BY: Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a Sr. Intelligence and National Security Correspondent for The Daily Beast and an ASU Future of War Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of two books: @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, and The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State
One of the world’s most wanted terrorists met a fiery death last month. The mystery over who killed him is now an international guessing game—with the prime suspects in Washington.
Plenty of people wanted Mustafa Badreddine dead.
There were the Saudis, who blamed him for terror attacks in the kingdom and against its allies abroad.
The Israelis had already once tried to assassinate Badreddine, the military commander of Hezbollah and one of the most important and powerful figures in the organization.
Even Badreddine’s own Hezbollah brethren were said to have their knives out, feuding with the storied militant over where the group should devote its resources: Towards attacks against its longstanding enemy, Israel, or on the battlefields of Syria, where Badreddine had been commanding around 6,000 men in an all-out effort to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Some Hezbollah figures had also chastised Badreddine as an easily distracted womanizer who had developed a taste for the high-life, dining in fine restaurants and tooling around Lebanon in a Mercedes.
But of all Badreddine’s many enemies, one had a special place for him on its most-wanted list–the United States. And that has officials in several countries speculating that Washington finally took him out in a massive explosion in Damascus last month.
Badreddine had put himself in America’s crosshairs at a young age. In 1983, the 22-year old budding terrorist helped to plan the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Even then, Badreddine was a genius with explosives and devised a means for increasing the force of the bomb by the insertion of compressed gas. Loaded onto a flatbed truck, his device ripped the hulking barracks building off its foundations and collapsed it inward, killing 241 men inside, most of them probably in their sleep. It was the deadliest day for the Marines since they stormed the beaches at Iwo Jima.
Badreddine would go on to help plan and execute a string of bombings that year, including on the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. But there, he was captured, tried, and imprisoned. The cunning killer seemed to have been put away.
Badreddine’s cousin, however, had other plans. He made it his mission to free his brother-in-arms, and he directed a slew of kidnappings and attacks all aimed at achieving that end. In one notorious airline hijacking in June 1985, in which the assailants demanded Badreddine’s release in exchange for the passengers, the cousin and his henchmen beat to death Navy diver Robert Stethem and dumped his body on the tarmac of the Beirut airport in front of rolling TV cameras.
There were other violent efforts to free Badreddine and 16 of his fellow prisoners, including at least two hijackings, which claimed the lives of four passengers, and a kidnapping spree of Americans in Beirut in the 1980s. That led President Ronald Reagan to sell arms to Iran–Hezbollah’s main patron–in exchange for the Americans’ release.
But then, a stroke of luck for Hezbollah: Badreddine escaped prison in 1990 amid the chaos of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. For the next quarter century, he was practically a ghost, using aliases and multiple cell phones to avoid detection.
Until one day last month.
On May 10, in a building near the Damascus airport, Badreddine met the same fiery end as so many of his victims. News ACCOUNTS are sketchy but all described a huge explosion that killed Badreddine and possibly others present for a meeting of Hezbollah’s forces in Syria. What was left of him was placed in a box and buried in Beirut. Thousands turned out for the funeral, and Iran’s government sent messages of condolence praising the vanquished commander.
Badreddine’s death was a body blow to Hezbollah, which has been losing more men in its efforts to prop up the Assad regime than it has in armed conflict with its longtime enemy Israel, according to U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials. But it was also a moment of celebration for American spies, soldiers, and diplomats. Badreddine was one of the founding fathers of the modern era of terrorism, kicked off by the barracks bombing in 1983 and an attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people and wiped out most of the CIA station in the country. It was the deadliest strike on the agency until an al Qaeda suicide bomber detonated himself at a remote outpost in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009.
Almost immediately after the explosion that killed Badreddine in Damascus, Hezbollah pinned the blame on Israel. That was no surprise. Accusing Israeli intelligence for all manner of attacks is practically a reflex for Hezbollah. And sometimes with good reason. In fact, the U.S. and Israel had been credited with killing Badreddine’s cousin, Imad Mughniyah, in 2008. Until his death, Mughniyah, who was also married to Badreddine’s sister, had been Hezbollah’s military chief. He was killed after a months-long operation–also in Damascus–with a bespoke bomb hidden inside a car. It detonated as Mughniyah passed, ripping him limb-from-limb and sending his torso flying through a window 50 feet away, Newsweek reported.
But almost as soon as the word went out that Israel had killed Badreddine, Hezbollah made a new claim–that he was assassinated by “takfiri” terrorists, a pejorative for Syrian rebel forces and Sunni militants, including ISIS and al Qaeda, whom Shiite Hezbollah considers apostates.
That may have been the official line. But in the U.S. and Israel, no one seemed to buy it. What’s more, in the corridors of power in Tehran, senior government officials were pointing the finger somewhere else: Washington.
The U.S. certainly had the motive, and the opportunity, considering that the military’s Central Command is conducting a daily barrage of airstrikes in Syria. If American spies did finally track Badreddine to that building near the airport in Damascus, it must have been the result of painstaking work by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies.
Badreddine was famous not just for his lethal genius, but for being practically untraceable. “Since the year 2000, there has been no mention of his name in any registry or record in Lebanon, there are no bank ACCOUNTS, social security or internal revenue documentation and no property in his name,” Ronen Bergman, the journalist who is perhaps most well-sourced in Israel’s intelligence community, wrote shortly after Badreddine died.
But Badreddine didn’t exactly live a quiet life. Under another identity, Sami Issa–or alternatively Sami Samino–he struck the pose of an international man of mystery. He dined in expensive restaurants. Personal bodyguards attended his moves. He even owned a jewelry shop, boldly named “Samino,” Bergman reports.
