Written by Gabriel Emile Eid, Fabia Bristow, and Masoud Kazemzadeh
Imad Mughniyah, one of the world’s foremost terrorists, was reportedly killed late Tuesday night February 12, 2008 Damascus time. No one has yet claimed responsibility. In this article, we discuss who might have eliminated Mughniyah. We look at motives, capabilities, and a history of similar actions. We see seven possibilities: 1- Israeli government; 2- Syrian government; 3- U.S. government; 4- the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran; 5- professional assassin; 6- Mughniyah’s rivals inside the Hezbollah; and 7- Mughniyah faked his death.
(1) Israeli Government Killed Mughniyah
The Lebanese Hezbollah has pointed finger at Israel. Israel has the capability and a history of assassinating those who have killed Israelis or Jewish people around the world. But what are possible Israeli motives other than the elimination of one of the most successful terrorists who has been targeting Israelis and Jews? Israel failed to crush Hezbollah in the “34 Day War” during summer 2006. Israel may want to finish the job it failed to accomplish in 2006. Israel, however, could not start a war due to international law and public opinion. Israel could attack if it was the Hezbollah that initiated the war. Thus assuming that Hezbollah would attack Israel after the death of Mughniyah, and assuming that Israel is in a better situation now than in 2006, and assuming that Hezbollah is in a worse situation than in 2006, then it would be in the interest of Israel to assassinate Mughniyah or pay someone in Damascus to assassinate him.
The first assumption seems to be coming true. Sheikh Hassan Nasrollah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah has said: “Zionists, if you want this sort of open war, then let the whole world hear, so be it!... The blood of Imad Mughniyah will make them [Israel] withdraw from existence.” If Nasrollah’s verbal declaration of war is accompanied by a violent action, that would provide Israel the justification to massively attack Hezbollah.
The second assumption will be tested if in fact a war ensues.
The third assumption seems to be true. Unlike July-August 2006, when almost the entire Lebanese society supported Hezbollah and condemned Israel, today Hezbollah is isolated in Lebanon due to a variety of factors. Since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, who wanted to expel Syrian occupation forces and restore Lebanese sovereignty, there has been a rise in what may be called Lebanese nationalism and demands for sovereignty from outside powers. This new mood is expressed by Fouad Siniora and his supporters, variously called “March 14th Coalition,” “Pro-Democracy Forces,” “Parliamentary Majority,” and “the Government.” Opposed to the pro-democracy forces are Syrian regime, the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Due to Hezbollah’s support for Syrian domination of Lebanon and its placing obstacles to the establishment of a UN tribunal to investigate the assassination of Rafik Hariri (widely held to be ordered by the Syrian regime), Hezbollah has come to be viewed negatively in the past year and half. Although Hezbollah’s subservience to the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran has been well-known, the new mood in favor of sovereignty has caused negative feelings toward the Hezbollah. Lebanon’s Hezbollah is probably the only political party in the world that in its organizational chart and manifestos and in actual practice, puts the leader of another country as its own’s ultimate leader. The Lebanese Hezbollah puts The Supreme Leader in Iran as its highest leader.
Wikipedia summarizes the work of one of the top scholars of Hezbollah:
Since the Supreme Leader of Iran is the ultimate clerical authority, Hezbollah’s leaders have appealed to him “for guidance and directives in cases when Hezbollah’s collective leadership [was] too divided over issues and fail[ed] to reach a consensus.” After the death of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Khomeini, Hezbollah’s governing bodies developed a more “independent role” and appealed to Iran less often.
The Lebanese Hezbollah regards the Supreme Leader, or Wali al-Faghih, to have been Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamanehi. This is to say that the leader of one country can order a party in another country to do as it orders it to do. This means that Ali Khamanehi can order the Lebanese Hezbollah to start a war with Israel tomorrow and the Lebanese Hezbollah HAS to obey his orders and start a war with Israel. This issue of being another country’s bullet means that the Lebanese Hezbollah has to do something that Khamanehi orders it although that may be against the national interests of Lebanon. This has made many Lebanese to regard Hezbollah to be a traitor to Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty. This is accentuated by the Lebanese being Arab and Iran being a non-Arab country.
