In mid-February 2011, the Israeli government closed temporarily four diplomatic missions abroad and put others on high alert, amid fears that Lebanese Hizb Allah may attack Israeli targets to mark the third anniversary of the killing of Imad Mughniyyeh, the Lebanese-Shi`a group’s iconic military chief.[1]

Since Mughniyyeh’s death, Israel has accused Hizb Allah and Iran of plotting to bomb Israeli embassies abroad and trying to assassinate senior Israeli diplomats and military chiefs.[2] Israel has claimed publicly that its intelligence services have managed to foil several attempted terrorist operations by Hizb Allah and Iranian personnel in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.[3] Hizb Allah has denied involvement in any of the alleged plots.

At Mughniyyeh’s funeral in 2008, Hassan Nasrallah, Hizb Allah’s secretary general, warned Israel that Mughniyyeh would be avenged.[4] There is little reason to believe that Nasrallah’s words are not credible or serious. In the past, Hizb Allah avenged several of its senior leaders, often in spectacular fashion. For example, Israel’s February 1992 assassination of Shaykh Abbas Moussawi was followed one month later by Hizb Allah’s bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 29 people. In addition, Israel’s May 1994 kidnapping of Shaykh Mustafa Dirani and bombing of a Hizb Allah training base (which killed more than 20 fighters) was followed in July by Hizb Allah’s (and Iran’s) Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) attack, also in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people.

Nasrallah’s threat to avenge Mughniyyeh, while real, creates a dilemma for the group. If the militant group does follow through on its threat and conducts a spectacular terrorist operation against Israeli targets, this could cause a massive military reaction on the part of Israel and possibly ignite war between the two belligerents. If Hizb Allah decides not to retaliate, its credibility and tit-for-tat approach could be severely damaged, which could undermine its military strategy toward Israel in the event of war or another similar situation in the future.

It is not at all clear which path Hizb Allah will choose. It is possible that Hizb Allah has already made a strategic decision to avenge Mughniyyeh; therefore, the only uncertain variables are the timing, location, and lethality of the operation. Yet it is also accurate to say that Hizb Allah does not want to risk another large-scale military confrontation with Israel given the significant material losses it suffered following the summer 2006 war.

A closer look at the life story of Mughniyyeh and an assessment of his value to Hizb Allah could help shed more light on Hizb Allah’s cost-benefit calculations with regard to a potential revenge operation against Israel. Aided by extensive interviews conducted by the author with several members of Hizb Allah and Mughniyyeh’s own family during the past two years, this article offers a detailed, though not definitive, profile of Mughniyyeh, revealing new information about his life, beliefs, and career as a leading member of Hizb Allah. Emphasis is intentionally placed on aspects of Mughniyyeh’s life that few observers, specialists, and practitioners have known about, including his early beginnings, his ideological influences, and perhaps most important his strong ties to the Palestinians.

A more comprehensive profile of the man who managed to elude some of the world’s most competent intelligence services is still relevant three years after his death because of the lasting impact he will probably have on Hizb Allah. Indeed, Mughniyyeh was anything but an ordinary member of Hizb Allah. In fact, after Nasrallah, he might be the most influential yet least acknowledged leader of the group to date. His mindset, work ethic, unconventional strategies, and overall behavior have profoundly influenced the thinking of Hizb Allah’s leaders and future generations of the Shi`a group.

The Secret Guardian of the Resistance
In the murky world of intelligence and counterintelligence, few characters have elicited more awe and bewilderment than Imad Mughniyyeh. More than three years have passed since Mughniyyeh’s February 12, 2008 assassination in Damascus (most likely at the hands of Israel’s Mossad), yet his life story and death continue to be shrouded in mystery.[5]

A shadowy figure, Mughniyyeh avoided publicity. Keeping a low-profile was as crucial to his work as conducting military operations or training Palestinian and Lebanese fighters. Indeed, Mughniyyeh was very secretive, even to his own Hizb Allah colleagues, who often complained to their superiors about the special status and flexibility he enjoyed. He only worked with people who he fully trusted (mostly from his own family and inner circle). He was a major part of Hizb Allah’s military and paramilitary apparatus, having created and developed it since its beginnings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but he was not bound by hierarchy or organizational rules. In a sense, he was larger than Hizb Allah, an independent operator who had one foot inside Hizb Allah and another in Tehran.

