The Israeli government has blamed Iran and Hezbollah for a pair of attacks on Israeli diplomats earlier today. There are plenty of reasons to believe this is the case. If so, there is good news and there is bad news.
The attacks included explosives planted on cars of Israeli diplomats in Tblisi, Georgia and New Delhi, India. The device in Tblisi was discovered and disabled, the device in New Delhi detonated and injured the wife of an Israeli diplomat. The attack occurred on the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh.
The attacks could also be an effort to remind the world that sanctioning Iran and supporting the Syrian rebels will not come without a cost – this alliance still has the capability to deliver terror worldwide.
Interestingly, the attack method – quickly sticking a magnetic explosive to the car – is the method used to assassinate an Iranian scientist last month. However, in this case the target was less carefully chosen.
The silver lining on this unfortunate event is that it is a further proof of Hezbollah’s loss of the ability to carry out long-range terror attacks. While it has been generally assumed the Hezbollah is one of the most capable terrorist groups this morning was its first successful operation outside of Lebanon since 1996. Hezbollah has certainly had the motivation to carry out major terror attacks, particularly to avenge the assassination of its operations chief, the arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. In the past I have argued that extensive international intelligence efforts against Hezbollah have taken a heavy toll, restricting their ability to carry out complex attacks abroad.
While this morning’s attack was a tragedy it is a far cry from the devastating attacks Hezbollah launched in Argentina or against the Khobar Towers (or its initial attacks against the US Embassy and Marine Barracks in Lebanon.) Hezbollah has also assassinated its enemies, but the targets were carefully chosen – this morning’s attacks were more akin to targets of opportunity.
It is of course possible that Hezbollah was merely holding its fire, that these were shots across the bow rather then full-fledged strikes. But the fact that a revenge attack for the Mughniyeh killing has only come four years does little to suggest that Hezbollah has maintained its once formidable international network. None of this is to suggest, that Hezbollah as been defanged. The efforts needed to keep Hezbollah international terror capabilities in check are essential - if they were not present the organization would probably be able to resume high-level attacks.
In the 1970s and 1980s many European countries allowed Middle Eastern terrorist groups freedom to operate with the understanding (or at least the belief) that they would not carryout attacks in the host country’s territory. This blind eye strategy did not work and France, in particular, became a battle-ground and target for various Middle Eastern extremists. India is not consciously turning a blind eye to terrorism. However, it’s security capacity is imperfect. While there are highly professional elements within India’s security services, day-to-day law enforcement leaves something to be desired. Spotty security limitations combined with long-borders and extensive international trade and travel, as well as a plethora of dissatisfied domestic communities make India a potential playground for terrorist groups. Further, with the advent of the Internet and cable news, attacks in India will attract cameras (as was seen in Mumbai in 2008) as readily as attacks anywhere else.
There is a potential opportunity here as well.
Mike Kraft, a former State Department official , has written extensively about capacity building for counter-terrorism. Strictly physical security is only the first level of this kind of effort. In Columbia, for example, the State Department helped train prosecutors how to collect evidence and build cases against terrorists. In Indonesia, training focused on creating a modern and effective system for monitoring financial transaction so that counter-terror sanctions could be implemented. Programs like this have lots of other benefits such as improving the justice system. Delivering financial aid to Indonesia after the tsunami was simplified by the reforms originally put in place for counter-terror purposes.
Large scale American and Israeli efforts to improve Indian internal security through professionalizing police forces and bringing information technology to the law enforcement community could yield enormous dividends for India beyond counter-terror and strengthen the already growing bonds between these allies.