The Passing of Hizballah’s Old Guard

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on May 15, 2016

Hizballah's military commander (2008-2015) Mustafa Amine Badreddine

Hizballah’s military commander (2008-2015) Mustafa Amine Badreddine

Mustafa Badreddine, the military commander of Hizballah, was announced killed in Syria on 13 May. This is the third major casualty of the founding generation: Imad Mughniyeh, Badreddine’s predecessor and also his cousin and brother-in-law (Mughniyeh married Saada, Badreddine’s sister), was killed in February 2008 in Damascus in an operation led by MOSSAD and supported by the CIA, and Hassan al-Laqqis, who had become one of the Party of God’s military officials in Syria, was gunned down outside his home in Beirut in December 2013. For all the speculation about “Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek Brigade” and its links to Kataib Abdullah Azzam and al-Qaeda—or Saudi intelligence, as Hassan Nasrallah had it—the likeliest suspect was never in doubt. Hizballah has also lost other senior and propagandistically important men like Samir Kuntar, who was killed in an explosion in Damascus in December 2015. Again, however, there seemed little doubt—even from Hizballah—that Israel had done this.

Neither Israel nor Hizballah has an interest in an escalation at this time, and they have already had one near-miss so rhetoric has been especially controlled this time. When Israel struck into Quneitra in January 2015 to curtail Iran’s efforts to open up a new front with Israel from Syria that would alter the regional balance of power, it killed six of Iran’s agents, among them was Imad’s son, Jihad Mughniyeh. Jihad appears to have been an incidental target: the main target(s) were likely Mohammad Issa (Abu Issa), a field commander of the Hizballah jihadists, and Abu Ali al-Tabtabai, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Golan. Hizballah killed two Israeli soldiers on the border a few weeks later and it very nearly escalated into a full-scale war. With the attempt to lead away from Israel, all kinds of rumours have spread.

The theories other than Israel on who killed Badreddine run from: intra-regime fighting, accidental explosion, revenge by one of the Shi’i Lebanese families whose sons have been killed by Hizballah’s intrusion into Syria, revenge by one or more of the husbands of Badreddine’s mistresses, the Hariri family, the Gulf states, or Western intelligence. An enormous amount of effort has been extended to avoid the obvious conclusion. One Western intelligence official got himself quoted saying Badreddine “often clashed with … Hasan Nasrallah,” which is the inverse of the truth. In July 2015, Badreddine was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury as a global terrorist. Treasury assessed that Badreddine had led Hizballah’s forces since they began operations in Syria right at the outset of the uprising in 2011. Moreover, “Since September 2011, strategic coordination was handled between Assad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah on a weekly basis, with Badreddine accompanying Nasrallah during the meetings in Damascus. Since 2012, Badreddine coordinated Hizballah military activities in Syria. Badreddine led Hizballah ground offensives in the Syrian town of al-Qusayr in February 2013, and in May 2013 the Free Syrian Army (FSA) confirmed that Badreddine was leading Hizballah’s operations in al-Qusayr.”

There are (just) conceivable options other than Israel for who killed Badreddine, but they are few. One is that the Syrian rebellion has killed Badreddine. The rebels-killed-Badreddine story was taken on by Hizballah in an “unofficially official” way: a statement delivered to al-Manar blamed “Takfiri groups,” though the promised “final” statement from Hassan Nasrallah never materialized (though Nasrallah did take the chance on Nakba Day, on 15 May, to underline his view that Israel remains the main threat to Muslims). Rather worryingly, in reporting on this the BBC revealed that: a) they thought the Islamic State was a “rebel” group despite it being foreign, a collaborator with, not a struggler against, the Assad regime before 2011, and openly at war with the rebellion since 2014; b) that Hizballah has clashed with IS in a major way; and that c) when writing about Hizballah, a jihadi organization that introduced suicide bombing to the modern Middle East, the BBC is prepared to accept at face-value Hizballah’s propaganda that it is opposing “jihadists” in Syria (the BBC only mentioned IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, as possible “rebels” who had killed Badreddine). It is certainly possible that the rebellion got to Badreddine: one rebel group, Jaysh al-Sunna, claimed to have killed Badreddine several hours after he was announced dead, but the claim is strange—mentioning shelling on Khan Tuman—and has not been widely circulated. Even if the rebels killed Badreddine it does not rule out an Israeli role.

