Hezbollah Retribution: Beware the Ides of March
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
Following the Feb. 12 assassination of Imad Mughniyah, one of Hezbollah's top military commanders, many threats and warnings have been issued concerning a retribution attack against Israel, which has been blamed for — or credited with — the attack. The threats have come from Hezbollah and Iranian leaders, while the warnings have come from the Israeli and U.S. governments.
Although the unfolding story continues to make headlines, the warnings we have seen have not included any time frame. This means that most of the people concerned about them will be on alert in the near term but will, as is human nature, begin to relax as time passes and no retaliatory attack materializes. Organizations such as Hezbollah, however, typically do not retaliate immediately. Even in a case of a government with a professional and well-armed military, retaliatory strikes take time to plan, approve and implement. For example, nearly two weeks passed before U.S. cruise missiles struck targets in Afghanistan and Sudan following the Aug. 7, 1998, al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Even an organization such as Hezbollah that has created contingency attack plans needs time to dispatch operatives, conduct surveillance, gather materials, construct a bomb and then employ it. Indeed, a review of Hezbollah's past retaliatory attacks demonstrates a lag of at least a month between the casus belli and the retaliatory attacks. In our estimation, therefore, any Hezbollah retaliatory strike will occur in mid-March at the earliest, though Hezbollah sympathizers not acting as part of the organization could respond more rapidly with attacks that require less planning and preparation.
Because of the lag time, by the time the real period of danger approaches, many of the deterrent security measures put in place immediately after the warnings were issued will have been relaxed and security postures at potential targets will have returned to business as usual. This natural sense of complacency will greatly aid Hezbollah if and when it decides to retaliate.
With this in mind, let's examine the recent threats and warnings and compare them against Hezbollah's historical retaliatory strikes to determine what a Hezbollah retaliatory strike might look like.
Threats and Warnings
Israeli sources have said the Israeli government placed its diplomatic posts on higher alert Feb. 13 following threats of retaliation over the Mughniyah assassination. Israeli officials believe Hezbollah is unlikely to launch attacks within Israel, but rather is more likely to attack Israeli diplomatic posts.
Inside the United States, the FBI has put its domestic terrorism squads and joint terrorism task force agents on alert for any threats against synagogues and other potential Jewish targets in the United States. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security also have sent a bulletin to state and local law enforcement authorities advising them to watch for potential retaliatory strikes by Hezbollah, and the bureau has made contact with potential domestic targets to convey this warning. The FBI also is stepping up its preventative surveillance coverage on known or suspected Hezbollah operatives in an attempt to thwart any plot inside the United States.
Many state and major local police agencies also have issued warnings and analytical reports pertaining to a potential Hezbollah retaliatory attack. These departments obviously take the threat very seriously and believe their warnings are highly justified.
Although the attack against Mughniyah raised the possibility of retaliatory strikes, much of the concern is the result of the response to the killing from Hezbollah and its sponsors. For example, when Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah spoke at Mughniyah's funeral, he said Mughniyah's assassination is a further incentive to proceed with the jihad against Israel and that the timing, location and method of Mughniyah's assassination indicate that the state of Israel (referred to as Zionists by Nasrallah) wants open war. Nasrallah then said, "Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open."
Hezbollah lawmaker Ismail Sukeyir said, "Hezbollah has the right to retaliate anywhere in the world and in any way it sees fit." Hezbollah leader in South Lebanon Sheikh Nabil Kauk is reported to have said, "It won't be long before the conceited Zionists realize that Imad Mughniyah's blood is extremely costly, and it makes history and brings about a new victory."
Hezbollah was not the only organization to make threats. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander-in-chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari reportedly noted in a condolence letter to Nasrallah, "In the near future, we will witness the destruction of the cancerous existence of Israel by the powerful and competent hands of the Hezbollah combatants." Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in Damascus on Feb. 15 that Mughniyah's death had breathed new life into Islamic resistance and vigilance.