Mughniyyeh’s Religious Upbringing
Based on interviews with members of Mughniyyeh’s family in southern Beirut in the summers of 2009 and 2010, Imad was born on January 25, 1962 in the poor neighborhood of al-Jiwar in the district of al-Shiyah, located in the southern suburbs of Beirut. His family is from the small southern town of Tayr Dibba. Mughniyyeh went to elementary and preparatory school in al-Jiwar and lived with his father Fayez and mother Amina Salamah at home until the age of 14.

Mughniyyeh was a religious person at an early age.[6] As a teenager, he would spend most of his time in the evenings in the Sheikh al-Kobeissi mosque near their house. When he turned 13, he planned to travel to Iraq to delve deeper into his spirituality at Najaf.[7]

The onset of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) forced Mughniyyeh to change his travel plans to Iraq and stay in Beirut instead. The harsh realities of sectarian conflict in Lebanon forced him to become a militiaman at the age of 14. At first, he mingled with several leftist ideological movements, from the Syrian social nationalists to the communists, and from several Lebanese militias under the umbrella of the “National Front” to the Palestinians who at the time had a sizeable military presence in Lebanon. His role as a young militiaman was initially limited to stuffing sandbags to protect party members from snipers and to night shifts to guard his neighborhood. Despite his interest in and close contacts with these Lebanese parties, Mughniyyeh felt alienated and unwilling to join any of them.

In 1985, tragedy struck Mughniyyeh’s family. Mughniyyeh’s younger brother, Jihad, was killed by a heavy bombardment that targeted Lebanese-Shi`a spiritual leader Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in the district of Bir al-Abed. In 1994, Imad lost his other brother Fouad, a member of the “Lebanese resistance” against the then-Israeli occupation, who was assassinated, allegedly by the Israeli intelligence services, in the area of al-Sfeir in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

The loss of his two brothers in a short time frame had a profound impact on Mughniyyeh. It solidified his faith and consumed his intellect and worldview. Politically, solitude made him more focused and attentive to the needs of the Palestinian resistance movement. His strong interest in the political thinking and activism of Lebanese-Shi`a leader Imam Mussa al-Sadr notwithstanding, Mughniyyeh was equally fascinated by the revolutionary ideas of the Palestinians and their biggest party, Fatah. He had the opportunity to undergo military training at several Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and outside Lebanon.[8] His most intensive coaching took place in the camp of Abou Louay, where the famous Palestinian female fighter and “martyr” Dalal al-Maghribi trained and planned operations against Israel.[9]

Mughniyyeh’s Relationship with the Palestinians
Mughniyyeh’s relationship with Fatah ran deep. He began as the deputy of Ali Hassan Salameh, the famous Palestinian military commander who was responsible for countless operations against Israeli forces.[10] Yet despite his close relations with Fatah’s leaders, Mughniyyeh did not last long with the movement. Some Palestinians saw him as a rebel, a loner who was not comfortable following orders or working within tight-knit organizational structures.

Furthermore, Mughniyyeh was far more religiously inspired than his fellow Palestinian comrades. When Mughniyyeh heard the news of an attempted kidnapping operation of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, he returned to the Lebanese-Shi`a cleric’s neighborhood and decided to serve with his friends as his personal bodyguards.[11] In 1980, he traveled with Fadlallah to Mecca for pilgrimage and since then Mughniyyeh was known as Hajj Imad.[12]

The assassination of Iraqi religious leader Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr in Iraq in April 1980 was another turning point in Mughniyyeh’s life. He found himself at war with the secular Ba`athist regime of Saddam Hussein who he accused of systematically eliminating all Shi`a leaders in Iraq. Because of Fatah’s links to the Ba`athists at the time, Mughniyyeh decided to completely sever his relationship with the Palestinian movement in mid-1981.[13]

When Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in 1982, Mughniyyeh was on his way to visit the holy places in Iran. Soon after he heard the news, he returned to Syria and from there to Lebanon. On his way home, he was kidnapped by the Christian rightist Lebanese party, the Phalanges (Kataeb), but was released after political intervention by Lebanese-Shi`a leaders and entered Beirut where he rejoined ranks with his former Palestinian friends.[14] Throughout his military encounters with the Palestinian factions, Mughniyyeh learned of the locations of several heavy arms depots. With his close Lebanese inner circle, he formed an elite force that was later to be called the “Islamic Resistance.”[15] The force had fighters in Beirut, the western Bekaa, and the south. They waged sophisticated military operations, set ambushes and created sniper units against the Israeli occupying forces. Their most successful operation was on November 11, 1982, when “martyr” Ahmad Kassir conducted a suicide operation against an Israeli military base in Tyre/Sour, destroying it and causing heavy casualties.[16]

Given his links to the Palestinians,[17] Mughniyyeh had little difficulty managing the relationship and steering it in ways that were most effective in the fight against Israel. He led several Lebanese-Palestinian military operations against Israel and trained and armed many Palestinian fighters and offered them logistical support. In 1984, Abu Hassan Salameh, an old Lebanese Shi`a companion of Mughniyyeh, joined the Islamic Resistance, where he became Mughniyyeh’s right-hand man.[18]

Mughniyyeh was proud of the close links he and his colleagues in the Islamic Resistance developed with Palestinian groups inside the occupied territories. He always spoke highly of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, saying that “the leftist and secular elements in Palestine were the first to work with us. But now we have a strategic alliance with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”[19] He added:

“we in Hizb Allah did not accept that a movement in Palestine would form and have allegiance to us organizationally, administratively, or even religiously. Those who became Shi`a tried hard to convince us to create a Hizb Allah branch in Palestine, but we rejected the idea because we found in the resistance not just a choice for liberation but also a place to counter sectarian divides (fitna), where all are united to fight the occupation.”[20]

Mughniyyeh had a special relationship with the leaders of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). He was determined to provide financial and media support (through Hizb Allah’s satellite television station al-Manar and radio station al-Nour) to the Palestinian intifada. He established a bond with the late Dr. Fathi al-Shikaki, the former secretary general of PIJ and also his successor, Dr. Ramadan Abdullah Shalah. Contacts among Mughniyyeh, Hamas and PIJ were so close that few inside Hizb Allah knew that moments before he was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008, he was purportedly in a meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and other Palestinian militants.[21]

With the help of Syria and Iran, Mughniyyeh was also in charge of transferring fighters and cadres from inside Palestine to Syria, Lebanon, and Iran to undergo military training.[22] His main preoccupation was the Palestinian youth and how to train them to become fighters against the Israeli occupation. Through his contacts, he would send directions on how to form elite and specialized units inside Palestine including infantry, engineering squads, snipers, and missile, anti-tank, and guerrilla units. Mughniyyeh was so hands-on in the Palestinian theater that when the Gaza war broke out in 2008, one senior commander in the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades said that they felt Mughniyyeh was among them as a partner in the battles.[23] When Palestinian militants were caught by the Israelis, Mughniyyeh would help release them by kidnapping soldiers along the Lebanese-Israeli border.[24] This was in large part seen by him as repaying his Palestinian friends in Lebanon who had helped him create Islamic Resistance.

