Mar 7, 2014
The Mughniyeh Enigma
Posted on Feb 26, 2008
By Scott Ritter
Imad Mughniyeh is dead, killed in a Feb. 12 car bomb attack carried out by as yet unidentified assailants in a Damascus suburb. Mughniyeh, a Lebanese, had been the head of Hezbollah’s Jihad Council, responsible for the external operations of that organization’s military wing. He was 48 years old. Since coming into prominence during the bloody years of Lebanon’s civil war (1976-79), Mughniyeh had built a résumé of operations that, depending on one’s perspective, established him as either one of the world’s foremost terrorists or freedom fighters. Few outside Lebanon, Syria and Iran will regard him as anything other than a terrorist. He is alleged to have carried out numerous attacks against the United States, killing hundreds, but for me, a former Marine, it is the loss of 241 of my fellow servicemen, the majority of them Marines, in an attack on a Beirut barracks attributed to Mughniyeh that will forever cement him in my mind as a mortal enemy.
That Mughniyeh deserved what he got is, in my opinion, not a matter up for debate. When one lives by the sword, he should expect to perish in the same fashion. Mughniyeh is alleged to be the mastermind of a number of horrific attacks that killed hundreds of people, military and civilian alike. Some of his actions have been acknowledged by those who support him, such as the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, which resulted in the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem. Other alleged attacks, such as the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina two years later, have been denied by Hezbollah. Most recently, Hezbollah acknowledged that Mughniyeh had played a significant role in the summer 2006 border war with Israel; that conflict was initiated by an attack that he probably masterminded, an attack in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two others were abducted. There is no doubt that Mughniyeh was personally responsible for any number of attacks, acknowledged or not. Today Mughniyeh lies dead and buried in a land which continues to be torn asunder, largely because of the actions of men like him.
And yet anyone who thinks Mughniyeh’s demise somehow improves the overall situation in the Middle East is sadly mistaken. Hezbollah has appointed his successor, and in light of Hezbollah’s extensive experience and depth, whoever has taken the reins from the slain Mughniyeh will no doubt possess similar nefarious tenacity and imagination. As will whoever replaces the successor when he perishes, and on and on. As with the killing of al-Qaida’s purported No. 3, Abu Laith al-Libi, in Pakistan on Jan. 29 by a missile-equipped CIA unmanned drone, the impact of taking out one individual is minimized when the entire structure of the organization the individual served remains intact, and the cause of the organization, in the eyes of those who support it, remains just.
Indeed, as was so in both the Mughniyeh and al-Libi operations, the violent removal of an individual in isolation often does more harm than good, since it inflames tensions and undermines any progress toward a lasting resolution of the underlying problem. In the case of al-Libi, the CIA attack was conducted unilaterally over Pakistani airspace, without permission of the Pakistani government. This blatant violation of sovereignty by the United States could have detrimental ramifications well beyond any short-term benefit gained by killing al-Libi. And Mughniyeh’s assassination has incensed Hezbollah during a time of increased tension, raising the possibility of renewed conflict with Israel, a conflict that could easily spin out of control and spark an even larger regional conflict. While many tout such targeted killings as a critical element of any larger war on terror, the fact is such actions rarely succeed in facilitating an easing of terrorism, but rather accelerate and exacerbate the conditions that spawn it.
Radical Islamic fundamentalism of the sort that produces an Imad Mughniyeh is a nebulous entity lacking a central theme, cause, creed or motivating factor, save one: the lure of “martyrdom.” In most organizations, the elimination of a top leader would signal a setback, but the martyrdom of Mughniyeh simply motivates those who follow to stay the course. Those who wage jihad, or holy war, tend to view martyrdom not only as a risk worth taking but as a noble and just end in itself. As such, operations that kill jihadists like Mughniyeh, when viewed in isolation, are self-defeating. And if a policy countering the work of jihadists consists of little more than stringing together targeted assassinations, it is a policy doomed to fail.
Contrary to the statements of President George W. Bush and members of his administration, there is no global nexus of radical Islamic terror. There is a growing number of Islamic groups and organizations whose actions have become increasingly radicalized in the past decades, some of which have assumed tactics and methods that can be classified as terrorism. There will be those who will point out that Mughniyeh was in Damascus ostensibly to meet with Hamas leaders about a coordinated strategy for dealing with Israel and say that this, in fact, proves that Hezbollah and Hamas are working the same agenda. These same people will note that past statements made by senior al-Qaida figures, including Osama bin Laden, have praised the work of Hamas, and will conclude that Hamas and al-Qaida are working the same agenda. And some will note that bin Laden himself at one time opened a training camp for Shiite jihadists, thereby theoretically bringing Hezbollah and its Iranian masters (both exclusively Shiite entities) into line with al-Qaida (an exclusively Sunni establishment). But to claim that Hezbollah is Hamas, that Hamas is al-Qaida, and that al-Qaida is Hezbollah is wrong.
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