Reflections on the Death of Terrorists

Who killed Imad Mughniyah? Who might have had an interest in doing so? One can picture the chief inspector, somber-faced, questioning the grieving widow, “Did the deceased have any enemies?” She winces and brings over the Beirut phone book. “It looks like your files are just as heavy,” she says, pointing to the two-inch-thick Interpol file.

Jokes aside, there were truly some two dozen countries—and no one will ever know how many Lebanese—who had a long-standing account to settle with Hezbollah’s master terrorist. It was a trajectory of murder that began in the Beirut “dahia,” where he was, at first, a local Shiite disciple of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, which at the time maintained a state-within-a-state in the teeming neighborhoods of southwestern Beirut, crowded with poor migrants and internal refugees from the south. Propelled by his talent (and by the interests of Syria and Iran, which conspired to create what we today call Hezbollah, but at the time was referred to as Lebanese Islamic Jihad), he moved on to the crowning achievement of his young life: the attacks in October 1983 on the U.S. Marine barracks and the French paratrooper contingent. This brought about their removal from Beirut and led to the collapse of the fledgling Israeli-Lebanese peace treaty signed on May 17, 1983, in Khaldeh; and to the consolidation of the Syrian stranglehold on Lebanon, for which they (much later) showed their gratitude by offering him what he thought was a safe haven.

He went on, as the interests of Iran required at the time, to Kuwait, where his activities, and the arrest of his brother and others, were the trigger for a campaign of terror attacks and abductions aimed at their release. This pattern was repeated upon his return to Lebanon, giving rise to the abduction of Americans and the cruel torture and death of CIA station chief William Buckley, among others. Imad Mughniyah’s actions as “the kidnapper” par excellence were, in effect, the core cause of the scandal that came to be known as “Irangate” (i.e., the Reagan Administration’s bribing of Iran with the sale of American weapons, through Israel, to gain the hostages’ release, then sending the money illegally to the Contras in Nicaragua—an affair that even then seemed utterly incredible, and the distance of time has only made it more so). Then came the hijacking of TWA 347 and the brutal murder of a U.S. serviceman, shot to death and thrown onto the tarmac.

By the early 1990s Mughniyah was busy leading Hezbollah, again at the service of the Islamic revolution in Iran—in many ways, he served them directly, answering both to Ali Khamemei in Tehran and to Hezbollah’s leaders in Beirut—organizing the “resistance” to Israel and the systematic slaughter of its South Lebanese allies. When Israel struck back hard, he supervised two acts of revenge in Argentina, using the local infrastructure of Hezbollah sympathizers. It took twelve years, and persistent efforts by AJC and many others, to persuade the Argentine government (which, under Nestor Kirchner, proved much more attentive than its predecessors) to indict him and Iran’s leaders for these crimes—the AMIA bombing having been, in effect, the worst act of anti-Semitic mass murder since the Holocaust. And the list could go on.

Thus it is idle to speculate “who did it.” It is also pointless: Without waiting for their own inquest—which they are trying to portray as the equivalent of the international tribunal on the murder of Rafiq Hariri, as if the two men, and cases, were similar—Iran and Syria are blaming Israel. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (which also handle the Hezbollah portfolio) already has promised that this will lead to Israel’s demise at the strong hands of Hezbollah’s fighters. Empty bluster—which nevertheless does raise the question, in a general sense: Was it worth doing? Does the death of terrorists ever truly make the world a better place?

The negatives are well known. In some famous cases, such as that of Hassan Nasrallah replacing Abbas Musawi at the helm of Hezbollah in 1992, an assassination merely cleared the way for the rise of more deadly talents. In that case, and in others, there also came painful revenge in tow. Broader considerations, such as the consequences of a second humiliation of the Syrian regime (first their military, now their internal security) within the span of a few months, cannot be ignored. Indeed, Israel and Jewish communities worldwide are taking unusual precautions. It is not illegitimate to ask if it is worth it, despite the satisfaction of seeing a man like Mughniyah pay the just price for his actions. Should we, being who we are (or aspire to be), still be swayed by the primordial urge to revenge?

It is equally legitimate, however—in the general debate on this issue, and without owning up to any specific incident (except those in which Israel’s hand was undisputed, such as the killing of Ahmed Yassin, following Hamas’s Ashdod port suicide bombing in March 2004)—to answer in the affirmative: Revenge may be an inappropriate motive for taking such strategic decisions, but there are deeper reasons to go after the perpetrators, at the highest level, when the opportunity to do so arises. It should be remembered, in this context, that the complex interplay between the targets’ security measures and the intelligence penetrations that breach them often mean that the actual timing is driven by operational considerations, and not by the optimal political circumstances.

When does the death of terrorists serve the larger purposes of the free societies that they have sought to destroy?

  • To begin with, such actions do regularly, if not always, achieve the disruption of terrorist structures and designs. There have been cases, such as that of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad)’s “Western Sector” apparatus within Fatah, in which the elimination of the chief led to the collapse of their capacity altogether. In other cases, it was diminished and delayed. Specific operations were prevented, although the fertile imagination of journalists sometimes assigns to the Israeli or Western services an omniscient capability and exquisite timing that simply are not there. But in any case, even when targets were not hit, living on the run, because they feared being stalked, greatly complicated the leading terrorists’ ability to plan, prepare, and monitor the execution of attacks.
  • Deterrence—a slippery concept under the best of circumstances, and never more so than in the context of terror—is nevertheless relevant. It is one thing for the terror masters to drill into the minds of misguided young people how much they should love death, while the despicable Jews hang on to the false hope of life (to say nothing of liberty, let alone the pursuit of happiness). But when it comes to keeping their own hides intact—and the derisive language is well-deserved here—their elaborate procedures indicate that they are not quite as eager for early martyrdom as they exhort others to be. In the case of Hamas, a relatively long pause in suicide bombings was obtained in late 2003 through a stern warning that the next one would trigger an attack on their leaders rather than on their ranks. When this deterrent effect wore off, and Hamas attacked in Ashdod, Israel had no choice but to sustain credibility by going after Yassin. It remains to be seen whether a similar warning—if and when delivered—would have a similar effect on the Qassam campaign against Sderot and the nearby kibbutzim.
  • Finally, and in a sense decisively, there is the less tangible yet highly important matter of sending a general message—establishing the symbolically powerful claim, relevant to the U.S. in the wake of 9/11 (or for the CIA, in the wake of what was done to Buckley) and to the Jewish people after the Holocaust (with regard to the AMIA bombing) that certain things can no longer be done to us without paying the price. This is not revenge: It is the establishment, through manifest actions, of a moral calculus.


I owe these observations—and aspects of my own general reflections on this bitter subject—to the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, with whom a group of students (in a seminar he shared with lawyer Alan Dershowitz and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, intriguingly called “Thinking about Thinking”) had a similar agonized discussion back in 1996. This dialogue came about after the elimination of Hamas “engineer” Yahya Ayyash in January of that year, an action that Israel admitted—indeed, celebrated—and for which his organization (egged on by Iran, which sought to destroy the peace process) indeed exacted a terrible revenge, which in turn sank Shimon Peres in the May 1996 elections. It is not easy to say, “Was it worth it?” under such circumstances. But it is proper to ask, “Was it a legitimate choice to make?” It was. It still is.

Copyright 2013/2014 AJC