Within the Palestinian resistance movement, Yasser Arafat, its late chairman, had great admiration for the intelligent and determined Mughniyyeh.[25] He always made sure to keep close contact with Mughniyyeh, despite the religious differences between the two. He often wrote letters to Mughniyyeh with the introduction “Dear Son.”[26]

Mughniyyeh’s Accomplishments and Core Beliefs
For Mughniyyeh, the goal of his Islamic Resistance was clear: to eliminate Israel. He once told a visitor of his that “there is no debate or compromise, and we are not concerned with any decision by anyone in the world to grant Israel the right to exist. We are not talking about something unrealistic. Along with our religious convictions, we have plenty of rational reasons which further our belief that Israel’s eradication will depend on what we do, the people of Palestine inside and outside, in their Arabic and Islamic environment.”[27]

Mughniyyeh had a strategic plan after the liberation of southern Lebanon in May 2000. He told the same visitor:

“After the liberation in 2000, and when we got to learn more about the enemy and his capabilities, the dream of liberating Palestine became achievable. We formed a committee tasked with the elimination of Israel. In the Islamic Resistance, there is a special unit for Palestine. We do not work on behalf of the Palestinians, and we will never do that. But we are in a political, moral, and religious position that requires us not only to help them stay alive where they are, but also to resist the occupation and force the Israelis to withdraw, even if on a gradual basis.”[28]

Mughniyyeh did not distinguish one resistance fighter from another. He did not believe in any political or logistical constraints when it came to fighting the Israeli occupation in Palestine. The fight was one, be it in Lebanon or Palestine. For a Lebanese national, Palestine was his raison d’être. Everything began and ended in Palestine.[29]

No one inside Hizb Allah, not even Nasrallah, had a more instrumental role than Mughniyyeh in building the relationship with Iran and taking it to new heights. Soon after the Islamic revolution in 1979, Mughniyyeh traveled to Tehran and began to form extensive links with senior Iranian clergy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He also built a military academy inside Hizb Allah that has become a military institute.[30]

His partnership with the Syrians continued to be marred with mistrust. Yet he saw no alternative. He, just like all Hizb Allah leaders before and after him, understood that while Iran was the godfather of the group, related to it by religion and ideology, Syria was the necessary link, the weapons and logistical facilitator that made the fight against Israel possible. Mughniyyeh’s mistrust of Syria was justified. After all, it was on Syrian territory that he was killed, prompting many analysts to speculate whether his death occurred with the knowledge or even facilitation of the Syrian intelligence services.

Insights on Hizb Allah for the Future
Given the leadership role Mughniyyeh played inside Hizb Allah for more than 15 years, it is reasonable to draw inferences from his thinking and activities about Hizb Allah overall.

1. Hizb Allah has relatively low trust in Syria. Hizb Allah’s strategic alliance with Syria has endured primarily because both parties continue to have an interest in standing up to Israel and regaining lost territory and rights which they feel Israel has usurped.[31] Yet it is widely assumed that in the event that Syria regains the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and consequently terminates its state of conflict with Israel (and manages to reinstitute direct control over Lebanon), Damascus’ military relationship with Hizb Allah is likely to end. Hizb Allah is acutely aware of that potential scenario and has most likely worked on contingency plans with Iran. The group has no interest in going back to the days when Syria was militarily present in Lebanon (1990-2005) and in charge of its military actions and daily political affairs.

Also affecting the durability and nature of the long-term relationship between Syria and Hizb Allah is the very survival of the al-Assad regime. If the regime collapses and a more democratic government replaces it, it is possible, though not inevitable, that the new leadership in Damascus will have less cooperative relations with Hizb Allah and focus on more urgent domestic priorities instead. It is unclear whether the al-Assad regime will survive the ongoing popular uprising or how exactly a potential Syrian-Israeli peace agreement would affect Hiz Allah’s future and staying power.

2) Hizb Allah’s organizational structure is hierarchical but also flexible. Open source information on Hizb Allah’s organizational structure is accessible, yet more detailed information on its military apparatus is much harder to find and what is available is less than reliable.[32] Unlike other social movements, Hizb Allah’s ability to keep its secrets has been remarkable and since its creation there have been no defections (that are publicly known) from the group’s military and paramilitary wings. The result is that little is known on how Hizb Allah conducts its military and clandestine affairs.