On his various cell phones Badreddine kept in touch with his various mistresses. He risked detection by some of his oldest enemies. But not even the threat of imminent death could slake his mortal appetites, it seems.
Being hunted also didn’t blunt Badreddine terrorist ambitions, and in 2005, he proved that while he might be off the radar, he was not out of the picture. Working with top Hezbollah commanders, Badreddine orchestrated the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the ex-prime minister of Lebanon and one of the country’s most well known politicians and business leaders. Hariri’s convoy was hit by a massive bomb hidden inside a parked car near the St. George HOTEL IN Beirut. It was a classic Badreddine operation.
“Hariri was one of the best-guarded people in the world, with his security protocol formulated by experts from Germany and the United States,” Bergman writes. “Badreddine’s success in killing Hariri (together with 21 other people) had once again proven that apart from Mughniyah [his cousin and brother-in-law], he was the best operative in the organization.”
But within three years, Mughniyah was dead, killed in that joint U.S.-Israeli operation. Badreddine stepped into his relative’s role, and now, the hunt was on for him.
In January 2015, Israel thought they’d found their man, traveling in a convoy in Syria. An Israeli helicopter reportedly fired two missiles at the vehicles, but Badreddine wasn’t there. Mughniyah’s son, however, was among the dead.
Badreddine would have gotten the message that his trail was no longer cold. Israeli officials were onto him, which meant the Americans almost certainly were, too. The fact that Israel had tried so recently to kill Badreddine is another reason why U.S. and Israeli officials I spoke to are deeply skeptical of the theory that ISIS or al Qaeda fighters finally took him to his grave.
There has been no public claim from Hezbollah that the U.S. killed Badreddine. But at the highest levels of the Iranian regime, leaders have concluded that he was taken out in a precision U.S. airstrike, an Iranian official with knowledge of information sent to top leaders told The Daily Beast.
Radar that Iran had installed in Lebanon and Syria picked up signals showing a missile that was fired by what Tehran’s intelligence analysts have concluded was either a U.S. drone or a manned aircraft, said the Iranian official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified by name.
This bold allegation hasn’t been officially leveled. But, the official said, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was so incensed by the American attack on a Hezbollah icon that he ordered Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, to begin retaliatory strikes at U.S-backed rebels in Syria. It’s not clear if those orders were carried out. But a U.S. counterterrorism source told The Daily Beast that there had been “chatter” since Badreddine’s death that Iran had put out orders to exact some revenge.
The fog of suspicion only thickens. Speaking privately, two U.S. defense officials said they’re aware of allegations in Iran that the U.S. was behind the attack. But they offered no claim about who was really responsible, other than to speculate that the explosion may have been caused by an errant artillery strike by the Syrian regime, a kind of friendly fire incident that was also a “lucky” event for the U.S., as one official put it.
A U.S. intelligence official said he was also aware that Hezbollah has publicly blamed “takfiri” terrorists. But no one in the U.S. national security community, nor in Israel, was persuaded that ISIS or al Qaeda’s branch in Syria had the sophistication or the firepower to pull off the attack that killed Badreddine.
Hezbollah said in an official statement that an “artillery bombardment” caused the explosion that killed their commander. But that would seem to rule out an attack by Sunni terrorists since they’re not known to possess those kinds of weapons. Syrian opposition forces, for their part, have also rejected claims that they may have been responsible.
At the same time, some Lebanese journalists with sources in Hezbollah have claimed that Badreddine “was killed by a missile possessed only by advanced countries,” according to the Times of Israel. That would support Tehran’s contention that Washington is to blame. Lebanese papers have also quoted Hezbollah parliamentarians alleging that Israel provided the technology to kill Badreddine, the Times of Israel reported, which leaves open the possibility that Israel tracked Badreddine to his location and then tipped off forces on the ground.
But Tehran has dismissed the notion that Sunni fighters, Israel, or anyone besides the U.S. military or the CIA were to blame, the Iranian official said. He also downplayed speculation, which has surfaced in various press ACCOUNTS, that Hezbollah may have killed Badreddine as part of an internal power struggle. Hezbollah’s true believers “do not kill their own people–period,” the official said.
If the U.S. did kill Badreddine, it might want to keep that quiet so as not to divulge the intelligence sources used to find him. Iran may also have calculated that it’s not worth antagonizing the U.S. to publicly assign the blame for Badreddine’s killing, particularly now that Iran is enjoying sanctions relief following a landmark agreement with Western powers to suspend production of nuclear materials.
The lack of precise details on the nature of the explosion–was it really a missile, or could it have been a powerful bomb, maybe even of the kind that Badreddine knew how to build?–also has helped fan the flames of speculation about who’s to blame. But in recent conversations, Israeli journalists and intelligence officers repeatedly said that Israel wasn’t behind the assassination.
One Israeli intelligence official, speaking privately, likewise concluded that Israel was not the culprit. What’s more, the official added, it was notable that Hezbollah quickly walked back initial claims that Israel was responsible. The reason? The last thing that Hezbollah’s leaders want now is another fight with Israel; their forces are too stretched, having evolved from a militant group focused primarily on its home base of Lebanon to an expeditionary force that is spilling blood and treasure in Syria, this official said.
So who did it? The Israeli official smiled. “I think maybe it was you,” he said, meaning the United States.
In the end, it may not matter who gets credit for killing Badreddine. The fact that he was taken down after a lifetime spent in the shadows has sent a message to Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran, the Iranian official said: Your forces aren’t as strong as you think they are.
The U.S. will count that as a win.
–with additional reporting by Nancy A.Youssef
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