(2) Syrian Government Killed Mughniyah
Two of the most prominent leaders of the pro-democracy faction Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri have publicly stated that Syrian regime is behind the assassination of Mughniyah. Mr. Jumblatt is the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon, which is a Druz party. Although initially subservient to Syrian domination and occupation of Lebanon, he has changed and now supports independence and sovereignty for Lebanon, which puts him in direct conflict with Syrian regime, the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran, and the Hezbollah. Saad Hariri is the son of the late Rafik Hariri and the leader of the majority in parliament.
Syrian regime has a long history of assassinations. But most significantly is the location of the assassination and the nature of the Syrian regime (a police state where the regime has a tight control of the population). The assassination occurred in a wealthy neighborhood. The place where the explosion occurred is where the feared (and competent) Estekhbarat [Ministry of Intelligence], the Iranian school (presumably for the children of the fundamentalist regime’s officials and operatives), and a police headquarter are located. Apparently Mughniyah had gone from the Iranian school to his car when he was killed.
Obviously the Syrian regime has the capability to assassinate Mughniyah. But what benefit would accrue to it? The Syrian regime is divided between two factions. One faction believes that the U.S. is in decline and thus advocates getting closer to the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran and to Lebanese Hezbollah so that Syria could dominate the region. The other faction is composed of forces that believe it would be in their interest to follow the so-called Libyan model and abandon the extremist and terrorist forces in the region and instead join the Western world. The second faction believes that by doing so, Syria could get back the Golan Heights that it lost to Israel, get financial assistance from pro-Western governments such as those in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE. It is possible that the latter faction was able to convince President Bashar Assad to assassinate Mughniyah as a good-will gesture to show its willingness to distance itself from extremist and terrorist forces. The Janus-faced regime in Damascus has a history of doing one thing while saying the opposite. It is also possible that the first faction killed Mughniyah to increase hostility with the U.S. and Israel and hence undermine the second faction. To what extent Bashar Assad is able to contain the independent behavior of each faction is hard to estimate.
What is curious is that the assassination occurred during a high-level private delegation led by Zbigniew Brzezinski (a foreign policy advisor to Sen. Barack Obama) and included Hassan Nemazee (a financial chairman for Sen. Hillary Clinton). Brzezinski met with President Assad and issued the following statement to the Syrian press and said the talks with President Assad “dealt with recent regional developments, affirming that both sides have a common desire to achieve stability in the region, which would benefit both its people and the United States.”
In addition, the assassination just days before the third anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which has become a massive rallying event for pro-democracy and nationalist forces in Lebanon raises suspicion. By creating a counter-weight to the memory of Hariri, which in fact the Hezbollah did in deciding to hold memorial rally for Mughniyah on that very day, Syria and Hezbollah have benefited politically.
If tensions in Lebanon lead to a war between the Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army, there is a high likelihood of the disintegration of the Lebanese Army because about 15% of the Army is comprised of Shiites who are more loyal to their communal group and Hezbollah than to Lebanon and the Lebanese Army. A new civil war and disintegration of Lebanese Army would pave the way for the re-introduction of Syrian occupation and domination of Lebanon.
(3) The U.S. Government Killed Mughniyah
Various American officials from the FBI, the State Department, and the Pentagon have welcomed the assassination of Mughniyah with much delight. American government has been actively pursuing Mughniyah for the killing of many of its citizens. It should not come as a surprise if the U.S. was successful in getting one of its most deadly and successful enemies.
(4) Fundamentalist Regime Ruling Iran Killed Mughniyah
The fundamentalist regime’s death squads have killed more Iranian dissidents abroad than any government has ever done against its opponents in history. In addition, the fundamentalist regime has a brutal history of killing non-violent pro-democracy activists, feminists, students, literary figures, religious converts inside Iran. Among the latter are the killings of Dariush Forouhar, Parvaneh Eskandari Forouhar, Pirooz Davani, Majid Sharif, Mohammad Mokhtari, Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, and Masoumeh Mossadegh (Dr. Mossadegh’s granddaughter). The torture, rape and murder of Zahra Kazemi, the death in prison of Akbar Mohammadi, the torture to death of Dr. Zahra Bani-Yaaghob, and the torture to death of Feizollah Mahdavi (a fourth year university student in law) are but the well-known examples. Regime’s death squads have even murdered non-political individuals who merely converted to another religion such as the murder of Mehdi Dibaj, who converted from Shia to Christianity. Regime death squads even killed several dozen innocent worshippers at Imam Reza shrine in order to blame it on one of the opposition groups. But the above-mentioned are Iranians who were not fundamentalist. Why would the fundamentalist regime kill one of its own?
