Operation Hannibal: Why Israel risks killing its own soldiers rather than see them get captured

Dan Ephron writes: On the morning of August 1, 2014, during the broadest Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in years, a squad of Hamas fighters emerged from a shaft in the ground near the town of Rafah and ambushed three Israeli soldiers. The Israelis, members of an elite reconnaissance unit from the Givati Brigade, had been searching for a tunnel in the area, one of a network that the militant group Hamas had built under the Palestinian territory in recent years. In humid 80-degree heat, a firefight ensued that killed two of the Israelis and one of the Palestinians. It lasted less than a minute.

The war in Gaza, which had raged for three weeks by then and claimed the lives of dozens of Israelis and some 1,500 Palestinians, seemed to be tapering off. The ambush near Rafah would have gone down as one more skirmish. But as the surviving Palestinians retreated, they did something that would turn that Friday into the bloodiest day of the summer and embroil Israel in a possible war-crimes ordeal that reverberates even now: They dragged the third Israeli, Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, with them underground.

The sound of the gunfire drew other Israeli soldiers to the site, including Lieutenant Eitan Fund, the reconnaissance unit’s second-in-command. What Fund saw when he got there — bodies on a sandy road and an opening in the ground a few feet away — filled him with dread. Dead soldiers were disturbing enough, but for Israel, a missing fighter was about the worst possible outcome of any battlefield engagement. The last time Hamas had seized a soldier was in 2006: Corporal Gilad Shalit’s captivity lasted five years and set off a searing national trauma.

Fund, who was 23, had come to know Goldin during an officers’ training course. The two had also studied at the same religious seminary in the West Bank before their service. Fund radioed the details to his brigade commander, Col. Ofer Winter, and asked permission to take a squad underground. Winter instructed the lieutenant to drop a grenade and lower himself in. He then announced over the radio the start of a controversial procedure that Israel deploys when a soldier is taken captive: “Hannibal, Hannibal.”

To the military in the United States and around the world, Israel serves as a kind of laboratory for battle tactics, especially those involving counterinsurgency. Its wars with guerrilla groups like Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — four in the past nine years — are pored over for the lessons they hold and the questions they raise. The story of Hadar Goldin raises one question in particular: How far should a modern military go to prevent one of its own from being captured?

For the United States, the answer has centered mostly on technology. Today’s American troops go into battle with portable computers and GPS devices, including a system known as Blue Force Tracking that allows commanders in Humvees to “see” their forces in the arena. Ground troops are also monitored by satellites and drones. This combination of new technologies has produced a staggering drop in battlefield captives in Afghanistan and Iraq compared with previous wars. But the risks of combat remain great: U.S. Army Sergeant Salvatore Giunta became the first living Medal of Honor recipient in the war in Afghanistan, in part, for rescuing a comrade being dragged away by the Taliban during an ambush in 2007.

Israel has its own technology, of course, but it supplements those tools with a tactic the army revived in the aftermath of the Shalit ordeal — code word Hannibal — that calls for a massive use of force when a soldier is captured. Two Israelis familiar with the wording of the classified procedure described it to me as measured and restrictive. But from conversations with others, including more than a dozen Israelis in and out of uniform, it’s clear that soldiers often interpret it as something less nuanced—a kind of signal from commanders that a dead Israeli fighter is better than a captured one. Fund seemed to share that interpretation. As he entered the shaft, he told one of his squad members: “If you see something, open fire, even if it means killing Hadar or wounding Hadar.” [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS came to power

Robert Ford writes: In August 2014, the United States launched airstrikes against Sunni Muslim militants of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) to help besieged Kurdish military forces and Yazidi civilians in northern Iraq. Within weeks, ISIS militants beheaded American civilians and, the next month, the United States expanded its operations to hit ISIS militants in Syria. An Administration guided by the principle of “not doing stupid stuff” now finds itself in a new military campaign of unknown duration where the definition of victory is also murky. Congress and the American public more broadly are wondering what exactly we are wading into.

The starting point to the answer is obvious: From Tripoli on the Mediterranean shores of Lebanon to Diyala northeast of Baghdad stretches a Sunni Muslim community that is bitterly aggrieved, insecure, and fearful. They perceive that Iran and its Shia allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawis, are killing Sunnis indiscriminately and marginalizing them politically and economically. This would lead any reasonable American to ask: If the militants’ main beef is not with America, why then would they slit the throats of innocent Americans like James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as those of other innocent foreigners who were sympathetic to the sufferings and fears of that community? Americans might also ask what kind of belief system and grievances could lead to such appalling acts and their use as political tools to recruit still more fighters.

