese government, the US-led coalition in Iraq). Mughniyeh was a key player in maintaining the links between Damascus and the Islamists, and the fact that not only is he now gone, but that he was taken out in a Syrian haven that he and his sponsors thought secure until now, must be giving Assad and his generals some sleepless moments over the course they are presently pursuing. As for the timing of the act, it was most likely set not by some newfound determination on the part of Israeli or other foreign intelligence agencies to knock out Mughniyeh now, as this has already been an outstanding goal on their part for decades. Rather, some manner of inside information or assistance had to have become available of late that finally opened a window of opportunity to hit this long-standing target. Although how that came about is likely to remain a mystery, one answer to that question might be found in recent events in Lebanon. Mughniyeh was likely involved in the bombing attacks there over the past few years directed against anti-Hizbullah officials, including the one two months ago in which Lebanese army commander General Francois Hajj was killed. Hajj once worked closely with the Syrians, and with Mughniyeh's death coming just one day before the symbolically charged third anniversary of Lebanon's "Valentine's Day Massacre" - the bombing which killed Lebanese president Rafik Hariri and 22 others - it is reasonable to speculate that the information or aid needed to kill the Hizbullah leader might well have come from one of Damascus's former allies in Lebanon, swayed the other way by the tide of events in that country. One further point relevant to the beneficial timing of Mughniyeh's assassination should be noted. Israel and its allies are now involved in a campaign to convince the general public, at least in Europe and North America, of the danger of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iranian regime acquiring nuclear weapons technology. Part of the problem in doing so is that even a nuclear-armed Iran is not seen as a direct strategic threat against Western nations well outside this region. Yet surveys done by organizations involved in the campaign to rally the West against a nuclear Iran clearly show that when the general public in those countries is presented with convincing evidence that Teheran is an active state sponsor of international terrorism that extends beyond the Middle East - indeed, well beyond its own hemisphere - then the prospect of the mullahs getting their hands on nuclear weapons capability becomes a much more convincing and immediate threat. Imad Mughniyeh stood at the very center of Iran's international terrorism efforts, directed not just at Israel or at Hizbullah's political rivals, but at specifically Western targets - including Americans and British soldiers and civilians kidnapped and killed in Lebanon during the 1980s, the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner, and especially the two bombing attacks at Jewish institutions in Buenos Aires that he helped carry out during the 1990s. Indeed, Mughniyeh was rated by some Western intelligence agencies as the most dangerous international terrorist in the world other than Osama bin Laden - yet he received barely a fraction of the media attention given the al-Qaida leader, and relatively few in the West would have recognized the name of this figure that posed such a formidable threat to it. In his death, then, Mughniyeh and his nefarious career are drawing some of the attention that was well past due him in his violent life. Make no mistake about it, though; there will be more Imad Mughniyehs. But at least his fitting end should be seen as an opportunity to further warn the world what it would mean if men such as Mughniyeh might one day soon have access to the nuclear technology that would enable them to fulfill their deepest dreams - and our darkest nightmares.