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Top Hezbollah Commander Killed in Syria

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Mathieu Deflem
Terrorism Expert
Wednesday, February 13, 2008; 1:00 PM

Imad Mughniyeh, a senior but shadowy Hezbollah commander accused by the United States and Israel of masterminding suicide bombings, hijackings and hostage-takings that spanned 25 years, was killed by a car bomb in the Syrian capital of Damascus, the Shiite Muslim group and other officials said Wednesday.

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Mathieu Deflem, terrorism expert and the University of South Carolina, was online Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss reaction in the Middle East and here in the U.S.

Deflem has written widely and addresses counter-terrorism strategies on tracking down (and even killing) terrorists, the policing of terrorism in the U.S. and overseas and, in general, the hunt for terrorists. He has also researched Israel's anti-terrorism programs in particular and is familiar with Hezbollah.

A transcript follows.

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Mathieu Deflem: My name is Mathieu Deflem. I am an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina. My areas of expertise include terrorism and counter-terrorism, especially the policing of terrorism, domestically and abroad, as well as international police cooperation, and the international conditions of security.

I have authored books on international police cooperation and law, and have published widely on a variety of issues related to terrorism, counter-terrorism, policing, law, and crime. My articles are available online via my Web site: MathieuDeflem.

I am pleased to participate in this online discussion, and hope my comments will be of help to you.

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Arlington, VA: While the most logical choice seems to be Israel, what is the possibility this could be retaliation from someone or group inside Lebanon? Hezbollah has killed a number of those wanting to be free from Syrian control, and there has not been any real payback yet.

Mathieu Deflem: Quite correct. The Israeli forces are the most likely candidate if the attack was undertaken by a country that was on the hunt for the Hezbollah leader, Imad Mughniyeh. Many countries were on the lookout for him, especially the US and Israel, but Israel has substantial experience in these kinds of interventions. Israel killed Imad Mughniyeh's brother in Beirut, and also have experience in targeted killings of Hamas leaders. On the other hand, Israel has denied the allegations, I assume because of a fear for retaliation. Also, traditional anti-Israel forces (Hamas, Hezbollah itself) have already been blaming Israel anyway... retaliations may be likely anyway. Should the killing of Imad Mughniyeh be the result of some sort of internal power struggle, then it will still be most likely that Israel will be blamed...

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Mr Deflem,

Assuming that Mughniyeh, assassination was done by Israelis, what's your assessment of their ability to strike one of the most valuable targets in the heart of the Syrian capital? Could this significantly restore their pride after the botched attempt on Khaled Mashal and soldiers' capture two years ago?

Mathieu Deflem: Israel has the very best strategies and forces available to just about any nation to carry out such attacks. Israeli forces with expertise in such operations operate in the military (IDF), border police, and even regular police. Israel's situation as a Jewish state in an Arab world is very unique and has contributed to the development of such forces. Such work is clandestine, uses infiltration, informants, and even the hiring of militiamen. For instance, in 1994, Israel killed Imad Mughniyeh's brother with the help of a Sunni -- Imad Mughniyeh himself is a Shia from Lebanon, and thus Israel could count on the friction between the two groups.

The killing of Imad Mughniyeh will in any case be seen as a victory in Israel (as by US intelligence units), because of his suspected involvement in the capture of Israeli soldiers and his role in the Lebanon war of 2006, which Israel is still recovering from.

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Chicago, Ill.: How do we know it's him? Because Hezbollah, not exactly in the truth-telling department, says so?

Mathieu Deflem: True. Either way, it is very unlikely that the attack can really be proven to be done by this or that force or country. It is by definition a hidden, clandestine affair. So, Hezbollah will give it the spin it sees most favorable. The group has already declared Imad Mughniyeh a martyr and has already blamed the "zionist" nation of Israel.

At present, it is not wise, I suppose, for Israel to take responsibility openly, if only to try and thwart retaliation attempts. Besides, Israel does not (politically) need to take responsibility, because the death of Imad Mughniyeh simply can be seen as a victory. And, presumably, it will among the Israeli population be seen as such and have some effects towards recovering from the summer of 2006.

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New York: Do you think Israel would kill Hassan Nasrallah if given the opportunity, or have they learned from the death of his predecessor that this is a risky proposition?

Mathieu Deflem: I think you hint at it rightly,... that it is a risky proposition at this point. the strength of Hezbollah does not derive exclusively from its current Secretary General. His death would surely be blamed on Israel and would surely lead to retaliations, even from groups that are not directly connected (especially Hamas in Gaza). The problem of Hezbollah is much broader now than terrorism and much more ingrained in the infiltration of the group in the civil society of Lebanon... the group is a political and social force that secures many social institutions for everyday people. Its terrorist activities so get pushed into the background.

