Reporting of the US-Israel Assassination of Imad Mughniyah

Two weeks ago, an Israeli helicopter crossed the Syrian border and killed five Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general. Media accounts made much of the fact that among the dead Hezbollah fighters was Jihad Mughniyah. That particular killing was significant because Jihad Mughniyeh was the son of Imad Mughniyah. Imad Mugniyah was a senior Hezbollah commander and chief of Hezbollah’s international operations. He was assassinated on February 12, 2008.

Hezbollah has always blamed the assassination on Israel. But, late last week, the Washington Post revealed that the assassination was, in fact, the product of a very close cooperation between Israel and the United States. The day after the Post story, Newsweek published its account of the uncovering of the Mughniyah’s assassins.

It is curious, though, that there are a number of discrepancies between the Post and Newsweek accounts. There seem to be three crucial points of disagreement between the two accounts.

Firstly, the two accounts disagree on who was actually running the operation. The Post cites a former U.S. intelligence official as saying that "The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute." But Newsweek quotes a former U.S. official who participated in the project as saying "That was us. . . . The Israelis told us where he was and gave us logistical help. But we designed the bomb that killed him and supervised the operation."

Secondly, the two accounts disagree on whether it was the CIA or Mossad that actually pulled the trigger. As already seen, the Post says the U.S. could call it off but couldn’t execute the kill. The bomb was "triggered . . . by agents with Mossad." Newsweek, however, reports that "the Mossad agent would ID Mugniyah, and the CIA man would press the remote control." The U.S. official who participated in the operation told Newsweek that "The Mossad officer was there just to make the confirmation that, ‘yeah, that’s him."

The third disagreement seems to be over where the man who pulled the trigger actually was. According to the Post, "The device was triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad . . . who were in communication with the operatives on the ground in Damascus." Newsweek, though, seems to place the trigger finger locally. Its report places the man who pulled the trigger "in the lookout post."

Both the Post and Newsweek cite unnamed intelligence sources. The Washington Post says that its revelation of U.S. involvement in the assassination "was confirmed by five former U.S. intelligence officials". It adds that the "Former U.S. officials . . . spoke on the condition of anonymity". Newsweek credits "former U.S. intelligence officials interviewed by Newsweek." Since confidence in the reliability of the conclusion of the investigations is contingent upon the reliability of the sources’ knowledge, it is curious and troubling that the sources seem to have such different knowledge about crucial elements of the story.

In addition to the report of U.S. involvement in the Mughniyah assassination, the stories are important for the way they report the background to the assassination. The Post and Newsweek add two more voices to the ubiquitous media chorus that subtly portrays Iran – in this case, as often, via a Hezbollah proxy – as an international terrorist state.

The two reports catalogue Mughniyah’s resume of terrorist attacks against the two countries as motivation for the U.S. and Israel to assassinate him. However, the certainty of the assignation of the various terrorist attacks on the resume to Mughniyah varies.

In some cases, the dispute is not one of authorship but of definition. Both accounts place the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut on Mughniyah’s list (The Post lists in not in the text but in a graphic box titled "Mughniyah’s Legacy of Terrorism"). The double suicide truck-bomb attack killed 241 Marines and 58 French paratroopers. The question here is whether one would define as terrorism a Lebanese attack on a military base in Beirut belonging to a foreign country that is actively and currently bombing Lebanon.

In other cases, the question is the more basic one of Mughniyah’s authorship.

The most recent attack included on Mugniyah’s rap sheet by both pieces is the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. The Post lists it in its graphic, saying that Mughniyah planned the bombing. The Post’s text is a bit more nuanced, saying "He was also suspected of involvement by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials in the planning of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.

The Khobar Towers was a housing complex for U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. Some in the U.S. counterterrorism community have laid the blame on Iran or its Hezbollah proxy. But Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have argued in their book Going to Tehran that the case against Iran rested largely on information provided by the Saudis. They say that Michael Scheuer, director of the Bin Laden unit, says that "a substantial body of evidence" pointed, not to Iran, but to Al-Qa’ida. They say that by 1998 even the Saudis were admitting that the bombing "was executed by Saudi hands. No foreign party was involved". Then Secretary of State Warren Christopher would also declare that "there was never any adequate proof" that Iran was involved. The Leveretts also cite Clinton’s defense secretary, William Perry, as saying "Al-Qa’ida rather than Iran was behind" the bombing.

The next item on Mughniyah’s list is the 1994 suicide bombing of the Argentinian Jewish community center that left 86 people dead. Both the Post and Newsweek put this one on the list. But its place on the list, too, though constantly repeated in the media, is unsubstantiated.

William Brencick, who was chief of the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires and the primary Embassy contact for the investigation of the bombing, told historian and investigative journalist Gareth Porter that the U.S. claim that Iran was behind it was based on a “wall of assumptions.” Porter says that of 200 eyewitnesses, only one claimed to see the white Renault van that was supposed to be the suicide vehicle. And her sister contradicted her, saying she saw a black and yellow taxi. It was the suicide vehicle that suggested Hezbollah, and Hezbollah that suggested Iran. So without this piece, there is no trail leading to Iran.

Calling the suicide bomber theory further into question, Porter says, is the inconvenient fact that U.S. explosives experts found evidence that at least some of the explosives were placed inside the community center and not in a suicide vehicle. The alleged suicide vehicle was also found with its identification number still suspiciously present and pointing to suicide bombers who would surely have been professional enough to remove them.

Two years before the community center bombing, the Israeli embassy in Argentina was attacked by a suicide bomber. Four Israelis and 25 Argentinians were killed in the attack. Both papers attribute this bombing to Mughniyah as well.

But this one is unclear too: though some analysts accept it.

Chomsky calls it an "allegation" and reminds that, if it was Hezbollah, a month prior to the bombing, Israel had assassinated Hezbollah leader Abbas Al-Mussawi, also killing his wife and five-year old child in the attack.

Iran expert Trita Parsi points out that groups other than Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the bombing. Despite this, Parsi says Israel blamed Hezbollah, saying it was retribution for the Al-Mussawi killing.

Middle East expert Professor Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco, referring to both Argentina bombings, says "Despite longstanding investigations by Argentine officials, including testimony by hundreds of eyewitnesses and two lengthy trials, no convincing evidence emerged that implicated Hezbollah. The more likely suspects are extreme rightwing elements of the Argentine military . . . ."

Gareth Porter agrees with Zunes. Porter told me that if Hezbollah had wanted to retaliate against Israel, it could have retaliated with strikes against Israel as it did in the past, not in Argentina. In the current series of retributions between Israel and Hezbollah, Hezbollah confined its retribution locally to Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms region.

Porter told me that no credible, convincing evidence has ever been put forward of Hezbollah’s involvement. He says that declassified internal State Department cables show that, privately, the initial assessment of the State Department was clearly that they suspected right wing militarists and veterans of Argentina’s dirty wars. Porter told me that it was only months later that the U.S. began, publicly, to articulate the Israeli position that Hezbollah and Iran were behind the suicide bombing.

So the reports in the Post and Newsweek are interesting in two respects. It is interesting that they both base their revelation on former U.S. intelligence officials, but that significant details of the stories told by those two sets of officials seem to be at odds with each other. It is also important that they include unsubstantiated accusations on Mughniyah’s terrorist resume. Mughniyah’s resume is not in need of padding. But the recitation of the same list of constantly repeated unsubstantiated claims has the different effect of reinforcing the perception in the public imagination that Iran is an international terrorist state.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.