Answering these questions correctly and accurately matters. How the U.S. government conducts the campaign against the jihadis, and with whom and for whose benefit it conducts it, will directly affect the calculations of the militants we are fighting and whether we can isolate them from the vast majority of the roughly 24 million Sunni Muslims who live in the Levant and Iraq. President Obama has rightly said that the underlying problem is political; the jihadis feed off resentment. But there are other questions, such as, “Do we understand the resentments correctly?” and “Do we shape our responses appropriately?”

Seeking answers to these questions could lead many to turn to the experienced Middle East hand Patrick Cockburn, who has reported for years for British media from Iraq, and whose 2008 book on Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraq was full of new insights into the history of the modern Shia political parties in that country. In The Jihadis Return, a much briefer book, Cockburn breaks little new ground in describing the nature of the Islamic State now ensconced in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, his blaming of Saudi and even Pakistani actions in helping to facilitate the Islamic State’s rise absolves Iran and its allies of much responsibility. His is a misleading perspective that — to the extent that it influences our policies — could add gasoline to the conflagration, as it would aggravate the resentments among Sunni Arabs that erupted onto the scene in 2014 and gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s plan to depopulate southern Lebanon

IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly reports: The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has outlined a new strategy that will depopulate southern Lebanon if war breaks out with the Shia group Hizbullah, but this was likely to happen anyway without much Israeli encouragement.

A senior IDF source said on 3 June that the plan is to precipitate the evacuation of more than one million non-combatants from southern Lebanon if a full-scale conflict breaks out, thereby allowing the Israeli military to bring all its firepower to bear against Hizbullah without risking massive civilian casualties.

He said the evacuation policy would be implemented “if we have no choice” and added that the group has established rocket and missile launch bases in 240 south Lebanese villages and other built-up regions.

The source said the ensuing military operation would involve an unprecedented aerial campaign, which would hit thousands of targets every 24 hours, followed by a ground offensive. [Continue reading…]

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Nusra leader: Group’s target is Assad regime, not minorities or the West

Al Jazeera reports: The leader of the Nusra Front, one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, has said that his group’s main mission is to dislodge the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and that it has no agenda to target the West unless provoked.

“We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others,” Abu Mohammed al-Golani said in an exclusive interview aired on Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

“Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe al-Qaeda does that but not here in Syria,” he said.

But his statements did include a warning against the US over its attacks on the armed group, which has been blacklisted a “terrorist organisation” by the US.

“Our options are open when it comes to targeting the Americans if they will continue their attacks against us in Syria. Everyone has the right to defend themselves,” he said in an interview with the Doha-based network. [Continue reading…]

The Wall Street Journal reports: When a Muslim cleric criticized the Nusra Front last year for taking over his Syrian city and raising its menacing black flags, a representative of the jihadist group took to Facebook to send him an ominous message.

“Oh secularist, oh infidel,” the note read. “Sit quietly or your time will come.”

Yet when wider protests over Nusra’s draconian practices and rigid religious views soon followed in cleric Murhaf Shaarawi’s home city of Maraat Numan and elsewhere in Idlib province, the group took note. It curbed its threats to clerics and its attempts to spread its brand of Islam, said Mr. Shaarawi and other current and former residents of the province.

The response to public pressure underscores how Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that is designated a terrorist group by the U.S., the U.K. and Turkey, in recent months has introduced a measure of constraint and conciliation into areas of Syria where it operates, the residents said. It is even sometimes doing so alongside Western-backed rebel factions.

That has put it at odds with its main jihadist rival, Islamic State. While both groups seek to establish a state governed by a strict reading of Islam, Islamic State has relied on violence or the threat of violence to achieve that goal. Nusra, on the other hand, is seeking to win a degree of consent from those it rules and has voiced an interest in governing with other rebel groups.

Nusra, one of the strongest rebel factions fighting President Bashar al-Assad, hasn’t lost its reputation for brutality. Syrian rights groups point to a litany of abuses against civilians since Nusra was formed more than three years ago, including disappearances and summary executions for alleged blasphemy and collaboration.

Still, the group appears to have started easing some its most unpopular religious edicts, not least its ban on the sale and smoking of cigarettes—an especially reviled measure in a country where a majority of men smoke.

