Geopolitical Diary: The Re-emergence of a Terrorism Artist
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
The United States dished out another round of sanctions against Iran on Thursday, making good on threats to single out the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity and targeting three of Iran's largest banks. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is neck-deep in separate security negotiations with both Washington and Tehran, bluntly accused the United States of worsening the situation by "running around like a madman with a razor blade." As we have discussed extensively in recent days, the Iranians have a lot to ponder as they decide their next steps in dealing with the United States over Iraq. It does not appear that Tehran has yet made a decision on whether to move toward serious talks with Washington or hold out for a U.S. withdrawal with the Russians watching its back, but the stress is definitely taking its toll on the regime. Washington has picked up on this friction, and there are indications that it soon will extend a fresh offer of talks — a negotiations carrot to complement the sanctions stick. It was against this backdrop that we received a bit of intelligence on Thursday that made us bolt upright. Reports indicate that Imad Fayez Mugniyah has been training Shiite militants from Arab Persian Gulf states — specifically, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley for use in retaliatory attacks if the United States strikes Iran. It has been some time since Mugniyah has popped up on the radar, so it is certainly worth revisiting what the man is capable of — and, more important, how he fits into the contemporary geopolitical context. Mugniyah's job title ranges from chief Hezbollah intelligence officer to head of special operations, but it does not matter what his business card says — this guy is important. Simple improvised explosive devices and assassinations are not Mugniyah's game; he specializes in working behind the scenes in an egoless manner to plan the attacks that really hurt. Unlike Osama bin Laden, he ignores the limelight, and he eschews the day-to-day operations in much the same way Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did. Mugniyah is patient, good at understanding cultures and obsessed with security. His 30-year career has put him on a number of most-wanted lists, and his close association with Iranian intelligence is as cordial as it is impossible to track (except in retrospect). While Mugniyah has a number of successful attacks under his belt, the most effective by far was the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. In a day, Mugniyah achieved what 20 years of terrorism attacks could not: convincing the United States not only that the Middle East is dangerous but also that even a superpower can bleed badly enough that an ignoble retreat is the only policy option. This singular attack unnerved Washington, causing it to end direct military involvement in Lebanon and ingraining a "cut-and-run" mentality in the White House. And this was under President Ronald Reagan, who is not exactly known for being gentle. The United States quickly developed a reputation for abandoning operations at (or even before) the first sign of casualties (e.g., Somalia, the Iranian hostage rescue and the first Gulf War), or limiting operations to those in which the chances of casualties are nil (e.g., Grenada, Panama, Haiti, the Libya bombing and the Kosovo air war). This risk-averse attitude persisted until al Qaeda's 9/11 attack. Mugniyah is not simply a terrorist or a terrorist trainer; he treats terrorism almost as an art form, searching for a soft spot in a country's physical, cultural and emotional defenses. This makes him absolutely critical to Iranian military strategy. Iran has to take U.S. threats of military action seriously, but it also has to do everything it can to make U.S. military planners seriously consider what would happen the day after Washington launched an attack. With Mugniyah back in the game, Iran appears to be hard at work creating that nightmare scenario.