CIA Leak Sends Sharp U.S. Warning to Hezbollah

The American intelligence agency didn't just reveal its key role in the assassination of top terrorist Imad Mughniyeh for the fun of it; it was directing a missive at the organization that threatens its interests in Iraq and Syria.

Nadav Pollak
Nadav Pollak
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Lebanon's Hezbollah militants pay their respects during the funeral of assassinated commander Imad Mughniyeh in Beirut's suburbs, February 14, 2008.
Lebanon's Hezbollah militants pay their respects during the funeral of assassinated commander Imad Mughniyeh in Beirut's suburbs, February 14, 2008.Credit: Reuters
Nadav Pollak
Nadav Pollak

In its report revealing the United States' involvement in the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, the Washington Post sheds light on one of the most complicated and successful joint operations of the CIA and the Mossad. In the report, intelligence officials not only reveal the Americans' extensive planning and preparation for this operation, but that they were the first to suggest killing Hezbollah's internal operations chief.

The decision to share this information with the media holds a hidden agenda. Intelligence agencies don’t just volunteer confidential information for the heck of it; they have an objective in mind. Yossi Melman writes in the Jerusalem Post that the hidden agenda here is to show Israel, and more specifically Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel needs its superpower ally in executing complicated operations.

But the United States has better channels for conveying messages to Israel on matters of security cooperation. Thus it is unlikely that it would choose to use the media to publicize such confidential information simply for the sake of communicating with its ally.

I offer an alternative argument. The message behind going public with this information is not addressed to Israel, but rather to Hezbollah, and it translates into something like this: When you decide to target our forces and citizens, we will take action.

If the United States wanted to show that it is still willing and capable of targeting Hezbollah’s operatives successfully, this revelation nailed it. While Hezbollah probably assumed even before the Post's report that the United States had something to do with Mughniyeh’s death, now it knows the full extent of that involvement: not only did the United States support the operation; it contributed valuable assets and put its people in danger to carry it out. Hezbollah now knows, after this report, that the United States is willing to meet it on the battlefield of shadowy operations.

The next question that begs to be asked is why now? Why did the intelligence agents choose to make this information public now?

In recent years, Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force have tried to target Israelis, including high-level officials, as well as Americans in countries around the world. According to counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute, they have worked non-stop to both target Israelis and lay the logistical infrastructure for future attacks in South Africa, Kenya, Azerbaijan, Thailand and elsewhere. These attempts were constructed to retaliate for Mughniyeh’s assassination and the Iranian nuclear scientists’ assassinations. Levitt says the main reason these efforts were unsuccessful (excluding the attack on Israelis in Bulgaria) is that “targets were poorly chosen and assaults carried out with gross incompetence.” Moreover, he says, some of these plots were aimed to serve as the basis for quick retaliation attacks for the day when Israel or the United States – or both – attack Iran’s nuclear sites. While the United States focused its intelligence efforts on countering these attempts, it did not take extensive measures against the Hezbollah operatives behind these plots.

Another theater in which the United States faces Hezbollah is Iraq. During the Iraq war, Hezbollah operatives trained and aided Shiite militias to target coalition forces, which on multiple occasions resulted in the loss of American lives. Today, Hezbollah and Iranian proxies remain in Iraq, mainly fighting against ISIS, but their target could change rapidly. The Shiite militias backed by Iran and Hezbollah still see the United States as their enemy.

Moving across the border to Syria, where the United States is becoming more and more involved, there is a rising potential for friction between American forces and Hezbollah’s fighters. Hezbollah’s fighters are engaging in Syria by the thousands, and if the United States decides to increase its engagement there, whether by expanding its training programs for rebels or putting American boots on the ground, Hezbollah may decide to make this involvement costly. In such a scenario, Hezbollah would need to take into consideration the United States' willingness to challenge it on the battlefield – be it on the ground or in a shadow war like that which Hezbollah and Israel fight in other countries. This behind-the-scenes struggle could take shape as targeting American bases in surrounding countries – Turkey, Iraq, Jordan – or attacking American targets in countries where Hezbollah already has viable logistical infrastructure.

In the background, of course, are the negotiations on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. In a scenario in which the negotiations fail and the United States and/or Israel decide to act militarily – albeit unlikely in the near term – Iran would surely use Hezbollah as part of its retaliation, which will mainly take aim at Israeli targets, American officials believe, but also U.S. assets. It is unlikely that the level of deterrence the United States was trying to accomplish by revealing details of Mughniyeh's assassination was high enough to be directed at this scenario. Still, one cannot ignore that it may also affect Hezbollah’s cost-benefit analysis in this area to some degree.

Ultimately, revealing the CIA's role in assassinating Mughniyeh is aimed at demonstrating that the United States is still willing and capable of meeting Hezbollah in the battlefield. No matter who decided to convey this message – be it someone in the White House or someone in the CIA – its essence was loud and clear: When the United States feels that Hezbollah has crossed a red line, sophisticated operations will locate the individual responsible and retaliate, Mughniyeh style.

Nadav Pollak is a Master's student at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University focusing on American foreign policy in the Middle East. In the past, he worked as a research associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @NadavPollak

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