The notion of an “inside job” is potentially plausible—with Assad’s, Iran’s, and Russia’s intelligence services on the loose in regime-held Syria, anything is potentially plausible. And in a certain way one might say this is almost certainly true: from the available descriptions of Badreddine’s location when killed—high-security, known to few—it would appear there is a mole somewhere, perhaps within Hizballah itself (which has happened) or perhaps more likely somewhere within Assad’s battered mukhabarat or army. But the evidence that somebody loyal to the Resistance Axis killed Badreddine is lacking and the thesis advanced in support of this notion—that Hizballah was flagging and Assad has given them a martyr to ensure they stick with his cause—does not stack up: Iran’s casualties have been heavy but Iran is nowhere near breaking-point in Syria yet and Hizballah answers only to Iran. That, however, is where the coverage in the aftermath has been most dispiriting.

There had been a debate—in academia, the media, and in Lebanon—for years over what Hizballah is. One side maintained that the group was essentially Lebanese with Iran connections; the other side argued that Hizballah was an Iranian creation that happened to be based in Lebanon. With Hizballah obeying the Supreme Leader’s order to entangle itself in Syria, when every Lebanese faction had agreed collectively that preventing Lebanon from becoming embroiled in the Syrian carnage was in the nation’s interest, the matter had seemed settled. But it transpires that the “Lebanization” thesis and the ignorance about Hizballah’s past—the notion that it formed as a response to, rather than some time before, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982—is alive and well.

Badreddine first met Mughniyeh when the two trained together after joining FATAH’s Force 17, the praetorian division and hit squad of Yasser Arafat, set up in southern Lebanon after the PLO was expelled from Jordan for trying to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy in 1970-71. Recruited by Iran as it splintered the ultra-radicals from AMAL into the nascent Hizballah, Badreddine had, with Mughniyeh, not only coordinated the Marine barracks bombing on 23 October 1983—the largest non-nuclear explosion in history and one of the first suicide bombings* that massacred 305 people, 241 American and 58 French servicemen, plus six civilians—but watched it (p. 24) from a nearby building. Badreddine had made the explosives for the Marine barracks atrocity, mixing gas into the bombs to give them a wider impact, a tell-tale piece of bomb-making innovation that Badreddine used again two months later when a truck laden with gas cylinders blew up outside the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait on 12 December 1983. Badreddine’s bomb in Kuwait was faulty so the blast was smaller, killing five people—all of them Arabs—and injuring nearly 100. That same day the French Embassy, Kuwait International Airport, the living quarters for American workers at Kuwait’s largest oil field (Raytheon), and Kuwait’s main power station were all attacked. Badreddine was arrested in Kuwait on 13 December 1983 with sixteen others, who collectively became the “Kuwait 17” or “Dawa 17″—the ostensible cause for which Mughniyeh would wage the campaign of terror in Lebanon in the 1980s, obscuring the direction being given to him from Tehran.

Mughniyeh’s operations in the name of the “Kuwait 17” included three plane hijackings. A year after the terrorist strikes in Kuwait, on 3 December 1984, Kuwait Airlines Flight 221 from Kuwait City to Karachi was hijacked and diverted to Tehran, where two USAID officials were murdered and thrown out of the plane. The Iranian regime staged a retaking of the plane, but passengers testified to the receipt of weapons and other equipment like handcuffs after landing that helped the hijackers keep the hostages, and every single one of the terrorists got away and went on to more and worse. TWA Flight 847 from Cairo to San Diego was hijacked before its first stop in Athens and over three days in June 1985 went from Beirut to Algiers and back again with the most infamous part of it being the torture and murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem. And in April 1988, Kuwait Airways Flight 221 from Bangkok to Kuwait turned into one of the longest hijackings, lasting sixteen days, and moving from Cyprus—where Hizballah murdered two Kuwaitis, Abdullah Khalidi, 25, and Khalid Ayoub Bandar, 20, on the tarmac—to Algeria. In each case the release of the “Kuwait 17” was the demand—sometimes with others, such as Israel releasing Shi’i prisoners taken in southern Lebanon. The kidnappings in Lebanon continued through the 1980s, too, with Terry Anderson, AP’s bureau chief, held the longest (16 March 1985 to 4 December 1991). Badreddine would remain in prison until Saddam Hussein’s forces conquered Kuwait and broke open the jails in August 1990. Badreddine returned to Lebanon.