Mughniyyeh’s life story suggests that when an exceptional military commander or operative comes along, he is given much operational independence, on the condition that he undergo proper indoctrination and develop close relations and maintain coordination with Iranian and Syrian personnel. Whether Hizb Allah has decided to institutionalize Mughniyyeh’s special role is unclear but it is assumed that given the instrumental role he played throughout his career and the benefits he accrued to the organization, Hizb Allah would have an interest in retaining that multidimensional capacity in its skills repertoire. Some news reports have suggested that Hizb Allah has already found a replacement for Mughniyyeh, although his identity and skill-set are, unsurprisingly, still unknown.

3) Hizb Allah is actively and unchangingly committed to the Palestinian cause. Since its creation, Hizb Allah has had a keen eye on developments in the Palestinian Territories (even during times when Israel was occupying Lebanese territory), speaking against the Israeli occupation and often offering material and non-material support to armed Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mughniyyeh was devoted to developing the military and paramilitary wings of Hizb Allah to more effectively fight the Israelis, but he was equally determined to help his Palestinian contacts wage their armed struggle against Israel. If his beliefs and career are any indication, Hizb Allah, as a movement, is also committed to unite the Palestinian and Lebanese fronts against Israel. Of course, given the ambitious and perhaps unrealistic nature of Hizb Allah’s strategic goal, it is not likely to cause much anxiety in Tel Aviv, radically change Israeli threat perceptions, or force serious reallocation of military resources. Hizb Allah’s objectives, while real, face obvious organizational and technical limitations, political challenges and realities, and Israel’s own, so far successful, efforts to counter them. Yet that could change if political and military circumstances in the Middle East become more favorable, including, among other developments, the emergence of a more pro-Palestinian leadership in Cairo.

Revenge, but on Hizb Allah’s Own Terms
A successful and spectacular revenge operation by Hizb Allah against Israel is an immediate trigger and flashpoint for a return to arms between the two belligerents. The next war, according to Hizb Allah, will make the previous conflict look like a “walk in the park.”[33] Israel knows that Hizb Allah will not forget Mughniyyeh, or for that matter any of its fallen “martyrs.” Instead, Hizb Allah honors their memory when it sees fit as it has done so in the past.

Hizb Allah is likely to be prudent, however, with the timing, target, and techniques it might use. It is expected that it will wait for the moment when Israel is vulnerable and caught sleeping. Most important, Hizb Allah is likely to conduct its operation at a time when Israel will not be in a position to retaliate with massive force. Hizb Allah’s goal is assumed to be limited: to hurt Israel and restore some level of deterrence. Should war happen, however, the organization says it will be ready for it.

Bilal Y. Saab is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Maryland’s Government & Politics Department, a monthly contributor to IHS/Jane’s, and a senior consultant for Oxford Analytica and Centra Technology Inc.

[1] “Terror Threat: Number of Israeli Embassies Closed,” YNet, February 15, 2011.

[2] Yaakov Lappin, “Hezbollah Terror Attack on Israelis Abroad ‘is imminent,’” Jerusalem Post, April 21, 2011; Sebastian Rotella, “Azerbaijan Seen as New Front in Mideast Conflict,” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2009.

[3] “Tel Aviv Accuses Hezbollah of Plotting Attacks Against Israeli Targets in South America,” Yedioth Ahronoth, August 13, 2009.

[4] “Hezbollah Warns Israel it Will Avenge Slain Commander,” Reuters, February 16, 2011.

[5] He was killed by a bomb placed in his car seat.

[6] Even though Mughniyyeh was devout, he was fascinated by the atheist ideology of Leon Trotsky. He was eccentric, a dreamer who would read a lot and listen to the music of revolutionary singer and songwriter Marcel Khalifeh. A short, handsome boy, he had a noticeable soft side. Yet he also had a passion for history and the military sciences and an obsession with strategy and issues of war. Carl von Clausewitz was his favorite military historian.

[7] Najaf is a major center of Islamic theological teaching (al-Hawza) for Shi`a and the site of the shrine of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad.

[8] Personal interview, Ali Shibani, Hizb Allah member, southern Beirut, Lebanon, August 28, 2010.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Abu Hassan Salameh was a trusted lieutenant of and potential successor to Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. As chief planner for the terrorist organization Black September, Abu Hassan was behind the raid at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games in which 11 Israeli athletes were killed, and a wide assortment of other terrorist attacks and murders. He was killed by the Mossad in Beirut in 1979. See “Death of a Terrorist,” Time Magazine, February 5, 1979.

