The officials who ordered the assassination of high-ranking Hezbollah figure Jihad Mughniyeh in Sunday’s strike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights do appear to have been aware at the time the decision was made that an Iranian general was in one of the two vehicles in the convoy that was hit, despite a report to the contrary, according to information provided by several sources familiar with the incident.
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A Reuters report this week that quotes a senior Israeli security source as claiming that Israel didn’t know the general was in the convoy appears to be unreliable.
Mughniyeh was posted in the Golan Heights some time last spring, as the result of a joint decision by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Hezbollah leadership. Mughniyeh, 25, was considered an effective military operative.
Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze who was recruited into Hezbollah after his release from an Israeli prison in a 2008 deal with Hezbollah, had previously headed a different Golan Heights cell for the organization. Kuntar’s team carried out a series of attacks in the first half of 2014 that included planting explosive devices in Israeli territory and intercepting anti-tank missiles. Despite these operations, Kuntar’s network was not considered particularly skilled, and according to reports in Arab media outlets, one of its senior figures died in mysterious circumstances in Syria a few months ago.
Mughniyeh, whose father Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in February 2008 in an attack that has been attributed to Israel in foreign media reports, appears to have been responsible for upgrading the operation of Iran and Hezbollah in the Golan Heights, with an eye toward carrying out attacks on Israel.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have both hinted at such an offensive strategy. The idea was to open an additional resistance front against Israel that operates at some distance from the Lebanese border, a tactic aimed at making it less vulnerable to Israeli attack. Such an attack would likely increase opposition to Hezbollah within Lebanon.
The erection of a solid infrastructure, built and supervised by experts and monitored by remote control, was supposed to lay the groundwork for carrying out “high-quality attacks” later on.
Jihad Mughniyeh commanded dozens of carefully selected fighters who received intensive training from Iranian and Lebanese instructors in deploying explosive devices and firing rockets and anti-tank missiles, as well as carrying out major terror attacks in Israel after sneaking over the border. The new Hezbollah network fired Katyusha rockets at the Israeli side of the Golan Heights on four separate occasions in the course of last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip, but because the network was still ramping up its operations, these attacks caused no real damage.
According to intelligence in the possession of Israeli and other Western intelligence agencies, Mughniyeh was engaged in advanced preparations for additional attacks, which may explain his tour along the border with Israel, together with other commanders, on Sunday.
According to Arab media reports, the group traveled in two jeeps. The statements that were issued after the incident, first by Hezbollah and only later by the Revolutionary Guards, indicate that the two vehicles carried seven operatives: Mughniyeh, his deputy, two operatives in his network, Hezbollah commander Mohammed Issa (known as Abu Issa), Gen. Mohammed Ali Allahdadi of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and his aide, a Lebanese national.
There are conflicting reports regarding Allahdadi’s precise rank, but apparently it is somewhere between a lieutenant general and a brigadier general. He was responsible for training the new force and was the liaison between it and the Revolutionary Guards.
The group arrived in the Golan Heights on Sunday morning and toured the border area under the control of Assad’s regime, in the northern part of the Golan. (Most of the border with Israel, from Quneitra southward, has been in rebel hands for some months.) They stopped a few times to look over the border, and apparently reached the so-called Shouting Hill, located some 300 meters from the Israeli border, near Majdal Shams. Their presumed aim was to draw up operational plans for future attacks on Israel. There is no evidence that Mughniyeh and his men had previously approached the Israeli border.
According to Lebanese news reports, the group continued traveling eastward and was hit near the village of Mazraat Amal, which is about five kilometers from the border. United Nations observers in the area later reported seeing two Israeli drones cross the Israeli border in the vicinity of Masadeh, a Druze village in the northern Golan Heights, headed toward Syria. An hour later they saw smoke in the area of the incident and the drones returned to Israeli airspace.
It can be assumed that the decision makers weighed a number of considerations before ordering the attack, including the possibility of foiling numerous attacks by taking out Mughniyeh, as well as the potential repercussions of killing or injuring the Iranian general. The timing of the operation — just three days after Nasrallah expressly threatened to attack Israel because of its activities in Syria and Lebanon — added another layer of complexity to the decision.
In tough cases like these, the final decision is generally made by the defense minister, with the approval of the prime minister. Sometimes there are disagreements between the heads of the various organizations involved, as in at least four occasions in the past few years in which the defense minister has made a decision that contravened the position of various security officials.
The inner cabinet generally issues a blanket approval for attacks in a particular sector, leaving the details of the timing and the targets to the defense minister and the prime minister. Preparations for such an operation sometimes take several days but, sometimes, approval can be given in a matter of minutes.