It has also stopped requiring women to cover their faces and wear floor-length robes, and has moved to punish some fighters for harassing or assaulting civilians, a resident of Maraat Numan said. [Continue reading…]

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‘We’ll die before they make us leave': Lebanese Christians are ready to face ISIS on Syria’s border

Vice News reports: The distant thud of rockets can be heard in the Lebanese border town of Ras Baalbek. Local Christian residents here fear that the spread of militant Islamist groups, who are simultaneously fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel groups in Syria, could eventually spill over into Lebanon.

Militant Sunni groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, have made impressive gains throughout the last year, often slaughtering minorities along the way — including Christians, Shia, Alawites, and others.

This fear has prompted locals in Ras Baalbek to start stockpiling weapons, and hundreds of them have launched an armed volunteer group to patrol at night. The Lebanese military has also significantly bulked up its presence here and in other border areas.

Khalil al-Arish, a resident of the village, brings 15 years of military knowhow to the volunteer patrol. Today, he is a member of the Resistance Brigades, a Hezbollah militia designed for non-Shia Lebanese who support the political organization’s efforts to defend Lebanon’s soil.

“We have between 600 and 700 members in the village who volunteer to work the patrol without financial compensation,” Arish told VICE News, adding that it includes members of Lebanese political parties from across the spectrum. “Each night, around 100 people go out on patrol.” [Continue reading…]

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As Assad’s power dwindles, Iran creates a state within a state in Syria

The New York Times reports: Four years ago, Syria’s army had 250,000 soldiers; now, because of casualties and desertions, it has 125,000 regulars, alongside 125,000 pro-government militia members, including Iranian-trained Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghan Hazaras, according to the senior American official in Washington.

And Syrians are not always in charge, especially where Hezbollah, the best trained and equipped of the foreign militias, is involved.

“Every area where there is Hezbollah, the command is in their hands,” said the Syrian with security connections. “You do something, you have to ask their permission.”

That, he said, rankled senior security officials who recalled the rule of Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, in the 1980s, when Hezbollah’s patron Iran was the junior partner in the alliance with Syria.

American officials are exploring how to exploit resulting tensions between Syrian and Hezbollah commanders, said the senior American official.

An official in the region sympathetic to Hezbollah said that enemies were trying to exploit natural tensions that “happen between allies, and between brothers and sisters in the same house,” but would not succeed.

“Even if Hezbollah does battle alone, it is with Syrian approval,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Hezbollah is only a stone that helps the builder.”

But others see a loss of Syrian sovereignty to Iran, which needs Syria as a conduit to arm Hezbollah. Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Brookings Doha Center in Doha, Qatar, said Iran with the help of Hezbollah and other militias is building “a state within a state in Syria — an insurance policy to protect itself against any future Assad demise.”

Ali, 23, a soldier on leave in Damascus from the southern front, said one of his officers, a major, had complained that any Hezbollah fighter was “more important than a Syrian general.”

Then there is simple jealousy. Hezbollah fighters are paid in dollars, while Syrian soldiers get depreciating Syrian pounds. Hezbollah fighters get new black cars and meat with rice, Ali said, while Syrian soldiers make do with dented Russian trucks and stale bread.

A student who recently fled Damascus after being constantly stopped at checkpoints to prove he is not a deserter said that Hezbollah now runs his neighborhood in the old city and once helped him solve a problem between his brother and security forces. (Syrian police, he said, are so little seen that people now smoke hashish openly.)

“If you have Hezbollah wasta,” or connections, he said, “your problems will be solved.” The student identified himself only as Hamed Al Adem, a name he uses as a performance artist, to protect family members still in Damascus.

Even so, Hezbollah is not in a position to bail out Mr. Assad the way it did in 2013, when it sent hundreds of fighters to crush the insurgent hub of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah now has more fighters and advisers in Syria than ever, about 5,000, American intelligence officials said. But, said the Syrian with security connections, they “only interfere in areas that are in their own interests.”

The official sympathetic to Hezbollah said it has “maybe thousands” of fighters along the Lebanese border, hundreds in the south, bordering Israel, and only dozens around divided Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

It had none in Idlib city, which he said may have fallen because some Syrian officers failed to correctly assess threats.

The Syrian with security ties said the leadership had not made a priority of defending Idlib. Many government troops, he said, fled after insurgents knocked out their communications network and called “God is Great” from the mosques.

