Hezbollah leader's death in Syria could trigger retaliation
Imad Mughnieh, suspected of planning kidnappings, hijacking, and attacks in Beirut during the 1980s and '90s, was killed in Damascus Tuesday night.
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Israel denied responsibility for Mughnieh's death, but Israeli officials greeted his demise with joy. Danny Yatom, former director of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, called the assassination "a great achievement for the free world in its fight against terror."Skip to next paragraph
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Analysts say that a retaliation from Hezbollah is inevitable. When Israel assassinated Sheikh Abbas Mussawi, then Hezbollah leader, in February 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was blown up a month later, killing 29 people in a revenge operation alleged to have been planned by Mughnieh himself.
"This is something that Hezbollah cannot let pass. Mughnieh was too much of a symbol," says Timur Goksel, lecturer on international relations in Beirut and a former United Nations official in south Lebanon. "I don't think Hezbollah will go for a big bombing, probably an assassination of a high profile target."
Mughnieh's death comes amid rising tensions in Lebanon as the country prepares to mark the third anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in a Valentine's Day truck bomb blast in 2005. Hezbollah is organizing a large funeral for Mughnieh Thursday afternoon, even as a huge turnout is expected in Beirut to commemorate Mr. Hariri's death.
While Israel and the US top the list of suspects behind Mughnieh's death, some Lebanese were quick to point a finger of blame at Damascus.
"It could have been the Syrians," says Walid Jumblatt, an outspoken member of the anti-Syrian March 14 parliamentary coalition. "Damascus is well protected, and I don't think somebody else could do it."
Some analysts suggest that Damascus may have seen advantage in delivering up Mughnieh to his enemies to curry favor with the US at a time when Syria is under intense international pressure. While America's $25 million reward for Mughnieh is a potential motive, the imminent establishment of an international tribunal to judge Hariri's killers also may have spurred Damascus's leadership to cooperate with the Americans over Mughnieh. Syria is widely suspected of involvement in Hariri's death.
Mughnieh was born in 1962 in the southern Lebanese village of Teir Dibba. He grew up in Beirut's southern suburbs where as a teenager he joined Force 17, the elite unit of the Fatah faction headed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
After Israeli forces expelled the Palestinians from Beirut during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Mughnieh joined a group of Shiite Islamists then coalescing under Iran's guidance in the Bekaa Valley. The group became Hezbollah and Mughnieh, despite his youth, was considered one of its most capable figures.
In addition to the 1983 attacks in Beirut, in 1985 Mughnieh led the hijacking of a TWA airliner in Beirut in which a US Navy diver was killed. He is also alleged to have run the networks of kidnappers who snatched dozens of foreigners in Beirut in the mid- to late 1980s.
"The man was a murderer and murdered people who had nothing to do with Lebanon," says Mr. Baer, the former CIA officer. "But at the same time, he believed he was fighting an anti-Colonial war. He was a disciplined soldier in a manageable war, unlike Al Qaeda, which is completely unmanageable."
• Julien Barnes-Dacey contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.