The Taif Agreement had ended Lebanon’s war but not her woes: the accord did not disarm Hizballah, which cast its militia as a necessary “resistance” instrument against the Israelis who maintained a garrison of 1,500 troops in part of southern Lebanon. Badreddine and his companions would help orchestrate the killing of Israel’s soldiers and anyone else who happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Syria had always been the key conduit for Iran to keep Hizballah afloat and with Hafez al-Assad having extracted the legitimation of his occupation of Lebanon from the international community as the price for his signing onto the anti-Saddam war in Kuwait, Hizballah were also useful for helping quell the danger if peace ever seemed to be getting too close. (Assad’s Syria has always valued the peace process, but has never been keen on peace.)

It has to be assumed that Badreddine was at least aware, and in all likelihood a participant, in the deal Mughniyeh—by this time a fully commissioned officer of the IRGC—struck directly with Usama bin Ladin in Sudan in 1992 to work together against America, which involved Hizballah training al-Qaeda jihadists in bomb-making (Badreddine’s specialty) and other methods of terrorism in camps in the Bekaa in the 1990s. Iran deepened its ties with al-Qaeda as al-Qaeda got more lethal. There was extensive Iran-Qaeda cooperation in Bosnia during the 1992-95 War. The attack against the U.S. Air Force’s 4404th Wing at Khobar Towers on 25 June 1996 was organized by Iran, working through Saudi Hizballah and Mughniyeh (thus presumably involving Badreddine personally at some level, too), in which al-Qaeda played a role and Assad was complicit at least after the fact. It was al-Qaeda graduates of Iran’s training camps in the Bekaa who provided the technical expertise for the bombing of the U.S.’s East African Embassies in 1998 and Iran made a “concerted effort to strengthen relations with al-Qaeda” after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, inter alia allowing more than half—and maybe as many as three-quarters—of the “muscle hijackers” to transit its territory. This continues right down to the present day: al-Qaeda is still running a facilitation network on Iranian soil that feeds Jabhat al-Nusra, which Iran is ostensibly committed to defeating in Syria.

Badreddine was also key in helping Mughniyeh establish Hizballah’s most elite formations during the 1990s, notably Unit 1800 that targets Israel directly. Hizballah, because it is a wing of Iranian state power, is a much more sophisticated espionage outfit than any other Islamist terrorist organization, and it conducts operations to infiltrate Israel and to be the hidden hand behind episodes of mayhem in a way al-Qaeda could only dream of. In October 2000, for example, at a time when peace had gotten dangerous imminent with Israel’s offer of a two-state settlement, Unit 1800 met with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and HAMAS—in Assad’s Damascus, of course—to ensure that these terrorist groups, then in the midst of the Second Intifada that scuppered all hopes of peace, got Iran’s message that “they must not allow a calming down” of the situation (p. 208). Hizballah did not have all that many successes in penetrating Israel—though it did have some, like Fawzi Ayub—but Hizballah would, as the leading edge of Iran’s global terrorist network, have successes abroad like the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in March 1992 and the massacre at the AMIA Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires in July 1994.

In 2003, Badreddine was instrumental in the formation of Hizballah’s Unit 3800 that worked with the Quds Force’s Department 1000 to create the Shi’i militias that maimed and murdered 1,000 American soldiers in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Other than senior Hizballah operatives like Ali Musa Daqduq, old comrades like Jamal Ebrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), an Iraqi agent of the IRGC and co-conspirator in the 1983 Kuwait bombings, would be key in Unit 3800s work. Ebrahimi fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq War and now leads Kataib Hizballah, which is, like him, a U.S.-designated terrorist entity.

Undated photographs of Mustafa Badreddine released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

Undated photographs of Mustafa Badreddine released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

Badreddine was named in 2011 by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as one of four men responsible for the murder of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut in February 2005. The Tribunal noted that Badreddine “passes as an unrecognizable and virtually untraceable ghost throughout Lebanon, leaving no footprint as he passes”:

[Badreddine] has never been issued a passport. He has never been issued a driver’s license. He is not the registered owner of any property in Lebanon. The authorities have no records of him entering or leaving Lebanon. No records are held by the Ministry of Finance which would reflect that he pays any taxes. There are no bank accounts in any of the banks or any of the financial institutions in the country in his name. There are no known photographs of him, at least none that would reveal how he looked during the material time.