“Damascus and the Syrian coast, other than this nothing is important. Nothing,” he said, adding of Mr. Assad: “He doesn’t give a damn if Syria is destroyed.” [Continue reading…]

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Israel reportedly hits Hezbollah, Assad targets in Syria

The Times of Israel reports: Israel reportedly hit several targets belonging to Hezbollah and the Syrian army in a series of air attacks Saturday morning in the Kalamun area on the border between Syria and Lebanon.

According to a report in the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya, a first Israeli Air Force strike took place Wednesday, allegedly targeting two sites believed to have been Syrian army missile depots.

On Saturday, according to a report in al-Jazeera, the Syrian targets were divisions 155 and 65 of the Assad army, in charge of “strategic weapons.” Al-Arabiya reported that the targets were Scud missile depots housed in the military bases. [Continue reading…]

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Is the Shiite revival here?

Ali Mamouri writes: In the book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American researcher on the crises in the Middle East, came to the conclusion in 2006 that the religious struggle resulting from the rise of the Shiite identity in the region would reshape the Middle East. Developments in recent years have proved that this view seems accurate.

Today, Shiite forces are strongly present in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are united and firmly associated with the Iranian axis. This new situation did not happen by chance or overnight. Rather, it was preceded by many arrangements that Iran has been making for decades.

The sectarian rivalry in the region began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Saudi Arabia and Iran raced to find and endorse revolutionary groups that fought different governments based on Islamic ideology and inspired by the Quranic terms of jihad in the Middle East. These groups include al-Qaeda for the Sunnis and Hezbollah and the Houthi movement for the Shiites. While Saudi Arabia has invested in jihadist organizations in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Arabs, or the Arab mujahedeen, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — Iran has invested in the Shiite opposition forces in the Arab countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Bahrain and the Badr Brigade in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli sources dispute claims of CIA’s lead role in Mughniyeh assassination

Dan Raviv writes: In true-life espionage stories that inadvertently go public, there are often three stages: the initial revelation, the corrective second version from other sources, and – decades later – what really happened.

Newsweek and The Washington Post scored scoops last month, revealing that the CIA worked jointly with Israel’s Mossad to assassinate a Lebanese terrorist in February 2008 in Damascus: the military chief of the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah movement, Imad Mughniyeh.

The bomb explosion that killed Mughniyeh – who was held responsible for killing hundreds of Americans, notably in Beirut explosions that toppled the U.S. Embassy and a Marines barracks – was triggered from 135 miles away when a button was pushed in Mossad headquarters. A CIA man was inside the HQ near Tel Aviv.

This was a unique arrangement in which CIA and Mossad officers coordinated their undercover efforts in Syria’s capital, located the target, identified his habits, and parked a vehicle containing a bomb just outside an apartment he used.

According to the published accounts, the bomb had been designed, shaped, and repeatedly tested at an American base to be sure that only Mughniyeh and no other people would be killed.

Because of the revelation that the CIA was part of the mission, as well as details of how it was accomplished, Israelis close to their country’s security services wondered why American sources chose to leak so much about it.

One result was that some of those Israelis – apparently miffed that the Americans were taking too much credit – went to the trouble of speaking with Western officials and diplomats to offer corrections.

Basically, using a phrase inspired by the blue-and-white flag of Israel, they suggested that the assassination of Mughniyeh was “almost all blue-and-white, and just a little bit red-white-and-blue.”

Based on what they told their Western contacts this month, the Israelis claim that their Mossad and Aman (military intelligence) agencies managed to pick up the trail of the elusive terrorist – despite plastic surgery that changed his appearance. His biggest mistake was moving around Damascus without bodyguards, and specifically an unguarded area in front of his apartment building in the Syrian capital.

Contrary to the recent reports, the Israelis claim to have designed and tested the bomb, while respecting the CIA’s insistence that it not be too large so as not to kill any innocents. [Continue reading…]

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What the CIA didn’t want Americans to know

Politico reports: For a year, Newsweek held a story on the assassination of top Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh at the CIA’s request, the magazine confirmed Friday — only to be scooped by The Washington Post last week.

The CIA made a forceful case for holding the story in conversations and a meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., and Newsweek honored that request, according to Editor-in-Chief Jim Impoco.

