It took just eight hours after the assassination of senior Hezbollah operative Hassan al-Laqis Tuesday night in Beirut for the organization to publish a detailed statement in which it blamed Israel for the deed.
At this stage, Hezbollah does not possess unequivocal proof of the assassins’ identity or of any ties they may have had to Israel. And shortly after the assassination, a previously unknown group, the “Free Sunni Brigades in Baalbek,” claimed responsibility for the attack in a Twitter message.
Laqis’s prominent position in Hezbollah’s military hierarchy, though, renders Israel the prime suspect.
According to various Lebanese reports, Laqis was one of the heads of Hezbollah’s rocket and ammunition procurement division — a post that combines research and development for Hezbollah with work that is technologically oriented, particularly where missiles are concerned.
Therefore, Israel clearly stood to gain by harming him.
However, Lebanon’s complicated security situation makes it difficult to discern what motive was behind the assassination: Sunni-Shiite fighting, foreign intelligence agencies acting against Hezbollah, or backlash in Beirut over the organization’s involvement in Syria.
Only a few days ago, heavy fighting erupted between Alawites and Sunnis in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Nearly 20 people were reported killed, and many dozens more were wounded. The Sunnis accused Hezbollah of involvement in the fighting.
Just Tuesday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised interview that the Saudi intelligence agency was behind double suicide bombings at the entrance to the Iranian embassy in Beirut two weeks ago.
Of course, we should also add the various armed Sunni groups that have carried out attacks against Shiite targets in Beirut’s Dahiya suburb, a Hezbollah stronghold, and shot rockets at Shiite neighborhoods and towns.
And yet, the assassination method, along with Laqis’s personal history, raise significant doubts as to the possibility that Sunni radicals were involved. And Israel has already tried to assassinate the man, more than once, “in more than one place,” as Hezbollah declared Wednesday.
One of the attempts was said to have occurred during the Second Lebanon War, when Laqis’s home in Dahiya was bombed from the air, killing his son.
According to Hezbollah’s statement, Laqis’s assassination was carried out around midnight by three killers. They knew not just where Laqis lived, but also the time he was expected to come home. They shot him dead — a method vastly different from the tactics usually employed by Sunni Muslim extremists (who usually employ car bombs, suicide bombers and the like).
Laqis has been described as one of the most senior commanders of Hezbollah’s military wing but one who is not widely known to the public. Therefore, Sunni extremists whose main aim is to plant terror and fear in the hearts of Shiites would have had no clear motive for targeting him.
Last month, Nasrallah spoke at a large religious gathering marking the Shiite day of mourning Ashura, where he explained that Hezbollah is capable of doing “many things” to combat Israeli espionage in Lebanon.
“At the moment, we haven’t done anything to warrant the accusation that we are acting instead of the state,” Nasrallah said. “The government must take responsibility, and if our help is needed — we are ready.”
A few weeks later came the assassination of Laqis, followed by Hezbollah’s accusation. If the organization’s claims are indeed correct, it would mean that Israeli intelligence forces have a much deeper foothold in the ranks of Hezbollah than Nasrallah is willing to admit.