Long-time Hezbollah operations director Imad Mughniyah has been a seminal figure in the evolution of modern terrorism. He has links to Arafat and bin Laden, and is believed to have masterminded suicide vehicle bombings in Beirut, Argentina, and Saudi Arabia. His demise by car bomb in Damascus is just (and fitting). It is an open question as to whether or not it will prove to be a major body blow or inspire revenge attacks.
There may be reason to worry, but it is also possible that this was the best possible time to target Mughniyah.
Assassinating Mughniyah was an impressive operation. Israel (the most likely actor) managed to penetrate the notoriously difficult Hezbollah security network to get to Mughniyah and they carried out an operation in the heart of an Arab capital. Of course, many observers have noted that Israel’s assassination of Abu Jihad in 1988 was an impressive operation, but did little to stymie the First Intifada.
Formal studies of the targeted killing strategy are sparse – it is clear that some groups decline when their leaders are removed (Aum Shinrikyo, Sendero Luminoso, and Action Directe – to name a few.) Other groups are damaged, but come back – such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which was hobbled after its leader Fathi Shqaqi was assassinated in Malta in 1995. PIJ made a comeback when it became an Iranian proxy, closely allied with Hezbollah.
Other groups are motivated by the death and capture of their leaders. Baader-Meinhof in Germany is one example. Hezbollah is another. On February 17, 1992, Israel assassinated Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Abbas Musawi. Hezbollah responded on March 17, 1992 by striking Israel’s Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and wounding 252. On May 21, 1994 Israel captured Hezbollah leader Mustafa Dirani and on June 2, 1994 Israel bombed a Hezbollah training camp in eastern Lebanon. On July 18, 1994 Hezbollah responded by bombing the Argentine Jewish community center (AMIA), killing 85 and wounding over 200.
The key factors in whether or not a group will fold or adapt or retaliate after losing a top leader are the group’s strength, leadership, and adaptability. Unfortunately, Hezbollah is strong in every category. In raw numbers, they are believed to have hundreds of core members and thousands of affiliated members. Beyond numbers they have secure physical and financial bases. While Nasrallah is the Secretary-General and major face to the world, Hezbollah is run by a council and has replaced its leadership before. It is not a group that relies entirely on a major charismatic figure like Aum Shinrikyo. Finally, Hezbollah has proven its adaptability time and again – developing new tactics, expanding into new businesses, and developing new means to propagate its message, including a satellite channel and video games.
Finally, Hezbollah has a powerful patron in Iran, which has advised and guided it since its inception. If Hezbollah and its patron have not prepared a deep bench of operatives to replace Mughniyah then they are very stupid. Does anyone believe that Hezbollah and Iran are stupid?
On the Other Hand
While there is reason to believe that Hezbollah will try something, there are also mitigating factors. Potential Hezbollah targets are also adaptable, and the memories of 1992 and 1994 remain strong. In addition Israel’s demonstrated ability to penetrate Syria with virtual impunity could lead the Syrians to check potential Hezbollah strikes. Finally, Hezbollah itself may have to check any efforts at retaliation. Research I am doing at the University of Maryland modeling terrorist group behavior indicates that Hezbollah can be very sensitive to the political situation in Lebanon. They have learned from experience. In spring 1996 Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody campaign in which many Lebanese civilians were killed. While Israel was held responsible, Hezbollah lost two seats in the elections later that year.
The political situation in Lebanon is very delicate, and many Lebanese leaders are becoming increasingly critical of Hezbollah. For example, Druse leader and March 14 movement figure Walid Jumblatt recently called Hezbollah a “totalitarian party.” Hezbollah wants to maintain and expand its power in Lebanon, and to do so it cannot completely alienate important Lebanese constituencies.
Taking these factors into account, this may have been an ideal time for the Israelis to remind their enemies of their capabilities and serve justice to one of the world's most wanted terrorists. Nonetheless, the prospect of a retaliatory strike cannot be ignored. If it comes, it will probably be outside the region. Direct attacks on Israel from Lebanon could invite retaliations in Lebanon which would isolate Hezbollah even further in the current Presidential stand-off. Israeli institutions worldwide will undoubtedly be on high alert. Hopefully Jewish communal institutions and U.S. military bases (the other favored Hezbollah targets) will also tighten security.
One thing is certain. This attack does not put Hezbollah out of business and it will undoubtedly review its internal security carefully and identify how crucial information about Mughniyah’s whereabouts leaked. About 35 years ago, Fatah faced the same problem of protecting its leaders from Israeli assassins. The response was to establish an elite bodyguard that became known as Force 17. It was with Force 17 that a young Imad Mughniyah began his long and terrible career.