“In the geopolitical context at that moment, the CIA made a very persuasive case,” Impoco said in an interview – but declined to say what arguments the CIA made at the time. The CIA also declined to comment. [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah’s sectarian loyalties outweigh its commitment to the Palestinian cause

The Associated Press reports: Hezbollah’s ambitions are spreading far beyond its Lebanon home as the militant Shiite movement appears increasingly bent on taking on Sunni foes across the Middle East. It has sent thousands of its fighters into Syria and senior military advisers to Iraq, helped Shiite rebels rise to power in Yemen and threatened Bahrain over its abuse of the Shiite majority.

But the regional aspirations also are taking a heavy toll and threatening to undermine Hezbollah’s support at home. The group has suffered significant casualties, there is talk of becoming overstretched, and judging by the events of recent days, even a vague sense that the appetite for fighting the Israelis is waning.

In the recent confrontation, Israel struck first, purportedly destroying a Hezbollah unit near the front line of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Among the seven dead on Jan. 18 were an Iranian general, a top Hezbollah commander and the son of another former commander in chief. A heavy Hezbollah retaliation appeared inevitable.

Yet when it came last Wednesday, Hezbollah’s revenge was relatively modest: two Israeli soldiers dead, seven wounded. The choice of location — a disputed piece of land excluded from a U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel — suggested to some that Hezbollah’s mind remains focused on more distant fronts. [Continue reading…]

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In the CIA/Mossad Mughniyah murder story, detail should not be confused with accuracy

There’s no better way of making a story compelling than to fill it with granular detail. The more detail there is, the more convincing the account becomes. Details have the aura of hard facts, suggesting the sources must be very well informed.

If the story appears in publications which attach a lot of value to being perceived as authoritative — as do Washington Post and Newsweek — then most readers will take the information at face value.

Thus we come to two reports, both claiming to recount the same events, both detailed and credited to multiple intelligence sources, and yet the details conflict.

In two accounts of the same bombing in Damascus we hear that the bomb was a) “triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad,” or b) that under the plan “the CIA man would press the remote control.”

One report may be more accurate than the other, or perhaps both are inaccurate.

According to the Washington Post, the assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008 was carried out by Mossad with the CIA’s support and with the U.S. retaining power to cancel the operation.

As Mughniyah approached a parked SUV, a bomb planted in a spare tire on the back of the vehicle exploded, sending a burst of shrapnel across a tight radius. He was killed instantly.

The device was triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, who were in communication with the operatives on the ground in Damascus. “The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute,” said a former U.S. intelligence official.

According to Newsweek, the CIA claimed the operation as their own and a former official who participated in the project is quoted, saying: “The Israelis told us where he was and gave us logistical help. But we designed the bomb that killed him and supervised the operation.”

Said another source, a former senior CIA operative with deep Middle East experience: “It was an Israeli-American operation. Everybody knows CIA did it — everybody in the Middle East anyway.” The CIA’s authorship of Mugniyah’s bloody death, the operative said, should have been told long ago. “It sends the message that we will track you down, no matter how much time it takes,” he said. “The other side needs to know this.”

A former senior CIA operative with deep Middle East experience — Robert Baer perhaps — says everyone in the Middle East (wouldn’t that include Hezbollah?) knows that the CIA killed Mughniyah, but the story that should have been told long ago, needs to be told now … because Hezbollah doesn’t know what everyone else knows?

If that doesn’t make much sense, it’s because it doesn’t make much sense.

The same report also says: “The CIA was pleased with Mugniyah’s murder, but not so pleased as to take credit for it. Agency officials always feared Hezbollah would feel a need to retaliate.”

The Washington Post also notes:

In a new book, The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, former CIA officer Robert B. Baer writes how he had considered assassinating Mughniyah but apparently never got the opportunity. He notes, however, that CIA “censors” — the agency’s Publications Review Board — screened his book and “I’ve unfortunately been unable to write about the true set-piece plot against” Mughniyah.

But that didn’t stop him telling his story to the Post, perhaps.

And while Baer characterizes the killing of Mughniyeh as a case of settling scores, a former official speaking to the Post insisted that this was about the future not the past: “What we had to show was he was a continuing threat to Americans.”

The Israel security and intelligence writer, Yossi Melman, offers a political interpretation of the reporting:

It is hard to believe that the timing was coincidental.