There is actually a history of the regime killing its own if doing so served the interests of the leadership. For example, after more than 15,000 brave Iranians risked their lives and marched in the funeral of the slain democrat (Dariush Forouhar) and feminist (Parvaneh Eskandari-Forouhar) leaders, who had been murdered by the regime’s death squad, while the regime death squads were to murder literary figures (Davani, Sharif, Mokhtari, and Pouyandeh), the regime arrested Deputy Minister of Intelligence Saeed Imami. Soon afterwards, Imami died in prison. Imami’s death was announced as suicide by vajebi (a chemical uses to get rid of body hair). However, it is not likely that consumption of the small amount of vajebi given to prisoners would cause death. The widely held belief is that the regime killed its own assassin in order to protect higher-ups who had ordered the chain murders such as Minister of Intelligence Dorri Najaf-Abadi, former Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and the Supreme Leader Khamanehi. Many also believe the same death squad had been used by Rafsanjani and Khamanehi to kill Ahmad Khomeini, the Ayatollah’s influential son (whose ambition to become Supreme Leader was thwarted by Rafsanjani and Khamanehi). The regime’s death squads operating abroad are formed of the most trusted members of the Qods Force of the Islamic Republic Guards Corps (IRGC). Members of death squads selected for assassinations inside Iran are composed of the trusted members of the Ministry of Intelligence or the IRGC.
What benefit would accrue to the fundamentalist regime by killing Mughniyah, its best terrorist asset? In the past year, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Syrian regime and the fundamentalist regime had failed to overthrow the pro-democracy government in Lebanon despite repeated attempts. The more bellicose and warmongers in the regime such as Ahmadinejad may wish to provoke another war in Lebanon either against other Lebanese groups or between Israel and Hezbollah. These elements in the ruling oligarchy in Iran may think it would be a repeat of the summer 2006, with the expectation that it would change the balance of forces within Lebanon, or undermine the talks in Baghdad between American officials and fundamentalist officials. By assassinating Mughniyah and blaming it on Israel, these elements within the fundamentalist regime may wish to bring violence in Lebanon and/or between Israel and Hezbollah, which they think would benefit their faction in Iran.
It is clear that although such a war may be in the interest of the extremist faction in Iran, it is against the interest of the Iranian people and the national interests of Iran. The regime has a history of consistently choosing what is in the interests of the fundamentalist clique and undermining the interests of the Iranian people and the national interests of Iran. For example, taking American diplomats hostage and keeping them hostage were clearly against the interest of the Iranian people and the national interests of Iran, but Khomeini and his supporters took those actions because it helped them get rid of the non-fundamentalist elements and impose the highly unpopular and incredibly anti-democratic fundamentalist constitution on a reluctant public.
(5) Professional Assassin Killed Mughniyah
There is a possibility that Mughniyah’s assassination was carried out by a professional assassin or assassins for purely financial reasons. Some such groups such as former KGB elements have deep roots and close connections in Syria. The U.S. government had placed $25 million bounty on Mughniyah’s head and such a sum could have attracted professionals.
(6) Hezbollah Rivals Killed Mughniyah
The Lebanese Hezbollah was created by the fundamentalist regime and composed of Lebanese Shia who worshiped Khomeini and had no nationalist feelings toward their own homeland of Lebanon. Over the years, however, it has been reported that some grew a bit skeptical of the benefits of being a simple tool in the hands of the regime ruling Iran. Whether this change occurred after observing the ideological, political and moral bankruptcy of the fundamentalist regime in Iran or a realization that their future lies in living as Lebanese along other Lebanese is not germane to the subject of this article. It has been speculated that some Hezbollah leaders have had some changes in their mentalities. It is possible that due to some internal dispute, other members of Hezbollah decided to kill Mughniyah. For example, it is possible that Mughniyah wanted to start another war with Israel, but other members of the Hezbollah disagreed, and decided to kill Mughniyah. Or conversely, it is possible that the fundamentalist regime gave an order to Lebanese Hezbollah such as attacking Israel, an order with which Mughniyah opposed. In order to prevent an open split, the fundamentalist regime and elements within Hezbollah simply decided to eliminate Mughniyah.
