The assassination of top Hezbollah operative Hassan al-Laqis was a severe blow to the Lebanese terror organization, Israeli officials told Time Magazine Thursday, but his death was not orchestrated by the Jewish state.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials assessed that Laqis’s death was a result of spillover from the conflict in Syria, as Hezbollah’s Shiite fighters have increasingly been involved in aiding President Bashar Assad’s forces in combating the country’s predominantly Sunni rebels.
The officials said the targeting of Laqis served as a warning message to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who had ordered the mobilization of the terror group’s fighters into Syria, Time reported.
“He was very, very close, one of the closest — to Nasrallah,” one senior Israeli official said. “This strike will leave Nasrallah in the bunker for a long, long time.”
Laqis was killed near his house in Beirut as he was coming home late Wednesday night.
Laqis was, at one point, one of the main commanders of Hezbollah’s rocket division, which fired hundreds of missiles at Israel. According to Israeli intelligence analyst Ronen Solomon, Laqis was also in charge of procuring Iranian armaments for Hezbollah, including high-tech communications equipment, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Israel allegedly tried to assassinate him during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, according to reports in the Lebanese media.
Recently, the assassinated Hezbollah official had served as a coordinating officer for the group’s missions in Syria, Time reported.
Following the assassination, a Hezbollah statement accused Israel of being responsible for the killing.
“Israel is automatically held completely responsible for this heinous crime,” the statement said, warning that Israel would “bear full responsibility and all consequences” for the hit.
A previously unknown group, the “Free Sunni Brigades in Baalbek,” claimed responsibility for the attack in a Twitter message.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor denied any Israeli involvement.
“Israel has nothing to do with this incident,” Palmor said. “These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah. They don’t need evidence, they don’t need facts; they just blame anything on Israel.”
Hezbollah has recently come under pressure in its home base in south Beirut, with a series of attacks thought to be tied to the group’s support for Assad.
Last month, a double suicide bombing outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut left 23 people dead, including an Iranian diplomat and embassy guards. More than 140 others were wounded, according to the Lebanese Health Ministry.
Following the attack, Hezbollah’s deputy leader Naim Kassem said the group will not be dissuaded from supporting Assad in Syria’s civil war, describing recurrent attacks on Shiite strongholds in Lebanon as “inevitable pains on the road to victory.”
Hezbollah has repeatedly defended its actions in Syria, framing the conflict as an existential fight against Sunni extremists.