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Bazzi: Who Killed Imad Mugniyah?

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 14, 2008

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Mohamad Bazzi, former Middle East correspondent for Newsday who is working on a book about Hezbollah, says Imad Mugniyah, assassinated on Wednesday in Damascus, had long ago faded from the position of power he occupied in the 1980s. Bazzi notes that Israel has previously carried out such “targeted assassinations” and evidence suggests Israeli agents as the source of this car bombing. Yet he leaves open the possibility of Syrian responsibility, perhaps because Mugniyah, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, had become a liability.

Reports came out of Damascus yesterday that Hezbollah’s Imad Mugniyah had been assassinated in a car bombing. He did most of his work years ago, right? Or was he still active?

Mugniyah hasn’t really been active since the 1980s. He was the security chief of Hezbollah—which is a very high position—in the 1980s. It’s debatable whether he still had a leading position in Hezbollah up to this day. Hezbollah would refuse to talk about him or answer questions about him for many years. They had really never mentioned him on their TV station and never mentioned him publicly for at least ten years, until yesterday, when everyone was taken by surprise when an announcer on Al-Manar, the Hezbollah TV station in Lebanon, announced “the martyrdom of Imad Mugniyah.” That was really the first public mention of him by Hezbollah in many, many years.

If it was Israel then it was both a message to Hezbollah and a message to Hamas, which has most of its leadership in exile in Damascus.

Basically, they brought him back into the Hezbollah fold only in death. They claimed credit for him and they began blaming Israel for his assassination. But for many years Mugniyah was sort of off the radar screen. He’s been blamed by U.S. intelligence and by others as the mastermind of the some of the most spectacular attacks against American targets in the Middle East. He’s been blamed as the mastermind of the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983 [in Beirut], which killed hundreds of Americans.

He was also blamed for hijacking TWA Flight 847 in 1985. He was also blamed by Israel and by Argentine prosecutors for organizing the bombing of the Jewish community center inBuenos Airesin 1994.

He’s also been listed as the deputy of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. But during the summer war of 2006 [between Lebanon and Israel], was he really active in this campaign?

There were press reports that perhaps were overeager. From everything that I know about Hezbollah to all the research that I’ve done and things I’ve heard from other journalists, who follow Hezbollah closely, Mugniyah no longer had an active role in Hezbollah in recent years. He was living in hiding. He’d had plastic surgery. He was moving around on forged passports. It was really very difficult for him to keep up an active role in Hezbollah under these types of circumstances. The reports that list him as an active senior leader of Hezbollah at the time of his death are mistaken. He might have had some contact with some people in Hezbollah leadership but he wasn’t giving out orders and he wasn’t in the position to do that.

Then why is Nasrallah giving him a sort of royal treatment at his funeral?

Part of it is that Mugniyah was really one of the founding figures of Hezbollah in the early 1980s. He has symbolic importance to the movement from that time. He played a very important role in the early years of Hezbollah. Part of it is due to Nasrallah’s speaking to the domestic audiences in Lebanon, speaking to the Shiite minority in Lebanon, which right now feels like it’s under attack and feels that it’s threatened both in the domestic political scene in Lebanon and by Israel. So Nasrallah is playing up to those fears in some way and adopting Mugniyah as an old, symbolic Hezbollah cause.

Let’s talk about the various parties that could have conceivably assassinated him: Israel, which immediately was blamed by Hezbollah for the assassination, but denied it; Syria, which has a well-established security force and you would think have pretty close connections with Mugniyah; Iran, which worked with him; various Lebanese factions that might conceivably want revenge for the assassination of [former Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri, which took place three years ago today; and of course, there is also the United States, although the CIA is not supposed to be doing political assassinations any more. Why don’t you run through the list?

Hezbollah and its main patron, Iran, immediately blamed Israel as soon as the news came out yesterday. Interestingly, Israel usually takes credit for its assassination of militant leaders, but in this case it denies responsibility. In the past there have been circumstances where Israel did assassinate somewhat and was very vague about it. Is there a chance that anyone besidesIsrael? There’s always that possibility in the Middle East. We can discuss the implications if it was Israel that assassinated him. In my mind,Israelis the leading suspect.

If it was Israel, then it was both a message to Hezbollah and a message to Hamas, which has most of its leadership in exile in Damascus. To Hezbollah it would be a message that Israel once again has the capability to reach high-level targets or high-level leaders almost anywhere they are living in hiding. Also, in the past month there has been quite a bit of heated rhetoric between Israel and Hezbollah and especially Hassan Nasrallah. Last month Nasrallah angered Israel when he announced that his group had the remains of several Israeli soldiers killed during the summer war of 2006. Israeli officials denied that and increased their threats against Nasrallah, and then there was more rhetoric from Nasrallah in response.

