The Next Mughniyah

This week we learned that even one of the world's most wanted super-terrorists is not immune from the inevitable, very human process of burnout. Otherwise, it is hard to fathom how Imad Mughniyah made the mistake that cost him his life.

Mughniyah, who was fittingly known as Hezbollah's military "super chief of staff" up until two years ago, was considered particularly cautious and suspicious. He surrounded himself with rings of bodyguards and didn't trust anyone, not even his most loyal subordinates. He carried many passports, apparently underwent plastic surgery to change his appearance, never traveled the same route twice, and changed safe houses the way other people change their socks.

Above all, he was known for his caution during phone calls. In the Second Lebanon War he was particularly careful to avoid using phones, and exchanged coded commands and instructions through couriers.

What, then, was Mughniyah's mistake? We will probably never know. The intelligence organization responsible for his assassination in Damascus' Tanzim Kafr Susa neighborhood, on Tuesday night, will probably conceal the information that enabled the car bomb to hit its target. The precise intelligence probably was supplemented by a moment of inattention on Mughniyah's part, a weakening of his extremely strict self-discipline.

Mughniyah's assassination is undoubtedly an impressive achievement for the organization responsible. If Israel is in fact behind it, as most governments, commentators and media outlets in the world believe, the achievement will be credited to the Mossad and its head, Meir Dagan, whose term was recently extended for a seventh year.

When Dagan was appointed to his position over five years ago, he was supposed to shake up the organization. Prevailing opinion held that its operational abilities had stagnated somewhat, even if this sentiment was not always justified. Dagan was supposed to renew the special operations, mainly assassinations, after the Mossad's freeze following the failed attempt to kill Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in 1997. This failure forced the organization to avoid such operations for several years.

According to media reports, there have been several failed attempts to assassinate senior Hezbollah and Hamas officials in South Lebanon and Syria since Dagan was appointed. But there also have been several successes, including the assassination of drug dealer and Hezbollah collaborator Ramzi Nahra in 2002, and the September 2004 assassination of Iz a din Sheikh Khalil in Damascus, a senior Hamas military commander who was in charge of the Gaza sector.

Essentially, this prove three years ago that it was possible to operate in the Syrian capital and assassinate a senior terrorist there.

However, based on precedents, and on the assumption that Israel really is responsible for Mughniyah's assassination, it would be a mistake to give all the credit to the Mossad and to ignore the traditional part of other intelligence agencies, like Military Intelligence.

The success in Damascus is the climax of a prolonged and almost Sisyphean intelligence effort. When the pieces of accurate intelligence finally come together, operational planning can get under way. But even the best intelligence in the world needs a bit of luck.

Mughniyah's assassination is a strong and painful blow to the morale of Hezbollah. Its prestige has been harmed and its self-confidence shaken. The organization and its leaders are now seized by confusion, and will be searching for traitors under every rock.

The assassination signals a strong message of deterrence. Everyone assumes Israel is behind it, and now the terrorist leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and even Iran, which nurtured Mughniyah, understand that Israel has the ability to strike at any one of them. But we should have no illusions. Hezbollah is not only a terror organization. It is a political movement with deep roots in Lebanon's Shi'ite community. It has a faction in Parliament, institutions, economic and social arms, and a militia. With all due respect to the importance of Mughniyah, who can be credited with building Hezbollah's military arm, there is no question that the organization will recover from the blow. It may not happen immediately, but it will happen.

In recent years, there were signs that Mughniyah's powers were being decentralized, as he sought to upgrade his status and leave the shadow world in which he lived. He joined the Shura Council, Hezbollah's supreme guiding body. He started growing a beard, in order to look like a cleric. He did all this to show he was worthy, some day, of succeeding Hassan Nasrallah as secretary general of Hezbollah.

Mughniyah's change did not escape Nasrallah. The secretary general began to envy and fear him, and therefore gave some of his powers to others. That is how Mughniyah's subordinates suddenly began becoming prominent - not in public, but in a manner that did not escape the intelligence screens in the West. These subordinates include Fuad Sukur, who heads the operations divisions; Ibrahim Akil, who heads Hezbollah's "Southern Command"; and Talal Hamiyah.

Hamiyah, who is in his forties, is a particularly interesting figure. He was Mughniyah's protege and served as his deputy in the "Jihad" network, a unit for special missions, mainly attacks outside Lebanon. Hamiyah also has been responsible for coordinating recruitment activities, and sending Al-Qaida volunteers to Iraq via Syria. Hamiyah, according to reports from Lebanese sources, went to Iraq quite often and was in contact with the leaders of the Shi'ite militias there, who are fighting the U.S. Army and the coalition forces.

All the candidates lack Mughniyah's authority, charisma and cruelty. However, Mughniyah may not be replaced by one man. Nasrallah, in coordination with Iran, may decide not to give one man too many powers again, and instead delegate them among several commanders.

Meanwhile, reports from Lebanon over the weekend suggested that none of the candidates reported by the Israeli media are being considered as replacements. The Lebanese media reported that Hezbollah already had chosen a successor, but that his name has not been released.

The Israeli defense establishment is assuming that Hezbollah and Iran, which have endless patience and an elephant's memory, will try to take revenge. That won't happen tomorrow. But we can expect them to react. We can reasonably assume they will not go beyond firing Katyushas or infiltrating the northern border in the near future, in fear of violating the United Nations-sponsored cease-fire. However, they could order the bombing of an Israeli embassy abroad, mainly in African or Asian countries; a strike at an El-Al plane; the assassination of a senior Israeli figure; or send terrorists to carry out a major attack in the heart of Israel. If that happens, Israel will begin its old debate, which has no clear and unambiguous answer: Do assassinations weaken the terrorists' will, or strengthen their determination?