Although Hezbollah has not conducted an attack outside of the region in many years, it possesses the infrastructure, capability and talent to do so today. As we have said, we believe that Hezbollah is a far more capable and dangerous organization than al Qaeda at the present time. That said, Hezbollah has changed considerably since the 1980s. It no longer is just an amorphous resistance organization. Rather, it is a legitimate political party and a significant player in Lebanese politics. Some believe this change in Hezbollah's nature will change its behavior and that it will not conduct retaliatory strikes as it did following the 1992 Israeli assassination of Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi. However, Hezbollah and its supporters have issued nearly continuous and very vocal calls for retribution for the Mughniyah assassination. Some U.S. counterterrorism sources have even characterized these cries as "unprecedented." Certainly they are more strident and numerous than those following the loss of any Hezbollah cadre member in recent memory.
Such an outcry is significant because it places a considerable amount of pressure on the Hezbollah leadership to retaliate. Indeed, Hezbollah may be concerned that it is now has infrastructure that can be attacked, but its survival of sustained airstrikes during the 2006 conflict with Israel could lead it to believe its infrastructure can weather Israeli retaliatory strikes. However, we believe it is unlikely at this point that Hezbollah will do anything that it calculates will precipitate another all-out war with Israel.
In addition to the pressure being created by the cries for retribution, another factor, reciprocity, will help to shape Hezbollah's response. Although reciprocity generally relates to diplomatic relations and espionage/counterespionage operations, the concept will figure prominently in any strikes to avenge the death of Mughniyah.
Perhaps one of the best historical examples of reciprocity is the response to the Feb. 16, 1992 al-Musawi assassination. Following a 30-day mourning period, Hezbollah operatives destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) on March 17, killing 29 people and injuring hundreds. The team that conducted the attack was assisted by the Iranian Embassy, but reportedly was directed by Mugniyah, who was an early pioneer in the use of VBIEDs and a master of their construction and deployment.
Another case of reciprocity began June 2, 1994, when Israeli forces, responding to an increase in Hezbollah ambush activity along the border, launched a major airstrike targeting Hezbollah's Ein Dardara training camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The strike destroyed the camp and reportedly killed 30 to 50 Hezbollah personnel. That raid came two weeks after Israeli forces abducted Mustafa Al Dirani, a leader with the Hezbollah-affiliated Amal militia and the person who allegedly provided the intelligence Israel needed for the Ein Dardara strike.
Then, on July 18, 1994, a large VBIED leveled the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds in an operation that has been credited to Mughniyah's planning. Eight days later, two VBIEDs detonated outside of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish nongovernmental organization office in London, causing no fatalities but injuring 26 people.
One of the tactics Hezbollah has used successfully throughout its existence is a combination of ambiguity, stealth and confusion. The group frequently prefers to hide its hand, or sow confusion by claiming its attacks using pseudonyms, such as Islamic Jihad Organization or Organization for the Oppressed of the Earth. Any retribution attack against Israeli targets, therefore, will likely be conducted in such a way as to hide any direct links to the organization and be designed to obscure Hezbollah's responsibility — or at least create some degree of plausible deniability. One example of this was the group's use of Palestinian rather than Lebanese operatives in the 1994 London bombings.
Another tactical factor worth consideration is that Hezbollah uses an "off-the-shelf" method of planning. This is a method of planning used by the military commands of many countries in which several hypothetical targets are selected and attack plans for each are developed in advance. This advance planning gives the Hezbollah leadership several plans to choose from when considering and authorizing an attack — and it allows the group to hit hard and fast once a decision has been made to strike — far more quickly that if it had to plan an operation from scratch.
In the years since Hezbollah's last overseas attack, its operatives have been seen conducting surveillance in many parts of the world (including the United States) — at times, triggering arrests — but no attacks have ensued. Therefore, it is believed that these operatives have been observed conducting surveillance for use in preliminary operational planning for hypothetical, future attacks. It is believed that the leadership of Hezbollah's military wing has a large selection of off-the-shelf plans that it can choose from should it decide to mount attacks anywhere in the world. In all probability, therefore, targets for off-the-shelf plans already have been mapped. Ironically, many of these plans that might be activated in retribution for Mughniyah's death could have been designed by Mughniyah himself.