(7) Mughniyah Faked His Own Death
There is a possibility that Mughniyah faked his death in order to disappear. This possibility has been suggested by CNN’s senior correspondent Jim Clancy who was stationed in Beirut in the 1980s and covered many terrorist attacks attributed to Mughniyah.
From what is currently known, the main beneficiaries of the elimination of Mughniyah are Syrian regime, the Israeli government, and the U.S. government. Unless insiders reveal secret information, we may never know who killed Mughniyah. If the Syrian regime, or the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran, or the Hezbollah are involved, we would not know until one of the two regimes is overthrown and its secret archives opened to scholars and journalists. Time will tell, perhaps.
Gabriel Emile Eid is a senior at Sam Houston State University, double majoring in Political Science and Criminal Justice, with a minor in Arabic. He is specializing on the Middle East.
Fabia Bristow is a senior at Sam Houston State University, majoring in Political Science and Criminal Justice, minoring in Accounting and Arabic. She hopes to work for the UN or INTERPOL. She is currently the President of Alpha Phi Sigma, the national Criminal Justice honor society.
Masoud Kazemzadeh, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Political Science at Sam Houston State University.
1. For a list of killings and operations attributed to Mughniyah see CNN Report: Reputed terrorist long sought by CIA killed in explosion. It is also alleged that he was close to and trained members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jeish al-Mahdi. Some reports that in 1975, Mughniyah was a personal body guard and trained assassin for Yasser Arafat seem highly unlikely. If Mughniyah was born in 1962, he was only 13 years old in 1975.
2. BBC: Syria 'to name Mughniyeh killer'.
3. Sheikh Afif al-Nablisy told Hezbollah’s al-Manar television “Any attack against the resistence (Lebanese Hezbollah) will be met with the resistence’s response. Eye for an eye, individual for an individual, leader for a leader.” Radio Farda, February 13, 2008, واکنش ایران و آمریکا به ترور فرمانده ارشد حزب الله.
4. See Hezbollah’s organizational chart at Wikipedia.
5. See Hezbollah. The work is by Magnus Ranstorp (1996).
Hizb'Allah in Lebanon: The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis. St. Martin's Press. P. 45.
6. Michael Young, “The dilemmas of being an Iranian bullet,” The Daily Star, August 24, 2006.
7. To counter the notion of being subservient to a non-Arab country and leader, Lebanese Shiite supporters of the fundamentalist regime (with the help of the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran) argue that Khomeini was of Arab origins, his ancestors being from Mecca. In the following “documentary” produced by al-Manar in Lebanon and the regime in Iran and put on YouTube by www.aimislam.com which is a Shiite fundamentalist group supporter of the regime in Iran in Britain. See their documentary on youtube. At 3:55 minute, the video mentions that Khomeini “is of Arab origins, from the holy city of Mecca.” The propaganda video continues to repeatedly mention the Arab, Mecca, and Arabian peninsula origins of Khomeini more times (more than a dozen if one includes the pictorial images), to emphasize Khomeini’s Arab ethnicity. The unmistakable subtext being that Khomeini is not Persian, but rather Arab whose family was Arab and direct descent of the Prophet Mohammad and who happened to have moved to Iran to spread Islam. Thus, they are obeying and supporting an Arab descendent of the Prophet Mohammad who was ruling Iran. In other words, they are not supporting and obeying a non-Arab Iranian.
8. Deutsche Welle: لبنان: قدرت نمایی دولت و حزبالله.
10. Eli Lake, “Obama Advisor Leads Delegation to Damascus,” The New York Sun, February 12, 2008, Obama Adviser Leads Delegation to Damascus; and Eli Lake, “Advisor to Clinton Meets With President of Syria,” The New York Sun, February 15, 2008, Adviser to Clinton Meets With President of Syria.
11. Lake, “Advisor to Clinton,” ibid.
12. CNN, “Report: Reputed terrorist long sought by CIA killed in explosion,” February 14, 2008.
13. Masoud Kazemzadeh, “God’s Assassins: The Lebanese Hezbollah and the Fundamentalist Regime Ruling Iran,” iranian.com (July 16, 2006)
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