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Hezbollah members in Lebanon (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

Retribution for Mughniyah

International | A dish served cold?

Feb. 12 will mark the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, one of Hezbollah's top military commanders. The anniversary certainly will be met with rejoicing in Tel Aviv and Washington-in addition to all the Israelis he killed, Mughniyah also had a significant amount of American blood on his hands. But the date will be met with anger and renewed cries for revenge from Hezbollah's militants, many of whom were recruited, trained, or inspired by Mughniyah.

Because of Hezbollah's history of conducting retaliatory attacks after the assassination of its leaders, and the frequent and very vocal calls for retribution for the Mughniyah assassination, many observers (including Stratfor) have been waiting for Hezbollah to exact its revenge. While the attack has not yet happened, threats continue. For example, in a Jan. 29 news conference, Hezbollah General Secretary Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah left no doubt about the group's intention. "The Israelis live in fear of our revenge," he said. "The decision to respond to the killing is still on. We decide the time and the place."

Initially, given the force of the anger and outcry over the assassination, we anticipated that the strike would come soon after the 30-day mourning period for Mughniyah had passed. Clearly, that did not happen. Now a year has passed since the killing, but the anger and outcry have not died down. Indeed, as reflected by Nasrallah's recent statement, the leadership of Hezbollah remains under a considerable amount of internal pressure to retaliate. Because any retaliation would likely be tempered by concerns over provoking a full-on Israeli attack against Hezbollah infrastructure (similar to the attack in the summer of 2006), any Hezbollah strike would be conducted in a manner that could provide some degree of plausible deniability.

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It is important to remember that Hezbollah retains a considerable capacity to conduct terrorist attacks abroad should it choose to do so. In fact, we believe that, due to its high degree of training, vast experience and close ties to the Iranian government, Hezbollah retains a more proficient and dangerous terrorism capability than al-Qaida.

Repeated calls for revenge and Hezbollah's capabilities have combined to ensure that the Israeli government maintains a high state of awareness. Even though a year has passed, Israelis, too, are waiting for the other shoe to drop. On Feb. 1, Elkana Harnof of the Counterterrorism Bureau in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office told The Jerusalem Post that, "Based on our information, we believe the organization is planning one large revenge attack close to the anniversary of [Mughniyah's] death." Harnof added, "All we can say publicly is that [Hezbollah] has gone to enormous effort to prepare various kinds of terror attacks, and the big one is likely going to take place soon." Like Stratfor, the Israelis also believe that the attack will be directed against Israeli or Jewish targets outside of Israel.

Busy bodies

There are a number of indications that Hezbollah has not been idle in the year since Mughniyah's death. First, there has been a good deal of preoperational activity by Hezbollah militants in several countries, including the United States. This activity has included surveillance and other intelligence-gathering for targeting purposes. At one point last fall, the activity was so intense inside the United States that law enforcement officials believed a strike was imminent-but it never came. Additionally, there are credible reports that Hezbollah plots to strike Israeli targets in Azerbaijan and the Netherlands have been thwarted. (Although, from information we have received, it does not appear that either of these plots was at an advanced stage of the attack cycle.)

We have no reason to doubt the reports of Hezbollah preoperational activity. It is simply what they do and what they are. Even though the group has not conducted a successful attack overseas since 1994, it does maintain a robust network of operatives who stay busily engaged in operational activities. While many of these operatives are involved primarily in financial and logistical activities, we believe it is worth noting that Hezbollah has never conducted or attempted an attack in a country where it did not have such a support network in place. They use these networks to assist their militant activities in a number of ways, but perhaps the most significant way is in the conduct of preoperational surveillance.

Hezbollah, a creature of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, also has a long history of receiving aid from Iranian embassies in its overseas operations, including its terrorist strikes. Almost inevitably, Hezbollah's overseas attack plans are found to have murky links of some sort to the Iranian embassy in the country where the attack was to occur, and to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers stationed there.

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