Whoever leaked the details of the 2008 joint Mossad-CIA assassination of Hezbollah operational chief Imad Mughniyeh to two US newspapers, and certainly to a paper like The Washington Post, (the second one was Newsweek), did not do so capriciously. Most likely someone wanted to send the following message to the people of Israel and also to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: You need us. Look at the extent of the cooperation between our intelligence communities, which risks being damaged due to the discordant policies of your prime minister. This was the nature of the hidden message behind the leaked assassination operation.

The leak is surprising because the US usually only confirms its clandestine operations if it takes responsibility for them. In the case of Mughniyeh, neither the US nor Israel claimed responsibility. And there remains room for denial because the source of the leak was an anonymous US official and not an official government statement. The actual details of the leak are less important, and we shall see that some of them are lacking in accuracy.

The impression given from the leaked details is that someone wanted the US to take the lion’s share of the credit for the Mughniyeh assassination. According to the media reports, in the joint operation that killed Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” the Mossad played second fiddle to the CIA who was the senior more central partner. It’s possible that this is a great exaggeration, the truth was entirely different and in fact the Mossad was the dominant player in the operation.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that specific details have been reported on the manner of Mughniyeh’s death.

The Sunday Times reported on February 17, 2008, that the Hezbollah commander was not returning from a nearby restaurant, as the Post now claims, but had left a party at the Iranian cultural center.

According to Israeli intelligence sources, the bomb was not hidden in a spare tire but instead had been placed in the driver’s headrest.

The details being fed to the press at that time were very specific yet apparently not at all accurate.

The details now are no less specific, but likewise, perhaps, no more accurate.

One thing that should be clear is that information provided by intelligence sources, be they current or former, should always be treated with caution.

Those whose careers revolve around secrecy and deception can’t be expected to easily shake off the habits of a lifetime.

At the same time, what we see here is the shadow of journalism.

On the one hand it seeks to bring information to light, and at the same time the process by which that information is gathered, questioned, and analyzed, remains opaque.

We get told the story, but rarely hear the story behind the story.

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After revelation about CIA-Mossad assassination, shadow war with Hezbollah may intensify

The Washington Post reports: The revelation that the CIA cooperated with Israel’s Mossad spy agency in the assassination of a top Hezbollah military commander in 2008 is poised to intensify a shadow war with the militant Lebanese group that could involve retaliation against U.S. interests around the world, analysts said.

In an exclusive story published online Friday night, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. intelligence agency coordinated with Mossad in carrying out a February 2008 car bombing in the Syrian capital, Damascus, that killed Imad Mughniyah.

The militant commander was implicated in killing hundreds of Americans in attacks that included the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983 and assaults on American forces in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias, according to the Post’s report, which cited multiple former U.S. officials. The killing of Mughniyah, a key figure behind attacks on scores of Israelis, was approved by officials in the George W. Bush administration, according to the report.

The report said the operation required extensive planning and cooperation between the two agencies. One of official is quoted as saying that operatives detonated some 25 practice bombs at a CIA facility in North Carolina “to make sure we got it right,” killing Mughniyah while avoiding civilian causalities. The real bomb was triggered remotely in Tel Aviv by Mossad agents, according to the report, but CIA operatives in Damascus acted as spotters and could have called off the attack.

Samar Hajj, a Lebanese analyst who is close to Hezbollah, said the report reinforced the impression — true or not — among officials in the Iranian-backed group that covert Israeli operations are signed off in Washington. [Continue reading…]

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Are Israel and Hezbollah about to go to war?

Paul Pillar writes: An exchange of lethal attacks during the past fortnight between Israel and Hezbollah has raised the risk that escalation of fighting between these old antagonists might be added to the intractable mess that Syria already is. Israel and Hezbollah have a long history of tit-for-tat reprisals, with the most conspicuous examples involving Hezbollah titting in response to Israeli tatting. The two major car bomb attacks by Hezbollah in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, for example, were each a direct response to deadly actions that Israel had taken back in the Middle East a month or six weeks earlier. The bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 followed an Israeli airstrike that killed Hezbollah leader Abbas Moussawi and his five-year-old son. The attack in 1994 on a Jewish community center—recently back in the news as the Argentine government tries to dance around the mysterious death of a prosecutor who had been investigating how the original investigation of the attack had been handled—was a response to two Israeli actions in rapid succession. One was Israel’s kidnapping of Mustafa Ali Dirani, leader of the Hezbollah-associated Amal movement. The other — possibly facilitated by information the Israelis extracted from Dirani — was an aerial attack on a Hezbollah facility that killed dozens of the group’s members.

