Death of Hezbollah kingpin: A war awaits
By Ehsan Ahrari
Those who live by the sword must die by the sword. Imad Mughniyeh must have
known the adage, and now he, like all of his alleged victims, has met a violent
death, of all places, in Syria, where he was hiding because that was perceived
to be the safest place for him.
The 45-year-old Mughniyeh was said to be one of Hezbollah's top security
strategists and high on America's list of wanted "terrorists". His last
reported public appearance was at his brother Fuad's funeral in 1994 in Beirut.
Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb in Damascus on Tuesday in an up-market
district that houses an Iranian school, a police station and a Syrian
intelligence office, Hezbollah announced on
Hezbollah immediately accused Israel of assassinating Mughniyeh, who led the
group's security network during the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon. He was
reportedly targeted by the Israelis for many years, while the Americans had a
US$5 million award for information leading to his arrest.
"After a life full of jihad, sacrifices and accomplishments ... Hajj Imad
Mughniyeh ... died a martyr at the hands of the Israeli Zionists," Hezbollah
said. "The martyr had been a target for Zionists for 20 years."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office responded in a brief statement, "Israel
rejects the attempts of terror elements to attribute to Israel any
The United States was explicit in expressing satisfaction at his death.
According to State Department's spokesman Sean McCormack, "The world is a
better place without this man in it. He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass
murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost. One way
or another, he was brought to justice."
Among other acts, Mughniyeh had been accused of involvement in the 1983
bombings of the US Embassy and US Marine and French paratrooper barracks in
Beirut, which killed more than 350 people, as well as the 1992 bombing of the
Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon
during the 1980s.
The world may be a better place, but the chances of another outbreak of
violence between Hezbollah and Israel have escalated by more than a few
Mughniyeh had a shady background throughout his adult existence. He was born in
poverty, but no one knows for sure whether in Lebanon or Iran. It is unlikely
it will ever become known who is responsible for his death, but that is of the
What is important is that, even though the Hezbollah-Israeli hot war of
July-August 2006 is officially over, that war continues. Israel cannot get over
the fact that its conventional deterrence - that pretty much established to the
Arab world, through the 1967 and 1973 wars, that the Israeli armed forces were
invincible - was seriously jeopardized in 2006. The best-equipped forces in the
Middle East could not eradicate Hezbollah.
After the ceasefire, neither Hezbollah nor the Israelis has ceased preparations
for the next skirmish, except that the next round is likely to be bloodier and
more destructive than the one in 2006.
Not too many authoritative volumes can be expected to be written on the
Hezbollah-Israeli war of 2006; however, persons of Mughniyeh's background must
have played a crucial role in it - he was Hezbollah's head of special
operations. In that capacity, he must have had a role in the kidnapping of the
Israeli soldiers that ignited the war.
To understand the significance of Mughniyeh to Hezbollah, the following comment
is pertinent. It was made to Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post by Ali
Hassan Khalil, who is a member Parliament with Amal, another Shi'ite Muslim
group allied with Hezbollah, "This is a loss of a major pillar in resistance
work. He was an expert at making victories and building fighting capacities
against Israel. He played an essential role in all resistance activities,
especially the last war."
Mughniyeh undoubtedly also played an unpublicized but important role in the
ongoing behind-the-scenes tug-and-pull between the Israeli, Iranian and Syrian
intelligence forces. He had become a major figure in Hezbollah's shadowy
military apparatus, and a central pro-Iranian figure. In that capacity, he was
important both operationally as well as strategically.
He also had long-standing ties to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network.
Unfortunately, the death of one violent man, more often than not, leads to even
more violence. The streets of Damascus - where Mughniyeh was killed - and
Beirut - where he had lived - are already abuzz with talk of vengeance.
Translated into the language of high politics, this means that the chances of
an outbreak of violence between Hezbollah and Israel are high. Syria and Iran -
the real players in this fight - are not about to take on the Israel. But
Damascus knows that Israel is itching to get even with Hezbollah. Similarly,
Tehran knows that both the US and Israel are eagerly looking for an opportunity
to neutralize its nuclear option.
In the high-powered calculations of nation-states - especially major regional
actors, which Iran, Syria and Israel are - the promotion of their strategic
interests are much too vital to be sacrificed by risking wars. Entities like
Hezbollah, on the contrary, are eminently expendable.
"Small wars" -a la the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel - are also
acceptable, even though they contain the risk of escalating into a major war.
Not many people wish to hear this, but in those calculations, even a high level
of "collateral damage" (another bureaucratic and dehumanizing phrase that
serves as a euphemism for civilian death) is "acceptable", as long as those who
lose their lives are not Iranians, Syrians or Israelis.
Aside from a possible outbreak of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel
related to Mughniyeh's death, another option for Syria and Iran might be to
That option is least risky in the sense that it would not necessarily lead to a
war between Israel and Syria, but it would keep both the US and Israel more
focused on Lebanon, rather than on either Iran or Syria. Lebanon is likely to
suffer the consequences of the games that are being played between Iran, Syria
Lebanon's civilians have never chosen to live by the sword. However, one
miserable consequence of being a Lebanese is that someone else is determining
that they must die by the sword.
Ehsan Ahrari is professor of Security Studies (Counterterrorism) at the
Asia-Pacific Center of Security Studies. Views expressed in this essay are
strictly private and do not reflect those of the APCSS, the United States
Pacific Command, or any other agency of the US government.