February 18, 2008 No. 45
A Balance of Terror in the War on Terror
The car bomb in Damascus that ended the life of Imad Mughniya also put an end to the world-wide manhunt lasting over two decades for the person responsible for the deaths of hundred of citizens of many countries. Following the disappearance from the scene of someone who was justifiably labeled an international terrorist, the question arises whether his liquidation marks a turning point in the war on international terrorism.
Historical experience suggests the elimination of one man, no matter how important, is not enough to advance a solution to the problem of global terror or even to inflict a mortal blow on the organization to which he belongs. That is certainly not the case with respect to Hizbullah, which is a multi-dimensional organization grounded in a firm social, political, religious and military infrastructure and enjoys massive support from Syria and Iran. However, Mughniya's bloody record, which includes personal involvement in the kidnapping and occasional murder of western hostages in Lebanon, the hijacking of airplanes and suicide bombing inside and outside Lebanon, turned him into a ticking bomb that had to be neutralized. Mughniya continued until his last day to have a central and active role in command of Hizbullah's operational echelon. He also played in important part in spreading Iranian terror and introducing it to elements cooperating with Iran in various Middle Eastern theaters.
The fact that Mughniya, most of whose activity unlike that of al-Qaeda's leaders took place in the relatively open and nearby space of Lebanon, Syria and Iran rather than in geographically remote and topographically difficult areas like Afghanistan and Pakistan, managed to evade his pursuers for such a long time testifies to his professionalism and extreme wariness. Nevertheless, he was ultimately unable to avoid his fate. His liquidation after such a lengthy pursuit clearly signals to other wanted figures, especially senior al-Qaeda personalities like Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the determination of states involved in the war on terror to hunt them down, no matter how long it takes, and to make sure that they ultimately end up in jail or dead.
However, the issue of the price that states which liquidate terrorist leaders will pay is also a permanent feature of the policy debate. The dilemma is an inherent part of the balance of cost and benefit that decision makers must take into account when considering whether or not to act. The threats issued by Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in his pre-recorded eulogy for Mughniya which predicted for his audience of the imminent demise of Israel naturally gave expression to the growing thirst for revenge in his organization but also to the Middle Eastern cultural norm of blood feud. But they also signaled the desire of Iran and Hizbullah to preserve a balance of terror with Israel and reformulate the rule of the game with it.
During the second Lebanon war, Israel erased the red lines that Hizbullah had imposed following the terrorist attacks in Argentina and the self-restraint that Israel has imposed on itself in Lebanon following its withdrawal in 2000. The policy of refraining from targeting Hizbullah's leadership or leveling its headquarters in the Dahia neighborhood of Beirut came to a sudden end during that war. It now seems that Hizbullah and its Iranian patron will want to take advantage of the legitimacy ostensibly provided by the liquidation of Mughniya to carry out a particularly severe response against the background of what they interpret as an Israeli "violation" of the rules of the game and the permitted theater of operations in order to reframe the balance of terror through some painful action or actions. It is therefore highly probable that Hizbullah and Iran feel obliged to react, and the only remaining questions are "When?" and "How?".
In the past few days, there have been a variety of assessments in Israel of how they will choose to act. Based on past experience and the "deviation" from the "normal theater" that they ascribe to Israel, one expected scenario includes attack on official Israeli and/or Jewish facilities and on transportation vehicles with large numbers of passengers. The prevailing view in Israel is that Iran and Hizbullah are not now interested in getting pulled into another full-fledged confrontation on the Israeli-Lebanese border and that they will therefore urge their Palestinian allies to act against Israel and carry out attacks that do not leave an undeniable Hizbullah or Iranian fingerprint. It should be noted, though, that whenever Hizbullah or Iran carried out showcase operations in the past, they relied on the dedicated Hizbullah terror apparatus built by Mughniya in his own image.
On the other hand, constraints and concern that revenge attacks abroad could lead to complications might persuade Iran and Hizbullah actually to prefer more focused against senior personnel in the Israeli political-security establishment, especially those whom Iran and Hizbullah hold responsible for damage to their own personnel and prestige. In their view, such focused attacks might be met with greater understanding by the international community as a "legitimate" part of the new rules of the game that Israel established, might satisfy their own public's thirst for revenge, and might simultaneously establish a balance of terror with Israel that could prevent the latter from continuing to target senior Hizbullah personnel, especially Secretary General Nasrallah, or senior Iranians of the sort whose disappearance Israel is already suspected of having brought about.
As has already been widely reported in the Israeli media, the variety of severity of threats to Israelis has already led security agencies to step up protection on sensitive Israeli targets at home and abroad. But if Nasrallah's threats are carried out, Israel, contrary to past practice, may fell obliged to react severely in order to create its own balance of terror. And while Israel may indeed issue advance public warnings to the effect that attacks on Israeli leaders and/or installations result in direct attacks on the lives of Nasrallah or senior Iranians, it is also possible that Israel will act according to the famous rule of a memorable Western movie: "If you're going to shoot, shoot, don't talk."
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