But Badreddine was better known under his alias Sami Issa; under that alter ego Badreddine “liked casinos, had mistresses, ran a chain of Beirut jewelry stores, kept an apartment in the resort area of Jounieh, and had the use of a yacht.” As Alex Rowell noted in a great profile of Badreddine last year, “Issa” was a Christian cover name and “Jounieh was de facto capital of the ethnically-cleansed Christian canton, ruled by vehemently anti-Muslim warlords” from the “Lebanese Forces,” the Maronite Catholic militia of the Phalangist party, which Israel had supported—regularly shipping supplies into the port. Badreddine also had a more stern and religious alias within Hizballah: “Zulfiqar” after the sword the Prophet Muhammad gave to Imam Ali before the second battle with the Meccans at Uhud (the first battle was Badr).

Iran’s serious losses in Syria to the “top military leadership which helped form the current IRGC-controlled proxy network” should not be over-sold. By allowing the Syrian crisis to run, with the pullback of the United States from the Middle East, and Western de facto support for Iran stepping into the vacuum, Iran’s regional position—with Hizballah as its leading edge—is not going to collapse because of the loss of one man. The Islamic revolutionary model that first took hold in Lebanon, with a militia alongside the state, able to both claim separateness and yet overpower the formal structures like the army, has now spread to Iraq with al-Hashd al-Shabi and Syria with the National Defence Force and tens of thousands of Iranian-controlled Shi’i jihadists. In Syria especially, Iran’s proxies seem to be bedding-in for the long-term. Hizballah has, not unlike the Islamic State, purged areas of locals—especially Christians—and moved in whole families of its loyalists in a form of settler-colonialism. While IS has “Zarqawi’s Cubs” for its child recruits, Hizballah has “The Imam Mahdi Scouts in Syria,” and Hizballah’s use of child-soldiers is well-documented. This structure, reliant on inherently destabilizing radical sectarian actors, is brittle: if the U.S. decided that Operation INHERENT RESOLVE was to focus on getting all designated terrorist groups out of Syria, Hizballah would find itself under mortal strain. But that is not the charted course. Instead, bets seem to have been placed on moderates in Iran who proclaim Badreddine’s “devotion in … fighting against terrorism,” and whom the CIA in any case always assessed were mere cut-outs for the country’s real rulers: the Supreme Leader and IRGC’s Quds Force led by Qassem Suleimani. Assuming such conditions continue, even a brittle structure can last for some time and Badreddine’s slaying will be a dent to morale but no serious threat to the imperial edifice he helped Iran create across the region.




[*] The first modern suicide attacks—not counting Ignaty Grinevitsky, who murdered Tsar Alexander II on 13 March 1881 or the Japanese kamikazes—were all conducted by Iranian proxies. The Dawa Party, whose paramilitary wing operated under Iranian auspices as an underground terrorist movement against Saddam and as an instrument to advance Tehran’s interests beyond Iraq, demolished the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut on 15 December 1981; Hizballah attacked an Israeli military position in Tyre with a fifteen-year-old child on 11 November 1982; and Hizballah collapsed large sections of the American Embassy in Beirut with a suicide attack on 18 April 1983. (Hizballah returned for a second attack on the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon on 20 September 1984.)

It is often said that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE or the Tamil Tigers for short, actually originated suicide bombing, using this method between 1980 and 2003. This is a heavily politicized debating point whose intention is to decouple suicide bombing from religious motives. But it isn’t true. The “very first” LTTE suicide attack, according to no less an authority than Robert Pape, was the 5 July 1987 attack by Vallipuram Vasanthan (“Captain Miller”), who drove a truck packed with explosives into a Sri Lankan military base in Nelliady, killing forty people. The similarity between Vasanthan’s attack and those on the U.S. Embassy and the Multinational Forces Marine barracks in Beirut is no accident: LTTE had sent men to Lebanon for instruction by Hizballah before conducting the attack.

Post has been updated

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