The murder and the mystery

Which regional actor had the most to gain from the death of Hezbollah army chief Hassan al-Laqis?

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Lebanese residents gather near the scene where Hassan al-Laqis, a senior commander for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, was gunned down outside his home, three kilometers southwest of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Lebanese residents gather near the scene where Hassan al-Laqis, a senior commander for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, was gunned down outside his home, three kilometers southwest of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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.

Hassan al-Laqis in an undated photo distributed by Hezbollah.
Hassan al-Laqis in an undated photo distributed by Hezbollah.

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.

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