In the middle of a February 28, 2008 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, we find this sentence:
Contacts report that Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) and General Intelligence Directorate (GID) officials are currently engaged in an internecine struggle to blame each other for the breach of security that resulted in Mughniyeh's death.
“Mughniyeh” is Imad Mughniyeh – one of the all-time terrorists. He was Hezbollah’s terror mastermind for the better part of three decades, organizing a string of car bombings, hijackings, and kidnappings, the likes of which this world had never really seen before. He was a founding father of modern jihadist terror, so much so that al Qaeda came to emulate his style. Simultaneous suicide attacks were Mugniyeh’s specialty several years before al Qaeda was even founded.
I’ve written about Mugniyeh and his ties to al Qaeda previously, so I won’t belabor the point again. You can read my piece for this magazine on the occasion of his death here. At the time I wrote that “someone—we cannot be sure who, as of this writing—got him.”
There have been two competing theories used to explain Mugniyeh’s demise. One suggests that Syria had him killed because he knew too much about Syria’s and Iran’s – Mugniyeh’s masters – roles in state sponsored terrorism. Or, Mugniyeh was involved in an internal dispute involving competing factions within the Syrian regime and his rivals had him killed. Either way, this theory implicates Syria in Mugniyeh’s death.
I never bought that theory, however. It doesn’t make much sense. Why, all of a sudden after twenty-five plus years of terrorism, would Syria feel embarrassed by Mugniyeh? I haven’t read a convincing explanation. And the details of the supposed internal rivalry that was Mugniyeh’s undoing are sketchy too.
The line quoted above suggests that the State Department had intelligence on bickering within the Syrian establishment after Mugniyeh was killed by a car bomb in the heart of Damascus. This “breach of security” came from somewhere, or someone. And that leads us to the second and, in my view, far more plausible theory: Israeli spies killed Mugniyeh.
This makes far more sense to me. Mugniyeh was high on Israel’s most wanted list because his anti-American terrorism was matched only by his anti-Israeli terrorism on behalf of Hezbollah. While the leaked State Department hardly settles the issue, it does add a bit more evidence in support of the second theory.
And, assuming Israel was behind Mugniyeh’s demise, congratulations are in order. He was truly one of the most lethal terrorists in history. The Israeli’s managed to kill Mugniyeh right in the Assad family’s own backyard. It is no wonder that Syria’s intelligence agencies blamed each other for the success of this brazen plot.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.