Man who escaped strike on car in Syria named as slain Hezbollah leader’s son

Arabic media reports 2 missiles were fired toward vehicle in which Mustafa Mughniyeh was driving near Lebanese border, with the first missing, giving him time to flee

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A vehicle allegedly used by Hezbollah to transfer arms that was targeted in an airstrike attributed to Israel near the Lebanon border in Syria on April 15, 2020. (Social media)
A vehicle allegedly used by Hezbollah to transfer arms that was targeted in an airstrike attributed to Israel near the Lebanon border in Syria on April 15, 2020. (Social media)

A passenger in a car targeted in a Wednesday airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel was the son of a senior Hezbollah military commander who was allegedly assassinated in a joint Israeli-American bombing over a decade ago, the Al-Arabiya news site reported Thursday. He survived the attack, along with the other people in the vehicle.

According to Arabic media reports, two missiles were fired at the car, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, as it drove through the western Syria town of Jdeidat Yabous toward the border with Lebanon.

The first missile struck the ground near the vehicle. The four men inside the car — identified by Arabic outlets as Hezbollah members — thereupon abandoned the vehicle, which was destroyed by the second missile moments later.

Neither Hezbollah nor the Israel Defense Forces responded to the reports.

On Thursday morning, Al-Arabiya reported that one of the people in the vehicle was Mustafa Mughniyeh, the son of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a 2008 car bombing attributed to Israel’s Mossad intelligence service and the American CIA.

Mustafa Mughniyeh has been identified as a senior commander in Hezbollah, playing an active role in the terror group’s operations in general and in its efforts to establish a permanent military presence along the Syrian Golan Heights in particular.

Arab media reports on Wednesday identified one of the occupants of the car as senior Hezbollah operative “Imad Karimi,” though it was not immediately clear if this was an actual name or a nom de guerre.

It was not immediately clear if the first missile missed the car accidentally or if it was an attempt to force those inside to escape the vehicle — similar to the Israeli method of “knocking on the roof” of a building with a small bomb as a warning ahead of a larger attack to destroy the structure.

While Israel has carried out strikes intending to kill terrorist operatives, in some cases the military has been known to avoid fatalities as a death toll makes it more likely for a terror group or foreign military to retaliate.

Images posted on social media appeared to show a mangled and burnt vehicle.

The second strike on the vehicle, after the passengers fled, led to the assumption that the true target of the missile attack was a piece of equipment inside the car, rather than its passengers, potentially a piece of machinery connected to Hezbollah’s precision missile project. Israel has made it a top priority to thwart the effort by the terror group to convert its massive arsenal of simple rockets into precision-guided munitions.

Israel has also long maintained that it would not accept the establishment of a permanent military presence in Syria by Hezbollah or Iran, which backs the Lebanese terror group.

Though Israeli officials generally refrain from taking responsibility for specific strikes in Syria, they have acknowledged conducting hundreds to thousands of raids in the country since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. These have overwhelmingly been directed against Iran and its proxies, notably the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, but the IDF has also carried out strikes on Syrian air defenses when those batteries have fired at Israeli jets.

An agreement with Russia was supposed to push Iranian and Tehran-backed militias, including Hezbollah, dozens of kilometers away from the border.

Undated video footage released by the Israel Defense Forces reportedly showing a senior Syrian officer, Lua’a Ali Ahmad Asa’ad, visiting Hezbollah sites along the Golan Heights. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)

The Wednesday strike came days after the IDF accused the Syrian army of helping Hezbollah establish a permanent military presence on the Golan Heights, releasing video footage showing a senior Syrian officer visiting the region.

“Even during the coronavirus period, the new commander of the Syrian army’s 1st Division, Lua’a Ali Ahmad Asa’ad, continues to help and allow the Hezbollah terror group to establish a front on the Golan Heights,” the IDF said in a statement.

Last month, the IDF accused Hezbollah and the Syrian army of being behind an attempted sniper attack against its soldiers in the Golan Heights, which was thwarted by an Israeli strike on the suspects’ car.

A vehicle that was reportedly struck by an Israeli missile strike in Syria, near the Golan border with Israel, on March 2, 2020. (Courtesy)

The military said at the time that in the months preceding the incident Israeli troops saw Hezbollah fighters and Syrian soldiers preparing for an attack, filming the border area with smartphones and professional cameras and measuring wind speed from different locations in the supposedly demilitarized buffer zone between the two countries — in what the IDF said appeared to be efforts to identify a target and improve snipers’ accuracy.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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