As far as timing goes, using the Buenos Aires and London attacks as a gauge, we believe Hezbollah, should it choose to retaliate, would be able to attack within four to five weeks — perhaps around the infamous Ides of March — and probably not too much sooner due to operational considerations. However in the time between now and mid-March, Hezbollah operatives likely will be conducting surveillance to tune up a number of off-the-shelf plans in expectation of having a particular plan activated. As we have discussed on many occasions, surveillance is conducted at various stages of the attack cycle, and it is during these periods of surveillance that operatives are vulnerable to detection. Detecting surveillance on a potential target will be an indication that the target is being considered, though certainly Hezbollah will also conduct surveillance on other targets in an effort so sow confusion as to its ultimate plans.
However, detecting this surveillance in the early stages allows potential target sets and geographical locations to be determined and the potential targets hardened against attack. Because of this, law enforcement officials and security managers responsible for the security of a facility or person that conceivably might be targeted by Hezbollah should find countersurveillance and surveillance detection assets especially valuable during the next several weeks.
The Coming Attack?
If an attack is launched, we anticipate that it will have to be a spectacular one in order to meet the requirements of reciprocity, given that Mughniyah was very important to Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors. Merely killing an Israeli soldier or two in an ambush will not suffice. Also, in keeping with Hezbollah's proclivity toward using a hidden hand, the attack will likely be conducted by a stealthy and ambiguous cell or cells and have no direct connections to the organization. Also, as we have seen in prior attacks, if a hardened target such as an Israeli embassy or VIP is not vulnerable, a secondary soft target can be selected. The AMIA bombing is a prime example of this and should serve as a warning to Jewish community centers and other non-Israeli government targets everywhere that even non-Israeli Jewish targets are considered fair game.
Operationally, Hezbollah would prefer to hit a target that is unsuspecting and easy to attack. That is why we would not be surprised to see an attack in Asia, Latin America or even Africa. Hezbollah's 1994 attacks in London were not very effective due to the small size of the devices — a result of the difficulty of obtaining explosives in the United Kingdom. Due to their lack of spectacular results, not many people remember the twin VBIED attacks in London, but they do remember the spectacular AMIA attack. Such nonmemorable attacks hardly are what Hezbollah would hope for, and are certainly not the spectacular retaliation it would want in this case. In order to create such a spectacular result with a VBIED, it likely would attack in a place where it has an established infrastructure, a suitable target and access to explosives.
One other thing to consider is that Israeli diplomatic facilities do not have the same level of physical security that most U.S. facilities do, and in many places are located in office buildings or even in ordinary houses. In places like San Salvador, there is absolutely no comparison between the U.S. Embassy, which was built to Inman standards, and the Israeli Embassy. In other words, like Buenos Aires in 1992, Israeli diplomatic facilities are relatively easy targets in many parts of the world.
Of course, Hezbollah might not be planning one of Mughniyah's signature VBIED attacks. As we saw on 9/11, spectacular attacks can come in forms other than a VBIED. While Mughniyah was a VBIED expert, he also was a consummate out-of-the-box thinker. Therefore, it is just possible that the retribution attacks would be carried out in a novel, yet spectacular, manner. Hezbollah has feared for several years now that the Israelis would assassinate Nasrallah or another senior leader, meaning that Mughniyah and the other Hezbollah operational planners have had plenty of time to contemplate their response — and it could be quite creative.
At the present time, Hezbollah is far larger and more geographically widespread than ever before, with a global array of members and supporters who are intertwined with sophisticated finance/logistics and intelligence networks. Also, thanks to Iran, Hezbollah has far more — and better-trained — operational cadres than ever before. The Hezbollah cadre also is well experienced in skullduggery, having conducted scores of transnational militant operations before al Qaeda was even formed. It is a force to be reckoned with. Beware the Ides of March indeed.