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Tampa, Fla.: Can we assume Syria did not kill Mughniya? Since he died inside Syria, one would think he simply would have disappeared had Syria wanted him dead. Plus, I understand the Israelis are privately claiming credit.

This killing seems quite similar to the recent killings in Lebanon, including that of Hariri. I think it not unlikely Israel killed him. Israel does not want a stable Lebanon as long as Hezbollah is around because they can't control or intimidate Hezbollah. The killing of Hariri was bound to bring international pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, and the Syrians are smart enough to know this. Israel seems to have been the primary beneficiary of Hariri's death.

Any thoughts on this?

Mathieu Deflem: The situation in Lebanon is indeed at the heart of this matter. But Hezbollah is a destructive force towards the existence of Israel, and I don't think there is any need to forget that. The infusion of Hezbollah into everyday life in Lebanon (even more than its political power) is the most dangerous reality Israel is facing.

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Washington, D.C.: When Hezbollah or Hamas says they are going to attack Israel as retaliation, it seems that it's just talk. Just because they are always trying to attack and kill Israelis, so are the threats to Israel really any different?

Mathieu Deflem: Two things. The talk of retaliation is itself intimidating towards the Israeli population. That is the reality of living in Israel, that one must always be prepared to deal with the worst. The uncertainty is part of the terror. Second, I do not think it is in the best interest of anybody to assume we can underestimate the actual striking power of groups that (because of the reasons I stated earlier) can count on considerable popular support. Militarily, even, Israel cannot just deal with the issue once and for all, as the 2006 campaign has shown.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Will Israel dare to kill Hezbollah spiritual leader, Nasrallah, after his popularity skyrocketed during the last war? He has more support than the late Fatah-leader Yasser; and Israel did what they could which was contain him in occupied territories.

Mathieu Deflem: See my response to an earlier question. I think containing may indeed be a more effective strategy than assassination. Every Hezbollah leader who gets killed now will be seen as a victim of Israeli policies and celebrated as a martyr.

I think that if Israel is to fight Hezbollah effectively, more is needed than a military and police response. The group would have to be shaken in its very core, which (as said before) is now no longer just a matter of terrorism and force, but of dealing with the 'social' side of the group. My thoughts are that Israel therefore has to take the plight of the surrounding Arab communities seriously and work *with* moderate groups among them.

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Eilat, Israel: How do we know he is dead and how do we know he died in the explosion? Maybe they want to give him a martyr's exit not like that of Habash?

Mathieu Deflem: This seems to be a bit too far fetched. Such a 'fake' death seems to me to be to easily proven wrong... Intelligence community officials (from many nations) could surely establish such facts after some time. Discovery of such an event would seriously discredit the responsible group far too much.

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Buenos Aires, Argentina: Will this significantly affect Hezbollah's operational capacity or is there someone (or many) who can step right in?

Mathieu Deflem: That is a good point, at least to the extent that Imad Mughniyeh's skills were still needed as much as they had been before. The list of his involvements is long, but Hezbollah has diversified its operations considerably...

The death of Imad Mughniyeh is now an incident, the meaning of which can be construed by all parties to their own need. Another martyr for Hezbollah, another dead terrorist for Israel and the US. Incidentally, the role of the US would also be worthwhile to explore, though my immediate thought is that US forces are not near as equipped (or interested) to have dealt with this problem now than Israel.

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Wellesley, Mass.: To what extent was Mughnihah a part of Hezbollah? Some experts argue that he headed the External Security Organization, which is tied to Iranian intelligence. I was reading A. Norton's book, Hezbollah, which seems to be the latest important book on the group, and he points out that many European governments seem to treat the ESO as distinct from Hezbollah.

Mathieu Deflem: Of course, in the nebulous world of terrorism and politics, the organizational dividing lines cannot always be neatly drawn. Groups shift and change, and alliances come and go. From the Israeli point of view, the picture is somewhat clearer because Syria is seen as the major backer of Hezbollah. Damascus is typically seen as the heart and center of anti-Israeli campaigns from various more specific groups. I am not so sure about European countries, if they see it so different.. The UK Home Office lists the External Security Organization as a terrorist group as well.

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New York: The cynic sees operations as these as calculated provocations to again scuttle any momentum towards Israel withdrawing from the occupied West Bank.

Mathieu Deflem: Perhaps... I am still hoping though that the difference between Hamas in Gaza and the political authorities in the West Bank can bring about changes in Israel's view of the Palestinian issues as being more diversified and thus will allow a more benevolent policy with the more moderate groups. Sadly this comes at the expense of Gaza... But, in any case, I think the domestic and neighboring scenes closer to Israel are more important in this respect. Hamas's immediate claim today that the death of Imad Mughniyeh shows Israel's aggression may ironically work in favor of this policy.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion with Mathieu Deflem. Thank you for joining in.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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