[11] Personal interview, Ibrahim al-Amin, chief editor, al-Akhbar newspaper, Beirut, Lebanon, July 12, 2010.

[12] Ibid. Hajj is a title preserved for Muslims who go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

[13] Personal interview, Ibrahim al-Amin, chief editor, al-Akhbar newspaper, Beirut, Lebanon, July 12, 2010.

[14] Personal interview, Ibrahim Bayram, Hizb Allah insider and Annahar newspaper columnist, Beirut, Lebanon, July 11, 2010.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within (London: Saqi, 2005), p. 49.

[17] Although he tried to distance himself from the Palestinians due to their divisions, links with the Ba`athists, disorganization, and different belief systems, Mughniyyeh still had great sympathy for their cause. As many Palestinian leaders and fighters were forced by Israel to leave Lebanon and go to Tunisia, Yemen, and Sudan, Mughniyyeh stepped in to unite the remaining few and encourage them to join the collective fight against the Israeli army.

[18] Personal interview, Ala’a Musulmani, Hizb Allah member, Beirut, Lebanon, July 14, 2009.

[19] Quote taken from Ibrahim al-Amin, “The Charmer of the Resistance,” al-Akhbar, February 12, 2010.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Personal interview, Ibrahim Bayram, Hizb Allah insider and Annahar newspaper columnist, Beirut, Lebanon, July 11, 2010.

[22] Personal interview, Ibrahim al-Amin, chief editor, al-Akhbar newspaper, Beirut, Lebanon, July 12, 2010.

[23] Al-Amin, “The Charmer of the Resistance.”

[24] Personal interview, Mohammad Tihfe, Hizb Allah member, southern Lebanon, July 21, 2010.

[25] Arafat could see Mughniyyeh’s unique potential and his ability to unite the Palestinian-Lebanese resistance fronts against Israel. He also knew about Mughniyyeh’s solid operational relationship with the Iranians and the Syrians, which made the establishment of close contact with him even more important.

[26] Al-Amin, “The Charmer of the Resistance.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Personal interview, Makram Jaafar, Hizb Allah member, Beirut, Lebanon, June 14, 2010.

[30] Personal interview, Ali Fayad, Hizb Allah member and al-Manar satellite television producer, Beirut, Lebanon, June 13, 2010.

[31] The triangular relationship between Syria, Iran, and Hizb Allah has not been easy or without fault lines; it often witnessed tensions in the 1980s between Iran and Syria on the one hand, and armed confrontations between Syria and Hizb Allah on the other. In short, Hizb Allah is related to Iran in ways it can never be to Syria—through shared culture, ideology, and religion. Syria is far more pragmatic in foreign policy than Hizb Allah and Iran given that its leadership has fewer, if any, idiosyncratic characteristics that could prevent it from making deals with Israel and the West (Syrian policy prior and during the 1991 Gulf War is one example).

[32] Hizb Allah’s organizational structure is complex and highly compartmentalized, with several units and departments and much functional differentiation. At the head of the pyramid is the secretary general, currently Hassan Nasrallah, but he operates within a seven-member consultative council—the group’s highest body. Perhaps the most important aspect about Hizb Allah’s organizational structure is that it is hierarchical. Yet that does not mean that Nasrallah is involved in every aspect of decision-making or in all the details of military planning and implementation. He is more like a master coordinator and strategic communicator, working closely with his consultative council, his personal advisers, and the leadership in Tehran and Damascus. An imperfect analogy is the U.S. director of national intelligence, whose primary role is to coordinate the affairs of the U.S. intelligence community (and not so much to get involved in the CIA’s and other spy agencies’ operational planning and implementation).

[33] Interview by Nicholas Blanford with Hizb Allah commanders, the content of which was revealed to this author in person during a conference in Virginia in summer 2010.

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