Hezbollah’s top commander in Syria Mustafa Badreddine, killed earlier this week in an explosion in Damascus, died as a result of a shelling by Islamist extremists, the terror group announced Saturday.
“An investigation has shown that the blast that targeted one of our positions near the Damascus international airport that led to the martyrdom of the brother commander Mustafa Badreddine was caused by artillery bombardment carried out by takfiri (Sunni extremist) groups present in that region,” a Hezbollah statement said.
Hezbollah did not name any particular group and there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack. But in its statement the group vowed not to let up in its war against those it described as “criminal gangs” in Syria.
“The result of the investigation will only increase our determination and will to pursue the fight against those criminal gangs until they are defeated,” the statement said. “It is the same battle against the American-Zionist scheme in the region, which the terrorists are spearheading.”
The announcement contradicted a flurry of earlier Arab media reports claiming an advanced nation, possibly Israel, was behind the senior leader’s death.
Earlier in the day a Lebanese newspaper with ties to the group claimed he was killed by a guided missile only possessed by advanced nations. Al-Akhbar reported that Badreddine had just concluded a meeting with other commanders near the Damascus airport on Thursday night when the explosion occurred. The weapon used to kill him, the paper said, was a highly advanced one.
The newspaper claimed a guided missile exploded several meters from Badreddine. It said the majority of his injuries were internal, caused by the blast shockwave, and that only tiny amounts of shrapnel were found in his body.
Meanwhile Kuwaiti paper Al-Rai claimed Saturday that Israel was behind the killing, saying an Israeli Air Force jet had fired the missile that hit Badreddine.
The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Hezbollah, initially said Badreddine was killed in an Israeli airstrike but later removed the report. There was no comment from Israel.
Al-Akhbar noted that the group would seek retribution for the top commander’s killing not only to avenge his death, but also to send a strong message that it will not allow the targeting of high-ranking officials to go unpunished.
Hezbollah on Friday mourned Badreddine, the highest level figure yet from the terror group to die since it threw itself into Syria’s civil war. Top Hezbollah officials attended a mourning ceremony at a hall in southern Beirut on Friday, where Badreddine’s family members received condolences. He was buried alongside assassinated Hezbollah leader Mughniyeh.
Badreddine, 55, had been the mastermind of the group’s involvement in Syria’s civil war, which has been crucial to preserving President Bashar Assad’s hold on power against rebels but which has come at a heavy cost for the Iranian-backed Shiite guerrilla force, with more than 1,000 fighters killed.
According to Israel’s Channel 2, he was also the mastermind behind the 2012 Burgas bus bombing targeting Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. The July 18 blast killed five Israelis and a local bus driver, and injured several dozen more.
His death was a severe blow to Hezbollah, robbing it of a commander with decades of experience. But observers said the group was not likely to scale back its intervention in Syria, where it has fighters battling alongside Assad’s army on multiple fronts.
“I really do think it will affect their morale. This is not just their commander in Syria. This is one of the most elite and uniquely pedigreed Hezbollah personalities,” said Matthew Levitt, director of Stein Counterterrorism Program at the Washington Institute. But “I don’t think they are going to waver in their commitment in this,” he said, pointing to Hezbollah’s own interest in stemming Sunni militants in Syria and the determination of Iran, Hezbollah’s top backer, to keep Assad in power.
Deputy Hezbollah leader Sheikh Naim Kassem said the group would continue to confront its enemies.
“For us, there is only one enemy, which is Israel and those siding with it. The picture may differ and the positions may change but they are all at the end inside the Israeli project,” he said at the mourning ceremony. “By killing you, they gave a new push to our drive that produces a martyr after another, as well as a commander after another.”
Badreddine’s death is the biggest blow to the terror group since the 2008 assassination of his predecessor and brother-in-law, Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a bomb attack in Damascus. After that, Badreddine became Hezbollah’s top military commander and adviser to the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
Badreddine’s nom de guerre, Zulfiqar, was the name of double-headed sword of Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the Shiite sect’s most sacred martyr.
Badreddine was one of four people being tried in absentia for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The 2005 suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others was one of the Middle East’s most dramatic political assassinations. The trial is ongoing in the Netherlands. A billionaire businessman, Hariri was Lebanon’s most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
Hezbollah denies involvement in Hariri’s assassination and says the charges are politically motivated.
One of the group’s most shadowy figures, Badreddine was also known by aliases Elias Saab and Sami Issa. He was only known to the public by a decades-old black-and-white photograph of a smiling young man wearing a suit until Hezbollah released a new image of him in military uniform. He was suspected of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the US and French embassies in Kuwait that killed five people.
The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions twice on Badreddine for his involvement in the Syrian war, in 2011 and in 2015. According to US officials, Assad and Nasrallah coordinated Hezbollah’s actions in Syria on a weekly basis, with Badreddine present at top Damascus meetings.
Badreddine was also known for his expertise in explosives, and his trademark was to add gas to increase the power of sophisticated explosives.
Since Hezbollah was founded in 1982, Israel has killed several of its top leaders. In 1992, Israeli helicopter gunships ambushed the motorcade of Nasrallah’s predecessor, Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife, 5-year-old son and four bodyguards. Eight years earlier, Hezbollah leader Sheik Ragheb Harb was gunned down in south Lebanon.
In December, high profile terrorist Samir Kantar, who spent 30 years in an Israeli prison, was killed along with eight others in an airstrike on a residential building in Jaramana, a Damascus suburb.
Hezbollah has paid a very steep price for its public and bloody foray into Syria’s civil war, beyond its casualties. Once lauded in Lebanon and the Arab world as a heroic resistance movement that stood up to Israel, its staunch support for Assad has been criticized at home, even among its Lebanese support base.
The Arab League designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in March. A month earlier, Saudi Arabia cut $4 billion in aid to Lebanese security forces after Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil declined to join Arab and Islamic league resolutions critical of Iran and Hezbollah.
The predominantly Sunni Gulf Arab states, led by the kingdom, have taken other punitive measures. They have warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon as well as cut Lebanese satellite broadcasts, and closed a Saudi-backed broadcaster in Lebanon. The Gulf countries are also expelling Lebanese expatriates they say have ties to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, which maintains a dominant militia force in Lebanon, has also aligned itself with the Saudi-opposed Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war.
AP contributed to this report.