The pattern resembles some of the tit-for-tat that also has taken place between Israel and Hezbollah’s ally Iran. Some not-very-successful attacks against Israeli diplomatic personnel a couple of years ago were clearly intended as retaliation — right down to mimicking the method of attack — for the assassinations of several Iranian scientists.

The most recent Israel-Hezbollah exchange began with an Israeli attack from the air on cars traveling within Syria, close to but wholly beyond the armistice line that separates the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria. A half dozen people were killed, including the 25-year-old son of former Hezbollah security chief Imad Mughniyah (who himself was killed several years ago by a car bomb in Syria—an attack that many assume also to have been the work of Israel). Hezbollah’s retaliation came this week with a carefully executed attack on an Israeli convoy in the disputed Shebaa Farms area, reportedly killing two Israeli soldiers and wounding several others. Hezbollah made it abundantly clear that its action was retaliation for the previous week’s attack by Israel, even giving the unit that carried out the attack the claim name of the Quneitra Martyrs Brigade, a reference to the location of the Israeli attack.

Even when neither party in this kind of vicious dyad wants escalation, it sometimes nevertheless occurs. [Continue reading…]

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Escalation would benefit neither Israel nor Hezbollah

The Daily Star reports: Within the space of a few hours, two Israeli soldiers were dead, and Wednesday had turned from just another weekday to the day that Lebanese started asking themselves: Are we about to see a repeat of 2006?

That year saw a full-on war with Israel develop following a deadly cross-border attack by Hezbollah on an Israeli patrol. The 2006 war, which ended up costing more than 1,000 lives and severely damaging infrastructure across the country, came after years of “tit-for-tat” incidents between the two sides as part of a carefully calibrated game for which both sides thought they knew the rules.

The name of the unit that attacked an Israeli convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms Wednesday, killing two and wounding seven others, was the Qunaitra Martyrs – a clear reference to the airstrike last week on a Hezbollah vehicle in Qunaitra, Syria.

That attack killed six party fighters, including the highly symbolic Jihad Mughniyeh – son of assassinated commander Imad – and a senior Iranian military figure. Everyone knew that Hezbollah would have to retaliate.

As a result, most have interpreted the Shebaa Farms incident as part of the contained mini-war between the two sides. But could Hezbollah have been looking for something more following such a bold and humiliating attack on its troops in Syria? Or could their response accidentally have paved the way for something bigger, as it did back in 2006, due to unpredictable internal Israeli factors?

“Never rule out war between these two antagonists,” said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council. “But Hezbollah has already done what it wanted to do: a limited, deadly and precise attack.”

He pointed to the significance of Hezbollah’s decision to respond to the Qunaitra attack from the Shebaa Farms, a heavily disputed territory in the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights that Lebanon claims as its own.

“The very choice of geography shows the organization does not want to escalate,” Saab said. “It’s cautious, the choice of Shebaa, it means we are back to the previous rules of engagement, which were stable until 2006, when everything broke down.”

“It didn’t attack inside Israel, or inside Syria in the Golan Heights. Hezbollah is not after major escalation, if it was, it could have done much, much more, and Israel understands this,” he added. [Continue reading…]

Ron Ben-Yishai writes: Hezbollah’s “achievement” Wednesday was to shed the blood of Israeli soldiers. Even by Lebanese criteria, this is barely a tactical achievement. For Israel it is – and rightly so – hard to come to terms with the death and injury of its soldiers, but grief in itself does not justify a move that would cause tens and hundreds of deaths and injuries on the Israeli side if and when a third Lebanon war breaks out. This is a cold and cruel consideration – but someone has to do it.

Another consideration is the composition of the government and cabinet. After the dismissal of the Yesh Atid and Hatnua ministers, the security cabinet is purely rightwing; it is devoid of legitimacy and a balance that is vital to decisions on war and peace.

The final consideration concerns the upcoming elections. If the present government decides on a harsh response that would trigger a major escalation, it would almost immediately be accused of dragging Israel into a political war designed to serve the ends of Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett. No rational arguments, strategic justifications and considerations of national pride would help Israel’s current political leadership. They would suffer a defeat at the polls.

