The Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar has published its own investigation into how Israel’s Mossad was able to assassinate Imad Mughniyeh, the highly elusive “defense minister” of Lebanon’s Shi’ite Muslim militia Hezbollah. The killing took place in February 2008, after a decades-long manhunt by Israel, the United States, and other Western countries which had felt the sting of Hezbollah skyjackings and other terrorism.
The newspaper confirms the notion that Mughniyeh and other Hezbollah men lowered their guard and were relaxed while in Damascus, believing that they were beyond Israel’s reach. The report suggests that Mughniyeh was walking alone, when a car bomb exploded:
On the evening of 12 February 2008, Mughniyeh had just finished a meeting with some of the most senior Palestinian leaders in the Syrian capital of Damascus. They had discussed ways to develop the capacities of the Palestinian resistance inside Palestine, and Gaza in particular.
Around 10:15 pm, Mughniyeh left his apartment building in the Kfar Sousa neighborhood of Damascus. He came down alone and started to walk toward his car, which was parked in an area of about 800m2 that was used as a parking lot outside a cluster of buildings.
The explosion was heard around 10:20 pm. Some people rushed to the location, including those Mughniyeh was seeing in the apartment. It turned out that when Mughniyeh had stepped out of the building’s main gate, a 2006 silver Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4 parked nine meters away exploded, killing him alone, on the spot.
The Lebanese newspaper continued with new details of a Syrian employed by the Israelis:
The Mossad recruited a Syrian expat who visited his country often, and asked him to move to Damascus to provide logistics for the operation. The agent provided a villa to hide the vehicle and affix it with explosives, in addition to accommodations for the group that carried out the operation.
He rented the villa in an upscale suburb of Damascus (“Assad Villages”), located to the northwest of Kfar Sousa, and asked an ironsmith to separate the car entrance from the pedestrian entrance with an iron net on three sides, making it look like a cage and blocking the entry to the villa from that location.
A while later, the agent went back to Syria and bought a Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4, after knowing that several similar makes visited the targeted location often. In addition, Mughniyeh sometimes drove the same make. The execution team used a different model, Mitsubishi Lancer, due to its popularity in Syria in general.
The Pajero, now parked in the villa, was equipped with explosives in its trunk door. It was later discovered that, in addition to the explosives, the bomb contained metal pellets that can cause extensive damage to the target instantaneously. The device was similar to several bombs used by Israel to assassinate resistance leaders in Lebanon and abroad.
The investigators and people close to the file are very secretive about the implementation team. But there are indicators that show that they were not Syrian citizens and that they had travelled in and out of the country to implement the operation.
In the early afternoon of 12 February 2008, one of the implementers drove the Pajero, equipped with explosives in its trunk door, and parked it outside the building frequented by Mughniyeh.
At dusk, the team of four individuals took the getaway Lancer and, after making sure that the construction workers had left the building under construction next to Mughniyeh’s building, three of them went upstairs to observe the parking lot, the target, and the vehicle with the explosives.
They chose an apartment on the sixth floor. One of them surveyed the area with binoculars, another was charged with detonating the explosives, and the third was for protection. The fourth waited in the getaway car parked at the back of the building close to the fence.
Right before 10:20 pm, Mughniyeh exited the building and, as soon as he reached the well-lit lot nine meters away from the Pajero, the bomb was detonated and he was killed instantly. The implementing team left the building and headed toward their getaway car.
They immediately drove toward the Mazzeh highway where they parked the car on the side of the road and left behind some items for distraction. The investigations showed that the implementing team faced a problem while escaping, which led them to leave the car and use another to escape to an unknown location.
For Israeli intelligence, the most important target in Hezbollah was not Nasrallah. It was his “defense minister,” Imad Mughniyeh. He had been the Mossad’s most wanted man—and also on the FBI’s official list—for many years. Israel tried to kill Mughniyeh numerous times…
He was very elusive. Knowing he was a target, he changed his face, he changed his safe houses often, he changed his vehicles, and he barely traveled: only to Damascus, Syria, and to his masters in Iran. Until Dagan became the Mossad chief, those locales were out of bounds for Israeli assassination operations.
In the end, the Mossad showed that it could be patient as a hawk waiting for its prey. Waiting and watching, for one mistake. One opportunity.
That came in February 2008 in Damascus.
Syria was a dangerous place for Mossad operatives. The government had a large security apparatus, unusually adept at spying on its own people. Foreigners, too, were under constant watch. When the Mossad wanted to operate in Damascus, it would be highly unlikely that Israelis would pose as citizens of a Western country—the usual technique in most places. It would be wiser to melt into Syrian crowds on the streets. And a Kidon team managed to do that.
The Mossad had done it, in fact, four years earlier in Damascus. Izzedin el-Khalil, a senior operative in the military wing of Hamas—the Palestinian Islamic movement—was killed by a bomb planted under his car in September 2004. That was an important operational landmark. For the first time, the Mossad proved that it could execute a lethal mission in a front-line enemy capital other than Beirut, even in such a tightly controlled police state as Syria.
That mission gave the Kidon unit a great deal of confidence that it could carry out such strikes under the most challenging conditions imaginable. That was fully in accord with the undeclared motto of the Mossad, that everything is do-able.
Piecing together humint and telephone intercepts, Israeli intelligence managed to learn a great deal about Mughniyeh’s private life and tracked his movements, finally aware of his post-plastic surgery appearance. They took advantage of two human weaknesses, quite uncharacteristic for a master terrorist on the run.
First, hosted by Syrian intelligence in one of its guest apartments, and in constant contact with Iranian “diplomats,” Mughniyeh felt totally comfortable in Damascus. Living for decades with the assumption that he was an assassination target, he must have craved a place to feel safe. He let down his guard when in Syria, moving around with full self-confidence and no fear.
He also permitted himself to do, in Damascus, what he did not do at home in Lebanon: fool around with women. That, too, meant that he was literally a man about town, in moving cars more than a cautious man would be. Spies for the Mossad took note of routes that he repeatedly took.
A Kidon team, acting with great care in an enemy capital, managed to plant a bomb in or on Mughniyeh’s Japanese four-wheel-drive vehicle on February 12, 2008. The terrorist’s career ended with a blast. His body parts were scattered, but no one else was killed.
This was a triumph for the men and women of Israeli intelligence. They had accomplished the nearly impossible. Their feeling was similar to the satisfaction Americans would enjoy, three years later, when Navy Seals found and killed Osama bin Laden.