ANALYSIS: Question now is not whether Hezbollah will respond, but how
Killers of Hezbollah No. 2 showed impressive skills at trapping the man deemed a grandmaster of evasion.
Whoever carried out the operation demonstrated very impressive capabilities, in particular in collecting intelligence.
Such an operation requires the most exact planning for months in advance. Precise information is needed, which must come from the target's inner circle. They must have provided details on his daily routine, movements, hiding places and security arrangements.
Planning such an operation also requires precision in getting the operators where they need to be, and even more important, they must know how to get away. And all this must be done without leaving a trace.
Such information is needed for almost every specific killing, but the mission of killing Mughniyah was much harder. For many years he was in the sights of Israeli intelligence and the CIA, as well as other Western intelligence agencies such as Britain's. But because Mughniyah knew all this, he was doubly cautious.
He was considered a grandmaster at evasion and keeping to the rules concerning his personal safety. He was always surrounded by a ring of bodyguards. He switched identities and passports, and he trusted no one - not even the people closest to him. He kept each of them isolated so none of them could betray him. Every time there is an assassination the question arises on whether it was worth it, and whether it will reduce terror.
There is no clear answer to this question - it is complicated. In those very few cases where the terror organization is an extension of its leader and operates as an "organization of one," then killing the leader is of the highest importance. This is what happened, for example, when the head of Islamic Jihad, Dr. Fathi Shikaki, was killed in 1995 in an attack in Malta ascribed to the Mossad.
In other cases, the target organization is large and the killing of one terrorist has no major significance. And the organization usually succeeds in finding an appropriate replacement; sometimes even one who outdoes his predecessor. A clear example of this is the Israel Defense Forces' killing in 1992 of Abbas Musawi, the Hezbollah secretary general, using attack helicopters. Hassan Nasrallah replaced Musawi, whose death Israel has regretted ever since. We were clearly on the losing side of the trade.
In the case of the killing of Mughniyah we can draw two opposing conclusions. One is that the killing created shock and awe in Hezbollah and damaged its self-confidence. There is no doubt that the killing sent an unequivocal message to Nasrallah that maybe he should lower his profile of arrogance and self-confidence.
In addition, the killing rocks the organization's stability and makes it raise its suspicions about traitors from the inside. Without any doubt, the killing will also harm Hezbollah's operational capabilities.
This is particularly true in light of Mughniyah's quarter-century display of impressive planning, control and implementation of terror operations, as well as his organizational abilities. These helped build Hezbollah's military arm and turned it into a well-oiled war machine and excellent guerrilla force - of course with help and training from Iran.
Hezbollah will clearly recover
The second conclusion is that in the long run Hezbollah will clearly recover from the killing and return to functioning normally as a political movement with its own militia that has an organization for carrying out terror attacks.
It seems that Mughniyah's replacement as a sort of defense minister or super chief of staff will be his deputy, Talal Hamiyah. Hamiyah was his faithful deputy and confidante for years, and in recent years he frequently visited Iraq to aid in establishing the Shi'ite militias there.
The big and more important question arising from the killing in Damascus is not whether Hezbollah will respond, but how and when.
There is no doubt Hezbollah and its Iranian masters, who had excellent relations with Mughniyah, have long memories and will demand revenge. It will not necessarily come immediately in a reflex action.
Their response will also not be along the border, because it seems they have no evidence to tie Israel directly to the killing. And the internal situation in Lebanon and the Middle East will keep them from acting against Israel; for example, by firing Katyusha rockets or attempts to heat up the border by infiltrations or kidnapping soldiers.
We can also estimate that they will not attempt a mass terror attack in Israel, such as by sending in a group of terrorists, because this is particularly hard to do. They have tried this in the past by sending terrorists who look like Europeans and carry European passports.
The more reasonable and likeliest possibility is that Hezbollah, with Iranian approval, will try to make a revenge attack against Israel overseas, in particular against an embassy.
In this case it seems they will look for areas that are Israel's "soft underbelly" such as the Israeli Embassy in Jordan, Egypt or certain African capitals - where it will be easier for them to act surreptitiously.