Yossi Melman at PostGlobal

Yossi Melman

Tel Aviv, Israel

Yossi Melman is a senior commentator for the Israeli daily Haaretz. He specializes in intelligence, security, terrorism and strategic issues. An author of seven books on these topics, his most recent book, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran was published recently by Carroll & Graf. Close.

Yossi Melman

Tel Aviv, Israel

Yossi Melman is a senior commentator for the Israeli daily Haaretz. He specializes in intelligence, security, terrorism and strategic issues. An author of seven books on these topics, his most recent book, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran was published recently by Carroll & Graf. more »

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Assassination Is A Two-Edged Sword

By Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv

Last week’s funeral for the founder of Hezbollah’s military wing, Imad Mughniyah, was a grand ceremony of the kind usually reserved for heads of state, not master terrorists. The display reflects the importance and respect that Mughniyah enjoyed from senior delegates from Iran, Syria and Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Middle East conflicts are not a zero sum game, but the death of one of the most wanted terrorists on earth is a net gain for Israel. So it’s no wonder that no one is taking seriously the Israeli government’s denial of any involvement in Mughniyah’s assassination last Tuesday in Damascus, the Syrian capitol. The successful operation demonstrates the professional skills of the various branches of Israeli intelligence and above all the Mossad. The operation has rehabilitated Mossad's reputation and prestige, which has been in decline over the last decade.

Mughniyah, who joined the Lebanese Shiite organization in 1983 as a seventeen-year-old operative, built Hezbollah's impressive military-terrorist wing, which flexed its muscles in summer 2006 by inflicting damage to the powerful Israeli army. He served not only as Hezbollah's Chief of Staff but also as a subcontractor of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al Qods Force, which is responsible for special operations. He was behind almost every Iranian-sponsored terrorist attack in the last two decades against American, German, Israeli and Argentinian targets. He is personally responsible for the deaths of at least 500 people who were killed in those attacks.

Mughniyah was a master of disguise. Elusive and suspicious almost to the point of paranoia, he trusted no one and often changed passports and identities. To track and kill him, especially on Syria’s hostile soil, is a great achievement by the Israeli intelligence – on the same order of magnitude as if the CIA had killed Osama Bin Laden. It required precise information and a serious infiltration of his inner circle.

After his death was announced, the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that the news was welcome and that the world would be now a safer place. However, judging from the inflammatory speeches at his funeral by Iran's Foreign Minister Manachur Motaki and Hezbollah’s charismatic leader Hassan Nasrallah, that hope is doubtful. The two leaders promised retaliation, and we should believe them.

It is unlikely that Hezbollah would now open fire and launch rocket attacks along the Israeli-Lebanese borders in a repeat of the 2006 clashes. But we believe that, with logistical support from Iran, Hezbollah will now awaken its dozen sleeping cells in South America, Asia and Africa to take revenge. They’re likely to do that by hitting Israeli and perhaps American targets, such as embassies and Jewish organizations.

Over the last forty years, Israel has masterminded the craft of assassinating terrorists. Nowadays, after 9/11, Israel’s methods have been adopted and occasionally executed by U.S. intelligence and Special Forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia in the war against global terror.

But Israel’s experience shows that assassination – or what Israel terms "targeted killing" – is a double-edged sword. The policy only pays off in a few special cases. When a state deals with a terrorist group that is basically a "one-man show," chopping off the snake’s head by killing the leader can neutralize the group – so that can be justified in cost-effectiveness terms. But when a country encounters a highly motivated, solidified and structured terrorist group, killing its senior members proves to be counter-productive. The dead are soon replaced by members who are sometimes more skillful and more determined.

Israel and the U.S., which put Mughniyah high on its most-wanted terrorists list, both believe that he deserved to die. But by assassinating him, Israel took a huge risk. The Middle East is already volatile, with Lebanon on the verge of a civil war and Iran's growing appetite for nuclear weapons. This development may sink the region into a new vicious and bloody circle of tit for tat. And when the Middle East sneezes, the rest of the world – especially America and Western Europe – may get the flu.

Yossi Melman is a PostGlobal Panelist and columnist for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz based in Tel Aviv. Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent based in Washington. They are co-authors of Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israeli Intelligence.

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