One very interesting thing to note is that Mugniyah was assassinated in an area very close to Syrian military intelligence headquarters, a very well protected, very well-watched area.

It might also be a message to Hamas, which been firing volleys of rockets from Gaza into Israel almost every day. The Israelis have been threatening a harsh response, and this could be a message to Hamas, that we can reach your leaders —political, military, or whatever leaders—wherever they are. The Syrian regime has allowed the top leaders of Hamas to live in exile in Damascus and to live fairly freely. The leader of the Hamas political bureau lives in Damascus, his deputy also lives in Damascus. Virtually the majority of the Hamas political bureau is living in Syria and after this assassination they will be taking even more security cautions than they have taken in the past. A few years ago in 2004, a Hamas commando was assassinated in a car bomb in Damascus and that was widely blamed on the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. After that assassination the Hamas leaders took new security precautions and the Syrian secret services became more involved in their protection.

Discuss other scenarios.

If Syria was behind the assassination of Mugniyah, which is always possible in the Middle East—perhaps Mugniyah was becoming a liability for the Syrians being in Damascus and there was a decision to get rid of him. One very interesting thing to note is that Mugniyah was assassinated in an area very close to Syrian military intelligence headquarters, a very well-protected, very well- watched area. This raises speculation in Lebanon and the Middle East about how can there be such a severe security penetration in this kind of area in Damascus. So this raised rumors that the Syrians were behind it.

Everyone was taken by surprise when an announcer on Al-Manar, the Hezbollah TV station in Lebanon, announced “the martyrdom of Imad Mugniyah.” That was really the first public mention of him by Hezbollah in many, many years.

One scenario that people are talking about in the Middle East is that the Syrians might have killed Mugniyah as some sort of offering to the United States, which has always wanted him and has had a $5 million dollar bounty on his head. Of course this happened on the same day that President Bush imposed new economic sanctions on Syria, so that makes this scenario a little far-fetched, since it seems that if Syria went through with this, that they would get something out of this besides new sanctions.

The possibility of some rival Lebanese groups is one of the least possible scenarios because these factions really have a hard time logistically getting into Syria and setting up this kind of bombing, whereas the Israelis have a history of being able to do that. Of course the Syrians themselves have a history of being able to do such a bombing.

It’s interesting that the Lebanese government leadership, at severe odds with Hezbollah, felt that they had to send condolences to Hezbollah. They must have held their nose when they did that, right?

Yes, they must have. You’re right, they felt they had to do that and they also felt that if they had not done that then the internal political tensions in Lebanon would have deteriorated and caused a new round of problems. Already Lebanon is in this months-long political paralysis. There’s no president and the two factions seem as far apart as ever on reaching a compromise on the presidency.

At the funeral today, Nasrallah warned that Hezbollah would “retaliate against Israeli targets anywhere in the world.” Do you expect Hezbollah to try to blow up Jewish places in other countries?

The Israelis always take him and his threats seriously. It’s a very serious threat. Nasrallah has never really threatened Israel with retaliation outside the borders of Lebanon. This threat of an open war, where Hassan Nasrallah says to the Israelis, “You have crossed the borders, you’ve carried out an attack outside Lebanon and now we’re going to do the same.” That must have the Israeli security establishment and Israeli politicians worried and thinking.

The Israeli press has already said today that warnings have gone out all around the world to embassies and cultural centers.

The biggest danger here is that we get into a cycle of revenge and retaliation with continuously increased force. Hezbollah might take revenge might somewhere, then Israelis could want to retaliate then we would go through this cycle.

There is the possibility, however, that Nasrallah could again be speaking to the internal Lebanese audience, the Shiite community, his base of support and offering them something to focus their anger on. Maybe he doesn’t intend to take his revenge right away against the Israelis, especially outside Lebanon because that would mean that it is one more front for Hezbollah to open up. Right now Hezbollah has so many problems on its hands within Lebanon that it’s difficult to imagine how it would open up one more front.

On the Lebanese political situation, I take it there’s no sign of any break in the impasse.

No, there hasn’t been any sign of any breakthrough for months now. The latest mediation efforts were led by the French and then by the Arab League. Those have gone nowhere.

Both sides are preparing themselves to play out this paralysis for months to come.

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