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Hezbollah ambush kills at least 2 Israeli soldiers

The Daily Star reports: Hezbollah fighters attacked an Israeli military convoy Wednesday in the occupied Shebaa Farms, in south Lebanon, killing at least two soldiers and wounding seven, in retaliation for Israel’s recent airstrike in the Golan Heights.

A U.N. Spanish peacekeeper was also killed in the heavy exchange of fire that followed the Hezbollah attack, as UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Luciano Portolano urged “maximum restraint” from all parties to prevent escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.

Media reports had earlier said that four Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack.

A security source told The Daily Star that 30 shells were fired from the Israeli side across the Lebanese border following the 11:30 a.m. attack that struck a convoy, destroying at least two vehicles. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said the attack destroyed 9 vehicles.

Hezbollah claimed the attack on the Israeli military convoy in a statement.

“At 11:25 [Wednesday morning] the Qunaitra Martyrs unit targeted with appropriate missile weapons an Israeli military convoy comprising several vehicles and [transporting] Zionist officers and soldiers causing the destruction of several vehicles and inflicting many casualties on the enemy,” the brief statement read.

According to Israeli media, a number of Israeli Army troops were being treated with “light-to-moderate wounds” at a hospital in Safed.

About two hours after the initial attack, Israeli warplanes carried out mock air raids over the scene of the attack as their soldiers lobbed shells into Shebaa Farms and the surrounding hills.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to make Hezbollah “pay” for the attack.

“Those behind the attack today will pay the full price,” Netanyahu said, after cutting a trip to Sderot short to visit the Defense Ministry for “consultations.” [Continue reading…]

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Prosecutor’s death was not suicide, says Argentina’s president

Reuters reports: Alberto Nisman was working hard preparing for a congressional hearing on his claim that Argentina’s president tried to whitewash Iran’s involvement in a bombing attack that killed 85 people, a make-or-break day in his career as prosecutor.

In the spotlight since leveling his hefty accusations last week, Nisman needed to make a convincing case, based on a decade of work with spy agencies around the world.

So he put in the extra hours at his Buenos Aires apartment on Saturday. Friends described him as upbeat and determined ahead of his appearance and he was scheduling interviews with journalists for the coming days. He also reportedly wrote up a list of groceries he would ask his maid to buy on Monday.

But Nisman, 51, never made it to Monday. He was killed by a bullet to the head and his body found on the floor of his bathroom on Sunday night.

Officials initially said he apparently committed suicide with a 22 caliber gun borrowed from a distant colleague, and a source close to the judicial investigation who visited the scene told Reuters there was so much blood that no one could have left it without leaving a trace.

But from day one, most Argentines, including his family and friends, refused to believe Nisman committed suicide. The timing was too suspicious, the circumstances of his death too mysterious, and they say he was simply not that kind of man.

“No one believes the suicide hypothesis,” said one person on Nisman’s investigative team, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions and preferred not to use his cellphone, believing it was tapped.

“He was very convinced of his ideas and prepared to see them through. He had received threats all his life and it never intimidated him,” he told Reuters.

Even President Cristina Fernandez [de Kirchner] has come around to that view, saying on Thursday that she was “convinced” it was not a suicide. People had led him astray in his investigation in order to smear her name and then “needed him dead”, she said.

She did not, however, say who ordered his death and no arrests have been made. [Continue reading…]

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Phone calls detail Argentina’s efforts to shield Iran

The New York Times reports: Intercepted conversations between representatives of the Iranian and Argentine governments point to a long pattern of secret negotiations to reach a deal in which Argentina would receive oil in exchange for shielding Iranian officials from charges that they orchestrated the bombing of a Jewish community center in 1994.

The transcripts were made public by an Argentine judge on Tuesday night, as part of a 289-page criminal complaint written by Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor investigating the attack. Mr. Nisman was found dead in his luxury apartment on Sunday, the night before he was to present his findings to Congress.

But the intercepted telephone conversations he described before his death outline an elaborate effort to reward Argentina for shipping food to Iran — and for seeking to derail the investigation into a terrorist attack in the Argentine capital that killed 85 people.

The deal never materialized, the complaint says, in part because Argentine officials failed to persuade Interpol to lift the arrest warrants against Iranian officials wanted in Argentina in connection with the attack.

The phone conversations are believed to have been intercepted by Argentine intelligence officials. If proved accurate, the transcripts would show a concerted effort by representatives of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government to shift suspicions away from Iran in order to gain access to Iranian markets and to ease Argentina’s energy troubles. [Continue reading…]

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