Intelligence Experts Fear Hezbollah Retaliation
One of the world’s most notorious terrorists met a violent end late Tuesday night when a car bomb killed Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in the Syrian capitol of Damascus. Until 9/11, Mughniyeh was responsible for more American deaths than any other single terrorist, including the 1983 attack in Beirut that killed 241 Marines. And while many in the counterterrorism community cheered Mughniyeh’s death as a victory against jihadism, some in U.S. intelligence circles now fear potential reprisal attacks from Hezbollah against U.S. targets.
According to the London newspaper Asharq Alawsat, a car bomb tore Mughniyeh apart as he left an Iranian school in Damascus. Iran was one of Mughniyeh’s many sponsors over his nearly 30-year history of terrorism: others included the PLO, Hezbollah, various Lebanese Shiite militia groups, and several lesser-known entities in the sphere of radical Shiism. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the death of Mughniyeh, who pioneered suicide terrorism during the bloody Lebanese civil war of the 1980s. But many intelligence and counterterrorism analysts interviewed by The Washington Independent speculated that Israel was probably responsible, as part of its longtime policy of targeting anti-Israel terrorists.
But many intelligence and counterterrorism analysts interviewed by The Washington Independent speculated that Israel was probably responsible, as part of its longtime policy of targeting anti-Israel terrorists.
Mughniyeh is infamous for several reasons. "He provided the methodology of coordinated, simultaneous suicide attacks," said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based terrorism analyst at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. "He became a victim of his own methods, as Imad Mughniyeh also did car bombings." Gunaratna documented, in his well-regarded book Inside al-Qaeda, how Mughniyeh provided weapons and explosives training in the mid-1990s in Sudan to al-Qaeda — one of the only known links between Shiite and Sunni jihadist organizations.
Despite Mugniyeh’s high profile, he escaped numerous Israeli and American capture attempts. "The U.S. government has been trying to bring him to justice for decades, and take it from personal experience, it was not easy to do," said Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton and early Bush administrations. The terrorist is believed to have undergone several plastic surgeries to escape the decades-long manhunt.
Mughniyeh’s targets are legendary. Most important, from an American perspective, U.S. intelligence believes Mugniyeh masterminded the simultaneous October 1983 attacks on the U.S. Marine barracks and a French combat outpost in Beirut, in which about 300 people died. In 2002, then-deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Mughniyeh’s organization, Hezbollah, the "A-Team of terrorism." Israel suspects Mugniyeh of orchestrating attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the early 1990s — the only attacks Hezbollah has been accused of perpetrating outside the Middle East.
U.S. intelligence believes Mugniyeh masterminded the simultaneous October 1983 attacks on the U.S. Marine barracks and a French combat outpost in Beirut, in which about 300 people died
But current and former U.S. intelligence officials say they fear that Mughniyeh’s killing may trigger a new wave of anti-American violence from Hezbollah. "If they think the Israelis did it," said John E. McLaughlin, the deputy director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, "and I have no idea if they did, but typically the assumption in the Middle East is that they wouldn’t have done it without our acquiescence." McLaughlin added that he did not know who was responsible for Mughniyeh’s death.
Immediately after the killing — for which Israel promptly denied responsibility — Hezbollah blamed the "Zionist Israelis" in a statement read on its television station, al-Manar. But Hezbollah went further, claiming "the right to retaliate anywhere in the world and in any way it sees fit." Asked about the mood at one U.S. intelligence agency, an analyst who requested anonymity replied that there is "more concern about possible retaliation than anything else."
Other analysts also predicted that Hezbollah will not allow Mughniyeh’s death to go unanswered, and will likely lash out at Israeli or U.S. targets. "I think that’s absolutely correct," said a terrorism analyst who also requested anonymity. "It could be against whomever — targets of opportunity. The sooner [Hezbollah] does it, the better [from its perspective], so there’s a clear sense of linkage. That group tends particularly to go for revenge."
McLaughlin could not say what the likelihood of a Hezbollah attack on the U.S. is, but he did say that he is convinced Hezbollah is, at the least, considering one. "Hezbollah is probably calculating the merits and downsides of retaliation," he said. "I think this crosses a big line with Hezbollah. … For years, they have carried out operations with a professionalism and skill that you don’t see from practically any other terrorist group — including al-Qaeda. They have a record of casing targets for future consideration.
"At this point," McLaughlin continued, "they’d have to be weighing the pros and cons of doing any of that, probably in some consultation with Iran. The main message, then, is that people need to now be on guard for retaliation."
Hezbollah’s complicated proxy relationship with Iran makes predicting its behavior difficult, explained McLaughlin, whose ascension to acting CIA director after George Tenet’s 2004 resignation capped a 30-plus year career as an analyst. "The argument is that [Hezbollah] has a certain amount of independence and legitimacy in Lebanon, to a degree that makes them less susceptible to Iranian guidance," he said. "I think Iran, in these circumstances, would be a check. No one knows. But as Iran adds up all the pluses and minuses, it would be not to Iran’s advantage to encourage Hezbollah retaliation."
McLaughlin offered the caveat that his argument presumes rationality on the part of the Iranians. "But who is the actor in Iran?" he said "Hezbollah is more responsive to the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] than others, and the IRGC responsive in turn to the Supreme Leader. Whatever his faults, the Supreme Leader is probably capable of pragmatic calculation here. So it’s a very close call, but I’d say Iran is inclined to discourage them."
However, he added, the uncertain ability of Iran to restrain Hezbollah is "what makes it so complicated…. It’s uncertain whether the automaticity of influence is there."
Hezbollah’s offensive capabilities inside the U.S. are not well understood. The FBI has uncovered numerous instances of U.S.-based fund-raising for the Lebanese terrorist group, but it is unclear whether Hezbollah has operatives in place for a potential attack. "It’s hard to imagine they would not have cased targets here," McLaughlin said, adding that domestic intelligence was never his job, nor that of anyone in the CIA. "But on other hand, they tend to operate not with people in place but by sending people. They’d probably have to send someone [to the U.S.], and that makes it harder. We’re not yet safe, but we’ve certainly hardened our vulnerabilities."
Representatives from the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for the national security division of the FBI, Dean Boyd, said, "We have seen the reports this morning on Imad Mughniyeh’s death. We are awaiting confirmation and have no additional information about the circumstances. As an indicted terrorist, Mughniyeh has been on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list for some time, and the Justice Department and FBI have been seeking him for some time." A representative from the Syrian embassy in Washington, Ahmed Salkini, said the embassy would not comment.
Terrorism experts debated whether Mughniyeh was a singular figure among jihadis. "Mugniyeh is huge," said Cressey. "Before Bin Laden, he had more American blood on his hands than any other terrorist. This is a huge deal."
Others, while saying they are personally gladdened by Mughniyeh’s death, were more circumspect. "I don’t see it as being a serious blow to the ability of these groups to recruit and be active," said a terrorism analyst who requested anonymity. "If we haven’t learned the lesson yet that this is like pop-up dolls, then we haven’t learned anything."